“Nun” isn’t an occupation most young women aspire to these days, so you’d think the Catholic Church would be doing everything it could to help those who want to join an order.
But one young woman desperate to join the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia in Nashville, Tennessee faced a pricey obstacle: her student loans.
The Catholic Church does not allow priests and nuns to carry debt and Mary Beth Baker, 28, a senior writer at a public relations firm in Washington, DC, is $25,000 in the hole from her studies at Christendom College.
So she turned to crowd-funding in hopes of paying off her debt.
Baker wrote on a Fundly page that has since been taken down, "I have been accepted to the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecelia in Nashville, TN. Before I can enter, I must pay off my remaining student loans. Will you help me meet that goal?”
A person with Baker's name on Twitter, who did not respond to a request for comment from Fusion, wrote late Tuesday in response to an inquiry about the removed page, “@cms519 Thank you so much! I’m all set. But I won’t turn away prayers. =) God bless you!”
She’s not the only young person who has had to grapple with student debt before pursuing a religious life. A couple of years ago, a Texas woman named Nicole Ferko made news because her $60,000 student loan debt was delaying her path to a convent.
According to a 2012 study by the Chicago-based National Religious Vocation Conference (NRVC), nearly 70 percent of religious organizations polled said they had to turn away applicants because of student debt.
“The study has found that our national educational debt problem is definitely impeding young women and men from pursuing life as a religious priest, sister, or brother,” wrote Brother Paul Bednarczyk, CSC, executive director of NRVC, in the study’s introduction.
The problem is unlikely to go away anytime soon. Higher education has become more costly in recent years as schools have raised tuition to combat shrinking support from states. And families, many hit hard by the struggling economy, have had to turn to loans to finance college.
The burden student loan debt places on would-be nuns and priests has even spawned groups like the Labouré Society, a Minnesota-based organization that aims to provide “financial assistance and spiritual support” to people “who must resolve student loans in order to pursue their vocation to priesthood and/or religious life in the Catholic Church.”
"For me, it's a humble response to an issue that surfaced now about 17 or 18 years ago," said Cy Laurent, founder and executive director of the Labouré Society. "College loans were not on the horizon, then, at least not in any way, shape or form a part of the national conversation the way they have been in the last 18 months to three years. It's become ever more prominent in our society dialogue, if you will."
When he founded the nonprofit nearly two decades ago, he would help a handful of people pay off their debt every six months or so. Now, Laurent said, he expects the group to help more than 100 people in 2014. He estimates their average debt around $45,000, since most attend private, often religious, schools, instead of cheaper public universities.
It’s especially troublesome for the Church, which has struggled to retain young people, and according to the Vatican’s own numbers, there are 300,000 fewer nuns and priests in religious orders than 40 years ago, with significant declines in the United States.
So why doesn’t the Church offer financial assistance to would-be nuns and priests facing student debt? The Church does not release financial information, but The Economist reported that annual spending in the United States was around $170 billion in 2010. And Slate has pointed out that in 2012, tech giant Apple had $157 billion in revenue, while just 16 companies had more than $170 billion in revenue.
The short answer: religious law, which does not evolve quickly.
"Most importantly, it's canon law," Laurent said. "They want these people to be free."
He said the idea that the Church has significant wealth is often misunderstood.
"It's not liquid," he said, adding that it's not practical for assets like property and artwork to be used to pay off loans. Individual orders may decide to help relieve some debt burden, but many aren't financially equipped to do that on their own.
Brother Bednarczyk of the NRVC said it's not something the Vatican would consider because each order is separate and responsible for its own sustainability. He added that the student debt issue is somewhat U.S.-centric and not "a problem that's felt in other parts of the world. The U.S. is only a small portion of the Catholic Church."
But it is one that the NRVC is concerned about and looking to address. The group will launch a national fund that will allow religious institutions to apply for grants to help people pay off their student loans. Bednarczyk said the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation has given $2 million in funding. They hope to issue the first grants in 2015.
"With funding," he said, "we could hopefully increase the number of religious young people over a period of years."
Emily DeRuy is a Washington, D.C.-based associate editor, covering education, reproductive rights, and inequality. A San Francisco native, she enjoys Giants baseball and misses Philz terribly.