Catholic laywomen have increasingly joined U.S. religious communities as “associate members” in recent years, according to two reports.
Associate membership in religious orders does not require vows of lifetime commitment, but such members are growing while vowed members are declining in many Catholic orders. A recent study cited in CARA Report (Winter), the newsletter of the Center for Applied Research in the Apostalate, found that four in five women’s religious orders with 50 or more professed members also have lay associate members.
The study, conducted by members of the Franciscan Sisters of Christian Charity in Manitowoc, Wis. on 279 orders, found that most associates are women and that the communities see associate members as a way to extend their community’s mission and to give the laity a more formal way to participate. The study found that 22 percent of associates provide financial assistance to the community and 11 percent are involved in community decisions.
The National Catholic Reporter (Feb. 16) adds that the majority of associates are in their 40s through 60s. The article says that researchers have “found that associates link themselves to religious communities primarily for spiritual enrichment but additionally to share in the [community’s] charism” or mission. The nature of such associations varies from one-to-one sharing with a sister sponsor to formal relationships that entail structured preparation periods and public ceremonies of commitment.
While members of religious orders do not see associates as the solution to the membership declines in many communities, some think temporary commitment or commitment to a particular ministry of a community may be part of the evolution of such organizations.
(CARA Report, Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, Georgetown University, Washington, D.C. 20057-1033; National Catholic Reporter, P.O. Box 419281, Kansas City, MO 64141)