I stumbled upon the video above while reading the news a few weeks ago, and I love the topic. I’ve always wondered why women would choose to make religious vows in the first place. Since I don’t fully understand it, I can’t really speak to it. As for the question of why many women are choosing not to, however, I definitely have personal experience with that side of the decision, and I have to go with the sociologist’s answer in the video more so than the sisters’.
I was raised during a growing shortage of Catholic devotees to priesthood and religious life. As a result, I was encouraged to consider whether or not I had a “calling” to be a nun or sister. (In case you’re wondering, the difference between the two is that nuns are cloistered, living completely isolated from the world, and sisters are not. If you’ve seen a “nun” in public in real life, she’s technically a sister.)
I remember taking baths when I was four or five years old. When I got out, my dad would dry my hair with a towel. He would drape it over my head and put “sister” in front of my first and middle names playfully. “Sister Nancy Therese!” I suppose to him it was a bit like when I got a bit older, and would test out my first name in my diaries with the last name of my crush. (Nancy Bier. Nancy Smith. Nancy…well, I won’t tell you my fiance’s last name.) It was cute at first, but after a year or so of my dad’s teasing, I started to resent it.
At that young age, I was absolutely positive that I wanted to meet someone nice and get married. I never questioned it, even as I grew to understand that for some people, marriage just isn’t appealing. It always was to me. In middle school, I drew my dream wedding dress and “designed” bridesmaid’s dresses to go with it. I had a running list of people I would invite. A lot has changed for me since then. I’ve lost my religion, met new friends, and lost touch with many of the people on that list. Yet I never lost the wedding part of my dream for the future. I just stopped picturing it happening at my family’s church.
I don’t know for sure whether or not there have been girls in my generation who grew up that sure of a dream to take religious vows. Maybe some did, but I have little doubt that even for children of devout families like mine, girls have a wide variety of aspirations, many of them involving marriage and a career.
It’s often difficult for someone who made one choice to understand why someone would choose the opposite, and I think that’s partly what’s going on with the sisters in the video. They’re right that technology has changed the world. But I think that technology has more to do with whether people are religious in the first place, not why the more religious people who are still out there choose not to take vows and don habits. The internet, with its vast array of information available at people’s fingertips, has led to people leaving the Catholic church in droves. But that doesn’t explain why the people who stay with the church aren’t choosing to take vows.
My experience choosing marriage and a career definitely fits the sociologist’s answer: “It’s not like ‘Will I get married or will I go into religious life?’ It’s more like, ‘Will I get married, or will I do these 16 other things?'”
Being a nun or sister isn’t a super attractive lifestyle in the first place because it restricts freedom in many ways. The biggest drawback for me was always the vow of chastity, or as I saw it, losing the freedom to date. Even before I knew what it was, I had a pretty high sex drive, and there was no way in hell I was going to give up the opportunity to be with a guy someday. But sisters–that’s right, even the ones who aren’t cloistered–give up a lot of other freedoms too.
For instance, the sisters who teach at my family’s church have taken a vow of poverty. They literally earn less than minimum wage. They’re given a tiny allowance that lets them buy groceries. There are several of them, and they share one car. As someone who is currently in a family with 3 cars and 4 drivers, in which I am the extra driver without a car, I can’t imagine sharing one car among four or five adult women. Plus, the fact that religious women aren’t really paid for their work, when they often do difficult jobs like teaching high school, is pretty disgusting to me. I realize their vows forbid them from taking the money, but to me work is work regardless of who’s doing it and I don’t like to see anyone not get paid for their labor. It’s the principle of the thing.
Because it’s such an unappealing lifestyle to me, I would need pretty extreme circumstances to even consider becoming a religious sister or nun–and that was the case even when I was Catholic. If I had to choose between two not-so-awesome choices like arranged marriage and sisterhood, I’d probably choose sisterhood. (That way, at least I’d maintain full control over my own vagina.) But that’s really the only circumstance I can think of in which I’d definitely opt for becoming a nun or a sister.
Women today have far better prospects than a choice between marriage (ownership by one’s husband) and religious life (marriage to a fictional character [Jesus]). We can do pretty much anything we set our minds to. We can be doctors, lawyers, teachers, engineers, scientists, athletes, writers–you name it, we can do it. Better yet, we can have a career AND raise a family at the same time. Gone are the days when marriage meant having to give up your career. You can live all aspects of the American dream!
It boggles my mind that I’ve actually met two different women near my age (fellow millennials) who eventually chose to be religious. I wish I were closer to at least one of them so that I could ask her why. The fact that I knew two such women at all is pretty crazy considering the demographics of religious women in my country. According to this article by The Huffington Post, as of 2009 only 1% of religious sisters in the US were under the age of 40. Think that’s bad? Only 2% were 40-49 years old. Just 6% were aged 50-59. This means that as of 2009, 91% of sisters in the US were 60 years old or older. I doubt that they’ve gotten much younger since then.
This decline in new members of religious congregations in the US, if current trends continue, means that in another decade or two, spotting a nun will be a bit like spotting a payphone today. People will think, “Wow, I didn’t know they still existed!”
As a woman who appreciates how much better I have it today than I would in the time periods when sisterhood was more popular, I can definitely live with that future. It feels good to know that sisterhood, instead of being one of the two available options to women, as it was for a very long time, is just one small unappealing option today among the myriad of futures women like me can choose for themselves.
What are your thoughts on religious life? Are you surprised to see the number of religious sisters in the US drop so low? Were you ever encouraged to consider religious life? Feel free to leave a comment. All opinions are welcome. Just be respectful and think things through before posting.