Report: leadership of catholic colleges shifting as religious vocations plummet

In 2021, the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, named Vincent D. Rougeau as the first lay president of the Jesuit college.

The governance of Catholic higher education in the United States is continuing to shift as fewer and fewer of the faithful enter into religious vocations and a growing number of secular directors take over leadership roles in educational institutions.

The findings come from a report issued by the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities, a membership organization representing more than 200 Catholic institutions in the U.S. and around the world.

The ACCU said in its report that for several decades the leadership of U.S. Catholic colleges and universities “has been progressively handed over by the sponsoring body to lay professionals.”

A “sponsoring body” is defined in the report as “intermediary bodies and individuals” that hold “official Church status,” which often in the U.S. has been a religious community of nuns or monks.

The decline in sponsoring oversight, the report says, has come about because “membership in religious life in the United States has dropped by nearly three-quarters in the past 50 years.”

“This trend continues unabated, largely due to the death of current members and unsuccessful recruiting of new members,” the ACCU posited.

Data from the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, a Georgetown-affiliated research group that provides social science analysis for the Catholic Church, shows the total number of Catholic religious — identified as monks, nuns, and priests — dropping from over 194,000 in 1970 to just above 50,000 last year.

The remaining members of religious orders have also grown older as their numbers have dwindled, with 70% of the remaining religious currently 70 years of age or older. (The report notes that “roughly 25 years ago, only 7% were age 70 or more.”)

Religious life, the ACCU states, is “a fraction of what it once was” during the decades when Catholic religious orders were building major educational and civil institutions around the country.

Sponsoring bodies are thus “finding ways to deploy their few remaining religious in effective board roles,” including “appointing surrogates, creating entire substitute organizations, or simply alerting their universities that they will cease sponsorship at a certain date.”

Religious men and women have been a major part of the global Catholic Church for centuries. St. Paul of Thebes, who died in the fourth century, is popularly regarded as the first Christian monk, while St. Scholastica is credited with founding the Benedictine order of nuns around the sixth century.

Pope Francis earlier this year said monks and nuns are “the beating heart of the proclamation [of the Gospel],” claiming that monastics through their work act as “a bridge of intercession for all people and for sins.”

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