Habits in the News: The Power of Image

Emilio Morenat. The Chicago Sun-Times: “Vatican waging a War on nuns” by Carol Marin (4/20/2012).

Last week, the Vatican’s Congregation for Doctrine of the Faith released the results of its on-going doctrinal assessment of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), the larger of two umbrella organizations representing the majority of women religious in the U.S.  Since then, the story has been picked up by hundreds of media outlets across the U.S. and abroad, and these stories have already led to campaigns in support of LCWR sisters.  Many others have discussed and will continue to discuss the details of the Vatican’s recent decision to reprimand the largest leadership organization of women religious in the United States.  The substance of this story is surely important to readers of “The Catholic Conversation,” but I have been especially fascinated by the pictures and images that accompany these news stories.

The Power of Image

While most Roman Catholic nuns and sisters in the United States have not worn the full habit for over 40 years, images of nuns and sisters in habit can be readily found in popular culture. Illustrations of habited nuns on brand name greeting cards and calendars, the popularity of the habit as a Halloween costume, and a plethora of television shows and movies such as The Flying Nun (1967-1970), Sister Act and Sister Act II: Back in the Habit (1992; 1993), and most recently the award-winning Doubt (2008) have popularized the habit as a key identifier of Catholic nuns, or as those in noncloistered religious communities are more accurately called, women religious.  As a sociology graduate student at Notre Dame writing my Master’s thesis on Post-Vatican II and Millennial generation women religious, I have been intrigued by how nuns and sisters have been represented in American culture. (For anyone interested in a film analysis of this issue, I would recommend viewing the documentary “A Question of Habit,” which discusses the portrayal of women religious in the pop culture.)

I have noticed a common theme in perusing the different news articles written about the LCWR doctrinal situation this past week.  It comes in the form of a written story about the Vatican “cracking down” on women religious for their “radical feminist views,” accompanied by a photo of an innocent looking sister in habit.  Especially common in these pieces have been images of women religious praying quietly in church, listening intently at Mass, and expressing joy in partaking in World Youth Day events.  I show some of the pictures that I have found here, and I will provide additional examples in future posts. What I have found most fascinating in exploring these pictures is that some of the communities I recognize, e.g. the Little Sisters of the Poor, the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist, and the Sisters of Life – are women’s communities that are actually not  affiliated with the LCWR.  In fact, a majority of the photos are of members belonging to communities aligned with the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious (CMSWR), the other umbrella organization of women religious unaffiliated with the LCWR.

Michael Wyke/ AP. Washington Post: “Vatican: American nuns need reform” by David Gibson (4/20/2012).


Bill Pugliano/Getty Images/April 22, 2012. Los Angeles Times: “Sisters of mercy, devotion — and dismay” by Steve Lopez (4/22/2012).


Photograph by: Max Rossi, Reuters. Washington Post: “Vatican: U.S. Catholic sisters, nuns making serious theological errors” by Elizabeth Tenety (4/18/2012).


I think it is worth reflecting sociologically on how women religious have been portrayed.  First, I want to make a general sociological point about the power of images to create boundary lines.  Images of women religious in habit are evidence that most women religious are still imagined by the public as wearing traditional religious garb.  The habit remains a crucial symbol of religious identity today.  In the popular imagination, women religious are still distinguished from others in society by their dress, which arguably creates and maintains a boundary line dividing group members from those not included (Kanter 1972; Joseph 1986). Despite most LCWR communities changing to secular dress long ago, this fact has not been picked up by broader society.  Image can be powerful and long-lasting despite efforts to change it.

Second, images impact how people interpret media stories.  On the one hand, images of nuns in habit can strengthen the view that the LCWR has been unjustly attacked by the Vatican.  Whether or not the CDF’s actions are unjust I leave to the judgment of the reader.  However, a photo of a meek looking woman in habit with her head bowed in prayer has the power to make her appear especially innocent and defenseless.  Coincidentally, many of the photos I have come across contain pictures mostly of women either young (20s or early 30s) or later in age (80+).  Both the young and the old have been associated as particularly vulnerable in American culture, and thus worthy of special protection. So, we are left with an interesting contrast – vulnerable nuns versus the powerful Vatican.  That those women are capable of the things the LCWR has been accused of is rendered ridiculous. On the other hand, in not showing women religious in the LCWR as they actually dress, the photos give an inaccurate picture of work that the LCWR considers important.  So far I have not come across any photos of women religious working for social justice in the articles, e.g. LCWR sisters marching in the School of the Americas protest at Fort Benning, Georgia, or lobbying Congress for environmental justice.

Perhaps the editors of the articles did come across more representative pictures of LCWR women religious but chose not to use them because they would be less dramatic, or maybe such photos would have associated LCWR sisters with the “radical feminist themes” of which the Vatican has taken note.  Either way, image is powerful, and not showing women religious in the LCWR as they are downplays the values that the LCWR has chosen to uphold.  Thus, it is a double-edged sword; current depictions can strengthen the view of the LCWR being unjustly attacked, but only at the expense of a truer and more accurate view of these women religious, the powerful positions that they hold, and the strong stands that they take for issues of justice. These pictures do not accurately depict the women they are discussing.  It is ironic that the women religious of LCWR continue to be absent in visual depictions of their own battles.

What is your opinion of the photos and article titles shown above? How do you imagine women religious to look?

For additional pictures click here


Kanter, Rosabeth Moss. 1972. Commitment and Community: Communes and Utopias in Sociological Perspective. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Joseph, Nathan. 1986. Uniforms and Nonuniforms: Communication Through Clothing. New York: Greenwood Press.

