"Are we prepared to promote conditions in which the living contact with God can be reestablished? For our lives today have become godless to the point of complete vacuity. God is no longer with us in the conscious sense of the word. He is denied, ignored, excluded from every claim to have a part in our daily life." - Alfred Delp, S.J.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Making fun of nuns.

Sister Act - a video I saw on another blog showing seminarians dressed up as traditional nuns performing a number from the movie of the same name. I don't think it's a good idea for men to dress up as nuns - especially seminarians - even if it is just for fun at recreation. Whatever the motivation, making fun of nuns has often been something of a past-time for Catholics and non-Catholics alike. Don't get me wrong, it is almost always done without malicious intent, nevertheless there is very often some level of mockery underlying such satirical presentations.
Currently, with the Vatican ordered visitation of American Sisters underway, nuns are getting swiped again. I know there are religious women who no longer seem to belong to the congregations they once professed vows in, yet claim they are furthering the original charism of the order in the lifestyles they adopted. We all know of institutes dedicated to a New Age version of Catholic spirituality. And we all know that many of these sisters no longer wear a discernible habit and no longer live in convents. More traditionally minded Catholics, lay and clerics alike, miss the old nuns and seem to want them back - hence they welcome the visitation. On the other hand, the more progressive sisters do not welcome it.
Throughout the history of the Church visitations and reforms have been conducted of religious life - that is the duty of the Shepherds - our bishops and the Pope - they safeguard the faith. And yep - the laity gets their nose in it too - at lest voicing their opinions and complaints. That isn't all that unfair however. The orders depended upon the laity in the beginning - vocations come from the laity, as well as donations and support for their apostolate and living situations. All religious exist because of the laity - hence they are accountable to the whole Church, which includes the hierarchical structure that orders the visitation.
What has happened in the post Vatican II era is that Independence and self-governance has become the norm and the visitation challenges that development. The progressive nuns feel threatened. Catholic bloggers are not terribly sensitive to that either - and many of us fall into that old making fun of nuns routine with our critiques.
I don't know the full story on congregations such as the Sisters of St. Joseph who have a reputation for being quite liberal now days, but it seems to me, although they may be dying out, they continue to have fruitful apostolates. I read an editorial in the NYT:
Across 30 years, the modern version of the Sisters of St. Joseph has been revolutionizing the treatment of imprisoned women in New York. Thanks to the nuns’ efforts, mothers are now allowed to care for their infants on the inside and remain close to their children in creative visitors’ programs. Once they are paroled, these women and their children can find a year’s shelter in one of nine Providence House sanctuaries the nuns created in defunct city rectories and convents. The order has never lacked courage: five members were guillotined in the French Revolution for giving shelter to the hunted. - Source
After reading that I realized many of the congregations were formed in response to the social justice and catechetical needs of their times. The women wore habits which reflected the fashion of the times - often described as 'widows weeds'. They set up housekeeping in normal houses - not huge monasteries, and they attended Mass in parish churches, often praying the Little Office of the BVM instead of the Breviary or monastic office. The institutions they established grew from these simple beginnings.
I think we as Catholics have to support these women as best we can and to be more sympathetic to the development of their religious life and their internal struggles - respecting their familial boundaries as a community. Yes, sound Catholic doctrine must be insured, which is why the visitation was ordered.
So anyway, let the visitation go on, but we maybe should be a lot more charitable towards these religious women who strive to live out their original charism in modern times. The Church is a diverse family, there are traditional orders for those who seek that life, and there are congregations for those who seek a more active participation in social justice issues and works.
I like nuns, I just keep my distance. I tend to be more traditional and therefore have a greater affinity for more traditional orders, but I appreciate the works of the others as well. Any public work in the name of the Church must be subject to the oversight of the ordinary Magisterium however. It is better to pray for all concerned in the visitation rather than making fun of those who initially resist it.


