Does the Habit Make the Nun…

… I have never known a non-habited nun. I know they’re out there and I may have even met a few but how would I really know? It’s not like they’d be dressed in any distinct fashion to alert me that I was in the presence of one. I haven’t been Catholic long enough to hone that unique ability to spot them from yards away by a special lapel pin that some of my friends have mastered. And it is an art they’ve told me. One friend can tell simply by the shoes.

Me, I don’t like to try that hard and I’ve yet to master subtle. Needless to say, I like my nuns on the obvious side. Now contrast that with Max Lindenman, who has never met a nun in a habit. He writes about the polarizing prejudices Catholics have of religious sisters who chose not to wear a habit.

LCWR sisters have, by their own admission, taken the spirit of Vatican II and run as far and as fast with it as their intellects could carry them. Does that mean the other kind of sisters have gone in the opposite direction at the same speed? Hopefully not; if they have, we should expect convent chats to proceed along these lines:

Nun # 1: So what’d you do after Adoration last night?
Nun # 2: Had another ecstatic vision about the martyrdom of St. Philomena.
Nun # 3: F’real? Me too!

Which got me wondering about my own prejudices of the non-habited sisters. Again, having never personally met one I had to ask myself am I being fair. To answer that I need to examine what I know of the habit.

Taking the veil is an outward sign of obedience, humility, and a public renunciation of the world. But mostly it’s a uniform. Uniforms have psychological effects on the wearer and of those observing the wearer. It’s been proven that school uniforms positively affect attendance, behavior and grades. Working in a hospital I’ve witnessed first hand how the breakdown of specific uniforms for healthcare workers damages patient’s confidence in the care they are receiving and negatively effects their perception of professionalism. It’s not comforting to the patient at all when they can’t tell an orderly from a registered nurse. And from the perspective of a parent, I can attest to the change in behavior that overcomes a young man in a scouting uniform.

I guess what I’m saying is appearance matters and that the habit makes a woman religious look the part and this surely has to aide her in her consecrated life. I’m not implying the garment has magical transforming powers or that just because a woman is in a habit makes her automatically a living saint but certainly wearing a habit can’t hurt. In contrast, I have to wonder, what it means when a religious community intentionally decides not to wear the uniform of their chosen career. Does it make life unnecessarily harder for them? On those days where they struggle with their vocation they don’t have the reassuring comfort of slipping into a habit. They aren’t recognized in public and half of the Catholic community treats them like miscreants.

So I set out to try and understand, beyond my own prejudices, more about these non-habited sisters. I started by examining blogs written by these nuns, which there really aren’t that many. I looked a bit over the writings of Sr. Camille who writes for the National Catholic Reporter and someone suggested Musings of a Discerning Woman. I guess I was expecting posts about womyn empowerment, reiki therapy or female reproductive “rights”. Honestly, a lot of it didn’t look any different than something I’d post here. Except I’m funnier. Oh, and I’m not a nun. Again, I like things obvious and nothing screams “Catholic nun” than the blogs of the Dominican Nuns of Summit, NJ and the Poor Clares of Perpetual Adoration.

But then are the examples I gave just reinforcing the overly pious stereotypes Max has of habited nuns; that they are so holy and beyond approach? I guess because I personally know habited nuns it’s not such a stretch to imagine them as this…

Photo: Handmaids of the Precious Blood

as well at this…

Photo: Sisters at Youth Day in Knoxville, TN.

Where Mr. Lindenman thinks unapproachable piety, I think outward expression of joy. Every single habited nun I have ever met has been joy filled to the point of radiance. And this is not some romanticized exaggeration either. It’s not so much the habit that has a luring appeal to young women inquirers as it is the boundless joy and energy that transcends age. It’s like a magnet.

And I really think that love, joy and obedience makes the difference between this…

and this…

Sister Simone Campbell – pro-choice activist nun

Is it a coincidence that pro-abortion advocating religious sisters don’t wear a traditional habit? It would appear, for all outward appearances, that it is not. It’s no wonder the lack of a habit is used by many to determine orthodoxy and faithfulness to Church teaching. I still happen to think it’s a fair assumption to make; however, I’m open to being proven otherwise.

Related Links: Refusing To Wear The Traditional Habit and Women Entering Religious Communities With and Without The Habit.

About Katrina Fernandez

Mackerel Snapping Papist

  • Joanne K. McPortland

    Well, I would take just the slightest bit of issue with “refuses to wear the uniform of their chosen career.” I won’t go all quibbly on the difference between career and vocation, but it’s important to remember that most religious habits—in particular, those that were abandoned after Vatican II by active communities—began as some form, usually simplified and poor, of the secular dress of the day. Today’s new foundations that choose a medieval habit are consciously adopting an anachronism, but a habit as we think of it is not the principal sign of consecrated life. For the sisters of the 1970s who chose the clothing of the poor (polyester, often second-hand) in order to more practically and single-mindedly carry out their lives of active service as teachers, nurses, social workers, it was not a rejection of religious life or of the vows. Had Mother Teresa founded her community in a place where the regular dress of poor women was not a simple sari and a veil, the Missionaries of Charity might still be wearing Goodwill’s finest. Of course all non-habited sisters are not models of religious life, but it is not what they wear that makes that true. I actually like habits, but it’s important to remember that the communities that chose to switch to secular dress did not do so in some Summer of Love hippie feminist rebellion, but to more faithfully live the active charisms of their founders as they saw them in the aftermath of Vatican II.

