06/21/2012 11:04 am ET Updated Aug 21, 2012

Nuns On The Bus: Tour Highlights Need for Renewal

This week, a group of religious sisters boarded a 12-person bus to travel across nine states, protesting cuts in federal government programs for the poor and highlighting their work on social justice issues. The "Nuns on the Bus" are also protesting the recent doctrinal assessment of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), undertaken by the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The assessment concluded that the LCWR must undergo significant changes because it has, among other things, repeatedly provided a one-sided platform for critics of the Catholic Church's doctrines and practices.

The sisters say they feel this is a personal attack and argue that the Vatican is overlooking their good works on behalf of the poor and marginalized. They want the Church writ large to understand the vital work that our women religious contribute both within the Church and to all of society.

I'm just one Catholic woman sitting in the pew, but I can say without hesitation that I deeply value religious sisters' rich history of engaging in the corporal works of mercy -- things like feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, and tending to the sick. And it's clear that the Vatican does, too. In a recent interview with The National Catholic Reporter, Archbishop J. Peter Sartain, tasked by the Holy See with helping renew and revitalize the LCWR, described Rome's "profound appreciation for religious life" and "profound gratitude" for the "extraordinary accomplishments" of women religious in the United States. And as Cardinal William Levada, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, told the NCR, the nuns are "a great grace in and for the church." Anything that makes more people aware of the sisters' important work is a good thing, and if the upcoming bus tour does that, it will have been successful.

But while it's good to highlight the sisters' current efforts, it's even more important to make sure we have a growing, thriving community of women religious in the United States to continue that work for the future. Sadly, the LCWR's member orders are in rapid decline. According to a Study on Recent Vocations to Religious Life, the median age of women religious in LCWR institutes is 74, and their numbers are decreasing, both through attrition and a lack of new vocations. How long can LCWR orders really continue to serve those in need, given their advancing age and diminishing numbers?

If American Catholics want to see passionate, dedicated religious sisters educating our children, caring for the sick, feeding the hungry, and sheltering the homeless, then we all have an interest in working toward a renewal of religious life. That renewal is happening all around us right now. Not, unfortunately, within the ranks of the LWCR, but rather from those religious orders that adhere most faithfully to the Church's teachings. These orders emphasize community life, center their days around prayer and the sacraments, and embrace traditional practices like wearing habits. Their life of rigorous discipline and their obedience to Church teaching, lacking in the orders that belong to the LCWR, are key to their flourishing.

That makes sense. Dedicating herself to the underserved is a noble calling for a woman in any station of life, but it doesn't, standing alone, require her to give up things like having a family. Convincing young women to eschew marriage and family for a life of complete service means offering them something they couldn't have outside the religious life: the discipline, structure, and community that support their vocation of radical devotion to God.

The religious orders that are flourishing in the United States today do just that. Orders like the Dominican Sisters of Saint Cecilia in Nashville; the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist, in Ann Arbor; and the Carmelite Sisters of the Sacred Heart in Los Angeles are devoted to service, but they also offer a young woman something more. They emphasize that religious life is about not only good works and social justice but, at its core, involves total consecration of oneself to the Creator of the universe and submission to the authority of the Church Christ founded.

The joy that permeates the sisters in these growing orders is impossible to ignore. The upcoming renewal of the LCWR will hopefully bless its member sisters with that same spirit of joy and lead them to see these revitalization efforts as an opportunity for growth. Wouldn't it be wonderful if the next time the sisters took to the highway on tour, they drove not just one 12-person bus, but instead a vibrant caravan of women devoted to faithfully serving Christ and His Church?