On a recent morning in Rome’s medieval Trastevere neighborhood, Sister Mary Elena, clad in a heavy black habit, tended the garden of Saint Cecilia Church. In 30 years, she has rarely left the convent, living a semicloistered life, working on liturgical documents and praying daily at the altar of Saint Cecilia, a woman martyred in the third century A.D. for spreading her Christian faith.
More than 4,300 miles away in Scranton, Pa., Sister Maryalice of the Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, could easily be confused for a bank manager or real-estate agent. She lives in an apartment with two roommates, drives a Prius, and can be seen at 8 o’clock mass wearing a cheery pink cotton blazer, dark skirt, and sensible shoes.
A look inside the lives of these two women—different in every way but stated profession and their shared commitment to the Catholic Church—shows just how divergent the business of being a nun has become in the 50 years since the second Vatican Council loosened the rules for religious women, and why that’s fueled an increasingly vocal backlash by the men who make the rules. This came to a head in April when the Vatican severely criticized the vast majority of American nuns in the form of an eight-page doctrinal assessment of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. An umbrella group of leaders from more than 400 progressive religious orders, the LCWR represents about 80 percent of the nation’s Catholic sisters. The nuns have been increasingly defiant, omitting the church’s teaching on women’s ordination and same-sex marriage, for example. But the final straw came earlier this year, when the group expressed support of the Obama administration’s Affordable Care Act, which includes the consideration of reproductive rights like birth control a health care right, calling it "a fair and helpful way to move forward.”
The Vatican responded by labeling the LCWR nuns "radical feminists" and accusing them of rabble-rousing by twisting the church doctrines and “not conforming to the faith and practice of the Church.”
In the U.S., where the number of religious sisters has dwindled from 179,954 to 57,544 in the past half century, the controversy cuts to the heart of what it means to be a nun. To many non-Catholics, nuns conjure up a vision of the ladies from The Sound of Music. To Catholics, they can be anything from the no-nonsense school teachers who rapped their knuckles during Catechism class to hospital workers who pray at the bedsides of the dying. They are the stuff of fantasies for others. Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi’s bunga-bunga parties allegedly featured dancers dressed as nuns who stripped down from their habits to G-strings. In certain corners of Italy, seeing a nun brings bad luck, and men touch iron—or often their crotch—when they pass one on the street.
In practice, religious women are as individual and diverse as any other group of women. There are hundreds of women’s religious orders across the world, and each has its own set of statutes that govern everything from where they live to how they dress. In Scranton, Sister Maryalice has never worn a habit. She runs a facility for severely handicapped children and adults and oversees some 500 full-time employees. A member of the LCWR, Maryalice says though the extraordinary censoring was “disheartening” and “hurtful,” she has tried to take the high road. “My response was not anger. My response was not rage. My response was certainly not to leave the church and religious life. It was to be more faithful, more intentional,” says Maryalice, who wears a gold band on her left hand inscribed Ego Te Sponsabo, “I espouse you.” She adds: “People have said, ‘aren’t you angry? Don’t you want to quit? Don’t you want to scream?’ and I say, ‘I have to go to work tomorrow.’ ”
There may be more to come. The Vatican is now deciding how to enforce its mandate, which could include disbanding the LCWR. Trying to head off a showdown, the leadership of the LCWR will go to Rome on June 12 to meet with Cardinal William Levada, who signed the doctrinal condemnation. They will also meet the archbishop of Seattle, Peter Sartain, who has been given the task of reining in the American nuns. The LCWR says the sanctions already being imposed, which include the Vatican rewriting many of the nuns’ teaching materials and sensoring their speakers “could compromise [our] ability to fulfill [our] mission” and has already “caused scandal and pain throughout the church community, and created greater polarization."
At the diocese in Rome, Sister Mary Elena, who also wears a ring on her left hand that symbolizes her “spiritual marriage” to God, said the news of the American crackdown barely made a blip. She explained that in Rome, they are more accustomed to the hierarchical politics. “We live under different rules here,” she said, eyeing her mother superior who kept a watchful eye from a corner chair. “I don’t think any sister enters this life without knowing completely what the rules are. We know the structure when we join.”
That structure includes a commitment to chastity in God’s name; a nun breaking her vow of chastity would be much the same as a wife breaking her marriage vow by cheating on her husband. It’s a part of the job the secular world can never completely understand, says Sister May Elena. But, she says, “if you feel that calling, you cannot turn away.”
