"Nuns or Sisters?"

Sister Carmel Pilcher RSJ has a reflection in today’s Cathblog about the changes in the last 40 years or so in the title and address for religious sisters. She helpfully points out the distinction between “nun” and “religious sister” (rather like the distinction between a “monk” and a “friar”):

Attention to language does really matter. Vatican officials know that, otherwise they would not be meticulously pondering every word and phrase of the latest English translation of the Roman Missal. Technically, a ‘nun’ is a woman who has publicly pronounced solemn vows in the church while a ‘religious sister’ takes simple vows. While I and most ‘religious women’ belong to the second category, more often than not we will be referred to as ‘nuns’, and society, or the church for that matter, rarely makes the distinction. Then there is the question of titles. When I introduce myself, I rarely prefix it with the title ‘Sister,’ although I never disguise the fact that I am a religious.

She is quite right on the distinction, of course; and while I respect her own decision not to introduce herself as “Sister”, my own recommendation would be that we continue to show our respect and affection for all women in religious life (whether “nuns” or “religious”) by retaining the title that goes with their state in life (that goes for addressing priests too, by the way).

She goes on to discuss the matter of how “nuns” and “religious sisters” dress nowadays:

Do we need to use the language of the past or dress like the ‘nuns’ of old to maintain our Catholic identity as religious? Some would argue that ‘if only the Sisters looked like Sisters and lived in convents, they would gain more respect and women would again join them as of old!’ I would argue the opposite. I believe we need to earn respect by the witness of our lives.

Need it be “either/or”, though, Sister? The one need not be played off against the other. I was recently contacted by a Muslim young lady who wanted to meet “nuns who dress like Mary MacKillop”, as she was interested in what the full habit had to say about modesty (noting the similarity to the mode of dress of some Muslim women). The only options in Australia were to refer her to the Domincan nuns at Ganmain and Dominicans of St Cecilia.

Sister Carmel writes:

Do religious women need to look different from the rest of society? Perhaps there is a need if we live in Asia where a uniform is a strong sign of belonging. But in Australia we are much less formal. We are more likely to dress to identify ourselves with a sporting team rather than at any other time. While in other societies place much emphasis on class and social stratus, our nation is more egalitarian. People rarely use titles – even prime ministers are addressed by their first names.

Is she right about Australians? Right and wrong, I think. It is true that we are “less formal” in Australia, but the relgious habit is not really a matter of formality; it is more a matter of the second characteristic she notes, a matter of “what team” you belong to. And in Australia today, dressing to reflect belonging is as evident and as important as ever. How we dress also says a lot about our character. If you dress as I do, you are probably trying to emphasise your individuality. If, on the other hand, an aspect of your essential identity is your belonging to a particular group (eg. a religious order), then it is quite appropriate for the way you dress to reflect that.

Sister Carmel argues that “the religious habit was a simple dress of the day”, which is true. (I have always said that if I ever started a religious order, I would institute a rule saying that all their clothes must be bought from Op Shops – again, just as I currently do!) But the habit also had the purpose of clearly identifying to which order the sister or brother belonged, and of “levelling” all members of the order by the fact that they dressed alike. Simply wearing “simple” modern clothes does not exactly serve the same purpose.

Sister Carmel completes her column by saying:

Surely it is more important for religious to be distinguished by a strong prophetic voice that speaks out on behalf of refugees, the homeless and any other of societies’ powerless, rather than by the way we dress or where we live. What was it that Jesus said about those who are preoccupied with externals? Is it not by the fruit of our labours as genuine disciples of Christ that we will be remembered?

Well, yes, of course this is “more important”, but that doesn’t mean that the matters of “externals” are not important also (even if to a much lesser degree). Jesus was wont to speak in hyperbole about matters of importance (“For what is more important? That you enter heaven with one hand or with both hands are cast into hell?”) Again, it is the confusion that it has to be “either/or”. Is it just possible that the “strong prophetic voice” might be heard a little clearer if it is backed up not only with the “clear witness” of a distinctive mode of dress?

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27 Responses to "Nuns or Sisters?"

