How Nuns Work

Image Gallery: Making Movies Ingrid Bergman played a nun in the 1945 film "The Bells of St. Mary's." See more pictures of making movies.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

If you only know about nuns through movies and television, then you might think that all nuns wield rulers while singing, dancing and flying. When the ruler comes out, beware -- that's a sign that the nun is mean or frigid. On the other hand, movies like "Sister Act" and "The Sound of Music" have shown that nuns have a soft spot for a good dance number and for families escaping from Nazis. And perhaps most bizarrely, Sally Field showed the world that nuns can actually fly, in the late-1960s sitcom, "The Flying Nun."

It's probably easy for screenwriters to ascribe such odd traits to nuns because many of us know so little about a nun's life. By definition, a nun has set herself apart from the world in order to lead a more spiritual life, one with vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. Such a remarkable stand can seem intimidating to people both religious and nonreligious. In this article, we'll try to look under the habit -- metaphorically, of course -- to understand women who follow a call toward the divine.

First, though, some vocabulary. Many religious communities, including Anglicans and Buddhists, have nuns, but in this article, we'll discuss Catholic nuns -- as that's what most people tend to think of when they hear the word "nun." Interestingly, though, not every Catholic woman who takes vows and claims to be a "bride of Christ" is a nun. Women who retreat from the world to live in a convent or a monastery are nuns; whereas women who remain in the world, teaching in schools, working as nurses or staffing homeless shelters are, strictly speaking, sisters. In the Catholic community, the terms tend to be used interchangeably, but understanding the difference between a contemplative nun and a sister active in worldly ministry is necessary for appreciating some milestones in the history of these women. We'll begin exploring this history on the next page.

The First Nuns

Saint Scholastica, who lived from 480 to 547 A.D., is the patron saint of nuns.
Saint Scholastica, who lived from 480 to 547 A.D., is the patron saint of nuns.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In the very earliest Christian communities, there were women who dedicated their lives to emulating Jesus Christ. These women tended to be virgins or widows, and they called themselves "spouses of Christ" or "brides of Christ." They began wearing veils to symbolize their marriage to Jesus; the earliest habits were also made of very rough cloth, out of solidarity for the poor. Women who elected to live in this way spent their days in prayer, made penitent acts and performed manual labor. Even in the first century, the women's choice to remain chaste was seen as radical, though these early religious women did command respect for their choice among fellow Christians.

In the fourth century, monks began living in community with each other, and the brides of Christ followed suit, often forming a joint partnership with local monks so that their convent would sit next to a monastery. Each community was -- and remains -- different from another. Some monks and nuns vowed never to leave their cloisters so that they could dedicate themselves more fully to prayer, while some orders took on apostolic work beyond their gates. It was during this time period that the first official vows of poverty, chastity and obedience were taken, though the women had been upholding these standards from the beginning.

For some women, entering a convent was a good way to avoid marriage; some feminist scholars have interpreted these women's vow of chastity as a means for pursuing leadership and individual interests that they wouldn't have been allowed otherwise. Convents may have also been a convenient escape for battered women and former prostitutes who would have been shunned by society, and a convent usually provided fairly advanced education for girls at the time. For other women, the choice to enter a convent wasn't theirs to make. Parents would often offer a young daughter to a convent as an oblate, or as a promised nun. This practice would continue for several centuries; the dowry that parents paid to a convent was usually just a fraction of what would be paid to a prospective husband, so convents became dumping grounds for the more unmarriageable ladies of a large family.

Women who were sent to the convent who would have rather become wives and mothers were often put in charge of dolls that looked like Jesus, which they would take care of on certain holy days. Meanwhile, there were plenty of nuns that did experience motherhood, thanks to the convent's close association with some monasteries. But in 1298, a pope would put a stop to all that.