Sister Mary Elena joined a convent when she was just 16, in her final years of high school. She has never had a serious boyfriend, and has never lived much of a secular life. She comes from a deeply religious background, which has four nuns and two priests in the family tree. Even as a young child, she says, she was interested in going to mass when many of her friends were heading to the movies. She felt different from them, but was never lonely, in part because of her connection to God.
Today, she sleeps in a small room inside the spacious convent that is adorned with frescoed walls and barrel ceilings in one of the most enviable addresses in the city. Her friends and social circle are all within the church community. Many of the other sisters in the convent work or study in the world outside, but Mary Elena doesn’t want to be distracted: “I’m not missing anything in my life.”
In many ways, Sister Mary Elena represents the traditional model of a “nun,” the one hidden away in a convent coming out only to pray and sing. Sister Maryalice instead embodies the definition of a “sister” who goes out among the people. She knew she wanted to join the sisterhood when she was in high school and was consumed by a curiosity about the daily lives of nuns. But she waited until after college to enter a convent. She enjoyed her high school and college years and even had boyfriends. “I went to high school in the '80s, and if I were to have said, ‘I’m going to be a sister,’ that sounds old,” she says. “It’s like saying I’m going to be a grandmother when you’re 18. So I wanted to hold off.”
Sister Maryalice’s order was formed by Theresa Maxis Duchemin, a woman born out of wedlock to a Haitian domestic servant and a British man. Duchemin went on to found the Immaculate Heart of Mary, the first congregation for women religious of color. Years later, the bishops forced out Duchemin because she challenged the status quo. She then spent 18 years in exile with the Grey nuns of Canada. “There was this distrust of her,” says Sister Maryalice. “That she was conniving, that she was an insubordinate woman. See, the more things change the more they stay the same.”
Kenneth Briggs, author of Double Crossed: Uncovering the Catholic Church’s Betrayal of American Nuns, is less circumspect. The real issue, he believes, is a legacy of gender discrimination "because the church has refused to accept what the rest of the population has accepted in regard to bias.”
Women have no say in church governance, no equivalent supreme spiritual leader like the pope and little impact beyond their local diocese. When the LCWR shows up at the Vatican next week, they’re not even guaranteed a chance to meet their accusers. Briggs warns that the blatant misogyny and outright condemnation of the nuns could add to the flow of Catholics from inside to outside the church. “The bottom line is that you don’t go in front of a woman federal judge on a Monday and in front of a female bank manager on a Tuesday and then go to church on Sunday and reverse your respect for women.”
Yet even as the number of nuns has fallen drastically in the U.S., new membership in some more conservative orders—those not condemned by the Vatican’s doctrinal assessment—is growing. That includes the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist, which was founded in 1997 and now has more than 100 members with a median age of just 28. Members wear the habit and support the Vatican’s hard line on abortion, birth control, euthanasia, same-sex marriage, and the ordination of women. Vocation director Sister Joseph Andrew Bogdanowicz says the group’s young members seek “authenticity.” According to Father Federico Lombardi, spokesman for the Vatican, conservative recruiting successes bolster the notion that if sisters are held to a more conservative set of rules, their numbers will start growing again.
Outside the church, some have wondered why the Vatican would pick on nuns at a time of much more eye-catching problems, such as reports of alleged cover-ups of pedophile priests and allegations of corruption and money laundering in the recent “VatiLeaks” scandal. Some observers believe the pope, 85, is trying to rewrite the history on his scandal-ridden papacy and cement his legacy as “God’s Rottweiler”—the great enforcer of church doctrine. Others point to power struggles within the Vatican over the pope’s succession and the inevitable doctrinal turmoil at a moment of great uncertainty for many of the world’s 1 billion Catholics. The American bishops who live in Rome hold considerable sway in the church and some feel the crackdown is a power play to win their favor.
For Sister Maryalice, working within a patriarchal system can actually be a learning opportunity. “Here in this ministry, I am one of the decision makers,” she says. “But there’s lots of aspects outside of here where I’m not one of the decision makers. I think it puts us in touch with what it means to be the group who’s not in power.” At the same time, she adds, “sometimes it drives me crazy, I’ll be honest, but it does it build more solidarity. And I knew the terms. I knew what the church was like.”