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a current overview of nuns in the US
August 31, 2014 9:26 AM   Subscribe

The Sad State of America’s Aging Sisters: Why are there so few nuns today?
You may wonder whether the global church the sisters belong to is interested in keeping the convents open. It sure seems like it isn't. By 2005, the Catholic Church had spent $1 billion on legal fees and settlements stemming from priests sexually abusing children. Yet church leaders have allocated no funds to take care of elderly sisters, and while priests’ retirement funds are covered by the church, the sisters have no such safety net. When their orders run out of money, that’s it.

“Why would you want to be a nun if the archdiocese is going to treat you like they do?” Ann Frey at the Wartburg said. “Their whole lives they’ve been obedient and done what they were asked to do, and now nobody is helping them?”
The religious life used to be far more popular among Catholics, especially women, than it is now. In 1965, the number of sisters in the US peaked at 181,000. Nuns were so common back then that the strict, ruler-wielding nuns of Catholic schools became a pop-culture trope. Some sisters participated in Civil Rights marches, worked in hospitals, and devoted themselves to social justice causes. But today, that kind of devotion has become so unpopular that there are fewer than 60,000 nuns in America, and those who remain are aging rapidly—only 12 percent of nuns were younger than 60 in 2009, a study found, while 10 percent were older than 90. With few young women replacing them—the average age of those who take vows is 39—elderly nuns and sisters across the country have been forced to care for one another and keep convents running in the face of massive budget deficits.
Boston Globe - What American Nuns Built: Both the nation and the Church have depended on the energy and expertise of nuns. They’re vanishing. Now what?
Ironically, as nuns have declined in number, they are finally gaining serious attention from the scholars who study American history and society. Much of what we know about nuns’ importance comes from the recent work of scholars...The fact that it has taken this long to appear is telling. As Patricia Wittberg, a nun and sociologist at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, summed it up, “Most Catholic history has been written by men who ignored women, and most women’s history has been written by people who were prejudiced against Catholics.” [...]

When the Vatican released its scathing report last year, it, too, seemed to have underestimated the importance of American nuns. Public opinion in the United States overwhelmingly rose to the defense of the LCWR... “It was a miscalculation, in that they did not anticipate the way the majority of American Catholics would really side with the nuns and really see this as in insult,” [Cummings] said. “In a time when there are so many burning questions in the church, so many problems to solve, to single out nuns...risks further alienating a whole lot of lay Catholics.” Indeed, a Pew poll conducted in June and July found American Catholics more satisfied with nuns than with priests, bishops, or the pope.

An additional motivation for the next pope to make peace with nuns is that those alienated from the church right now are disproportionately women. The statistics on nuns reflect a historic gap in engagement between young Catholic men and young Catholic women: In the 19th and early 20th centuries, three to four times as many women than men entered Catholic religious life in America. Today, as Wittberg noted in America magazine last year, that order has flipped: 1,206 women were in initial formation in 2009, compared with 1,396 men, and the men tend to be younger than the women. Millennial Catholics are the first generation in American history for which women are less likely than their male peers to attend Mass. “I cannot tell you how ominous this is,” Wittberg said, “because if you lose the women, you lose the children.”

The growing conservatism of the Church establishment is increasingly reflected in the makeup of the American sisterhood: As it shrinks, its newcomers are proportionally more conservative...
*NPR - 'Double Crossed' Details Decline of American Nuns (audio/transcript of interview with Kenneth Briggs)
*Roman Catholic Vocations - "Nuns facing a grim retirement"
*The Atlantic - Why Would a Millennial Become a Priest or a Nun?

Religion & Politics - The Nuns Not on the Bus
...[S]isters joining liberal convents are much older, often second-career types, sometimes with a marriage and children in their past. By contrast, a majority of women joining convents in the conservative splinter group are in their twenties. Some traditionalist convents are getting ten or twenty new postulants (first-year nuns) a year. And this is significant: In 2010, there were only 56,000 nuns in the United States, less than a third of their 1965 total. The average age of nuns is rising quickly, and many convents are becoming nursing homes for their members.

The small renaissance of American nuns is occurring among sisters who look like nuns from 1960 and, in their deference to the church, act like nuns from 1960. That model is compelling to a young generation of devout women who are more interested in purity than in the messy intellectual complexity, and frequent dissent, that their elders embraced. The Vatican is doubling down on this old-fashioned model of sisterhood—no matter the offense taken by thousands of older nuns who have spent their lives poor, single and childless, all for love of God, if not always the church.
NPR - An American Nun Responds To Vatican Criticism
(audio/transcript of interview with Sister Pat Farrell, former president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious)

The LCWR held its annual assembly two weeks ago. Via the National Catholic Reporter -
*LCWR: 'Ongoing conversation with church leadership is key'
*LCWR: business as usual despite cloud of Vatican mandate

*PBS.org - Vatican-Nun Controversy (video/transcript)
*Time - The Great Nunquisition: Why the Vatican Is Cracking Down on Sisters by Jo Piazza
(author of "If Nuns Ruled the World, which shatters the stereotypes of American Catholic nuns and profiles 10 daring sisters")

Amanda Marcotte (Slate) - Cool Pope Francis Not So Cool When It Comes to American Nuns
Despite the fact that Pope Francis received many accolades for taking a position against traditional authoritarianism and for criticizing the church for obsessing over birth control and homosexuality at the expense of more important issues, such as economic justice, Francis is now pushing back on the nuns who do just that. I’m talking about the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, a group that represents 80 percent of American nuns and is focused on social justice. In the past, the Vatican has gone after LCWR for focusing on economic inequality rather than bashing contraception and homosexuality. Despite what appears to be common ground between the nuns and the pope, it seems that Francis is not changing that tune...

The thing is that the LCWR is not advocating for gay marriage or birth control. They simply don't discuss issues of contraception and homosexuality, preferring instead to focus on issues like climate change, immigration, and assisting refugees in need of aid. Despite doing what Pope Francis supposedly wants his flock to do, however, the nuns continue to be punished and castigated by the Vatican, suggesting that the new pope is the same as the old.

previously on MeFi: Vatican reprimands US nuns - Sr. Brigid calls it like she sees it - Something About Mary
posted by flex (79 comments total) 108 users marked this as a favorite

 
Wow, great post, thank you. My college roommate is actually a cloistered nun. I have never really understood her decision, as she was a promising award-winning poet at school who had just come out as lesbian, and it has always been difficult for me to write to her. I appreciate the insight from these articles.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 9:41 AM on August 31 [3 favorites]


My aunts, one blood & her "counterpart", have been catholic nuns for join on 70 years each. They've been visiting nurses and worked at Angel Guardian Home caring for orphans. They were never the knuckle-smacking types.

