Last April, the Vatican issued an 8-page document addressed to the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, the major association of American nuns. The “doctrinal assessment” accused the nuns of “radical feminism,” of agitating for women’s ordination, and of remaining silent in “the lively public debate about abortion and euthanasia in the United States.” As a remedy, the Vatican ordered a five-year rehabilitation, during which the nuns would be supervised by a committee of three bishops. The nuns were not well pleased; they fought back. In June, five nuns from Network, a progressive Catholic lobby criticized in the Vatican assessment, launched the “Nuns on the Bus” tour, traveling through nine states from Iowa to Washington, D.C. The nuns attended Masses, held press conferences, and protested at the offices of conservative congressmen, like John Boehner; all the while they attacked the Paul Ryan budget for hurting struggling Americans. Their leader, Simone Campbell, spoke at the Democratic National Convention in August. In September, they gathered two hundred sisters to ride the Staten Island Ferry for a “Nuns on a Ferry” rally. They are currently organizing protest bus tours around the country, from Missouri to Ohio.
The Vatican, under the current conservative pope, is not irrational to fear these nuns and their progressive ways. Among its many reforms, the Second Vatican Council, which ran from 1962 to 1965 and celebrates its 50th anniversary this month, gave more autonomy to nuns. After it ended, many nuns doffed their habits and resumed their given names. They developed activist ministries, focused on war or poverty. Today, many nuns are feminists who prefer Catholic teaching on social justice to its teaching about sexual morality; they spend less time in communal prayer and more in the neighborhood.
If the stereotypical nun was once the parochial-school teacher in a wimple, today it might be the elderly woman in a well-worn sweater, running a job-training program and reading liberal theology at night. They have moved far to the left of the male Catholic hierarchy in Rome. Their disloyalty is not imaginary, not entirely.
But this fight is about more than the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. About 20 percent of American nuns belong to a rival organization, the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious, which split off in 1992. These sisters still wear habits, and many take new names in the convent. They are more loyal to the church hierarchy. In general, they are more interested in stopping abortion than in bringing the troops home from Afghanistan, and they worry more about Obamacare’s health insurance mandate than about the Ryan budget’s cuts to Medicaid.
The conservative convents are not getting more new members than their liberal counterparts: each wing of American sisterhood counts about 500 women in the multi-year process of becoming nuns. But sisters 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.
FIFTY YEARS AGO, the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia, based in Nashville, was lucky to get four or five postulants a year. But in the past 20 years its population has doubled, from 145 sisters in 1990 to 284 sisters today. And the newbies are overwhelmingly young: this summer, 21 postulants entered the community, ranging in age from 19 to 32.
In July, I visited this congregation, which belongs to the conservative Conference of Major Superiors of Women Religious. I was met at the airport by two young women in white robes and black veils, standing beside a sedan in the short-term parking area. I got in beside Sister Anna, and our conversation, which began on the drive back, continued in a stately sitting room at the convent, where we drank iced tea as Pope Benedict XVI looked down from the wall. Sister Anna was 32 years old and grew up in the wealthy New York suburb of New Canaan, Connecticut. She was fair, with a few blond hairs escaping her veil. She looked like about six girls from my prep school’s lacrosse team. I asked why she became a nun.
“I went to public school, so I wasn’t taught by nuns,” Sister Anna said. “I was raised Catholic, but I wasn’t by any definition zealous. I was raised as a cultural Catholic.” After graduating from New Canaan High School, Andrea Wray — as she was then known — attended Catholic University, in Washington, D.C. There, she happened one day upon a Dominican friar in his robes. “I followed him to ask who are you and why are you wearing that.” They talked, and she began attending Mass at the Dominican House near campus. Under the Dominicans’ tutelage, she got the instruction in doctrine and piety missing from her childhood Catholicism. “It was the Lord giving me what I needed when I was ready to receive it,” she said. “I would have spit it back as an adolescent.”
As a collegian, Wray drank it down. The Dominican monks directed her to the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia, a teaching congregation that sends sisters to work in 34 primary and secondary schools, from Nashville to Australia. It felt right. Immediately after graduation, in 2002, she moved to Nashville to become a postulant.