    • Barbara

      Well said Joanne. thank you

    • Ironic Catholic


    • Katrina Fernandez

      Using the missionaries of charity as an example… they still wear their sari type habit outside of Calcutta. They work in schools and homeless shelters and their habit does not prevent them from doing manual labor. Yes, I know the historic significance of the habit, but today the habit IS a symbol of the consecrated life and vows. Its the biggest most obvious symbol. So again, I ask, what are we supposed to make of a nun or sister who doesn’t want to be recognized as such. Even a simple veil and modified habit that looks like a jumper is functional if people want to argue comfort. And yes, quite a few dropped the habit after Vat II as a sign of feminist rebellion. It’s the same reason we’ve seen the absence of mantillas, hats and veils in mass.

  • Bill

    You never met a Nun–actually a Sister–without a habit. I have never met a Nun–actually a Sister–who advocates abortion. I think it is easy to spot a Nun–actually a sister–who wears contemporary clothes. You know they are Christians by their love! The habit doesn’t make the religious sister. It is their actions. Need I go on. If someone wants to wear a habit–GREAT. Why do some people have such a hard time accepting that not all Nuns–actually Sisters–don’t want to wear them and in reality find a habit a hindrance to their work.

    • Katrina Fernandez

      even the modified habit is a hindrance?

  • Fr P

    You have hit the nail on the head in this article. Thanks

  • tj.nelson

    I’m not worthy! Thanks for the link Katrina!
    I thought of you while writing my post.

  • Christian LeBlanc

    “Had Mother Teresa founded her community in a place where the regular
    dress of poor women was not a simple sari and a veil, the Missionaries
    of Charity might still be wearing Goodwill’s finest.” Regardless, they still are wearing a habit, and clearly different from poor women wearing a simple sari and veil.

  • Colet

    I love how in the photo of the nuns at the abortion clinic there’s the orange vested security guard/escort, making sure they don’t step out of line. What, are they going to scale the fence? Rush the back door and steal all of the Cosmo magazines out of the waiting room?
    Another key to the non-habit-wearing nun i.d.: the haircut. They always look like they were done by an angry person with safety scissors.

    • Eugene Edward Yeo

      This one made me happy as well. My first reaction was: Those are my homies. Love nuns.

  • Jeanne Chabot-Baril

    I agree with you Kat, that there is just something about a habit-wearing nun, but, having known a few non-habit wearing nuns myself (actually, most nuns in Québec don’t wear habits any more, but the standard blue mid-calf-length skirts and white blouses with big huge crosses and/or medals, brown loafers and short hair usually give them away quite easily anyway) I can vouch that non-habit wearing does NOT necessarily make one unorthodox. However, non-orthodoxy usually goes hand in hand with non-habit wearing. Kind of like all oranges are fruit, but not all fruits are oranges…

    • priest’s wife

      that sounds like a habit- a simple, modern one- but certainly a ‘uniform’

      • Jeanne Chabot-Baril

        Yes, it kind of is. I mean they dress simply enough, in a similar fashion, but it is still clothes that can be found in regular stores. And no veil.

  • Lee Gilbert

    Catholicism is a religion of signs, sacraments and sacramentals. After postulancy, a nun receives the habit of her order ( or used to) in a clothing ceremony that is full of significance, and this significance is specified at length. I don’t have a copy of such a ceremony at hand, but my only point here is that it MEANS something, something akin to a second baptism in the sense of putting off the old life and putting on a new life of pursuing the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity and obedience.. Similarly, for each of these nuns who took off the habit, that also meant something, but what? Since I have never understood what they meant by putting off the habit, I have always been wary of them. It seemed a sign of inconstancy, or the rejection of their consecration.. In fact, when the principal of our chidrens’ school finally took off her veil (having parted with the habit many years earlier), I pulled them out of the school. I know longer had the slightest idea who she was.

    • Katrina Fernandez

      Exactly. Who are they if you can’t distinguish them in dress? And yes, I know that not every sister who chooses to not not wear some type of habit is an abortion advocate/womyn priestess but one can’t ignore the fact that the ones that ARE don’t wear a habit of any type. I’ve yet to met a traditionally habited nun who spoke out for women’s ordination or same sex marriage or broke into nuclear facilities.

  • Ironic Catholic

    All the sisters I really KNOW are non-habited, with the exception of my aunt.

    All I can say is that identifying them with pro-choice activists as a lump group would be terribly unfair.

    I like (modified) habits too, a lot. But these sisters are going through a hard time. No snark, I mean it. They entered in the 1950s/60s, and whether they agree with the leadership of their communities or now, they are in communities that look the way they do. It’s NOT LIKE THEY CAN LEAVE without renouncing vows. It’s a sticky situation for them.

