In a bid to find out why numbers have decreased so drastically over the last 40 years, the Vatican Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life has announced an apostolic visitation of US religious women's institutes.
Catholic News Service reports the announcement was made last week at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington by Sister Eva-Maria Ackerman, a member of the American province of the Sisters of St Francis of the Martyr St George.
She will assist Mother Mary Clare Millea, a Connecticut native who is superior general of the Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, an international religious institute that has its headquarters in Rome.
Congregation Prefect Cardinal Franc Rode sent letters detailing the task to both the Leadership Conference of Women Religious and the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious, the two major organisations representing heads of women's religious orders in the US.
"We hope to discover and share the vibrancy and purpose that continue to accomplish so much, as well as to understand the obstacles and challenges that inhibit these individuals and institutions, thus limiting their growth and/or redirecting their resources and outreach," she said.
The study, which is expected to be completed by 2011, is in no way connected to the apostolic visitation of more than 200 US seminaries and formation houses in 2005 and 2006, which was ordered in response to the sexual abuse crisis that hit the US church, Sr Ackerman said.
It was not known why the Vatican chose to do this study now, why the US was singled out and what prompted the Vatican congregation to order it, she said. "I don't even want to speculate."
Once the study is concluded, a "comprehensive and confidential" report will be given to Cardinal Rode, but its findings are not expected to be made public, Sister Eva-Maria said.
"First, Mother Clare will solicit voluntary input from the superiors general through inviting them to make personal visits with her in Rome or in the United States," she said.
"During the second stage, the major superiors in the United States will be asked for information such as statistics, activities and community practices. Selected on-site visits will be made during the third stage."
The International Herald Tribune notes the number of Catholic sisters in the US declined from 173,865 in 1965 to 79,876 in 2000, according to Georgetown University's Centre for Applied Research in the Apostolate.
The average age of a member of a women's religious community was between 65 and 70 in 1999, the centre says.
"The numbers tell you everything one needs to know why they're undertaking an effort like this," said Russell Shaw, a former spokesman for the U..Conference of Catholic Bishops who called the church's interest "very late in the game."
"For many of these communities, the handwriting is on the wall. They're disappearing," he said.
Vatican orders study of women religious institutes in United States (Catholic News Service)
Vatican orders review of women's religious orders (International Herald Tribune)