Sister Anna had recently finished three years teaching at a nearby Dominican high school, per the decision of her superior, and she was about to return to Catholic University to finish a master’s degree — also per her superior’s orders. She may visit her family only once a year; they stay in touch by mail. She and the other sisters eat breakfast and dinner in silence, although one sister reads to the rest: sometimes the Vatican newspaper, often a biography of St. Dominic. Sister Anna is chatty and gregarious, very not-contemplative-seeming — she would be the captain of that lacrosse team — but she insists that all this structure liberates her.
“When we talk about sacrifices, we are talking about things that make us more free,” Sister Anna said. “We are not radically independent,” she said. “We’re not 280 women who happen to be living together. We live a common life. As the world becomes more and more focused on the individual, on self-sufficiency, on being an expert in your own field, that can bring down a community.” The Dominicans make a countercultural statement: against individualism, against modernity.
Afterward, Sister Catherine Marie, who was the vocation director from 1990 to 2005, and so oversaw the congregation’s boom, gave me a tour of the Motherhouse, or convent, a large 1862 brick building that originally operated as a boarding school for girls. “There’s no recruiting,” Sister Catherine Marie told me. Curious women, including many college students, stay with the Dominicans for short retreats; otherwise, the sisters’ outreach is just existing, publicly. “It’s about being visible and available,” she said. “We usually get two master’s degrees, one in theology and one in the field of education. So we have a lot of contact with young people.”
After a sit-down lunch with three sisters, 32 women filed into our small private dining room, in the basement. Nineteen were novices and thirteen wore the garb of postulants. One had a guitar, another had a violin. They introduced themselves by name and hometown: Cincinnati, Oklahoma City, Melbourne. Then they sang two songs: an original composition they had written about St. Cecilia, and “Prodigal Son,” by country star and Nashville resident Dirks Bentley. They were as exuberant as a collegiate a cappella group, if not quite as tuneful.
After lunch I sat in a living room and talked with about a dozen young sisters. They resisted my insinuation that they cared only about the church’s “conservative” positions. “If you don’t care about the dignity of the human person, it makes no sense to talk about education or war in Iraq,” said Sister Hannah, an African-American woman who majored in philosophy at Notre Dame. “So pro-life is foundational that way. But we do care about other issues.”
They got animated when I asked about the habit. “At the hospital, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been approached,” said Sister Catherine Marie. “A woman once asked me, ‘My mother just died. Will you pray over her body?’ They unzipped the body bag right there. If I weren’t wearing the habit, that wouldn’t happen.”
But what of their cloistered existence, their regimented prayer life, their periods of mandatory silence, their jobs chosen for them?
“Kids today have a thousand friends on Facebook, and they feel totally isolated,” said Sister Ann Dominic, who was completing her second, or novice, year, a year spent of no interaction with outsiders. “I’ve been cloistered all year, and I’ve never felt freer.”
THE SAME WEEK I WENT to Nashville, I visited the Sisters of St. Joseph, in Holyoke, Mass., a congregation that belongs to the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. They had arranged for me a program almost identical to the Dominican treatment: a tour, lunch, casual chats. These women were as articulate as the Dominicans, as mirthful, as indifferent to worldly goods. Their simple, sensible-shoe, old-lady garb was, in its way, more modest than the bright white habits of the Dominicans. Many of these sisters were teachers, too, although they were permitted other careers, and some worked in parish houses, in charities, or as social workers. There are 257 Sisters of St. Joseph, about as many sisters as in Nashville.
But the Sisters of St. Joseph were old: they range in age from 53 to 100. This summer brought one new member, a once-divorced, once-widowed woman of 54. The halls of their home, Mont Marie, are filled with walkers, wheelchairs and canes, congregating in loose formation outside the chapel, the living rooms, the dining hall.
Over lunch, I talked with a group including Sister Maxine Snyder, the current president. She joined the congregation in 1960, right after graduating from a Sisters of St. Joseph high school in North Adams, Mass. Four years later, her twin sisters also joined — her parents gave all three of their daughters, and any hope of grandchildren, to the Sisters of St. Joseph.
When Sister Maxine talks about her decision to become a nun, she still sounds enraptured, just like the young Dominicans. It was the example of her high school teachers, she told me. “My mindset was, ‘I cannot imagine doing anything more meaningful, or more compelling, than what I’m choosing to do,” Sister Maxine said. “I’ve seen in people here this energy, this joy, this wide perspective.”