They certainly weren't the type to go in for Disco parties or complex banking schemes. Certainly aint got much of a retirement plan either.
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 9:52 AM on August 31


Gee, treat women like 2nd class citizens and you wonder why you don't see more of them?

It's like the Italians wondering why they've got the lowest fertility rates in the EU.

Despite what these people think, women aren't stupid.
posted by leotrotsky at 9:52 AM on August 31 [44 favorites]


Great set of articles. Thanks.
posted by benito.strauss at 9:57 AM on August 31


while priests’ retirement funds are covered by the church, the sisters have no such safety net.

Every time I think the naked hatred of the Catholic church towards women can't be worse, I read something like this.

I haven't met very many nuns in my life, only a few (and an aunt is one), but they've all been warm, kind, social justice types. Didn't Jesus have something to say about feeding the hungry and clothing the naked? I thought he did anyway.

Thanks for this post, you've given lots of stuff to read all afternoon.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 9:59 AM on August 31 [27 favorites]


Hmm, let's see. Liberal women could become nuns, knowing that the church has been working strongly against activism from nuns or any power for women. Or they could do anything else. Hard to imagine why they aren't joining up anymore.

I don't think the Catholic church deserves these women.
posted by jeather at 10:00 AM on August 31 [25 favorites]


Sister Pat Farrell (from the NPR link), on the phrase "radical feminist themes":
"Sincerely, what I hear in the phrasing ... is fear — a fear of women's positions in the church. Now, that's just my interpretation. I have no idea what was in the mind of the congregation, of the doctrine of the faith, when they wrote that. But women theologians around the world have been seriously looking at the question of: How have the church's interpretations of how we talk about God, interpret Scripture, organize life in the church — how have they been tainted by a culture that minimizes the value and the place of women?"
Jo Piazza: "Today’s nuns are simply too progressive for the Vatican. The Vatican chooses not to celebrate nuns and it chooses not to empower them."

Also, Sister Nora Nash of the Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia sounds like a badass:
"Way up on the 41st floor, in a conference room overlooking the World Trade Center site, Sister Nora and her team from the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility laid out their advice for three Goldman executives. The Wall Street bank, they said, should protect consumers, rein in executive pay, increase its transparency and remember the poor."
posted by MonkeyToes at 10:02 AM on August 31 [24 favorites]


how have they been tainted by a culture that minimizes the value and the place of women?

I like this formulation a lot. The Catholic Church has issues with women, but so does our culture as a whole, and they are deeply and intimately interconnected.

she was a promising award-winning poet at school who had just come out as lesbian

I had dinner a few months ago with a former nun (who left the order but not the Church) and she described convent life as a hotbed of both open and closeted same-sex activity and intrigue. I don't know how typical her experience was, but her queerness was not at all a part of why she chose to leave, and that openness is undoubtedly a part of the Church's crackdown.
posted by Dip Flash at 10:27 AM on August 31 [4 favorites]


nuns are funny, and in some cases, amazing, powerful things.

the reason there are fewer nuns now - secular society has a media component which has been growing in power since peak nun, to where its influence cannot be overstated. if a little catholic girl is allowed to watch tv from about 5-7 y.o., she will see things and form aspirations inconsistent with nunhood.

the retirement financial disparity between priests and nuns can be solved by adding the equal rights amendment to our constitution. once it's in place, the pope will have to treat american priests and nuns equally, or he can just pack up his cathedrals and go home to rome.
posted by bruce at 10:43 AM on August 31 [2 favorites]


Maybe if you treat women as people, instead of tools?

“I cannot tell you how ominous this is,” Wittberg said, “because if you lose the women, you lose the children.”

You're doing it wrong again. (Yes, I know Wittberg is a nun, but honestly, describing women as Catholic-factories is the problem. Isn't losing women because you treat them terribly a bad thing in itself?)
posted by Garm at 10:44 AM on August 31 [11 favorites]


while priests’ retirement funds are covered by the church, the sisters have no such safety net.

I see a few people jumping on this. I absolutely won't defend the misogyny of the Catholic Church or pretend that it doesn't exist. However, this is only indirectly an example of this. The male equivalent of nun and sisters (monks and brothers) are on the same system: they get jobs and pool their money and the communities are self-supporting. Brothers have no such safety net either.

Now of course men who feel a vocation can choose between diocesan priesthood and religious orders, and women don't have that choice, so again, I am not defending the Church's record on women, just pointing out that strictly speaking, there's no difference in how the church treats men and women in equivalent roles.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 10:45 AM on August 31 [20 favorites]


Are there any non-Catholic nuns? Seem like there's room for that.
posted by doctor_negative at 10:46 AM on August 31


I recall listening to that NPR interview a few years ago and it blew my mind. Some amazing people who are very devoted to helping people through their faith.
posted by Fizz at 10:48 AM on August 31


Bruce: An ERA would have no effect because

A) male and females in equivalent roles are already treated equally by the church.
B) I believe all these orders are "incorporated" separately, so this isn't a case where males and females are par of the same organization and being treated differently.
C) The consititution applies to government, not to private organizations.
D) Even if it did apply to private organizations, sisters and brothers aren't employees of the church or the orders. So an amendment based on employment wouldn't be applicable and an amendment telling private orgs who they could and couldn't take as members probably wouldn't go well with anyone.

Again, I am not defending the Catholic Church's record on its treatment of women.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 10:51 AM on August 31 [1 favorite]


Doctor_Negative: Buddhist nuns.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 10:53 AM on August 31 [2 favorites]


I think, but it's been 20-odd years since I've seen her, my aunt is an Anglican nun. No idea how that works, and that's only if I'm remembering correctly.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 10:59 AM on August 31


Are there any non-Catholic nuns? Seem like there's room for that.