15 thoughts on “Habits in the News: The Power of Image

  1. I typically imagine women religious to be in a veil and skirt but not necessarily the full habit or the street clothes that the sisters I know today. The ones I grew up with were somewhere between the images used in these stories and the sisters of most LCWR communities.

  2. I wonder where they got the pictures they are using, because I am sure that those religious congregations have not given them permission to use them for that purpose. I know there was a simalar incident a year or two ago that I found. The author of the online newspaper article had taken the picture from the website of some European Cloistered Benedictines. I commented on it and it was amazing how fast the picture was removed. It was straight copyright infringement.
    I don’t think the writers of those articles take the time to get an actual picture of their own. They just search the internet for a good nun picture, at least some of the time in disregard of copyrights, and post it in their article as if to claim that it is actually related.

    • Sr. Rose Therese,
      Also, the sisters in these photos do not belong to LCWR. This is very poor journalism, in my humble opinion.

    • The photographs come from the banks of AP / Reuters / etc. photos, according to the attributions — photographs “belong” to the photographer, rather than the subject.

  3. It might be a good idea to let those religious communities in the pictures above know that their picture is being used in those articles.

  4. This is a very well-written blog, and you hit on significant points. Images are so important, simply because of what they are capable of doing/affecting. The fact that these images are being used – and mismatched – without consent is beyond frustrating, not to mention unethical on multiple levels. I agree with Sister Rose Therese that you should contact the religious organizations that these sisters belong to. As a religious woman/sister, on a parallel spiritual path, I can sympathize with misrepresentation. (Personally, as an “empath,” I get it; I am affected by false representations, such as Halloween-green-faces/​images, etc.) So, yes, it’s important to represent as accurately as possible. 🙂 Keep posting updates/interesting things!

  5. I find that what a person wears is superficial. I know Sisters by their compassion, good works, dedication to Jesus and God’s Kingdom.

    I hope that Catholics can get beyond images, in all things, to find the heart of a matter.

  6. Nice article. Sisters deserve so much respect for the sacrifices they have made in choosing this vocation. I always know for any crisis in life they have been there in prayer just a phone call away for me. I hope we never forget their importance in the catholic church; educators, nurses, doctors, missionaries, and even when their elderly they keep us lifted in prayer.

  7. Yes I agree image is important. But I look at nuns in their habits as positive. I grew up respecting nuns and priests. You recognized a nun and priest by the clothes they wore. Even when I was young and saw a nun I knew this woman has dedicated their life to God.

  8. Your points are well made. Why the pictures of some meek obedient women religious? So you would feel they are unjustly accused of being “radical”. Love your last sentence …these women religious of LCWR are doing so much good in the modern world for those the Church sometimes forgets. Helping women who are getting out of prison giving them a place to stay, operating safe houses for abused women and their children, operating soup kitchens, helping immigrants and the poor are just a few of the things being done today. Women religious are no long just nurses and teachers. I feel the women religious today are truly following the message that Jesus gave us. Going back to your point I don’t know why the press doesn’t use photos of the modern dressed religious. These women are so much more that the outfits they wear. And to me their actions speak the loudest to a society that needs a reminder about being a Christian.

  9. I feel that the habit helps to identify a nun and her relationship with God. In grade shool the nuns wore a full habit, and you showed them your respect. Now, some nuns don’t even wear a small veil or a cross, and you can’t identify them. Yesterday, I was in a check out line in a store, and in front of me was an elderly nun wearing a small veil. I thought that it was nice to be able to identity her as a religious person of God, and all of the years she had given of herselt to serve and praise Him. I feel that nuns play an important part in our Catholic religion. People are more willing to ask a nun for prayers when they see them if they can identify them to ask for help. Their prayers, willingness to help those who are in need, and to listen to your concerns are much appreciated. I am thankful for all of their dedication, for all that they do, showing their love, devotion and praise to God. The world is in need of these religious nuns whom God has called.

  10. I am so happy that someone noticed that they were using pictures of religious sisters that are not part of LCWR. I started to realy notice this when I saw pictures of a group that I know very well. The Servants of the Lord and the Virgin of Matara, a group who wears a full length hait, in the colors gary and blue. I was so confused whythey would do that, because they are not part of LCWR, they are part of CMSWR. Then I looked back at all of the other articles, and I saw what you have mentioned, that they are all weiring habits,and most of them are part of CMSWR.
    I also agree with what you are saying, by them using these pictures of young, praying, or obedient looking sisters, tehy are getting more people to go against the vatican. This puts not just the vatican, But also these groups of sisters, in a bad place, because now if anyone sees these pictures, tehy would think back to that article. I also agree, that if they put pictures of the sisters that are part of LCWR, they would get less feedback going against the vatican, which is their main aim. I have not found one nice comment on any of these articles, which is sad to say.
    I pray that people will come to understand what is happening, and understand that they are being manipulated to go against the vatican.
    I am sincerely sorry if anyone finds this comment going against the LCWR. That is not what I am trying to do. Instead, I am just saying that the use of pictures of nuns that are not even in this conflict is not right.
    Thank you so much for your time,
    and thank you for your wonderful article

  11. The image of a non-habited nun would not have the same power that a picture of a habited nun has. If you had a picture of a non-habited nun doinga work of charity in the article and took away the words there would be a different meaning to the picture. There might not be any association with religion specifically. It could be any woman doing a nice deed. The power of images and pictures and meanings associated with them is fantastic.