Nuns are often portrayed as either evil or a joke—or in the case of this Nunzilla toy, both. Photo by Choking Sun.
Nuns get a bad rap. Until this year, my understanding of what nuns are like didn’t go beyond a vague, unpleasant idea that they have a penchant for wielding rulers and criticizing children. But then I read Octavio Paz’s biography of Sor Juana, the Mexican nun who published racy lesbian poetry throughout the second half of the 1600s and is often regarded as a feminist. The book, coupled with this year’s headlines about the exploits of 84-year-old anti-nuke crusader Sister Megan Rice, made me think that my chaste and cruel vision of nuns was a bit incomplete. After all, sisterhood has long been an important option for women who didn’t kindle to the idea of a life of marriage and kids, those with a higher calling on their mind.
I asked a friend who teaches at a Catholic high school is she could put me in touch with the senior nuns she’d gotten to know at a convent on her school’s campus, the Religious of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Soon enough, I was corresponding with Sister Fran Tobin, who I would later learn had been an immigration lawyer who fought against human trafficking. She told me that she would be more than happy to talk to with me about life in the sisterhood. She could even convene an informal panel of “women of great accomplishment” for me, so that I could get a sense of the diversity of the nuns who were living at Sacred Heart. We arranged a lunchtime get-together at the well-manicured facilities in Atherton, California. It would be the first time in my life I’d ever spoke with an actual nun.
The fact that I’d never met a nun isn’t that surprising. Since 1965, the number of children in Catholic elementary schools has declined by nearly 75 percent. Young people just don’t have the same real-life interactions with nuns as previous generations did, so every year our understanding of nuns is based more heavily on representations on nuns in films and on TV. In pop culture, nuns are often represented as symbols more than as real, individual people. In Question of Habit, the 2011 documentary about nuns in pop culture, narrator Susan Sarandon notes, “This ‘not quite human’ status has made it easy to remove nuns from their interesting and important stories and allow their images—almost always in full habit—to be used by anyone who thinks they can profit by sticking them on their product.”
Two Halloween costumes show two common cultural views of nuns: they’re either symbols of sex or horror.
Nuns occupy a strange place in our cultural consciousness. In most movies, nuns are seen as strange recluses from society. There is the cruel nun (The Magdalene Sisters), the anti-fun nun (Sound of Music), the wacky nun (the Sister Act movies), the noble nun (Susan Sarandon in Dead Man Walking), and so many portrayals of unhinged, psychosexual nuns that “nunsploitation” is an actual film genre. A few examples of nunsploitation movies from among many: Ken Russel’s psychedelic The Devils, Japanese pink film School of the Holy Beast, and the soft pornographic Suor Emanuelle. The trend of sensationalizing and sexualizing nuns has most definitely continued into the modern era. One look no further than Robert Rodriguez’s 2010 film Machete for a murderous, habit-sporting Lindsay Lohan. On the blog A Nun’s Life, one sister lists off all the nun stereotypes she’s seen:
- Mean nuns with rulers
- Hapless nuns
- Giggling gaggles of nuns
- Sexually repressed nuns
- Nuns who are theologically unsophisticated
- Unquestioning nuns
- Ethereal nuns who float in and then mysteriously disappear
Maybe one thing that all these cinematic sisters share is that they are never normal—nuns are seen mysterious zealots who are out of touch with the world. This is partly ageist—the average age of nuns in the United States is 70—and partly because, let’s be honest, nuns have few champions in the modern world. While the Catholic Church has a history of downplaying their contributions, they’re a part of an institution that has supported oppression in the form of colonialism, retrograde gender politics, homophobia, a cavalier approach towards sex offenders, an opposition to contraception, and so on. Nuns get a bad rap in part because the people that would theroetically support them the most—hi, people who support smart women who chose to live independently of marriage and kids and focus on intellectual pursuits—tend to be pretty hostile toward the Church and ignorant of the positive work and activism of many nuns.
In our cultural conception of nuns, they are either villains or a kitschy joke. What nuns are rarely portrayed as are intellectuals and political rabble-rousers. But in real life, many nuns devote their lives to research, community organizing, and social justice advocacy—more like Orange is the New Black’s anti-nuclear pacifist Sister Jane Ingalls than Hollywood’s austere Nunzilla.
The incarcerated Sister Ingalls is based on real-life activist Sister Ardeth Platte.
“White hair is something we all share,” says Sister Fran, when we meet up. “White hair and humor.” Sister Fran made good on her promise to introduce me to a panel of “women of great accomplishment,” a group of women who happily spent the afternoon giving me their life stories. These nuns were pretty chill, and came with impressive resumes that contradict the image of nuns as unquestioning zealots. Sister Lorraine Lawrence is a chemistry PhD who conducted field research on cypress trees in Northern California. Sister Ada Burns is known by the others as a punster and “the computer whiz.” Sister Mamie Jenkins sings wonderfully, was the first Black student at Manhattanville College in the late 1940s, and taught music classes to kids, including students with developmental disabilities. Sister Mary Ann Foy traveled the country after the Second Vatican Council to help those in the church help understand the new liberalizing changes the Pope had handed down.