I think Episcopalians don't even support their priests- they're out on the job market same as any other career. On the bright side, they can't be sent someplace awful, either.
posted by small_ruminant at 11:01 AM on August 31


ok mr. penguin...

your A is demonstrably false, per the very issue of retirement financial disparity we're talking about.

your B is false because all of these separately incorporated organizations are part of the roman catholic church. "piercing the corporate veil" is a thing in law.

your C is misleading, because while the constitution doesn't constrain private individuals, there are private entities that receive unique public benefit (no property taxes, deductible contributions, etc.) and the ERA would ensure that they treat the priests and the nuns equally.

your D just requires an imaginative lawyer to establish that sisters and brothers are all under the direction of the pope, and they must be employed in some capacity because they seem to be housed and fed through some resource without having to sell drugs or turn tricks. all you need to do is pierce the veil up to the bishop level, which has been done, and you can sell the local cathedral to wal-mart for the benefit of the nuns' retirement plan.
posted by bruce at 11:13 AM on August 31 [3 favorites]


They're Anglican nuns on Call the Midwife, so I guess those exist, or used to? Don't know how they're treated.
posted by two or three cars parked under the stars at 11:15 AM on August 31


the reason there are fewer nuns now - secular society has a media component which has been growing in power since peak nun, to where its influence cannot be overstated.
I don't think that's it, honestly. If you were a Catholic little girl in 1900, you probably had access to the media and had some sense of what kind of opportunities were out there for you in secular society. It's just that there weren't a whole lot of opportunities out there for you in secular society. The only way you were going to be running a school or a hospital was as a nun. The difference now is that women have more opportunities for leadership in secular institutions, and they don't have to sacrifice having a family in order to pursue them.
“Most Catholic history has been written by men who ignored women, and most women’s history has been written by people who were prejudiced against Catholics.”
One of the reasons that I backed away from my initial grad school interest in Catholic history was that the Catholic history listserv was full of constant, constant allegations that various people were anti-Catholic bigots. I had very little faith that I, as a non-Catholic, could write anything interesting about the history of American Catholicism without being accused of hating Catholics. It's sort of an obsession. And it's too bad, because American Catholic history is fascinating and pretty under-explored.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 11:20 AM on August 31 [17 favorites]


I have no particular love of nuns. I grew up with them, both in schooling and in family. I have an aunt now battling cancer, with the support of her religious order.

I view the roles provided by the convent increasingly obsolete. It was an institution where intellectually curious women could explore their curiosity without the usual trappings (or complete exclusion) of male dominated secular academia. It was a community where women could self segregate with other like minded persons. It was a place where women could escape the trappings of their family life, poverty, abuse, oppression. And of course, it was a place where one could pursue a religious vocation. Of course, in real life, many of these motivations were often quite intertwined.

But the world has changed. Those roles the religious orders provided for women are increasingly no longer unique to the convent. The secular would provides more opportunities that used to be exclusive to religious orders, but the convent still has to play by the rules of the Church. So it's no wonder that the convent is attracting more of the candidates whose priorities are playing by the rules of the Church. Pursuing higher education, escaping a dismal life track, not so much.

Financially, many religious orders have traditionally been responsible for themselves. This has hit both male and female orders pretty hard as new recruits into religious life fall. Diocesean priests are a bit of an exception, "belonging" to their diocese (rather than a specialized religious order), which typically have deeper pockets (Sunday collections from Mass, etc). So orders are seeing their members work far longer into their later years to support their communities. And in places like the US, there is even more dependence on members from foreign countries that still produce youthful vocations. Instead of places like Ireland and Italy, more nuns (and priests) are being found in places like Africa, Philippines, Latin America to administer to the "spiritually poor" in the First World. I'm sure you can see the dynamic at work here, a sort of unique outsourcing/immigration angle at play.

And while many nuns, and to a lesser extent, religious order priests and brothers, are in poor position to take care of themselves financially, there are exceptions. Some convents have been run exceptionally well, financially. A local community had for years been run by a very shrewd businesswoman of a nun, in an order focused on providing health care. Yup, you guessed it, as health care costs rose dramatically over the last few decades, this order, who owned a hospital, saw fewer of its community working as nurses, and more as administrators. And they seem to have done well, selling the hospital to a large national organization. It's not clear to me how much the local diocese gets a share, if any. I suppose they get some kind of taste. But the community that sold the hospital seems to have done well for themselves regardless.
posted by 2N2222 at 11:23 AM on August 31 [3 favorites]


Bruce, I'm a woman.

A. No, the comparison wasn't to men and women in equivalent roles. The women were sisters and the men priests. The male equivalent of a sister is a brother. Brothers and sisters are equivalent and have the same retirement plan (i.e. none) There is no female equivalent of a priest.

B and C I'll concede because I don't know anything about corporate law or how the constitution applies to organizations that receive benefits. I guess it makes sense the government could pass a law saying "no benefits to orgs that don't treat men and women equally."

D. They are fed and housed the same way we all are: with the money they get from their jobs. They go out and apply for jobs and send out resumes and go to interviews like anyone else and negotiate a salary and get their salary. Then they all pool their money. They don't get money from the pope or the diocese.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 11:25 AM on August 31 [1 favorite]


your A is demonstrably false, per the very issue of retirement financial disparity we're talking about.

Monks, as the analogue of nuns, are treated the same. Monks are not priests, though some are ordained as such. Different employment categories, though admittedly the only employment category that does confer retirement benefits is open to men only.

Even if the USA gets off its collective ass and passes the ERA, it would be enshrined in law for approximately Planck time before some asshat challenges it on religious freedom grounds. And I doubt, highly, that any court in the USA--let alone SCOTUS in its current formation--would rule that the Catholic, or indeed any, church would have to be subject to gender parity laws.

On preview: ArbitraryAndCapricious, I am perfectly content to be called a bigot against the Catholic church as an institution that subjugates women and enables child abuse. Individual Catholic people are misguided but theoretically can be educated. The institution is resistant, to say the least. And yes, institutions are made of people, but I can't think of a single organization in the world that has the length and breadth of uninterrupted history that the RCC has, which means institutional inertia is a hell of a lot harder to overcome. Look at Francis; he makes the right noises for the most part, but has anything actually changed? No. If he put his money where his mouth is, how many thousands of priests would be defrocked just for their involvement in perpetrating, enabling, or covering up child abuse?

