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Guider Analyzes the Historical Role of Religious Women in the U.S. at Annual STM Lecture

Over the past half-century, the number of nuns in the United States has dramatically declined, according to Margaret Eletta Guider, O.S.F., an associate professor of missiology and professora ordinaria at the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry (STM).

“In 2022, there were reportedly fewer than 4,200 nuns in America, which is a 76 percent decline over 50 years,” Guider said. “At the rate sisters are disappearing in the United States, one estimate said that there will be fewer than 1,000 nuns left in the United States by 2042.” 

The STM hosted Guider on Thursday as part of the annual women in theology and ministry lecture, which was titled “Women Religious and the Transformation of Theological Education.”

Guider explained that the objective of her lecture was to reflect upon the contributions that Roman Catholic religious women in the United States have made to theology and theological education. To illustrate their contributions, Guider said she wanted to discuss the historical collective contribution of women in the field of theology, rather than women’s individual achievements.

“I want to focus more on [collective] contributions than individual contributors in tracing some of the events and exigencies that led at least in part, to the emergence of their prophetic voices and vision, in order to demonstrate the significance their ever-widening circles of influences locally, nationally, and internationally,” Guider said. 

Guider then encouraged the audience to reflect on how women have influenced their own theological experiences.

“Many of them you may be able to call to mind, having known them as your teachers, mentors, colleagues, or administrators,” Guider said. “Others may be known through their writings, recorded presentations or reputations. Or, perhaps along the way, you may have acquired some measure of their wisdom and knowledge.” 

According to Guider, women could not practice freedom of religion until the American Revolution. At this point, many professional schools for women began to open, creating a network for religious women.

“The emergence of professional schools for nurses, teachers, and secretaries in the evolution of academies into junior colleges and eventually four-year liberal colleges, women religious created an extraordinary educational network, parallel only by what they created in health care and social services,” Guider said.

According to Guider, the demand for theologically trained women increased with the rise of religious institutions as religion played a larger role in American society in the early 1900s.

“In the decades of the early 20th century as vocations to religious life in the United States were on the rise, congregations were entrusted with the faith formation of children and young women within their educational institutions,” Guider said. “[Religious women] found ways of getting around the hard and fast rules that denied them access to formal theological education.”

Guider ended her talk by discussing the future for religious women in the United States in light of historical patterns of decline in their numbers, especially regarding nuns. 

“One of my colleagues reminds us that this is not a phenomenon that we have not seen before in the life of the [Catholic] Church,” Guider said. “But we may just have to wait. What crisis, what challenge, what gift of the Holy Spirit might in a way spontaneously lead the foundation of new communities of women religious? Hopefully, some of them will be theologians and theological educators who will carry forward the legacy of those who have gone before them.”

April 30, 2023