There is little doubt that religious life will change, though no one knows what that change will bring.
One place to look is at the new religious communities being formed — an act made much easier by a directory of those communities released Feb. 1.
Emerging U.S. Communities of Consecrated Life Since Vatican II is an outgrowth of research begun by Sister of Charity of Cincinnati Patricia Wittberg in 1998. Each of the editions — published in 1999, 2006 and 2017 — have been collaborative efforts between Wittberg and the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University.
Co-author Mary L. Gautier, a senior research associate at CARA, said while the newest directory is valuable — it contains the names, addresses and membership information for 159 communities — it is even more interesting to compare all three directories to look for trends.
"We can really see the evolution of some of these groups," Gautier said. "There are definitely overall trends, such as a net increase in numbers. It's not a huge increase — they're not going to replace religious life — but they're definitely increasing rather than decreasing."
The new directory has 38 more communities than the 121 listed in first edition, a net increase of 31 percent.
"For the most part, they're teeny-tiny communities," she said. "Most have just under a dozen members."
The researchers are picky about what constitutes an emerging community: It has to have been founded since 1965 in the United States and cannot be a branch of an international order; it can be founded out of another community but must be separately incorporated; it must have at least three or four members; and it must be in good standing in its diocese.
"What we have always hoped to do from all this is cast a little light as far as what is evolving," Gautier said. "We know religious life is evolving — it always has and always will — but what are the forms of religious life out there?"
Gautier said the forms of religious life they found vary widely: They range from conservative to liberal, some accept both women and men, and while most — but not all — wear habits, only about half say they follow a particular spiritual tradition, with about one-fourth saying they follow Franciscan teaching.
Despite the overall growth, not all of the emerging communities last: 24 of the 121 communities in the 1999 directory had disbanded by the 2006 edition. Of the 142 communities in the 2006 directory, 29 had disbanded or been suppressed by the church by 2016. Three others from the 2006 edition still exist but are no longer affiliated with the Catholic church, and 12 still survive but now have only one or two members.
Still, Gautier said, these communities continue to be formed.
"The clearest glimmer so far is these groups are still increasing. There's more of them each time we check," she said. "Some of them are flourishing."
About 40 percent of them are known as a "public association of the faithful," which is one of the first steps toward becoming a religious institute, while about 20 percent have been formally accepted as a religious institute.
The most recent edition of the directory came about thanks to a grant from the Sisters of Charity Ministry Foundation, which allowed Wittberg to initiate the research. It was completed thanks to a grant from the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, which also funds Global Sisters Report.
The directory can be ordered from CARA's website for $39.95 or by calling (202) 687-8080.