  1. wayne says:

    David, am i right or what? Religions and the imbicility that follows? Now guys want to be nuns.No, this is not new. Guys wanting to play girls roles is old as the hills. We all know what its called. But we cant say it on this blog.

  2. Tony says:

    … my own recommendation would be that we continue to show our respect and affection for all women in religious life (whether “nuns” or “religious”) by retaining the title that goes with their state in life (that goes for addressing priests too, by the way) …

    Will do Mr Schütz!

    I guess that’s why you refer to Cardinal Pole and ‘Your Eminence’?


  3. Gareth says:

    The ultimate and sad irony is that Nuns or religious sisters that dress in secular dress will be virtually non-existent in twenty years time in Australia.

    Me thinks Sister Pilcher has a guilty conscious.

    For the life of me, I could never understand how these happened to begin with – Did everyone go bonkers in the 1970s?

    Religious that discard the habit are half-hearted vocations – as simple as that.

    Our Lady warned at Fatima that certain fashions would be introduced that would one day offend God.

    What a pity religious sisters didnt listen to these words of wisdom instead of following the feral Nuns.

    • Tony says:

      Religious that discard the habit are half-hearted vocations – as simple as that.

      Such unmitigated nonsense. All the nuns I know who no longer dress in the habit are as fully committed as anyone could be.

      (Gareth, don’t expect me not to respond when you come out with this sort of stuff especially when it effectively insults so many wonderful women.)

      • Gareth says:

        Next time you see your Nun friends – ask them if dressing as a layperson has brought their order ANY vocations in the last thirty years?

        It is the year 2010, most people now understand the Nuns dressing as laypeople as not ‘another phase’ or ‘getting with the times’ – it is an extermination policy manufactered by the Devil to wipe religious sisters of the face of the earth.

        I have no respect for any Catholic that can’t recognise.

        • Tony says:

          You switch from your original insult of ‘half-hearted vocations’ to recruitment, Gareth, which is what I challenged.

          If, as you suggest (in your usual careful style), that the way nuns dress is an ‘extermination policy manufactered by the Devil to wipe religious sisters of the face of the earth’ then every Pope and Cardinal has a lot to answer for since VatII.

          I have no respect for any Catholic that can’t recognise.

          And I have a strong feeling that, challenged again on your outlandish statements, you’ll suddenly remember you sent me to Coventry.

          But I could be wrong!

          • Gareth says:

            You have raised several points here.

            One is if vocations have fallen as a result of modernist tendencies that have entered religious orders (including the removal of the habit), why is the Pope or Bishops for that matter not held responsible??

            In answer to this query, one would have to carefully examine whether the Pope’s have issued instruction on this issue and the answer to this is a clear ‘yes’.

            The Pope of the last forty years have clearly made a stance on the topic and they on a number of occasions have issued clear instructions that religious sisters must wear a habit. These instructions are even codified in canon law.

            Catholic religious or those supporting them can not claim that recent Pope’s have not issued statements on the issue or do not have a strong opinion – because they clearly have.

            In supporting a line that clerical garb is not important for religious clearly defies both the Popes and the Church.

            “Extermination policy” and “Half hearted vocations” are appropiate terms.

            Wearing a habit is a sign of a vocation and dedication to Our Lord. Why would anyone with a vocation want to actively hide it or not show their dedication.

            The hard truth is that “reformed” orders is that they will eventually disappear very soon. What took centuries to build up has only taken 40 years to destroy.

            I don’t see what is so outlandish about bemoaning this tragedy. Better this than the false positive spin by Sister Pilcher.

            And in terms of the last comment, I have in most respectful manner stated I don’t want to continue a conversation in any form. I simply reached the stage where it has to be recognised that the conversation was pointless and it was for the best to completly end it.

            I can’t do anythink more than ask this to be respected.

            • Tony says:


              It seems that you’re saying you don’t want me to talk to you, but it’s OK if:

              1. You make outlandish statements that you don’t appreciate me responding to, and
              2. You respond to me (as your actions have shown) whenever you feel like it.

              “Extermination policy” and “Half hearted vocations” are appropiate terms.

              Even if you prefer religious to wear habits, saying not doing so is a devil-inspired extermination policy and reflects a half-hearted vocation is hyperbole, to put it mildly.