Hard Times for Nuns

A print of sisters at work in a convent hospital, circa 1650.
A print of sisters at work in a convent hospital, circa 1650.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In 1298, Pope Boniface VIII issues a papal bull decreeing that complete enclosure with cloisters was a requirement for all nuns. In his pronouncement, Boniface VIII said that nuns should never see the secular world again, so that they could live more holy lives. His text, however, also included some back-handed digs at the nuns -- he said that women were unable to resist tempting men (i.e., the priests who lived nearby) and for their own safety, and the safety of all men, they should be removed from any situation where they might get into trouble. The Vatican set very specific rules about nuns' dwellings, including dictates that windows couldn't overlook public roads. The male priests who had conducted affairs with nuns were spared any punishment.

The pope's announcement had little effect on the communities that already lived contemplatively, but the orders with active ministries were in trouble. Some orders elected to claim that they weren't religious, so that the monks and sisters could continue to work with the public. Other orders fought with the Vatican for recognition of validity; in trying to prove that nuns could performs community service while remaining devout, the sisters of such orders were often denounced or excommunicated. Mary Ward is a notable example of a woman who tried to maintain her status as a nun while ministering to the public. Born in 1585, Mary Ward traveled Europe on foot, opening Catholic schools and helping persecuted Catholics; she was deemed a heretic and imprisoned.

Ward's work was all the more difficult because it was conducted in the wake of the Protestant Reformation, a tough time for both cloistered and active nuns since they were visible symbols of the Catholic Church. Convents were denounced by Protestants as unclean and unholy places more akin to brothels. Nuns were beaten and some nuns were beheaded.

For centuries, religious women grappled with whether their community and their work was recognized by the Vatican (and it wasn't until 1900 that Pope Leo XIII acknowledged that active sisters had earned the distinction). Though the 20th century dawned with good news for all Catholic nuns and sisters, the coming decades would test them still further.

Nuns and the Second Vatican Council

Polish nuns prepare communion hosts for a service.
Polish nuns prepare communion hosts for a service.
isifa/Getty Images

After Leo XIII recognized both active sisters and contemplative nuns as valid forms of religious life, sisters embraced their missions and became more active in ministries in schools and hospitals. In the 1950s, however, Pope Pius XII began to raise questions about nuns' habits. He had concerns about the hygiene of the long, flowing robes, and he was also concerned that the amount of time necessary to ensure clean robes would take away from nuns' prayer. He urged sisters to consider modernizing their look and dress like those in the communities they served.

The Second Vatican Council, or Vatican II, cemented this trend toward modernization. Vatican II first convened in 1962 in an attempt to contemporize and open up the Catholic Church. After Vatican II, nuns quickly jettisoned their habits, and one order even consulted the design house of Christian Dior about what they should wear next.

Following swiftly on the heels of Vatican II was the women's movement in America. Nuns who'd just given up their habits in favor of modern wear decided to give up the convent altogether, and membership in religious orders declined. With more women entering the workforce, women felt empowered to leave a place that they may have entered because it was their only career choice, or because their families had placed them there. Catholic families also tended to become smaller after Vatican II, which meant that parents no longer had a few extra children that they could "donate" to the church as a nun or a priest, a practice that was common right after World War II.

The Second Vatican Council and the modernizing of the Catholic Church allowed for more lay ministers to take part in services and ministries, so donning a habit and becoming a bride of Christ was no longer the only path to church leadership. More women elected to serve God without taking vows. As a result of all these changes, the number of nuns has plunged dramatically in recent decades, particularly in the United States. In 1965, there were approximately 180,000 sisters in the United States; by 2009, there were fewer than 60,000, and the median age for remaining nuns is in the 70s [source: Malone]. Yet we needn't write the obituary for nuns just yet; on the next page, we'll examine the type of woman that shows up at the doors of a convent today.

