From the clothing seen in an eleventh century monastery to the clothing worn by nuns on picket lines in the 1960’s, “habits” have always been designed and worn for a reason. Benedictines and Dominicans, for example, were clothed in outfits that were specifically created to identify women who had consecrated their lives to God. Many other orders of nuns wore habits that reflected their desire to blend in among the people they served. The understated habits of Mother Teresa’s Sisters of Charity that resembled the uniform of nurses comes to mind. When many religious abandoned their habits in the 60’s and 70’s, it stirred a debate that continues today.
Does it ever. If I live to be 100, I will never understand why some orders of nuns decided to begin to dress like laywomen. It was almost as if they were ashamed to be identified as nuns. Their reasons given for this radical change pale in comparison to why they should dress like religious. There is no plausible explanation for this sudden desire to appear as lay women. None. Oh, the reasons given for the big switch ranged from “ the habits were bulky, hot and uncomfortable” to “ lay clothes are donated or bought at thrift shops and are cheaper than habits”.
This is simple. Those excuses are secondary to the primary reason nuns wear and should wear clerical garb: they are clerics of the Catholic Church. Furthermore, they should be proud to display to the world that they have given up their lives to Christ. Dressing in mufti, as it were, tells those who know they’re nuns that they gave up their lives to Christ, but they not only want to be comfortable, but also do not want everyone knowing it. Disgraceful.
Once some of these nuns began dressing like laity, it was a foregone conclusion they would soon act like laity, albeit faithful to their vow of chastity. The parochial school system of the Church was the first to feel it. Little by little, the “ sisters”, those who were our teachers, were out of the convents and living on their own. Whereas they were receiving stipends because they had taken a vow of poverty, their replacements in the schools were laity and had to be paid living wages. That was the fundamental reason for the economic problems that suddenly faced the Catholic school system. The rest, as they say, is history. The wonderful nuns who taught me in grade school, were disappearing. And, for the most part, they are gone.
It is interesting and significant to note that, over the past 30 years, the number of women in Catholic religious orders has decreased by a reported 50%. There are now approximately, only 85,412 religious sisters in the United States and their average age is 68.
The good news is that the religious orders that are actually seeing growth are the ones that wear the traditional habit including the Dominicans and Mother Teresa’s religious order.
It is widely held that Vatican II said that nuns should take the habit off in favor of secular clothes. Surprisingly, not true (See below). Nowhere in the Council documents does it say that the priests and religious should dispense with religious habits, and it never said that habits should be the street clothes of the common man. Vatican II stated that habits are to be an outward sign of consecration. They need to be simple, modest, poor, becoming, and needed to be changed if they were unhealthy or not suited for today's needs. Maybe that was the “opt-out” wording seized upon by some nuns.
This is not a new idea. Religious habits have changed throughout history, but for obvious reasons priests and nuns wearing secular apparel from a department store does not fit the bill. Pope Paul VI and John Paul II both have told priests and religious that they must wear their religious habit, but many have chosen to ignore the Papacy and the Second Vatican Council.
Certainly, the gradual disappearance of habits of some nuns does not change any fundamental doctrine of the church. But, how are we, as Christians, to transform the world for Christ if some religious are in disguise?
And, what are we to make of the disappearance of the habit causing the disappearance of “role models” for young women considering the religious life? There are some women who just naturally draw young people to them whether wearing a habit or not. But, as some young women have been reported to have said, “ wearing civilian clothes makes them just ‘one of the bunch’. Traditional garb is special (maybe not the most comfortable) and attracts even the youngest to these traditional women.”
The document, “ Perfectae Caritatis” , proclaimed by His Holiness, Pope Paul VI on October 28, 1965, spends a long time laying out the parameters of the discussion, but eventually reaches some very important conclusions.
Section #17 ( of the 25) is spot on:
17. The religious habit, an outward mark of consecration to God, should be simple and modest, poor and at the same becoming. In addition it must meet the requirements of health and be suited to the circumstances of time and place and to the needs of the ministry involved. The habits of both men and women religious which do not conform to these norms must be changed. (Editor's note: notice here that the idea of abandoning the habit altogether is not even considered)
One final note: Canon 669,1 in Code of Canon Law states: Religious are to wear the habit of the institute determined according to the norm of proper law as a sign of their consecration and as a testimony of poverty.
As a sign of their consecration. Wonderful.
Till next time.....