            • Gareth says:

              Tony: It seems that you’re saying you don’t want me to talk to you:

              Gareth: I said that from my perspective we have been having a pointless conversation for seven years and have achieved nothing and now it is for the best if it stopped. May I ask you if you disagree what you think the serious point is in continuing posts that go no-where with someone you have nothing in common with?

              Unless you care to rectify the situation by preparing to come ‘half way’ and demonstrating what you have in common, I see it is only for the best.

              I also have made this judgment based on the policies of other Catholic websites such as Cathpews and Co-ees from the Cloister. Such decisions have been made for a reason and after continuous warnings, one can’t cry wolf and say you they don’t understand.

              Tony: You make outlandish statements that you don’t appreciate me responding to

              Gareth: But it appears only you find them outlandish. Did anyone else make note of them?

              You don’t seem to understand what other Catholics deem as quite normal and standard, only you have an issue with? And then posters kick up a fuss about pointless responses that serve no other purpose besides arguing over something that is not necessary.

              Tony: You respond to me (as your actions have shown) whenever you feel like it.

              Gareth: I didn’t ask you to respond to my post and considered replying yet again asking you to stop replying to my posts (and in effect harassing me), but thought it was inappropriate.

              Tony: Even if you prefer religious to wear habits, saying not doing so is a devil-inspired extermination policy and reflects a half-hearted vocation is hyperbole, to put it mildly.

              Gareth: Prove to me otherwise then. Demonstrate how vocations have been booming since religious have discarded their habits? Demonstrate how sisters walking around with the latest perm, a short dress and a minute cross which no-one can see pinned on their blouse has inspired Catholics across the globe to live their faith and is a sure sign of holiness that religious have ‘left this world’??

              Anyhow, I await your reply on why you are so keen on engaging in conversation with me.

              If you pull out a good reason, I may re-consider.

            • Tony says:


              We are either fast approaching or long past the point where our host will pull the pin on this exchange.

              Suffice it to say, if you wish not to respond to my posts, fine. I will respond to yours when I think it’s necessary.

            • Gareth says:

              So you think it is fine to carry out an action you deem unnecessary when someone has asked explicitly to stop – doesnt that border on harassment?

            • Tony says:

              No Gareth. I’m participating on this blog accordance with the guidelines of the host.

              Disagreeing with you on a blog is not harassment and I’ve never deemed it ‘unnecessary’.

  4. Peregrinus says:

    Distinctive clerical/religious dress seems to move in cycles. Clerics adopt an existing mode of dress associated with a particular status to which they aspire, and then stick with it as fashions move on, so that in time it becomes a distinctively clerical style of dress. After a while, usually in the context of some reforming movement, they abandon it, or confine it to formal purposes, and move on to another style of dress, and the whole cycle repeats itself. Thus:

    · Mass vestment are a simplified(!) form of Byzantine court dress from about the fifth century.
    · The mitre developed from a particular style of cap worn by officials of the Roman and Byzantine courts. It wasn’t adopted by bishops until the eleventh century.
    · Monks adopted simple belted tunics, as worn by peasants. This was practical, and also signified their commitment to poverty. It wasn’t at all distinctive; monks (and indeed other clerics) were identified by their tonsures more than by their clothes.
    · The association of particular colours with particular orders came later, with the mendicant friars. It’s at this time that we get names like Blackfriars, Whitefriars, Greyfriars to distinguish the larger orders. Many of the smaller orders continued to have no distinctive habit.
    · Secular clergy wore the dress of educated men – a gown and cap – and were indistinguishable from university professors and doctors (who were mostly clerics anyway).
    · It wasn’t until the thirteenth century that clerical dress was generally mandated by canon law; the dress decided on at that time was basically what was already being worn in universities, and by most regular clerics.
    · At the time of the reformation, there was a movement among both reformed and Catholic clergy to “update” clerical dress to contemporary norms.
    · Lutheran clerics until relatively recently wore starched lace ruffs, and in some places still do on formal occasions. This was the conventional dress of all professional men at the time of the reformation, which is when it was adopted for clerical purposes.
    · In the early modern era, priests – Anglican as well as Catholic – dressed as professionals of standing, and similar style to lawyers and surgeons. A preference for black clothes with white bands/collars dates from this time.
    · Bonus trivium: The “Roman collar” is a surprisingly modern invention. It began life as part of the habit of the Rosminian Fathers, an order founded in Italy in the 1820s. It didn’t receive any wider currency until about ten years later, when a Rosminian mission came to England, led by a Fr. Gentili. Fr Gentili got on very well with members of the Oxford Movement, some of whom began in the 1840s to wear the Roman collar. From there it spread (to some extent) through the Church of England, and then back to the wider British Catholic clergy.