When Vatican II called on sisters worldwide to “renew” their religious lives, every congregation began internal evaluations to consider which traditions they should keep and which they might discard. These were arduous deliberations, taking years. Thousands of nuns left their orders. Some congregations emerged fairly unchanged, like the Nashville Dominicans. Others changed a lot, seizing what seemed an opportunity to become real citizens of the 1960s, with all that era promised. The Sisters of St. Joseph developed a consensus model of leadership; most of them began to dress in civilian clothes, identifying themselves only by a cross worn on the breast or around the neck; and many took jobs outside of education, their traditional field. They became more mobile, and prayer lives became less regular and less rigid. These changes allowed them, among other advantages, to move more easily among the people.
The Vatican’s doctrinal assessment, Sister Maxine noted, tells the nuns to spend more time fighting abortion even as it “contains nothing about the Gospels.” But if you read the Gospels, Sister Maxine said, “so many times Jesus Christ says the poor will always be with you, and there are so many stories about Jesus’ ministry to the poor.” Sister Maxine was implying, quite clearly, that the Vatican’s emphasis on certain hot-button political issues, at the expense of more general concern for the least among us, is a distortion of the Gospels.
That is also the view, I suspect, of Sister Jane Morrissey, a Sister of St. Joseph whom I met in her office at Homework House, several miles away in Holyoke. Sister Jane became a nun in 1964, and in 2005, she founded Homework House, an after-school program and summer camp for the mostly poor, mostly Puerto Rican kids of Holyoke. I asked her why young women were attracted to conservative congregations, rather than congregations like hers.
“For the same reason women were attracted to our order when it was like that!” Sister Jane said, then referred me to the Bible: “John says that it’s easier to love the God we do not see than the neighbor we do. I understand that. When I was young I wanted to go into a contemplative order. There was a kind of safety and solace in the silence…. It’s tougher to live in the North End of Springfield and be awakened by mopeds. I have no doubt that I was called to do this—but I wouldn’t have known that when I was 18.”
The freedoms of Vatican II permitted Sister Jane a more varied life than she could have predicted. Several years ago, she spent a summer as an intern at Shakespeare & Co., the famous theater in the Berkshires. The Dominican sisters tend to limit their reading to Catholic texts, I was told, but Sister Jane just finished Solzhenitsyn’s “Cancer Ward.” For fun she memorizes Emily Dickinson. In the small, cushion-filled room on the third floor of her group home in Springfield, where she and four other sisters pray every morning, I saw copies of “The Te of Piglet” and works by the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Han, in addition to Francis of Assisi.
The Vatican looks at Sister Anna, the Dominican, and sees the future; it looks at Sister Jane, and her fellow Sisters of St. Joseph, and figures their only hope is to emulate the Dominicans. The Vatican is right, up to a point: the liberal, more elderly congregations are dying. But then again, so are the vast majority of conservative groups. Five or ten youthful, growing congregations will not reverse the geriatric, and ultimately mortal, trend. And forcing some liberal groups to become more conservative won’t necessarily increase the number of women interested in being nuns. Church conservatives “want to give you the sense that if all groups went back into the habit, they’d all have the success the Nashville Dominicans are having,” Patricia Wittberg, a nun who teaches sociology at Purdue University, in Indianapolis, told me. “Not true!” A few young women “would just all be flowing into more orders. It’s a very small pie.”
For the Dominicans, Catholicism functions as a boat, one with high walls that protects and carries you, while for the Sisters of St. Joseph, the church is a life jacket, something that travels easily and lets you look around. But although they use their religion in different ways, the nuns were all among the best people I had met in a long time. They were smart, cheerful, and authentic, not vain.
And brave. Sisters in both congregations told me their parents were shocked by their decisions—even those who became nuns back in 1960, when all good Catholics were supposed to want to give a daughter or a son to the church. At least for a middle-class girl from a proper New England town, whether Sister Jane or Sister Anna, it was always unusual to commit so much to the church. It was never an ordinary calling. Even those nuns who eschew left-wing politics are radicals indeed, for in our age it has always been a bit radical to be a nun.
Mark Oppenheimer writes the Beliefs column for The New York Times. He is the author of a new e-book about the life of sex columnist Dan Savage, available here. His website is markoppenheimer.com, and he can be followed on Twitter @markopp1.