It's like JPII's antipathy towards Liberation Theology in South America. They pay lipservice to higher ideals, but "by their actions shall ye know them" etc. (Not to discount his support of Solidarnosc, because that truly was important.)
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 11:27 AM on August 31 [2 favorites]


>Bruce,

>Penguin,

The biggest reason that there will never be a legal solution to this is the 1st amendment. If there is some sort of ERA, there will certainly be 1st amendment rulings that keep this hypothetical ERA from being applied to religious groups. I mean, if the courts rule in favor of Hobby Lobby, do you really think they'll rule against the Catholic Church? Especially because the Catholics can explicitly point to their religious text, and their 2000 year old tradition to say "this is part of our religious practice". They're right to be dicks is constitutionally protected.
posted by DGStieber at 11:28 AM on August 31 [3 favorites]


Yeah, just to add: I think Americans should be embarrassed not to have an ERA their constitution. So not only am I not defending the misogyny of the Catholic church, am not defending the iniquity in the US constitution or opposing an ERA. And yeah, on preview/edit I also assumed any law would end up with a ridiculously broad religious exemption that would surely allow the Catholic church to continue to turn away women who want to be ordained.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 11:30 AM on August 31 [1 favorite]


Damn, I was beaten by a second by FFFM.

but just to add in the most salient bit of evidence: religious groups were exempted from prohibition (a constitutional amendment) on 1st amendment grounds.
posted by DGStieber at 11:30 AM on August 31 [1 favorite]


Financially, it really depends on the order. Here in Quebec, some are doing rather well, because they are able to sell some very nice real estate. But sometimes they also get swindled, because they don't have the financial know-how; an aunt of mine played a part in ensuring her order's financial well-being, but she died, and it's not guaranteed that her replacement will be as savvy as she was.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 11:41 AM on August 31


Today's young ladies just can't swing a ruler like back in the day, I guess.
posted by jonmc at 11:43 AM on August 31 [2 favorites]


Didn't Jesus have something to say about feeding the hungry and clothing the naked? I thought he did anyway.

Not only that, but at least one of the gospels was pretty clear that Jesus' ministry was possible because of the role of women in his life.
Luke 8:1-3: "After this, Jesus traveled about from one town and village to another, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God. The Twelve were with him, and also some women ... : Mary (called Magdalene) ... ; Joanna the wife of Chuza, the manager of Herod’s household; Susanna; and many others. These women were helping to support them out of their own means."
I would think that if women were known to have supported Jesus financially in response to his ministry efforts, and this fact was important enough to be recorded by the church in its documents to be known for perpetuity, the church could feel compelled to return the favor.
posted by SpacemanStix at 11:51 AM on August 31 [9 favorites]


In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, vocations looked mighty appealing not only to those women who wanted a life of contemplation (or pious service), but also to those who were not interested in raising a family and were interested in having some sort of education and career. (Indeed, Catholicism itself was seen as the progressive option for a number of nineteenth-century feminists who did not have vocations.) Moreover, the 19th-c. RCC was one of the few places where a woman was likely to hear that marriage was not necessarily a woman's highest destiny. It's not surprising that as other opportunities became available, women started diversifying.

One of the reasons that I backed away from my initial grad school interest in Catholic history was that the Catholic history listserv was full of constant, constant allegations that various people were anti-Catholic bigots. I had very little faith that I, as a non-Catholic, could write anything interesting about the history of American Catholicism without being accused of hating Catholics.

...Although I'm not on this listserv, I have to say that they do have a point there. My research time is spent on the opposite side of the pond, but while the recent historiography has improved greatly, you still occasionally stumble across some work that is gung-ho anti-Catholic, often because there's a theological dog in the hunt. At least in my field (Victorian lit), there remains a real reluctance to talk about Catholic authors, although that's also improving.
posted by thomas j wise at 11:59 AM on August 31 [7 favorites]


The only time I wrote to the Pope — Benedict XVI — was over his callous treatment of women religious in the United States. I apparently didn't get excommunicated over it.
posted by ob1quixote at 12:11 PM on August 31


Yes, there are still quite a few anglican nuns (and monks).
posted by Pre-Taped Call In Show at 12:15 PM on August 31


This might be useful to the "nuns are not directly equivalent to priests" discussion:
Catholic Education Resource Center - The Meaning of the Terms Nun, Sister, Monk, Priest, and Brother

As you can see there are distinctions in terms that tend to get blurred in casual discussion. I agree that nuns are not directly equivalent to priests since women cannot perform anything equal to a priest's role in the Church, nor do they have the opportunities in the Church in scope of choice when called to a religious life - or in advancement through the ranks in governing.

And I think this is a useful distinction to make because, to me, this means the Church is morally more obligated to provide for these women who have dedicated their lives & their obedience to it. By not having equal opportunities, they end up being more bound by its strictures (and more dependent) with less ability to effect changes in the governance, even in matters that directly affect them.

I do think, however, making a parallel (such as the one in the front page pullquote) between the Church's handling of sex abuse scandals with its priests is apt enough. It is illustrative of an organization that is willing to do a lot of footwork for men serving in its ranks who have committed crimes (cover-ups, denials, lack of investigation, moving them around to new parishes even with the knowledge they were child abusers, legal settlements, etc.) - but not very much for women who have faithfully served the Church's interests for decades. Nuns in contemplative, cloistered orders are similar to monks - but sisters out in the world are actively doing the work of the Church, at the direction of the Church, under the rule of the Church... with relatively little power within the Church.
posted by flex at 12:15 PM on August 31 [9 favorites]


I think Episcopalians don't even support their priests

Define "support"-

And yes, there are Anglican/Episcopal nuns along with a variety of other flavors of orders and communities. The Episcopal Church really does welcome you.
posted by IndigoJones at 12:22 PM on August 31


The part about student loans in the Atlantic piece stood out for me. A former boss of mine left our company to join the Sisters of St. Joseph and was very open about the novice process to become eligible for the order. Their motto for incoming women was that they "could neither own or owe". Most of her personal effects went to her family, her car deeded to the order. She also had to discharge all outstanding debts that she may have had.

If you have untold thousands in student loan debts and want to follow this religious calling, you need not apply.
posted by dr_dank at 12:24 PM on August 31 [3 favorites]


In some cases , this aging / non-replacement issue is playing out as a group of people who have thoughtfully lived their lives committed to these unique communities realizing that the communities will disappear as the current individual members pass. Thus, the community is having to wrestle with the question of what they want their legacy to be. I suspect their choices about legacy will be profound as has been their existence.
posted by TheShadowKnows at 12:32 PM on August 31 [2 favorites]


I live in an area with a number of convents (and a billion-dollar hospital run by an order of sisters, hence the many local nuns) and so I run into nuns pretty frequently. Yesterday I ran into two nuns MY OWN AGE speaking MIDWESTERN ENGLISH ... it was jarring. I meet older nuns who sound like me, and younger nuns from abroad, but I'm not sure I've ever met a nun my own age from my own place. (It was also hilarious because it turns out it's pretty funny hear a full-dress nun using "my" slang.)

"while priests’ retirement funds are covered by the church, the sisters have no such safety net."