    It seems to me that we are going through such a cyclical change in our own time. The cassock (a long coat which originally had no particularly clerical associations) has all but disappeared in the last generation, having been replaced on more formal occasions with a black suit plus roman collar, and otherwise with a shirt (clerical or ordinary) and trousers. Religious who are employed in secular professions/occupations – doctors, teachers, social workers, etc –mostly dress in the way considered appropriate to that occupation. There is nothing novel about any of this; it has happened before, and no doubt will again.

    • Schütz says:

      Distinctive clerical/religious dress seems to move in cycles

      Indeed and thank you for this overview. However, while it suggests an “ever rolling tide” of change in regard to distinctive religious dress, it also proves the FACT THAT distinctive religious dress has been a perennial characteristic of ordained and consecrated life in the Church.

      • Peregrinus says:

        “ . . .the FACT THAT distinctive religious dress has been a perennial characteristic of ordained and consecrated life in the Church.”

        No, it’s more complicated than that.

        As often as not – perhaps more often that not – when dress becomes mandated for clerics/religious it is the very opposite of “distinctive”. The mass vestments, remember, were intended to make priests look like court officials. Monks were supposed to look like peasants. Medieval clerics were supposed to look like university teachers. Later generations of clerics were supposed to look like gentlemen, or like professionals. In all these cases, clerical dress became distinctive only when the secular fashion that had been adopted was abandoned by seculars.

        What’s going on here? I suggest two things.

        First, clerics/religious aren’t trying to look clerical so much as they are trying to look like one another. They want a uniform, to promote camaraderie and esprit de corps and, in the case of monastics, the common life. Whether it does or does not make them look distinctively clerical is a secondary issue. Sometimes they are concerned about that, but sometimes they are not, and sometimes they are actively not seeking that.

        Secondly, at least some of the time they are seeking after social status. True, monks modelled their attire on that of peasants, but mostly clerical dress has been modelled on the dress of secular people of high social status – court officials, university men, professionals, gentlemen. And even where this has ceased to be the case, and clerical dress has become distinctively clerical, very often why it is sought after (or its absence is lamented) is the social recognition and respect that it confers.

        I think it is understandable that Christians might feel ambivalent about that. There isn’t really a great deal in the gospel to tell us that we should value social standing, or pursue it, while there is a good deal that tells us pretty much the opposite. And I suspect that this tension is part of the reason why clerical dress is periodically “rebased” to secular norms.

        Let me finish with an anecdote. A cousin of mine entered the Sacred Heart Sisters in 1928, and remained there until her death in 2004. For the first fifty years or so of her religious life, she remained a member of the same community, based in a convent outside Dublin which conducted a girls’ school. She was a teacher in the school (of English, Latin and Religion).

        By the standards of the day, the Sacred Heart Sisters were not strictly enclosed but, by today’s standards, enclosure was pretty strict. The sisters read newspapers and listened to the radio (and in due course watched television) for information about the world, but not for entertainment or recreation. They could and did correspond with people outside the convent, and visitors could call on Sunday afternoons. But they only left the convent when strictly necessary, and then always in pairs. For forty years my cousin left just once a year, to go (with another sister) by taxi to a school bookshop, where she would select her teaching texts for the coming academic year. The taxi waited outside until the selection was made, and then brought them both back to the convent.

        All this time, of course, my cousin wore the habit, and kept her hair cropped short (and covered with a veil).

