The Popularity of Women Religious in the U.S.

Since the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith released its doctrinal assessment of the LCWR in April, women religious in the U.S. have been the subject of a plethora of news stories.  Such attention has come not only from Catholic media sources, but has pervaded the secular media as well.  A quick online search reveals well over a thousand news stories, and now there is even a website dedicated to disseminating coverage of American women religious.  Similarly, the recent Nuns on the Bus campaign by the liberal Catholic organization Network has drawn much attention from both mainstream and Catholic media, even seeing support from numerous members of the U.S. Congress.  Network’s Executive Director, Sr. Simone Campbell, has likewise made appearances on major media outlets, including the popular Colbert Report.  Women religious have suddenly gained the attention of many.

The popularity of news stories about the LCWR doctrinal assessment and Nuns on the Bus deserves reflection.  In comparison, notably fewer stories have been dedicated to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ lawsuits against the HHS mandate.  Likewise, other issues promoted by liberal Catholic groups, such as rallies by liberal Catholics in support of gay marriage, have failed to generate the same kind of media blitz as the LCWR and Nuns on the Bus.  While some conservative commentators have accused the media of being biased in pushing the Nuns on the Bus story, arguing that wealthy donors have orchestrated an impressive PR campaign, the LCWR assessment and Nuns of the Bus have no doubt resonated with many Catholics throughout the U.S. and elsewhere, PR campaign or not.  Without people attending rallies in support of the sisters, the stories would be much less compelling.   In South Bend, for example, the local news reports that close to 350 people came to a local Catholic school for a “friend raiser” in support of Nuns on the Bus.


Pictures taken from the Nuns on the Bus stop to Representative Joe Donnelly’s office in South Bend, Indiana


Why are so many Catholics, as well as non-Catholics, interested in the affairs of an organization of leaders of the majority of women’s religious communities throughout the U.S.?   Is this merely about polarization in the Church?  In pondering this question, I am reminded of an interview I did with a young sister a few months before the CDF released its assessment of the LCWR.  In the quotations below, we see Sr. Faustina, a 26-year old sister who belongs to a newly formed religious community (incidentally unaffiliated with either conference of U.S. women religious), speaking about the reactions she has received from people in both the U.S. and abroad.  Belonging to a religious community that wears a traditional habit, and thus standing out wherever she goes, she notes stark comparisons between her experiences being out in public in the Canada and Spain as compared to in the United States:

“In the United States, people still love sisters. Whether they’re atheist, whether they’re Jews, whether they’re former Catholics, Protestants. They all love to see religious. And they want to see us in the habit. And it’s very, very rare that I’ve ever had, in the United States, a negative reaction… And people don’t have the same reaction to the clergy as they have for nuns. But for some reason in the United States, everyone still loves nuns.”

Whereas in Canada and Spain, reactions to Sr. Faustina’s habit were negative, even hostile, her experience in the U.S. has been completely different.  When I asked her to explain what she meant, she expounds on the above:

“Well, in the United States, religious sisters have done so much. Schools, hospitals. They’ve done so much for the immigrant people. That it seems to have just gotten to the heart of the culture, a real love for sisters. Just passed on. Not everyone has had good experience with sisters, which is very painful. And a lot of the times, that’s not always the case. But even those who have had bad experiences, I think once they meet us and they see a friendly face and the friendship they quickly build with us really seems to heal the past. But like I said, the culture as a whole seems to really love sisters. They’ve just done so much for immigrants. When you think of Saint Elizabeth or Mother Theodore Guerin or Katherine Drexel. Even if they weren’t born in the States, they did so much for the American people and they were sisters who were greatly loved. So [Americans] don’t see from sisters so much the authority of the Church like they do with priests or bishops. Which is a shame because I love our priests and bishops. They don’t always receive such a welcome in people’s hearts as sisters do.”

In Sr. Faustina’s interview, I argue that we see two reasons for why women religious are loved so much in the U.S., and with that, two potential reasons why the LCWR assessment and Nuns on the Bus have resonated with so many.  The first is that women religious of the past did many great works for the people, and a love for sisters has worked its way into our culture.  While people may not always show it, women religious are valued for their many good works.  Americans, both Catholic and non-Catholic, are thankful for the work of women religious, and it is likely that the LCWR and Nuns on the Bus have been connected with the work of past sisters.  The second reason as to why the stories might resonate with people is because they do not associate sisters with strict authoritarian teaching like they do the U.S. bishops.  While they may have had strict sisters as teachers, sisters do not carry the same authority status as bishops.  Thus, women religious may be interpreted by some as not emphasizing some of the more hot-button issues as compared to the bishops, in turn making them more likable among moderate and liberal Catholics.  We also find this thinking in Sr. Pat Farrell, the president of LCWR, as she spoke to NPR last week.

Questions to consider:

  • Do you agree with Sr. Faustina that women religious are loved in the United States?  What do you think of her reasoning?
  • What do you think of the media coverage surrounding the LCWR and Nuns on the Bus?  Have you noticed many stories in the secular press?
  • What do you think accounts for the interest in the story among so many secular news organizations?


