Most Catholic nuns are feminists whose education and savvy provide them the freedom and confidence to walk out of their convents tomorrow for jobs and outside opportunities, argues the writer of a new book, "Unveiled: The Hidden Lives of Nuns."
Unless their age is against them: The average nun in the United States today is about 70 years old.
"The women who are in the orders today are there because they want to be," Cheryl L. Reed said. "With their kind of education and background, these women could leave if they needed to. They could find jobs outside."
Reed devoted more than four years living and working among nuns in widely varying orders and religious communities across the United States, including two on southern Arizona Indian reservations and one in Tucson.
While female religious orders are graying and shrinking in membership, the Catholic hierarchy has largely left them alone to evolve into communities that have redefined themselves and given nuns the chance to exert their own identity.
Reed found that women, previously married or widowed, have joined orders in greater numbers, so that family and children are more readily accepted by religious communities, adding normalcy to nuns’ lives of avowed poverty, chastity and obedience.
The sisterhoods have experienced a 59 percent drop in 40 years. In 1965, there were 180,000 nuns in the United States. Today, it’s about 73,000 women in 730 orders, said Reed, an investigative reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times. She spent two years examining the America Catholic priesthood where she found that "priests are very unhappy, and there are a lot of conflicts."
In her conversations with more than 300 Catholic sisters, Reed did not find nuns wishing they could be priests.
"The majority of them see the hierarchical church as corrupt," she said in an interview. "They don’t want to be part of that institution. Some of them would like to be priests, but not under the structure as it exists now."
"While many (nuns) have lost faith in the church and certainly in its clergy, there exists a hidden society of religious women who can provide us a chance at discovering true religion without the male hierarchy and the legalistic rules" and offer a "church outside that hierarchy," Reed said.
"There’s such a need for a community that cultivates women’s spirituality and allows them to share in social justice mission with others," Reed wrote. The writer said nuns broke their silence and talked candidly with her because they see dwindling numbers threatening the existence of religious orders.
A major eye-opener, she said, was finding that about "70 percent of nuns are very feminist. They don’t wear habits, they are extremely well-educated." A majority have a master’s degree or a doctorate.
"That’s a totally different portrait than what is typically portrayed in the media or the icon of a woman wearing a habit — sort of this meek, subservient caricature," Reed said.
Today’s nuns have sometimes taken over roomy buildings or institutions and renovated them into comfortable convents that don’t resemble traditional cloisters of tight space, sparse furnishings and minimal privacy. Still, Reed said, "you get 200 women living together, and you are going to have some conflict. There are a lot of power struggles."
She said she was troubled by "the amount of overt control that some of the mother superiors tried to have over the sisters."
Religious orders often have to market themselves to recruit novices. Women have wide latitude to choose where they would fit in.
"I saw how difficult it is for a woman to choose an order," she said. "The process seems like a dating ritual, with women expressing interest and the community courting the ones they feel are the most promising."
The drop in the nun population has many causes, including greater vocational options for women, she said. In past generations, girls went into religious boarding schools and convents after high school to get an education.
"There were hardly any options in the 1940s and 1950s," she said. "You either became a nun or a nurse — or you got married." Religious life offered a career and a "life outside of having a lot of kids and maybe being married to somebody you don’t particularly like."
The recruitment of young Catholics to be nuns and priests has been significantly affected by the neardisappearance of nuns from Catholic schools, Reed said. Only 5 percent of nuns now work as teachers.
"Nuns were the greatest recruiters for going into Catholic church work," she said. "They could pick out people very young to go into the priesthood and into the sisterhood. Now they don’t have those recruiters out there."
The sharp drop in nuns also stems from the changes in the church since the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). "The church was changing, life inside the order was changing, and there was a huge battle: Were we going to continue to live this medieval lifestyle we had been living for centuries, or were we going to adapt to a modern world?" she said.
Reed’s research found that fewer than 30 percent of nuns today wear the traditional habit, akin to a daily baptism.
Her book (Berkley Books, $24.95, www.nunsunveiled.com) explores the sharply varying cultures of convents and female religious communities. In one chapter, "Teaching on the Rez," she writes about her stay with Franciscan Sisters of Christian Charity on two Arizona Indian reservations, the Gila and the Tohono O’odham. The nuns teach in poor schools that cannot afford teachers from the job market.
"Often nuns forgo salaries or accept reduced pay because they believe poverty is not just a vow or a way of life; it’s a ministry," Reed wrote.
Convents support themselves through fund raising, letter appeals, pooling their incomes and family estates. Sometimes women who leave their careers to become nuns donate personal resources.
Some orders are experimenting with bringing women into orders for "temporary vows" for a limited number of years in a Peace Corps model.
"Joining for three or four years, I think, is very attractive for some women. Once their commitment ends, they can move on.
"The Catholic Church overall does not like that and is trying to discourage it," Reed said. "Eventually what is going to happen is that they are going to have to change the way we see sisters. They are not just going to be women who are vowed for life."