        In the late 1960s, things began to change. The sisters left the convent more readily – to attend lectures, for example, to study, to lead study groups, and in time to do parish work, etc. Closer relationships with family and friends outside the convent were encouraged. The habit was simplified, and in due course became optional.

        My cousin found this very challenging. Having had little contact with her family for more than forty years, she didn’t know her living relatives very well, and she lacked the social skills to rebuild relationships very easily. She found the opportunities for study and learning very exciting, and revelled in them, but she needed to learn simple skills like how to catch a bus and how to buy a cup of tea in a café, and she had no-one to teach her. She relied on humility in asking strangers for help, and cheerfulness in appearing incompetent, to get her through.

        She stuck with the habit for a long time. She had no idea how to select clothes for herself or how to fix her hair; she found even the thought of growing it out intimidating.

        What finally changed her mind was an experience she had one day returning home from a visit to the university library. She was standing at a bus-stop at the back of a queue of six or eight people, in the teeming rain. A bus came along, and stopped to let someone off, but the conductor indicated that the bus was full. Then he beckoned my cousin from the back of the queue, said “room for you, Sister!” and indicated that she should get on.

        She was in a mortifying dilemma. Should she accept the invitation, skip the queue and leave the others standing in the rain, and glaring after her? Or should she decline, possibly seeming ungrateful, embarrassing the conductor, and perhaps leading to renewed and intensified invitations to get on the bus? Should she “make a scene”?

        I honestly don’t recall how she resolved her immediate dilemma. But she decided that day that, if that was the way people responded to the habit, then the habit had to go; it was an impediment to her apostolate, and was having the reverse effect to the one it had originally been intended to have (which was to symbolise abnegation of self). Intentionally or not, it was operating as a sign claiming a certain social status, and demanding a display of deference and respect.

        The following day she got one of her younger sisters to take her to the hairdresser, explain the situation and do the best he could. Then they went to a department store and bought clothes for her. (Ironically, sensible skirts and cardigans which would immediately mark her out as a nun anyway.) She continued to wear the veil when in school and in the convent, but took it off when going out.

        The point, I think, is that clerical/religious attire has be adapted to the apostolate of whoever wears it. The more that religious are “in the world”, working and living in the wider community, the more that distinctive attire is an impediment to that particular apostolate. I think it’s not a coincidence that the “new traditional” congregations are not only preferring traditional religious attire, but also preferring a more secluded/contemplative life, with greater emphasis on the common life. The two perhaps go together.

        • Tony says:

          Great story Pere!

          I had very little experience of nuns as a kid, we were out in the ‘burbs’ and Catholic schools were yet to be established near by.

          I had two brothers who were born with intellectual disabilities and I can always recall how when the occassional nun did come to our house, both boys were inconsolably terrified of them!

  5. Collin Nunis says:

    There are indeed nuns in Western Australia who wear their habits and veils. There are 2 other orders apart from the Carmelites. Both very new orders. Check them out!

  6. Christine says:

    When my husband was a boy attending Immaculate Heart of Mary school he much preferred full habits, the reason being when he was feeling wicked he would sneak up on an unsuspecting Sister and pat the back of her habit with the chalk eraser.

    He also claims that the young Sisters who taught him in Kindergarten were kind and loving towards the children. That, he says, was only the trap for what would come later when he and the other unsuspecting children were laid at the mercy of the considerably “older” Sisters who taught the upper grades.

    As a little Lutheran girl attending a Catholic kindergarten in Europe I was fascinated by the habits worn by the very kind and attentive young Sisters who staffed the Kindergarten. Perhaps that was one of the precursors to my conversion to the Catholic Church.

    Fast forward, the Ursuline Sister who shepherded me on my journey into the Church did not wear the habit but I still had a strong sense of her vocation.

    I have to admit, because some parts of the Lutheran tradition were so pietistic I like vestments, etc. although Peregrinus makes salient points about their origin. For me it speaks to the incarnational essence of Catholicism that uses symbols and signs in worship.



  7. Ephraem says:

    I wonder if Catholics have entered another swing as Peregrinis suggests happens through time. Last year the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (USA) had two reports at their AGM one of which they had commissioned a about two years ago and one I think the US Bishops commissioned. Both were about potential vocations and early years of religious life for new comers.