This, btw, is a problem the hierarchy needs to deal with, but it has to do with how the corporate organizations are structured in the U.S. Diocesan priests are employees of a diocese (and under the authority of the local bishop); nuns/sisters and monks/friars/brothers are are employees of their order (Franciscans, Jesuits, etc.) and under the authority of their order. "Ordered" priests who are Franciscans or Jesuits or whatever ALSO don't get diocesan retirement; they get their retirement through their order, even if they work in a parish as a parish priest. It's not so much "we love priests, screw those nuns" but "For 150 years it worked really well in the U.S. system to have nuns manage their own retirement but now that their orders are aging and dying out, we have a serious problem with funding their retirements." Many of the nuns may not WANT diocesan retirement because it would put them under slightly more control of the local bishop, and as you've gathered from these articles, the nuns don't really want that.

(Also most dioceses in the U.S. run a retirement fund for local nuns and monks and do funding drives for them yearly, as the parishes remain the key source of charitable funds and dioceses have a monopoly on those. It's not totally ignored by the dioceses.)

" (Yes, I know Wittberg is a nun, but honestly, describing women as Catholic-factories is the problem. Isn't losing women because you treat them terribly a bad thing in itself?)"

Uh, that wasn't her point. Her points is that mothers, not fathers, tend to control and calibrate the religious lives of their children in the United States (and much of Europe). When adult men abandon a religion in droves, it's not typically a crisis because the women of the society carry on the religious duties, and children are brought up in the religious in question and it remains normative. When women stop being engaged in a religion, that is a death knell for the religion because children will not be brought up in it. Her point is that the stunning disengagement of women in Catholicism, who historically have remained engaged even when the Church has been really shitty to them, is a far greater existential crisis than the hierarchy realizes and something that the Church really needs to address; because women are actually leaving and their engagement rates are falling below those of men, the Church needs to realize women's complaints have to be considered and addressed, not just ignored.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 12:40 PM on August 31 [33 favorites]


"Individual Catholic people are misguided but theoretically can be educated."

Oh, thanks ever so!
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 12:45 PM on August 31 [9 favorites]


I think I typed too quickly there, Eyebrows. Should have been 'can be' instead of 'are,' or 'Catholics who follow doctrine without question' should have been included there. You're not regressive, obviously. Yet my mother, raised Anglican and converted when I was about 12/13, became regressive. I honestly apologize for not speaking clearly/being too hasty, and that snark was deserved.

If you have untold thousands in student loan debts and want to follow this religious calling, you need not apply.

That seems totally appropriate, though? "Render unto Caesar" and so forth.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 1:18 PM on August 31 [1 favorite]


12 years of Catholic education. Before birth control, and when the church had more power, it wasn't uncommon for 1 daughter to be pretty much drafted to be a nun, and a son to be a priest. Too many of my teachers were nuns who had no vocation for teaching, no degree, no aptitude. A few were somewhat abusive. Some were wonderful people and/or wonderful teachers. Many of them left their orders. One of my son's teachers, the one who taught him to read, is a former nun. I probably had an extremely brief, romanticized desire to be a nun, but not remotely seriously. As an adult, the church's hypocrisy and contempt for women made me run in the other direction.
posted by theora55 at 1:33 PM on August 31


Having seen the inside of working nun's living quarters in my youth, I don't know how you could distinguish that from a garden variety grim retirement.
posted by StickyCarpet at 2:04 PM on August 31 [3 favorites]


I love the sisters too, and am grateful to the ones who gave up their lives to educate kids like me (I had a couple of abusive ones, but overall my memories are positive). And they probably are getting a raw deal from a male-dominated hierarchy. But vocations in the Catholic church in the United States are dwindling for both men *and* women. So spinning this as an issue of sexism seems to ignore the 500 pound gorilla in the room: fewer and fewer people are dedicating their lives to the church anyway.

I happen to think that's a good thing.
posted by Pararrayos at 2:05 PM on August 31 [1 favorite]


It may be a good thing (and I totally agree with you on that point), but the gorilla is actually that the Catholic church as an institution views women as inferior to men.

Fewer people dedicating their lives to the church is only relevant to church hierarchy.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 2:41 PM on August 31 [1 favorite]


Maybe if we just disrupted the Catholic Church with technology - download Nunnr today!
posted by oceanjesse at 4:32 PM on August 31 [3 favorites]


Just to elaborate on If only I had a penguin...'s Buddhist Nun link, there are western Buddhist nuns ( for example, Ven. Thubten Chodron ).

My understanding from western Buddhist nuns I've known personally is that it's tough for western Buddhist monastics because they don't get a lot of support. They often have to keep their day jobs to support themselves.
posted by jazzbaby at 5:09 PM on August 31


"Fewer people dedicating their lives to the church is only relevant to church hierarchy."

Not really -- Catholic schools, for example, educate about 5% of students nationwide (about 20% of whom are not Catholic) in the US, but as much as 25% of students in many big Northern cities with high rates of child poverty, like Chicago or New York. Catholic schools pay significantly less to teachers than public schools do, and they "get away with it" because of the people -- mostly women, traditionally nuns but also lay women -- who dedicate their lives to the Church and its educational mission. Do you think Chicago, currently closing schools and slashing budgets and putting pressure on teacher salaries, can absorb 100,000 more school children (in addition to the 400,000 currently enrolled) in its current budget situation?

Or healthcare. Downstate in Illinois, there are something like 28 counties that are ONLY served by Catholic healthcare because it is so unprofitable to run rural hospitals that no for-profit hospitals will operate there. The state pulled out its hospitals years ago when cutting spending and trying to keep taxes low; only the Catholic Church has the broad-based infrastructure to run hospitals in that many rural counties as an income-losing proposition year after year after year; they're the only organization with a broad-based enough fundraising arm (even the state couldn't do it through taxes!) to fund such an unpopular cause as health care for poor rural people.

Now, Catholic services are partly state-supported because of the tax breaks they receive, and that is an issue (I spent the last three years in a battle over whether religious non-profits should pay local property taxes -- I think they should, they use the same police and fire coverage!). But in a lot of places in the United States, the Catholic Church and the people who dedicate their lives to the Church fill the massive, gaping holes in our social safety net in places where an institutional presence is required (schools, hospitals, social services -- you can't really provide those one-on-one or ad hoc; you need an institution). Should the state be providing those things? Absolutely. Do you truly think that if the Catholic Church tomorrow quit providing education to 20% of Chicago schoolchildren or healthcare to 28 downstate counties, the state of Illinois would step in? Not a chance.

Many cities are already feeling the pinch of the decline of nuns -- it's much more expensive for Catholics to staff hospitals and schools and social-service agencies with poorly-paid laypeople than it was with minimally-compensated nuns. That results in fewer services provided by the Catholic social service agencies, which results in a larger burden on the state-provided services, which results in poorer service overall. The religious non-profits do receive a subsidy from the state in the form of tax-free status, but the religious non-profits also provide a subsidy TO the state, which is larger than the one they receive. By educating 20% of Chicago's schoolchildren (at a lower cost than the city, because they pay teachers so much less), the Catholic Church significantly reduces Chicago property tax bills.

