Sister Maxine and I got some questions last night while we were live Tweeting and Facebooking the holiday episode of "Call the Midwife" (which was FABULOUS). We were asked about nuns and sisters being considered "clergy." Now of course the nuns on "Call the Midwife" are Anglican, not Roman Catholic, but in neither tradition are they considered clergy.
What gives? Nuns and sisters are not clergy? Okay so what exactly is clergy? Sister Merriam-Webster defines clergy as "people (such as priests) who are the leaders of a religion and who perform religious services; a group ordained to perform pastoral or sacerdotal functions in a Christian church." In the Roman Catholic tradition, clergy are persons who are ordained via the Sacrament of Holy Orders. The three levels of ordained life are bishop, priest, and deacon. Clergy are one part -- a significant one -- of the many different ways that Catholics are called to be leaders in the Roman Catholic.
Enter religious life. Nuns and sisters -- as well as brothers, monks, and friars -- are part of the church's tradition of religious life. Religious life is not part of ordained life (although some within religious life may also be called to ordained life as well) and in fact is "outside" of the hierarchy of the church. In other words, religious (the noun form for people who are in religious life) do not have ecclesiastical authority and are not responsible for the administration of the church. Individual religious may of course be involved in the hierarchy. The preeminent example, of course, is our own Pope Francis who is a member of the religious community called the Society of Jesus, or Jesuits, and also a bishop who is the head of the entire Roman Catholic hierarchy!
Women and men religious are of course leaders in their own right in many different ways. We may be pastoral leaders, prayer leaders, educational leaders, justice leaders, and so forth. The very fact of our chosen way of life means that we are publicly committed to ministry, outreach, growing in the spiritual life, living and giving witness to the Gospel, and celebrating the Catholic faith. We are very much ministers in the sense that we have given our lives to ministering to others, but not in the sense of being ordained ("minister" is more common in other Christian traditions to signify an ordained person).
So are nuns and sisters clergy? No. Are they Catholic leaders and ministers? Yes. Are we all working for the glory of God and the good of one another and all creation? Absolutely!
P.S. Check out a recent article on religious life by a young nun. It's a great read! -- "Changed, Not Ended" by Sister Julia Walsh, FSPA, in America Magazine (January 6-13, 2013).