DENVER (AP) -- The Vatican has begun the first comprehensive study of women's religious orders in the United States, four decades into a steep decline in the number of Roman Catholic sisters and nuns in the country.
The study, ordered by a Vatican congregation last December and announced Friday in Washington, will examine "the quality of the life'' of 59,000 members in more than 400 Catholic women's religious institutes, said Sister Eva Maria Ackerman, a spokeswoman for the study, which is called an "apostolic visitation."
"The study is really to encourage the communities, to strengthen them, to help them grow in their vitality,'' she said, adding that "women's religious communities have played such a significant part in building up the Church and society in this country.''
The Vatican released results of a similar canvass of US seminaries earlier this month in light of the clergy sexual abuse crisis. That review gave special attention to chastity and celibacy, and the Vatican found seminaries had largely been successful in rooting out ''homosexual behavior.''
The reason behind the Vatican's focus on women's religious orders is less clear. A website on the visitation said the Church wanted ''to safeguard and promote consecrated life in the United States.''
It also said ''many new congregations have emerged in the United States, while many others have decreased in membership or have an increased median age.''
The number of Catholic sisters in the US declined from 173,865 in 1965 to 79,876 in 2000, according to Georgetown University's Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate. The average age of a member of a women's religious community was between 65 and 70 in 1999, the center said.
''The numbers tell you everything one needs to know why they're undertaking an effort like this,'' said Russell Shaw, a former spokesman for the US Conference of Catholic Bishops who called the Church's interest ''very late in the game. …