When you say "fewer people dedicating their lives to the church is only relevant to the church hierarchy," you haven't thought this through nearly enough, because the Church, rightly or wrongly, and in reliance on the massively underpaid labor of nuns and (today) massively underpaid Catholic mothers working outside the home in healthcare or education, has provided a century of below-cost social services to the United States. The loss of that underpaid and unpaid female workforce, motivated by their dedication to the Church, will have significant repercussions in social services, healthcare, education, tax bills, the demands on professionals in "helping" industries, across the United States. If you don't consider it relevant to you, you either don't realize how much US social service support is provided through the Catholic Church, or you don't care about the people who need those supports. It's absolutely, terrifyingly relevant, because there is no replacement available but the state, and I don't think in the current climate for government spending and taxes that the state is likely to provide adequate levels of support to absorb those functions.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 5:34 PM on August 31 [31 favorites]


Religious organizations should not be filling in for the contempt the state has for people who need help, and the state should not be allowed to count on them.

Nor should we be able to count on exploitation--"reliance on the massively underpaid labor of nuns and (today) massively underpaid Catholic mothers working outside the home in healthcare or education," your words--to fix society's ills. In fact, that is one of society's ills.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 5:53 PM on August 31 [7 favorites]


I'm not sure why the Church would appeal to any young women lately. Heck, a friend of mine (who was dedicated enough to CONVERT to Catholicism, and let's just say that she'd be great at dealing with celibacy) pondered joining, but....there's not a whole lot of advantages to doing so. If any.
posted by jenfullmoon at 5:53 PM on August 31


I'm reasonably certain that the powers that be will find other people to exploit to get services provided when there aren't enough nuns to exploit anymore.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 6:04 PM on August 31


Of course, underpaying the nuns who were teachers and nurses and so on just makes the lack of retirement support even worse. "Here, we're going to depend on you heavily, pay you nothing, then drop you as soon as you can no longer work."
posted by jeather at 6:07 PM on August 31 [3 favorites]


"Religious organizations should not be filling in for the contempt the state has for people who need help, and the state should not be allowed to count on them. Nor should we be able to count on exploitation"

Yes, that was the point of my comment. However, your comment was basically "We should be glad these people will no longer be engaged in these endeavors, their engagement is only of interest to the religious hierarchy." I contest that is not true; their engagement is crucial to the provision of necessary services in the United States at present, and their disengagement should concern everyone who's concerned about the provision of social services in the United States. What is your solution to the massive gaps in services that will be left when Catholic women (religious sisters or otherwise) no longer fill these roles? Do you truly think the state will step in to provide them? If so, how? If not, what is your vision for providing services to the most vulnerable?

We don't have the world I want; we have the world we have. And in the world we have, the US state receives a massive subsidy from the Catholic Church (and other religious organizations) who provide low-cost and no-cost social services that the state does not provide. GIVEN THAT THIS IS THE ACTUAL WORLD, how do you propose to deal with the nosedive in the women who actually provide these services?

You said: "Fewer people dedicating their lives to the church is only relevant to church hierarchy."

My contention is not that religious organizations SHOULD fill the gap in social services, but that they DO fill the gap in social services, and therefore the decline in religious vocations is of interest to everyone who receives those services or who cares about those who do. Do you disagree? Why?
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:53 PM on August 31 [4 favorites]


Because relying on exploitation of labour is fundamentally wrong?
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 7:10 PM on August 31 [2 favorites]


I mean... seriously, look at what you are actually saying. You are saying, flat out, that it's bad that the ranks of nuns are decreasing because their exploited labour can no longer be depended upon. Please look at the latter half of that sentence, and re-evaluate whether you think that exploitation should continue, whether or not it's the current reality. From your comments that I have read over the years, I think you would be staunchly against relying on exploited labour in any other context. So why is it different when a) it's the church, and b) you yourself have stated that they are underpaid?
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 7:13 PM on August 31 [1 favorite]


Our local episcopal convent. They are apparently savvy enough to have registered a three letter domain name before they all got snagged up circa 1975 or so.
posted by TedW at 7:25 PM on August 31


> Please look at the latter half of that sentence, and re-evaluate whether you think that exploitation should continue, whether or not it's the current reality

Eh? Nobody here is advocating the continued exploitation of women. It would be wise for us to recognize it and figure out a plan as it goes away.

You can see this with public schools, too. The school system is set up to run with the help of great numbers of volunteers, who historically have been the mothers of the students. But with more women working outside the home, that model doesn't function any more. It's not bad to point out that that's the situation and that we need a new system.
posted by The corpse in the library at 7:27 PM on August 31 [1 favorite]


By arguing the necessity of exploitation, one is implicitly arguing for that exploitation to continue; if there was nothing to be gained from it continuing, one wouldn't argue that it is necessary.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 7:29 PM on August 31


"I mean... seriously, look at what you are actually saying. You are saying, flat out, that it's bad that the ranks of nuns are decreasing because their exploited labour can no longer be depended upon. "

You're not even a little bit reading what I'm saying. I'm saying it currently occurs and budgets for social services are based on that exploitation. Given that it's unlikely that budgets will increase, what is your desired outcome? It's awfully cavalier to say "that doesn't matter to anybody but the hierarchy"; I think the lack of women religious matters to a LOT of people who receive services from those exploitative salaries, and I think the state is unlikely to replace the exploitation-level salaries, let alone a non-exploitative salary. That leaves a lot of people without services. Both my mother and grandmother provided underpaid (mom) and unpaid (grandma) social services to urban young people through the Catholic Church for years and years. The state is unwilling to provide those services at a reasonable salary. The alternative is not "kids get services from reasonably-paid adult providers"; it is "kids get no services."

I don't think the exploitation of women's work is good -- I think it's extremely problematic and, given the theological focus of the Catholic Church on family, health, children, education, etc., the economic denigration of that work through underpayment of that labor is a serious issue. But I do know that the exploitation of "women's work" is foundational to the modern state, and that removing the subsidy that "women's work" provides would be catastrophic to the United States -- the loss of women religious is a particularly egregious example of that. I, personally, think it is a major political issue that we have to look at and deal with. You seem to be saying, "Yeah, exploiting people is bad, let's just stop immediately, sucks to be someone on the receiving end of those social services! TRY TO BE LESS NEEDY, ORPHANED BABIES!"
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:37 PM on August 31 [10 favorites]


By arguing the necessity of exploitation, one is implicitly arguing for that exploitation to continue

Good thing nobody's arguing for the necessity of exploitation, then.
posted by The corpse in the library at 7:37 PM on August 31 [6 favorites]


By arguing the necessity of exploitation, one is implicitly arguing for that exploitation to continue; if there was nothing to be gained from it continuing, one wouldn't argue that it is necessary

No one is arguing the necessity of exploitation, only its relevance outside church hierarchy.
posted by devinemissk at 7:37 PM on August 31 [3 favorites]


Because relying on exploitation of labour is fundamentally wrong?