    I have no affection for LCWR leadership, but there are lots of good holy women who are sisters and do not wear the habit, connected to LCWR in name only, and that’s all.

    • Katrina Fernandez

      Oh gosh. Don’t mistake me. I know that not every sister not in a habit is a pro-abortion advocate. Just like being in a habit doesn’t automatically assume piety. Again, I’ve never met the non-habited kind. The point I’m trying to make is, that the nuns and sisters who are in error happen to not wear the habit. So the lack of a habit can be used as a litmus test.

  • J.M.C.

    I really like this blog, so I hate to leave a “negative”
    comment. But although I would agree that the public witness of a habit is a
    very good thing, it still pains me to read generalizations of what kind of religious
    do and don’t wear habits (even while I acknowledge that yes, people can point
    to concrete instances that reinforce the stereotypes).

    First, even though a visible habit is a wonderful symbol of
    consecration, it is NOT the totality of consecrated life any more than Church
    architecture is the sum total of our Sacramental theology. E.g., the beauty of
    a Church building—though a good thing in itself—is not what makes the
    celebration of the Eucharist valid.

    Also, even though religious have special place in the
    Church, like you they are multi-dimensional and imperfect human beings who must
    respond to complex situations in a fallen world. A religious who doesn’t wear a
    habit might truly have a valid (and ecclesiastically-approved) reason for not
    doing so. Or at the very least, it costs us nothing to presume that a religious
    who wears secular clothes is doing so in good faith, with subjectively good
    intentions. Suggesting that in general, non-habited religious don’t take their
    vocations seriously is like saying that in general Catholic couples with only
    one child have failed in their vocation to be open to life—in other words,
    there are some personal elements of Catholic life where someone “on the outside
    looking in” is simply unable to make any qualified sort of judgment.

    And, a full habit is not a guarantee that an individual religious
    or her community won’t have issues or serious problems.

    Finally, here is a video interview of a non-habited,
    faithful and orthodox Sister who has spent years publically writing and
    speaking AGAINST women’s ordination:
    (Kind of a long video, but worth watching!)

    • Katrina Fernandez

      Don’t worry about leaving a negative comment. We’re all grown ups here… most of the time. And I did say I was looking to go beyond my prejudices and “be proven wrong”. I enjoyed the video and your comments are always welcome. I’m not always right … just rarely wrong.

  • Darragh

    There are a lot of sisters that is nopt wearing any habit but are quite orthodox; faithful to the Church,to the Holy Father have their common prayer life and faithful to the charism, mission and spirit of their congragations. Kindly check the Apostles of Interior Life (which is quite amazing in their apostolate in Texas A&M; Bishop Finn loves them a lot), the Society Devoted to Sacred Heart and the Missiomaries of God’s Love sisters.

  • Nancy

    The only religious orders that are growing, are the ones wearing habits. The others are dying out.

    • Cara Buskmiller

      This is not true. Check, for example, the Apostles of the Interior Life from Italy. There were three of them at my college campus (they have two convents here in the U.S.) last semester; now there are five. That’s a vocation explosion. The truth is: the only religious orders that are growing, are radically following the evangelical counsels to conform themselves to Christ. This doesn’t always mean a habit.

  • Jerome

    Are we sure Sr. Simone Campbell is pro-choice? I am just wondering. I haven’t read al she has said.

  • Neal Meyer

    Habits are awesome, and authenticly Catholic! I like my nuns habited, my priests be-cassocked, and my coffee Irish

  • JaneC

    I have known two very good Sisters who didn’t wear habits. I’ve also known one indifferent one. None of the three are pro-choice or, really, politically active in any way. The one who was my fourth grade teacher was a very joyful woman who really made my life a lot better when I was going through a rough patch (basically, my classmates made fun of me for being too pious and she defended me unceasingly). One of the others is also very joyful and kind. The third was unhappy and eventually left her order, basically because her superiors were working her into ill-health apparently as a punishment for standing up to them on some issues (NOT issues on which anyone should be silently obedient, by the way–issues of religious orthodoxy and good teaching practice).

    Currently, there is a very nice Sister at our parish who dons her “uniform” (blue skirt, white blouse, and blue veil) for work but wears street clothes on her days off.

    Incidentally, our parish is staffed by some excellent Dominican friars who do pretty much the same thing–always in habit when “at work,” but if you invite them to dinner they’ll probably show up in khakis and a plaid shirt.

  • Kyle Sanders

    Thank you, Kat for that.

    To add another nuance to the discussion, I speak not from experience but from many stories of people in their 50′s-70′s in New Orleans. They associate a habit with a woman who ‘puts the fear of God in ya.’ They saw them as stern and pious. Most of them had a sister as a teacher so associations between fear of or dislike of a teacher were then understood for religious life as well.
    At the same time, when they talk about school they talk about those religious in great fondness and love.

    I hope that you get to meet some non-habitted sisters especially ones that are not in the public spotlight, (media tends to accentuate the extremes).