Women entering religious communities with and without habits

Blog Published: August 14, 2012
By Sister Julie

For the past few years a lot of misinformation has been spread asserting that only “traditional” communities whose sisters wear the habit have been receiving new vocations, while religious communities whose sisters do not wear the habit are “dying out.” Typically this misinformation is accompanied by rather equally untrue and rather uncharitable claims regarding Catholic sisters and nuns who do not wear a habit.

Frankly, the ” who is growing v. who dying out” game says A LOT more about the people who spread such misinformation than it does about the sisters and nuns themselves. I can understand (though not condone) media attention that likes particular angles and over generalizes rather complex issues. More reprehensible, however, is the attitude of a handful of Catholics who relish in perpetuating this misinformation. It’s as if they want to see a smack down so much that they are willing to bypass fact and the Gospel to see that it happens.

The assessment has been conducted by Mary Johnson, SNDdeN, and Patricia Wittberg, SC, both of whom are noted sociology professors and women religious. Their “fact-based assessment” is a welcome light on a serious and complex issue in the church in the United States. The assessment is grounded in actual data from the Official Catholic Directory, the Statistical Yearbook of the Church, and a 2009 study of religious institutes in the U.S. by CARA and NRVC. It is interpreted by experts who actually know the landscape of religious life and the Catholic Church in the United States.

Interestingly, one thing that the assessment highlights is that “numbers” alone do not tell the whole story of the charism of and attraction to religious life. Johnson and Wittberg encourage readers to look at the whole “ecology of religious life” and the diversity of charisms that serve as a great gift to the church and the world. Sister Susan Rose, CSJP, notes this too on her blog Musings of a Discerning Woman:

“It affirms my experience that women are hearing the call and answering it.  Not in huge numbers, but they are coming both to communities that belong to LCWR and communities that belong to the CMSWR.  In other words, some women are attracted to a more “progressive” flavor of religious life.  Others are attracted to a more “traditional” flavor.”

I encourage readers to “spread the word” about this assessment of U.S. religious life so that we might begin to unseat the misinformation and truly appreciate the gift of religious life and of God’s calling.

Archived Comments

Gayle OSF August 14, 2012 at 1:57 pm

Well said, Sister Julie. I also am apalled at those who relish hyping this “distinction.” Somehow the “love one another” gets lost. I don’t know if it’s a holy war for them that they don’t see how awful they’re being. The Church is big. I liken our different communities to flavors of ice cream, essentially the same, but different expressions. Vanilla is the most popular, but is there not room for Rocky Road?

Peggy August 15, 2012 at 8:41 pm

I agree, Gayle. I refer to the passage in John’s gospel–that “in Yahweh’s mansion, there are many rooms.” One may be comfortable for you, and another for me–but they are all in God’s house, right?

Gayle OSF August 16, 2012 at 9:33 am

Thank you, Peggy. 

Anne August 14, 2012 at 2:51 pm

I have never heard or read an invidious comparison between sisters in traditional and those in more progressive communities, but then I am not a nun and so am not sensitive to these issues. Habit or no habit, we shall know them by their fruits.

Barbara August 14, 2012 at 3:06 pm

It’s so easy to start rumours! Glad for the article and study which is so much more accurate than “soundbites”. You are so correct Anne! The health of a tree is visible in the fruit.

Lisa Burke August 23, 2012 at 11:42 am

This new study really shifts the dialogue. I think another piece that has been missing from discussions of vocations for too long has been the question of who stays. Ultimately I believe the question of perseverance is one of God’s grace and whether one has been called to religious life for a lifetime or for a little while. But I think in the genearl discussions of religious vocations, it’s disingenuous and somewhat meaningless to only talk of the numbers who enter; the picture comes into better focus when we also consider the percentage that remains.

The bottom line is “This is God’s Church, and God will not abandon God’s people.” Religious life may or may not be changing just as the world around us changes or does not change, just as the Church changes or does not change. Ultimately it is God. God who calls, God who invites, God who sustains, God who loves. Aren’t we lucky that is the way it is?

Anna St. Onge September 9, 2012 at 2:37 pm

I’ve always thought of the nun’s formal habit as inspiring respect and somehow iconic. One might want to join the religious life initially as a younger person for the superficial aspects of a uniform and later learn about the deeper aspects of a religious life. Would anyone really join the army if there was no uniform? Not as many, I’m willing to say.

Sister Julie September 10, 2012 at 11:20 am

Hi Anna, Thanks for writing. People’s reasons for wanting to wear the habit can vary, and as with any choice, we grow in our understanding of our choices. The comparison of religious life to the military is an interesting one — apt in some contexts but no so much in others.

The people I know in the military did not join because of the uniform. They joined because they wanted to do something meaningful with their lives — to be a peacemaker, to protect people, to learn valuable skills and put them to use, etc. At the same time for each of them, the uniform is worn with respect and an understanding of what it means. I’m not sure any one would make it through boot camp if it was just about the outfit! That being said, so often in life we come for one reason, but stay for another!

Another thing to keep in mind is that not everyone in the military wears a uniform! It would not be a good thing, for example, for a military woman or man on an undercover mission to have military gear on!

Religious life is a diverse and be expressed many ways within the Church — this is a great gift because it allows the Church to pursue God’s mission wherever it takes us for the good of the Church and world.

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