Update: I explore the lack of support for women’s religious vocations here

9 thoughts on “The Popularity of Women Religious in the U.S.

  1. I was greatly surprised to read that nuns aren’t regarded so positively abroad in some of the other countries mentioned as they are in the U.S. My grade school teachers were nuns, and I have always held the deepest respect for them, and all that they do for the community. Our communities greatly benefit from all of their efforts, compassion, prayers, and selflessness to help others. I feel that these are some of the reasons that people rally to their cause because the nuns help and care so much for others.

    • Thanks for your comment. Also, please keep in mind that the comment about sisters not being regarded so positively abroad is the opinion of one sister. It would be interesting to see public opinion polls of women religious across different countries, though I don’t think that research has been done.

  2. Great piece. Personally, I view the Nuns as being the crown jewels of the Catholic Empire. They have a wonderful record of service and are untainted by the scandals that have plagued so much of the rest of the Church. It astonishes me that the Church hierarchy is targeting the Nuns and the Girl Scouts while priests are being tried for pedophilia in Pennsylvania. It will never happen, but a nun becoming Pope might be the best thing that could ever happen to the Church!

  3. This is a well-written article. Since nuns have helped Americans in so many compassionate ways, it is no wonder that they are beloved by both Catholic and non-Catholic. This affection for the nuns also helps shed light on why Catholic nuns have received so much attention through the bus tour. Indeed, nuns in the United States have been a truly compassionate force and help carry out Christ’s work. Like the nuns, I hope people can see that the clergy (bishops, priests, deacons) carry out the work of Christ in the world, and are not mere authoritarian tools of the institutional body of the Church.

  4. A coworker who worked with a congregation of sisters represented by the LCWR said that in promotional materials she put a photo of the sisters in the habit from the 30’s-50’s on a timeline and one of the sisters got upset with her. My coworker responded that “the context was a timeline and that the people who are including you in their wills remember the sisters they had in school who looked like this.” I think that there’s a great deal of memory, possibly nostalgia, here in the states while in Europe there was bloodshed over religion that is still ripe in the minds of people which causes that animosity.

  5. It is surprising to note a comment that Canadians did not appreciate or are even hostile to nuns or sisters in a habit? We did in the past appreciate them and also still appreciate them not in habits. We did have and still have active sisters and nuns in Canada – Canadian nuns and sisters and some are members of the orders and are from other countries around the world some even still holding dual citizenship. We even have sisters and nuns who are not Roman Catholic. For all orders in Canada it is their piety and work that is first appreciated as well as their working with non Catholics and Catholics. Even in various community photos that are updated each year – it is noted that sisters and nuns can wear what is the best for them – full or partial habits or suits etc. No one in public or for those who deal with the nuns and sisters in Canada – ever says that one is better than the other or is hostile in any way. That is not the Canadian way for just about everything. Where do all these comments come from – about other countries and cultures? Is there some sort of agenda behind them for such untrue remarks?

    • Thank you for your comment. The quotation I present is from an interview with one sister which was part of a larger study. She felt that her and her fellow sisters weren’t as well regarded in other countries outside the U.S. The quote isn’t meant to be representative of the views of all American sisters, but rather to show that at least some sisters feel that they have been more well-liked in the U.S. than elsewhere. More important I think the quote gets into two interesting reasons as to why Americans might be interested in the affairs of U.S. women religious, and provides a starting point for theorizing about the immense support that the LCWR has found among lay Catholics. Admittedly the two reasons I go into detail about are only theories as to why the LCWR assessment has resonated with so many. No doubt other possibilities for the popularity of the LCWR among lay Catholics exist as well.

      On a different note, I recently came across a book called Changing Habits: Women’s Religious Orders in Canada edited by Elizabeth Smyth. It might something you’d be interested in if you have an interest in Canadian women religious. The book is about the rise and growth of a variety of religious orders of women in Canada.

  6. To assist – you may wish to know that a few of the RC Orders in Canada – do have strong past or present informal and perhaps formal links to the LCWR — and the present situation between the Holy See and the US Religious is a concern to us all. The situation is also of great interest to Canadian lay Catholics who politely suggest that perhaps there should be an age limit for the Pope and Archbishops. I have known about the LCWR since 1970 and many male and female Canadian clergy have read most of Joan Chittister’s books as well as those by other US authors who have been banned. They are even used at clergy conferences. Also some Canadians over the decades have had retreats and spiritual direction in LCWR communities in the US. The situation for the 80% US religious sisters is not “just an American concern” – the situation is a world wide concern for all denominations as there are serious concerns about where this Holy See driven RC ultraconservative trend is heading for all in the future of Christianity and interfaith relations. As well a percentage of ecumenical Canadians including clergy in many denominations are associated in some way with the RC orders in Canada which have their US links – as friends, for clergy and lay retreats, spiritual direction, and overall supporters. Thanks for your above response and all the best with your research, interviews and activities at Notre Dame.