The Second Vatican Council, more commonly referred to as Vatican II, was something the sisters wanted to be sure I understood. The 1962-65 gatherings of the church’s higher-ups in Vatican City resulted in a series of decrees that made Catholicism more accessible. Services no longer had to take place solely in Latin. The church also took a more tolerant stand on the existence of other religions. For nuns, Vatican II meant they were no longer required to wear hooded, cumbersome habits (a decision said to have been based on the concern about the time required to launder the garments). The decrees also sanctioned a more active brand of sisterhood. No longer did one have to be a “contemplative nun” set apart from laity and real life. Nuns were now encouraged to work with regular old people. Without the changes wrought by Vatican II, the sisters I met at Sacred Heart would have led very different lives. As Sister Lorraine told me, “We went from monastic to freedom!”
Sister Fran, a not-terrifying nun. Photo by Caitlin Donohue.
Sister Fran had been in Vatican City during the second session of Vatican II. Like the rest of the nuns, she found the changes to be electrifying. “Vatican II invited all of us to look at what we were doing,” she said. “We came back and we were on fire— sometimes to the horror of our elders.” But the changes took some adapting to, and it wasn’t easy for everyone in the clergy. “They were interesting times. Some of us changed in a night, some of us took a few years,” added Sister Fran.
Although they devote themselves to the church and are celibate, the sisters in our hangout were far from solitary. Life without a dependent and kids allowed them to focus on spiritual and intellectual pursuits. When I asked what it’s like living in an all-female society, they looked at me somewhat blankly: there’s always been plenty of monks, parents of students, and coworkers, so many that when I asked what it’s like living in an all-female society, they looked at me somewhat blankly.
As a nun, all your earnings go to the church and in return, you are apportioned a stipend to live simply, if not luxuriously. Many nuns live in houses of three to five sisters that are near public transportation and owned by the church, the Sacred Heart women told me. Though they balked when I suggested they were practicing communal living (something about that sounding too close to communism), Sister Fran did see the contrasts between their lifestyle and that of the world around them. “We live in a capitalistic, materialistic society,” she said. “Very me-first, top dog-bottom dog. I think our lives raise questions about those values, we challenge them.” Of course, it’s not easy, spending your life rooming with a bunch of adult women, even if they are nuns. “Religious life is not for sissies!” she continued. “But then, married life is not for sissies! Being a senior is not for sissies!”
Sister Mamie: singer, musician, teacher, and nun. Photo by Caitlin Donohue.
As the day wore on, nunhood began to seem more positive than the images I’ve seen in movies. Some of the issues around reproductive rights and the Church’s treatment of LGBT people, I found, were a sticking point with the nuns. Five years ago, a group of nuns voiced support for American health care reform—despite the fact that proposed legislation would often provide coverage for abortion. In response, the Vatican launched an investigation into American Catholic sisters. Many felt it to be a referendum on the often progressive-leaning politics of nuns in our country. The Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith argued that the main group representing American nuns “took positions that undermined church teaching and promoted ‘radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith.’”
But when the three-year investigation concluded last month, its final report didn’t criticize American nuns’ political activism. As USA Today reports:
“There was no criticism of American nuns, or demands that they shift their focus from social justice issues to emphasize Catholic teaching on abortion in the report. There was also no condemnation that a feminist, secular mentality had taken hold in their ranks. The overwhelmingly positive report, which saw the Vatican promise to value the nuns’ ‘feminine genius’ more, was cheered by the sisters, dozens of whom swarmed the news conference in a rare moment of women outnumbering men at the Vatican.”
At our lunch, weeks before the investigation concluded, the nuns spontaneously brought up the Vatican’s negative stance on birth control. “All these seminaries, they’re in an all-male atmosphere, only trained by men,” said Sister Fran. “They don’t understand contraceptives are not abortion,” followed Sister Lorraine. Sister Fran concurred. “They don’t understand the realities of married life!” Later in the day, she returned to the topic. “Bishops should stay out of the bedroom,” she concluded.
Of course, I hung out with just five nuns out of the thousands of nuns in the world. But spending an afternoon with a handful of nuns made me question the image I’ve seen of nuns in countless movies, books, and TV shows. Not once did any of these nuns display a tendency towards sadism, climb a grassy knoll to sing, or brandish a ruler. Instead, they were accomplished women enjoying the golden years of lives well spent. Honestly, I loved the nuns. Mind you, I wouldn’t take an oath of celibacy and marry Jesus to hang tough with them, but even as an ardent non-believer, it was hard not to be impressed by their peace of mind and purpose. Forget the pop culture view of nuns as oppressed, out-of-touch women. Meet a real-life nun and you’ll be far less likely to dismiss nuns as just a punchline.
Related Reading: Get the digital edition of our Micro/Macro issue to read “Dark Habits: American Horror Story and the Gothic Nun Tradition.”