Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

Table of Contents | Cover Page  |  Editors  |  Contributors  |  Introduction  |  Web Version


Generally a group of either men or women (although some mixed-sex orders have been tried), particularly but not exclusively, in Christianity or Buddhism, who voluntarily take vows to live under more stringent religious standards than are required for the modal or average member of their religious tradition; a form of virtuoso religiosity . In Christianity, religious orders are almost entirely restricted to the liturgical traditions of Orthodoxy, Anglicanism, European Lutheranism, and Roman Catholicism, and it is in the Catholic context that they have had the greatest impact upon Western civilization.

Religious orders of men and women in the Roman Catholic Church are part of the official church structure and are coordinated by the Congregation for Religious Institutes of Consecrated Life (CICL). Individuals in these orders take vows of celibacy, poverty, and obedience as well as a commitment to live by the constitutions of their particular religious order. These constitutions are approved by the Congregation for Religious Institutes, a Vatican office that also oversees compliance with the guidelines and spirit of the constitutions.

Statistics on the numbers of religious show that there are approximately 1,190,272 members of religious orders throughout the world, of whom 229,181 are men (including 156,191 clerics and 73,090 lay) and 960,991 women (Schneiders 1987). There are therefore nearly four female Catholic religious for every male religious in the world.

Throughout history, and continuing today, there are three basic forms of the religious life that correlate with three types of orders: contemplative, semicontemplative, and active orders (Neal 1990). Contemplative orders give primacy to prayer in a monastery or convent setting with almost total exclusion of nonmembers. The majority of orders in the early medieval church of Europe and North Africa were contemplative in nature. Women in these contemplative orders were called nuns, and men were known as monks. Contemplative religious orders followed the routine of daily singing or reciting of the Divine Office, daily meditation, attendance at Mass and other required communal prayers, periodic gatherings for meals, instruction, and the physical labor required for the economic sustenance of the convent. Semicontemplative orders combined the doing of good works and the performance of traditional prayer forms, which characterized monastery and convent living from the seventeenth century to the beginning of the Second Vatican Council in the early 1960s. Active orders, which date to the founding of the Daughters of Charity in 1633, gave up the idea of monastic life so as to respond to the needs of the sick and the poor in the emerging cities in Europe. With active orders, the physical structures and monastic life of isolation and solemn prayer were relaxed to provide services to the poor, uneducated, sick, and needy. Men in active orders are either priestly clerics or lay brothers, and women are known as Catholic sisters. (In popular usage, however, terms such as nun and sister are often conflated.)

Christian religious orders are almost as old as the church itself. In the early centuries of the church, the two clearly defined roles for women in the church were virgins and widows who committed themselves to a celibate way of life "for the sake of the Kingdom" (1 Tim. 5:3-17). As the period of persecutions came to an end and the church began to be officially recognized and accepted in the Roman Empire, a clearly recognizable religious order began to emerge in the form of the holy ascetic who escaped to the desert to pray and do penance. Both men and women were attracted to desert asceticism. By the fifth century, in the West, Roman civilization began to weaken with the onslaught of barbarian tribes. Monasteries and convents became refugee cloisters where the treasures of civilizations were protected (Cada et al. 1979).

The Age of Monasticism (500-1200 C.E.) can be dated to St. Benedict's founding of the monastery Monte Cassino in 529. As the West was moving into a system of feudal kingdoms organized around lords and serfs, Benedict established a parallel structure in his monasteries, with the abbot or abbess serving as the feudal lord who protects, cares for, and guides his or her servants. Benedict's conception of the religious community as a family has remained powerful throughout the continuing history of religious orders (Cada et al. 1979).

In reaction to the laxities that crept into monastic life in the latter part of the medieval era, primarily as a result of accumulated wealth, the next era of religious orders was characterized by a commitment to live in poverty as Christ had done. Many monks left their monasteries and wandered among the people to witness to gospel poverty. Most mendicant orders were exclusively male because it was considered improper for women to live in abject poverty and wander about seeking alms. However, mendicant orders of men had parallel communities for women called "second orders," in which women shared the values of celibacy and poverty but remained in their convents.

