By Allen, John L., Jr.
National Catholic Reporter , Vol. 47, No. 9
Religious orders have always been an entrepreneurial force in Catholic life, inventing new apostolic models to respond to changing social conditions. The great mendicant orders were born in response to the rise of new cities in Europe in the 12th and 13th centuries and the need to evangelize the urban poor; the great teaching orders of the 18th and 19th centuries rebuilt the church's educational infrastructure after the Napoleonic wars.
In the century to come, a key social force creating new challenges and new opportunities will be population trends. The changing demographics of our time may create new frontiers for religious life.
The following are three examples of how religious orders might respond to the new demographic realities of the 21st century ranging from the already visible to the slightly whimsical. All are examples of how the traditional strengths of religious life could be brought to bear on a changing world.
In many parts of the world, a combination of declining fertility rates and the aging of the "baby boom" generation has made the elderly far and away the fastest-growing segment of the population. In its 2005 report "Taking Care: Ethical Care-giving in Our Aging Society," the President's Council on Bioethics in Washington reached this sobering conclusion: "In the years ahead, the age structure of most advanced industrial societies will be unlike anything previously seen in human history, with both the average age of the population and the absolute number of old people increasing dramatically."
Demographers call all this the "gray-by boom." In the United States, the number of Americans over 65 in 2005 was 34.7 million; by 2050, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, it will be 75.9 million, more than double. Over the same span, the number of Americans under 14 will slightly decrease.
Rapid aging puts enormous strains on pension systems, health care plans, and programs such as Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. As a growing share of the elderly slip through the cracks of public assistance, many won't be able to fall back on care in the family, because there will be fewer younger family members who aren't needed in the work force.
Religious orders already run hospitals, hospices and nursing homes, so they're already positioned as the Catholic church's experts on elder care. In the future, they will almost certainly be pressed to build on that expertise, not only within the facilities they already operate, but perhaps by creating roving corps of religious women and men who can deliver elder care in the home, in parish locations, and so on.
The need for elder care isn't just medical and economic. It's also spiritual, as elderly people will represent a growing share of the church's own flock. Religious orders could also be at the forefront of pioneering new spiritualities of aging, and new methods of pastoral care to bring those spiritualities to the people who need them.
Another defining demographic force in American Catholic life in the early 21st century is the rapidly swelling presence of Latino, Asian and African immigrants. According to the Pew Forum, by 2030 whites will no longer be a majority in the American Catholic population, as Hispanics come to represent more than 40 percent of the Catholic footprint in the country.
In some ways, American Catholicism in the 21st century is reverting to what it was in the mid-19th century: a blue-collar, ethnic, immigrant church.
Already, religious orders minister to these new immigrant populations and advocate for their interests, especially in political debates over immigration reform. As the century unfolds, religious will also find themselves stretched to respond to their practical needs. …