Nuns Today

Nuns participating in World Youth Day 2008.
Nuns participating in World Youth Day 2008.
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Women who remained nuns and sisters after the changes sparked by Vatican II have followed remarkable paths. Sisters work in hospitals, prisons, schools and shelters. They might work as lawyers, political activists, artists and scientists. Many of these women manage to work a full day while also completing several hours of prayer with their communities in the morning and the evening.

Today, women who seek to become nuns may do so after raising kids and pursuing a career -- once a woman's children are no longer her dependents, she is free to become a nun so long as she isn't married. But an increasing number of younger women are also reporting calls to become nuns. In both cases, these women cite a desire for something more meaningful than a secular life, a search for something "more." Interestingly, though, the younger women differ from the older ones in that they're more likely to take a traditional habit and hold traditional views than the older ones [source: Malone].

Those traditional views may serve current nuns in the United States well. In 2009, the Vatican ordered an investigation of all active sisters in the United States. Many sisters interpret this investigation as a form of punishment, given that these types of inquiries are only conducted when someone is already in the wrong [source: Schneiders]. Since contemplative nuns aren't subject to the investigation, the sisters worry that their ministries are seen as too liberal in the eyes of the Vatican.

One example of this liberalism came in 2009, when a group of nuns wrote a letter in support of health care reform, despite ambiguity about abortion coverage; the nuns told Congress to not dither about language regarding abortion, as supporting reform was the "real pro-life stance" [source: Malone]. In praising the nuns, Maureen Dowd called for a "nope," or a nun who was pope (there is some speculation that having more women in positions of church leadership might help with the church's sexual abuse crisis) [source: Dowd]. And even if nuns don't foresee ascending to the papacy, there have been whispers for decades over whether nuns and other women might be ordained to the priesthood. Currently, nuns perform all the same ministries as a priest does -- except for saying mass. The Vatican says that scripture prohibits ordination of women.

In an analysis of the investigation, Sister Sandra Schneiders compared the nature of the investigation to one chemistry professor being asked to write a report on the state of every university in the country -- individual orders are simply too broad to summarize in this manner.

Is the current investigation a hearkening back to the days of Pope Boniface VIII, whose rules about enclosure were meant to force nuns into submission and keep them out of the world? Will this affect the number of women who serve as sisters and nuns? We won't know until late 2011, when the investigation is completed. But in the meantime, let's take a look at what women go through to become a nun in the first place.

Becoming a Nun

The process of becoming a nun or a sister takes almost a decade. Though the precise process differs according to the particular community that a woman tries to join, we can provide a little insight about what happens.

It all begins with "the call" -- a message from God that a person is called to lead a more spiritual life. When a woman believes she is being called, she is urged to pray about what she's being asked to do. She also can begin checking out different religious communities, which can slightly resemble sorority rush. Sometimes, communities sponsor "nun runs," in which women who are in the process of discerning their call travel from convent to convent to talk to the sisters and figure out where they belong. If there are no official events, a woman might call an order's vocation director and set up some time to come see the community. This part of the process might take a while -- women are encouraged to see many communities before settling on one.

Once a woman settles on the community she'd like to join, she becomes an aspirant, or a pre-candidate. This stage involves a lot of paperwork -- aspirants must be deemed fit in mind and body by psychologists and doctors, and they must complete essays about their call and their relationship with God. Aspirants are advised to spend a lot of time with their potential sisters, but they tend to live on their own and support themselves.

After the woman and the religious order have mutually agreed that they're a good match, the aspirant becomes a postulant, or an official candidate. Though the postulant takes no vows, she might start living with other sisters and participating in the activities of the order. This stage may last for a couple of years, as will the next stage -- novitiate. At this point, the woman is a novice member who lives as a sister while studying subjects outlined by Canon law and by her order. At this point, a woman gives any salary she receives to the community and gets what she needs from it as well. After about two years of study, she takes a spiritual retreat to prepare for her vows.