  1. Very well said. Great post.

  2. If you saw a friend or neighbor or relative standing on the roof of a tall building, apparently contemplating suicide, would you do anything?

    If you saw a large religious order that has not had more than a handful of new members in the last twenty year would you inquire as to what had happened?

    Sure the large female religious order orders, some with thousands of members, are still doing wonderful work. Many of their members are still in their forties and fifties. But their average age is around 70.

    But what's going to happen twenty-five years from now when they are all pushing seventy or more?

    I would say what is going on are cases of institutional suicide. They made many changes, thinking they were for the better. But all of a sudden, they not only stopped growing but becamse smaller when professed members began to leave.

    Soon, after a thousand years or so for some of these orders, they will not be able to fulfill their ministries. Their members will all be in retirement or nursing homes.

    Their beautiful campuses, convents and chapels might become madrase's and mosques.

    Then they will be crying out "Why didn't you stop us?"

  3. Good thoughts, Terry. I agree with you that "The Church is a diverse family, there are traditional orders for those who seek that life, and there are congregations for those who seek a more active participation in social justice issues and works."
    It has been pointed out on another blog that a nun who is up for canonization, Mother Mary McKillop, was actually excommunicated by her bishop. Mother Mary Ann Cope also suffered much obstruction to her mission by her bishop. I'm not comparing the New Age types to these ladies; I'm just pointing out that the mission of religious sisters does change with the challenges of different times.
    BTW, I like the photo (please tell me those aren't guys dressed up like nuns!). They look like the Sistes of St. Joseph of Concordia, KS that I had in grade school.

  4. Melody - no these are real SSJ's and not men.

    Ray - actually many of their congregation are already in a care facility in NY - operated by the congregation - which not only provides excellent care for the elederly sisters but elderly priests as well. It is an apostolate that has developed and came about because they sold their Motherhouse.

    In a bulletin this Sunday from OLP parish, I read the results of a study by Fr.s Laird and Bauer projecting the down turn in vocations to the priesthood in this archdiocese by the year 2020. It is a rather sobering report. I don't know if we as lay Catholics can be too hasty in judging exactly why vocations to the SSJ and other congregations have dwindled. I doubt it is as cut and dried as we may think. The loss of Catholic institutions cannot be blamed solely upon some perceived infidelity of religious congregations. Habited nuns marched in Selma - and some Catholics were uncomfortable about that then - that at a time when religious life was considered to be prospering - in fact vocations were being turned a way in those days.

    Maybe the visitation will clear all of these questions up for us - all I know is that I am going to pray for these sisters rather than criticize or pass judgement upon them. Laity are the worst critics of religious life - I mean worst in the sense of being the most unqualified.

  5. The other thing I forgot to mention - not all religious congregations will endure until the end of the world. religious life will - but congregations come and go.

  6. I am not sure if I am progressive or conservative. I really hate labellings like that. After having lived in the States for two years, I have come to realize that it seems very important for American Catholics to use labels like this. When I wear the habit, people just assume I am conservative. When I don't wear it and once my identity is found out, people look at me like I am a raving New Age progressive.
    Terry, I really enjoy reading your comment because you do respect the choice that religious have to make.
    My take is - it is very important that we live the meaning of religious life, in words and in deeds. The habit is a sign - and I hope my habit is not an empty sign.
    And I can't agree with you more: "not all religious congregations will endure until the end of the world". We often say - even the church will cease to exist in the New Heaven and New Earth. My favourite saying is: whoever is the last remaining member of the dying congregation, don't forget to turn off the lights and return the keys to the Pope.

  7. I agree with you that we shouldn't make fun, but I don't see anything wrong with being frank about orders who are living contrary to Catholic doctrine. Not all, of course, but a lot of the "social justice" nuns dabble in that New Agey stuff and recommend it to others. I don't think we should allow that quietly.

    I love nuns.

  8. Married Catholics using artificial contraception could be big reason, too, for the decline in vocations.


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