Kochi: Shrinking family sizes and expanding career opportunities for women are posing a problem for the Church. In Kerala, the state that sends the highest number of candidates to become nuns, fewer women are now taking vows to renounce worldly pursuits and devote themselves fully to religious life.
The Church sees a drop in the number of people with intense desire to do service, not just in God’s own country, but globally. Social activists say greater empowerment and the fact that churches are still male bastions are also making women look away from the cloistered life of convents. One of the problems this could pose to the Church is in the running of institutions such as hospitals, schools and charity organizations that are managed by priests and nuns.
While spokesmen for the Catholic Church have in the past said that they may have to consider the possibility of closing down some convents if the candidates to become nuns continue to fall, there is some solace from the North and Northeast. More women are embracing a life of prayer and poverty and work for the salvation of others in states such as Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Odisha, Assam and Himachal Pradesh, say people associated with the Church.
In Kerala, “there is a 70 - 75 percent drop in the number of women who were joining convents to be nuns,” says Auxiliary Bishop Sebastian Adayanthrath of Ernakulam-Angamaly SyroMalabar archdiocese, The Economic Times reported.
The peak was in the mid1960s, when there were as many as two dozen newly admitted nuns every year in each province. It lasted for about a decade, and then, started to decline to about 20 by 1985 and 10 in the past decade, he says. Today, there are just three four admissions per convent.
This trend coincides with a slowdown in the growth of Christian population in India and their improving prosperity, say social activists and Church representatives.
In the 1960s and 1970s, it was a practice among many, especially poor, Christian families to pledge one or two children to the Church. There were allegations of parents coercing daughters to join the convent. That has mostly stopped as today’s families have just one or two kids, who have many career options.
Women from Kerala now travel across the globe to work in healthcare, IT and other industries. “Today’s woman is aware of her needs, knows the job opportunities around her,” says writer and social activist Sarah Joseph. “She has increasingly come to respect herself or her identity and believes in taking her own decision.” And, the declining trend in women taking up monastic life is a global phenomenon, she says, According to Adayanthrath, there was a 25% decline in the number of nuns globally between 1965 and 2010: from about 1 million to around 750,000.
In India, there is no clear data on the total number of nuns. While some estimate the number at 30,000, Fr Paul Thelakat, spokesman of the Syro Malabar Church, says it is “not even a guesstimate.” The Syro Malabar Church plans to launch a survey in a couple of months to find out the accurate number. There are more congregations now than in 1965, which means the current number of total nuns will be more than in the 60s and 70s, say Church spokespeople.
Bishop Adayanthrath says while there are several reasons for the falling number of nuns globally, in general, there are fewer people today who want to do service.
Sarah Joseph, the writer, sees a lack of democracy and male dominance in churches as key reasons for many women to avoid convent life. Sister Jesme, who walked out of the convent where she lived 33 years as a nun, has a similar view about convent life: “There is no democracy there, only hierarchy.”
Interestingly, there is no decline in the number of men who come forward to become priests. Church spokesmen say this may be because the priest’s job is more visible. He has a social standing because of the functions that he has to do, they said.
Apart from Kerala, the states that have historically sent large number of women to become nuns are Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh.
Though Kerala still sends more women than any other state to convents, the northern states are catching up.
Many women in North India are attracted by the life of a nun, say Church spokesmen. “They are struck by the way a nun works in a strange land with unfamiliar culture and language,” one of them said. “It is this role model image that they consider when they take a decision to become nuns.”
The congregations in North India are attached to the local churches. But they consult the Church in Kerala and its opinion has significant weight in final decisions.