There are two sets of vows: first and final. The first vows are renewed on a year-by-year basis, and the final vows are considered binding forever. At the second vow ceremony, the woman receives a ring to wear on her right hand, marking her as a bride of Christ. The nun or sister joins a long history of religious women, and she may play a part in the direction this vocation takes in the future.

To learn more about religion and spirituality, please see the links on the next page.

Related Articles


  • BBC. "Culture crisis means no new nuns." July 30, 2010. (Feb. 7, 2011)
  • Boitano, Susanne. "Getting to be a habit." Women's Review of Books. April 2004.
  • Clines, Francis X. "Still Married to Christ, and Never Happier." New York Times. Feb. 23, 1995. (Feb. 7, 2011),%20women&st=cse
  • Cullen, Lisa Takeuchi and Tracy Schmidt. "Today's Nun Has a Veil -- And a Blog." Time. Nov. 13, 2006. (Feb. 7, 2011),9171,1558292,00.html
  • Dowd, Maureen. "A Nope for Pope." New York Times. March 27, 2010. (Feb. 7, 2011)
  • Dowd, Maureen. "The Nuns' Story." New York Times. Oct. 25, 2009. (Feb. 7, 2011)
  • The Economist. "Veiled Ambitions." Feb. 17, 2007.
  • Evangelisti, Silvia. "Nuns: A History of Convent Life." Oxford University Press. 2007.
  • Fickett, Harold. "A Monastic Kind of Life." Slate. Oct. 14, 2008. (Feb. 7, 2011)
  • Fraser, Antonia. "The Nuns' Story." New York Times. Oct. 13, 1996. (Feb. 7, 2011)
  • Goodstein, Laurie. "U.S. Nuns Facing Vatican Scrutiny." New York Times. July 2, 2009. (Feb. 7, 2011)
  • Hofmann, Paul. "The Vatican's Women: Female Influence at the Holy See." St. Martin's Griffin. 2002.
  • Kohn, Rachel. "The Habit." The Ark, (Feb. 7, 2011)
  • Laven, Mary. "Virgins of Venice." Penguins Books. 2002.
  • Lemonick, Michael D. and Alice Park. "The Nun Study." Time. May 14, 2001. (Feb. 7, 2011),8816,999867,00.html
  • Lopez, Kathryn Jean. "Nun Sense: Women in the Catholic Church." National Review Online via Catholic Education Resource Center. April 30, 2010. (Feb. 7, 2011)
  • Madigan, Mary. "Mary Ward: Pioneer for Women in the Church." Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary. (Feb. 7, 2011)
  • Malone, Noreen. "Glory Days." Slate. March 30, 2010. (Feb. 7, 2011)
  • Middle Ages Web site. "Medieval Nuns." (Feb. 7, 2011)
  • Millar, Heather. "New Convents: A Spirited Blend of Generations, Cultures." Palm Beach Post. July 12, 1997.
  • Millar, Heather. "The New Nuns: Women with a Past." Palm Beach Post. July 11, 1997.
  • Padgett, Tim. "Defying the Vatican, Catholic Women Claim Priesthood." Time. Oct. 3, 2010. (Feb. 7, 2011),9171,2019635,00.html
  • Schneiders, Sandra M. "Discerning Ministerial Religious Life Today." National Catholic Reporter. Sept. 11, 2009. (Feb. 7, 2011)
  • Schneiders, Sandra M. "Why they stay(ed)." National Catholic Reporter. Aug. 17, 2009. (Feb. 7, 2011)
  • Slade, Carole. "How Sisterhood Became Powerless." Women's Review of Books. April 1997.
  • University of Minnesota. "The Nun Study." (Feb. 7, 2011)
  • Vermeersch, Arthur. "Nuns." The Catholic Encyclopedia. 1911. (Feb. 7, 2011)
  • Vieira, Julie. A Nun's Life Web site. (Feb. 7, 2011)
  • Wright, Jonathan. "Men beware women." New Statesman. March 12, 2007. (Feb. 7, 2011)