    The reports are fascinating. New recruits were attracted to institutes which had some form of distinctive dress (not necessarily pre-Vatican II looking habits), lived in communities (especially of ten or more), prayed together each day on a regular schedule including the Liturgy of the Hours, had a daily community Mass, shared a common mission and lived very simply and as poor as possible.

    This description corresponds closely with the post Vatican II document on religious life called Principles of Religious Life, which was meant to guide the implementation of renewal of religious life. I doubt any seeker or postulant, novice or recently professed had ever had contact with that document (of still has) yet somehow they discerned what seemd to be the essential aspects of religious life and voted with their feet. Is this the sesus fidelium at work?

    The reports noted that these were by and large not “conservatives” and in fact they disliked the conservative-liberal tags and intrachurch squabbles about Vatican II and ecclesiastical politics. They were generally educated to a higher level at entry (degree and masters level) than previous entrants in the sixties and seventies.

    Communities that were least attractive and which had the fewest new members in formation were ones with the opposite characteristics.

    Both researchers concluded that the kind of religious life that was on offer in most LCWR affilliated communities and much of religious life generally was simply not what younger people (20’s-30’s) wanted.

    The other interetsting element is that these people we not harking back to the “good old pre-vatican II days” they only know and embrace the post Vatican II Catholic experience.

    On a personal note-I agree with Carmel that the distinctive dress should not be the element that draws respect (if indeed that is what is sought) but that their good works and faithfulness to the Gospels should shine forth and lead others to Christ.

    But I have moved to the position in recent years that some form of distinctive dress, even a distinctive cross on a shirt or blouse, can be a powerful witness that there are still women and men who wish to dedicate their lives to service of the Gospel. I think our society is more in need of such signs than ever because we risk as a comunity simply disappearing into the general secular culture.

    • Gareth says:

      It is always interesting to note that when people discuss such matters, it is always what serves US best as a community, what is my own private opinion.

      The fact is that everything we do as Catholics should be what God wants.

      In discussing the matter of religious habits or any other such matter, shouldn’t we begin the discussion with God deems that He wants His religious dressed appropiately and dedicated to Him.

  8. Ephraem says:

    Br Paul Bednarczyk csc

    Sr Mary Bendyna rsm

    I meant to provide the links in my last post for those interested in following up.

    • Schütz says:

      All I can say is: OMG!!!!! Are they LISTENING to this?

      BTW, you obviously spotted that my first picture was from the Leadership Conference of Women Religious.

  9. Gareth says:

    Please note that I have stated something explicitly in the past and if such guidelines are not further adhered to, I will respond with ‘PLEASE RESPECT PAST COMMENTS’.

    • Schütz says:

      I can see your difficulty, Gareth.

      1) Tony, as a member of this table, can respond to whatever he likes (as long as he is “nice”! )
      2) We value your comments, and don’t wish you to stop commenting. You also are entitled to write whatever you like on this blog (as long as it is “nice”! )

      So you are in a bit of a bind. You could decide not to make any more comments on this ‘ere blog, but that would make us wot run it very sad.

      So my advice is: Keep on submitting comments and learn to ignore Tony if he comments back. You don’t NEED to engage with him. Just because he puts a comment on the bottom of your comment doesn’t mean that you have comment back. Just leave it alone. Walk away (if that is possible to do without leaving the table… mixed metaphors here). We are clever enough to view your comments on their own merits; we don’t read them through Tony’s eyes.

  10. Gareth says:

    Hi David,

    Thanks for your charitable reply and advice. Will attempt to take this into account with any future posts.

    I do stress that what has been discussed is not something particular to your own blog, but something that has occured over numerous blogs and discussion boards for 8 years.

    At the end of the day, I simply do not have the time to continously argue and argue with posters that I simply have next to nothing in common with and for whatever reason, make no attempt to bridge this gap.

    Considering that many of the discussed topics are religiously based and have implicit or explicit consequences for our own salvation, one reaches a stage where this is not perceived as ‘searching’ but downright disrepectful to my religion and and a line has to be drawn somewhere.

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