The decline of the religious orders and the medical care they provide is still, uh, interesting, to the people who will suffer more for their decline, not just to the church hierarchy. You've shifted the argument.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 7:38 PM on August 31


You're not even a little bit reading what I'm saying.

Yes, I am. You are saying that exploitation should only end--or can only end--when those who aren't exploited are okay.

No one is arguing the necessity of exploitation

Eyebrows is: "But I do know that the exploitation of "women's work" is foundational to the modern state, and that removing the subsidy that "women's work" provides would be catastrophic to the United States"

That is saying it's necessary to how the world functions, else chaos will ensue.

You seem to be saying, "Yeah, exploiting people is bad, let's just stop immediately, sucks to be someone on the receiving end of those social services! TRY TO BE LESS NEEDY, ORPHANED BABIES!"

So we should continue exploiting people until something better comes along? Really?
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 7:43 PM on August 31


You've shifted the argument.

Well, no, but if I'm just going to be crapped on by RCC apologists I don't really see the point in trying to defend myself.

The argument is not relevant because any argument that relies on exploiting other people is not relevant. Period.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 7:46 PM on August 31


> RCC apologists

I... but... well, that's a new one for me.
posted by The corpse in the library at 7:50 PM on August 31 [2 favorites]


"Eyebrows is: "But I do know that the exploitation of "women's work" is foundational to the modern state, and that removing the subsidy that "women's work" provides would be catastrophic to the United States"

That is saying it's necessary to how the world functions, else chaos will ensue."


As a stay-at-home-mom who receives no pay and accrues no social security benefits from the government of the United States, I am aware of exactly how much labor I provide to the polity and exactly how much that polity values my labor. My labor is worth approximately $50/child/day, or $18,250/child/year, or $36,500/year. I am paid nothing, receive no benefits, and receive no retirement accrual. I know exactly how foundational my work is to the functioning of the US -- it costs $20,000 salary plus benefits to provide it for 40 hours a week for a single child -- and I know exactly how much the state is willing to pay for this labor -- nothing. In fact my state just had a lawsuit about the payment of state funds to (entirely female) caregivers of elderly and disabled family members.

And you continue to dodge the issue of how you will provide services to the neediest members of society when you remove this massive chunk of subsidized labor from social services. I, personally, have spent the last three years fighting to create a more level playing field for religious non-profits such as the Catholic Church, by attempting to require them to pay their fair share of municipal services so that the "invisible" subsidies become visible and we can better afford to shift to a state-provided model of services. Your solution is apparently to bitch that people see the problem.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:01 PM on August 31 [12 favorites]


And you continue to dodge the issue of how you will provide services to the neediest members of society when you remove this massive chunk of subsidized labor from social services.

While you are dodging the issue that these social services are built on the backs of essentially slave labour, and arguing that this situation needs to continue. Do you not see how problematic that is? Exploiting people to provide for others is not a solution.

And I'm disengaging from this now because you're not interested in engaging with a single thing I've said, it seems, while I have responded substantively to actual things you have said.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 8:04 PM on August 31 [1 favorite]


"While you are dodging the issue that these social services are built on the backs of essentially slave labour, and arguing that this situation needs to continue. "

It's like you literally did not read the next sentence to the one you quoted where I described one method I have personally been using to attempt to end this reliance on subsidized women's work. (It's also super-keen how you ignored the description of my own personal unpaid women's work! I suppose, as you are a man, these forms of labor are easy for you to ignore and pontificate about without seeing the personal cost.)

But we have at least put the lie to your first claim that the loss of women religious is of interest to no one but the church hierarchy -- clearly it is of massive interest to you, since you are concerned with both the slave labor of the women religious, and (apparently, and by inference, since you refuse to admit people deserve these services and the loss of them is important, but you seem to infer that it is) the services they provide to the poor.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:13 PM on August 31 [4 favorites]


Nuns make up less than 5% of the teaching staff at American Catholic schools, and I'm sure that they're less than that at Catholic hospitals. There's been a pretty big expansion of Catholic hospitals in recent years, mostly through mergers which have had them taking over secular hospitals, and that's all happened after nuns ceased being a significant portion of the workforce. I really don't think the decline in the number of nuns is going to be a catastrophe for the provision of social services in the US. You could argue that in the case of urban education it already has been a catastrophe, but I think there are a lot of other factors that have also contributed to the decline of Catholic education in places like Chicago.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 8:14 PM on August 31


"Nuns make up less than 5% of the teaching staff at American Catholic schools, and I'm sure that they're less than that at Catholic hospitals. There's been a pretty big expansion of Catholic hospitals in recent years, mostly through mergers which have had them taking over secular hospitals"

Both true, but "regular" certified teachers at Catholic schools get paid around 2/3 (or less) of what public school teachers earn. Some Catholic hospitals earn a profit (which, IMO, is obscene), but others, while they may pay their doctors comparable amounts to for-profit hospitals, have to make up a funding shortfall every year. It's not so much the nuns per se as the holdover of the nunnish ideal. It's easiest to see in Catholic elementary schools where they had hardly any personnel budget when they could staff the schools with nuns, and then switched to hiring Catholic moms for far, far less than they earn at public schools. (In fact, many Catholic women who work at Catholic elementary schools don't earn enough to pay for a single child's childcare while they teach -- many women, including my mother, actually pay money to work at a Catholic school. Their family income would be higher if they didn't work.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:24 PM on August 31 [1 favorite]


I'm surprised there are any nuns left. The nuns at my high school in the early '90s were ooooollllllddddd. There was a recruitment effort during my senior year of high school where a young-ish (maybe in her early 40s) nun gave a talk to our religion class, admitting that her family had disowned her for becoming a nun.

My mom's generation, growing up in the '50s/early '60s, seemed to have a lot of women (and men) joining religious orders, and later dropping out. One of my sister's best friend's parents were an ex-nun and an ex-priest.
posted by medeine at 8:31 PM on August 31


Pretend you're not Catholic for five minutes. Someone tells you that providing social services is only possible by using exploited and essentially slave labour, and that this needs to continue until something better is in place.

