I keep seeing bloggers say that the small number of religious vocations is due to overly liberal religious and clergy. I don't think so. They've also said it's because of the sexual abuse scandals. Again, I think not.
My mother, scarcely a representative of liberal Catholicism, never badmouthed nuns and sisters for being overly liberal. I'm sure there were sisters like that in the seventies and eighties, but not in our area, as far as we knew. What I heard about, whenever my mom wanted to threaten me, was "I could do like the nuns, and make you wash steps upside down." "I could whack your hand with a ruler, like the nuns."
Again, when my brother Kevin went on retreat at St. Meinrad's (and lots of people do retreats at St. Meinrad's -- it's no big deal), my mom got convinced that Kevin was going to become a priest and panicked. (Just like she'd done when he thought about joining the Air Force, actually.) She likes priests and thinks they're a good thing, but she doesn't want her baby joining up.
I've already talked about how few kids ever get to interact one-to-one with priests or nuns, thanks to big suburban churches that only have people around on the weekend. Heck, I went to Catholic school and still didn't really get to talk one-to-one with anybody. If a nun was talking one-to-one with you, it meant you were in trouble. Hardly the time to ask about what it was like to be a nun.
If you do ask anything, it's a big deal. People think you're going to become a nun or a priest if they see you checking out a book on mysticism, so of course they're going to freak if you actually ask word one. People will either go ecstatic or horrified; there's no middle ground to just let kids think about it. And, as we all know, once you've expressed the barest passing interest in a religious vocation, you're some kind of heretic, sinner or wuss if you don't immediately join the seminary or profess vows.
Of course, the biggest reason we don't have more religious vocations is probably symbolized by the fact that our archdiocese's Vocations office has no toll-free number. Sometimes orders have open houses, but they're always orders out in Missouri or Alabama or Tennessee -- somewhere hundreds or thousands of miles away. You can't drop in; you have to register and stay the night. In other words, you have to make a big deal of it. Considering how difficult it was (before the Web) and is (since you have to know an order exists to look it up on the Web) to find out anything about becoming a priest, brother or nun, this is asking a great deal.
It's all asking a lot. No doubt the people with unmistakable callings are able to cut through all this guff. But in the past, most people didn't have unmistakable callings. Most people figured out that they had a religious vocation the same way they'd figure out they were suited for any other job. If that majority of people are blocked from joining up...well, there's your vocation shortage.