The far-reaching changes that were transforming Europe by the middle of the fifteenth century (e.g., new humanism of the Renaissance, printing, geographic discoveries of "new worlds," and eventually the Protestant Reformation) led to the founding of the Jesuits for religious men and the Ursulines for women. Both groups had the goal of providing an elite corps of dedicated servants ready to aid the church in its new apostolic needs, and valued a high level of personal holiness that would enable the religious members to face the new task of the church without the protections of the monastery. The evolution of the teaching orders in Europe in the late 1700s and throughout the 1800s were part of the new apostolic thrust for religious women. About 600 new religious orders were founded in Europe during the nineteenth century (Neal 1990). These orders were dedicated to building and staffing parochial institutions such as schools, hospitals, and agencies to assist the poor. It was from these teaching orders that many American bishops and priests recruited sisters to come to the United States to tend the needs of immigrant Catholics.

Throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the number of American sisters continued to grow, reaching their highest number in 1965 when there were 179,954 Catholic sisters in the United States (Official Catholic Directory 1965). However, in the late 1960s that trend began to reverse itself as increasing numbers of sisters left their religious orders to return to a lay life and decreasing numbers of young Catholic women entered convents. The decline in numbers of religious women has continued and has created alarm both within religious orders themselves and within the church, which depends on religious personnel as service providers. Between 1965-1990, religious orders of women suffered a 43% decrease in membership with a drop to 103,269 by 1990. While the exodus from religious orders has dwindled, few women are entering. The fact that many of the departees were younger sisters and that few young women were entering has resulted in a very high median age for American sisters, estimated at 66 years. The decline in numbers of American sisters raises many questions regarding the viability and future forms that religious life may assume in the United States (Ebaugh 1993a, Neal 1990, Nygren and Ukeritis 1993, Wittberg 1994). Many religious orders of men are facing similar problems in regard to both defections and declining recruits, although the decline in membership has not been as drastic for religious males (an 18% decrease in members from 1962-1992 compared with the 43% decrease for women; Nygren and Ukeritis 1993).

Of interest, while the numbers of Catholic sisters are declining significantly in the Western world, in developing countries numbers of religious women are growing or remaining constant in relationship to the Catholic population (Ebaugh 1993b, Ebaugh et al. 1996). There is indication that social factors related to development and industrialization may affect growth and decline patterns of Catholic religious orders.

Helen Rose Ebaugh


L. Cada et al., Shaping the Coming Age of Religious Life (New York: Seabury, 1979)

H. R. Ebaugh, "The Growth and Decline of Catholic Religious Orders of Women Worldwide," Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 32(1993a):68-75

H. R. Ebaugh, Women in the Vanishing Cloister (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1993b)

H. R. Ebaugh et al., "The Growth and Decline of the Population of Catholic Nuns Cross-Nationally," Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 35(1996):171-183

M. Hill, The Religious Order (London: Heinemann, 1973)

J. A. M. McNamara, Sisters in Arms (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996)

M. A. Neal, From Nuns to Sisters (Mystic, Conn.: Twenty-Third Publications, 1990)

D. Nygren and M. Ukeritis, The Future of Religious Orders in the United States (Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 1993) S. M. Schneiders, "Reflections on the History of Religious Life and Contemporary Developments," in Turning Points in Religious Life , ed. C. Tingley (Wilmington, Del.: Glazier, 1987): 13-60

P. Wittberg, The Rise and Decline of Catholic Religious Orders (Albany: SUNY, 1994).

return to Encyclopedia Table of Contents

Hartford Institute for Religion Research   hirr@hartsem.edu
Hartford Seminary, 77 Sherman Street, Hartford, CT 06105  860-509-9500