How would you react if you weren't religiously invested in the situation?
"Essentially slave labour"? OK, this is getting ridiculous. Let's please step back a moment and review how we got here.

Eyebrows McGee, in response to an earlier post, wrote:
When you say "fewer people dedicating their lives to the church is only relevant to the church hierarchy," you haven't thought this through nearly enough, because the Church, rightly or wrongly, and in reliance on the massively underpaid labor of nuns and (today) massively underpaid Catholic mothers working outside the home in healthcare or education, has provided a century of below-cost social services to the United States. The loss of that underpaid and unpaid female workforce, motivated by their dedication to the Church, will have significant repercussions in social services, healthcare, education, tax bills, the demands on professionals in "helping" industries, across the United States.
Several readers (myself included) seem to have interpreted this as a relatively uncontroversial description of an additional aspect of the problem under discussion. You, however, appear to have read it not as a description of the status quo but as a recommendation for it, and have not only rejected her attempts to provide clarifying context but also explicit statements that she does not think women's work should be economically devalued. At this point you've escalated to talking about "slave labour."

I can't say that I think you're arguing in bad faith, because I believe you are sincere in what you are writing, but you are really are failing to engage constructively with what the person you are arguing with has written. Please take a moment to regroup your thoughts, consider that maybe you have been misreading, and run -- don't walk -- away from the "if you weren't Catholic this would be obvious to you" framing of your most recent reply.
posted by Nerd of the North at 11:57 PM on August 31 [6 favorites]


Sorry if this has already been covered, but I have a fever and the word on this page are dancing in front of my eyes...

A quick bit of googling suggests that in the same time frame in the USA, monks have gone down from 12k to 6k and priests from 60k to 40k.

Feel free to blame the Catholic church's attitude to women for a lot of things, but its clearly not the only factor involved here...
posted by sodium lights the horizon at 2:37 AM on September 1


Fascinating and very sad.

To answer one question: yes, there definitely are non-Catholic Christian nuns. Middle Son spent nine months living in an Anglican Benedictine monastery in Gloucester (UK), which housed both monks and nuns. A happier and more peaceful group I have yet to meet, even in the face of infirmity and old age. (And my discussions with him have definitely changed my ideas about the value and purpose of the monastic life)

But as to the Catholic church and its hierarchy… they remind me of the CEOs of large corporations and the bankers on Wall Steet. Well dressed, articulate, with a degree of power and influence, and with a completely unreal idea of what those who work for them (and indeed the world at large) thinks of them and their policies.
posted by 43rdAnd9th at 10:45 AM on September 1


Are there any non-Catholic nuns? Seems like there's room for that.

I am a Pagan nun - in spirit, though not formally. And I know there are more of us out there, though we're still a tiny minority even within Paganism. And although Paganism is a growing religious movement, there are still no workable options available to me to join with others of my faith on this path, since Paganism has no organized monastic tradition for polytheists. There are Pagans who are trying to build one, but there's still a long way to go.

In fact, the only Pagan convent in the USA - The Maetreum of Cybele in Palenville, NY - has been forced to fight a legal battle for years, and sadly they are still struggling hard to survive in spite of their good reputation in their community and their previous legal wins.

So I live a solitary "lay monastic" sort of life in my hermitage: writing, art, research, study, community service (I'm self-employed as a house cleaner, and I also do volunteer work), prayer, ritual, and devotional service.
posted by velvet winter at 2:08 PM on September 1 [4 favorites]


medeine: My mom's generation, growing up in the '50s/early '60s, seemed to have a lot of women (and men) joining religious orders, and later dropping out.

I coincidentally just finished reading A Canticle for Leibowitz, and I'm now wondering how much Mutually Assured Destruction contributed to the uptick in nuns and monks during that period. "Let's see," I can imagine people thinking, "which organization survived the last time that Western civilization was wiped out? The Roman Catholic Church, huh?"

I wonder if it also served as a good way to join the peace movement without your parents fearing you were going to become a hippie and succumb to reefer madness.
posted by clawsoon at 7:58 PM on September 1 [1 favorite]


The 1950s were also incredibly oppressive to women, at least in the U.S. Getting them back in the kitchen after they'd earned their own money and gone dancing every weekend during WWII was something of an uphill battle. All those Donna Reed shows were part of the propaganda, and that included schools, too. Everyone I know who became a nun said it was the easiest way to continue their studies, if they were academic, or generally keep their independence (compared to marriage, which subsumed you into your husband's identity, legally). Yes, they were subordinate to their order but they trusted the constancy of a religious order's protocols more than they trusted marriage's.

And then there were all those lesbians who didn't want to come out and didn't want to get married. I have run into a ton of ex-nun lesbians. Maybe it's just where I live, but it's practically a stereotype.
posted by small_ruminant at 10:00 PM on September 1 [1 favorite]


Excellent post; it's second to none. I was educated by nuns in Catholic grade school (in high school it was monks, instead). It's a crying shame to see how these sisters who have devoted their lives to an institution are being treated. But then again, the Church seems to just be taking its cue from standard business procedures.
posted by Gelatin at 5:24 AM on September 2


Thanks for this, really looking forward to digging into these links.

I just got home from attending my godmother's funeral. I'd known all along that she had been a nun before she met and married my godfather, but I was amazed to learn during the service that the name I'd always known her wasn't her given name but her vocational name. (On reflection, it's a pretty powerful statement to identify oneself by a self-selected name rather than one sttached to you by others, even if they are your presumably loving parents.)

The stories the eulogists told was of the '70s-era guitar-wielding, singing nun with a rebellious streak (the kind who in another era I could totally picture stealing Nazis' spark plugs), which dovetailed nicely with the sweet, kind woman I knew who spent the rest of her career as a beloved educator. Many of her sisters, biological and religious, were at the service to talk about what a wonder she was. Even the bishop, who said Mass, lovingly referenced her theological differences from him in his homily.

I hope the Church eventually listens to people like her; Lord knows it needs them. R.I.P.
posted by psoas at 6:08 AM on September 2


"The Secret Life of Nuns" was an interesting related article in the Oxford American last year. It's a smaller-scale look at some of the same issues (though it arguably could benefit from more focus on the sisters and less on the author's issues). Alex Mar describes the time she spent visiting a Dominican convent in Houston, a fairly activist group, with a side trip to a nearby cloistered community.
posted by oakroom at 11:32 AM on September 2


Nuns Blast Catholic Church's 'Doctrine Of Discovery' That Justified Indigenous Oppression
posted by homunculus at 10:00 AM on September 12


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