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The Lives Of Modern American Nuns

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The Lives Of Modern American Nuns


The Lives Of Modern American Nuns

The Lives Of Modern American Nuns

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

Laurie Goodstein, New York Times religion correspondent
Kenneth Briggs, author of Double Crossed
Sister Mary Pellegrino, congregational moderator of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Baden, PA

The Vatican recently launched two investigations of American nuns. Many worry that the Catholic Church is targeting them for their views. Nuns and sisters share how their lives have or have not changed with modern times, and their concerns surrounding the investigations.


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Lynn Neary in Washington. Neal Conan is away this week.

When you think of a nun, your first image, if you went to Catholic school, could be of your scary third-grade teacher. From the sublime to the ridiculous, nuns have worked their way into our collective imagination, but the reality here in the United States is more diverse than you might think.

From nuns in habits leading cloistered lives to sisters living among their neighbors, wearing regular clothes - women, religious, can be found in all walks of life, and many of those sisters are now under scrutiny from Rome.

The Vatican is currently conducting a broad, two-year investigation into the lives and practices of nuns in the United States, and that has many congregations concerned about their future.

Later, we have an email challenge. World's finest, aged to perfection -what clichés on restaurant menus get under your skin? Email your vote now to

But first, the modern lives of nuns. If you are or have been a nun or a sister, what don't we understand about your life as a religious person? Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255. The email address is, and you can join the conversation at our Web site. Go to, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

And we begin with Laurie Goodstein, a religion correspondent with the New York Times. She joins us from our bureau in New York. Good to have you with us, Laurie.

Ms. LAURIE GOODSTEIN (Religion Correspondent, New York Times): Thanks for having me.

NEARY: So Laurie, tell us what this Vatican inquiry is all about.

Ms. GOODSTEIN: The Vatican is doing an exhaustive look at every congregation or community of women religious in the United States. It's called an apostolic visitation, and usually these kinds of things are undertaken when there is a problem or a scandal.

In this case, they are looking at everything from whether or not the communities are winning new vocations, having more women come into service, whether - what kind of work they're doing, whether they're living in a community or living on their own, and they're also looking at things like doctrine, how sound the doctrine is, whether it is in keeping with the teaching of the church.

So it's - at the end, they'll report to the Vatican, and there could be some disciplinary action, but it's hard to know.

NEARY: Well, if there was no scandal, do we know what prompted it?

Ms. GOODSTEIN: We believe that there have been some complaints from bishops in the United States. There's also been some alarm sounded by some cardinals in the Vatican, about American nuns who were sounding themes that perhaps were not in keeping with the teaching of the church or were doing work that were getting them too much into the secular world and not enough in the service of the church, say working in the church's schools or in hospitals.

The diversity that you talked about at the top of the show with, you know, the way the nuns live today, you can find nuns who are living in convents, living - wearing habits, spending their day, you know, praying most of the day, ordering their day that way. But you can also find nuns who are working in the world as professionals, who are working with a whole variety of community organizations.

You find nuns who are lobbyists, you find nuns who are social workers, and that diversity may be partly what has the Vatican concerned.

NEARY: Now when you say we believe, and when you, you know, use words like may be why the Vatican is concerned, is it because you really don't have the information from the Vatican, there's been no explanation? Why is it a matter of conjecture at this point?

Ms. GOODSTEIN: When the Vatican announced this, this took everybody by surprise that they were going to be doing this apostolic visitation. They also did not really give their reason, but we're partly going by speeches that have been given by Vatican officials.

In particular, one of the cardinals who was - who is the person who has asked for this investigation - gave an address last year in Massachusetts, at a forum on women religious and on priests, as well, in which he talked about his concerns of some communities that were going off the map, going into uncharted territory and re-forming themselves, both according to doctrine and also how they live.

NEARY: Now one other thing, although this is very widespread, it is not aimed at nuns in convents. Is that correct?

Ms. GOODSTEIN: That's right.

NEARY: Maybe you can explain that.

Ms. GOODSTEIN: Well, there are nuns who live cloistered in convents. They're not looking at those nuns. They're looking at the nuns who work in the world. These are the apostolic orders, those who you might see in a school, or you might see running a hospital, or might see teaching at a university. So those are the nuns that they're looking at.

There are also, I want to say one of the things that has caused some alarm is that this is not the only investigation going on. There's another investigation that is clearly about doctrine because it comes from the Vatican's doctrinal office. They are looking at an umbrella group of nuns, in fact it's the largest umbrella group of nuns in the United States, but it's the more liberal-leaning group.

It's called the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. And what raised the concerns at the Vatican were some speeches and some talks that were given at this group's conferences in which women were talking about new forms of spirituality, in which they were talking sometimes about women taking more strong leadership roles in the church, perhaps even raising the idea of women serving as priests.

So that's not necessarily been explicit, but there was alarm from the Vatican about that, and that group is also being investigated separately, but simultaneously, as the larger investigation.

NEARY: And one quick question on a related topic. You reported today on a new study on nuns and priests, that shows that many younger nuns want to return to a more traditional way of life, which seemed a bit surprising. What's that about?

Ms. GOODSTEIN: Well, partly what you see is that when women used to enter religious life, they, in past generations perhaps, didn't have a whole lot of options. Even if they wanted to work in the world, they saw religious life as a path to that.

Now you have women who can - you know, are free to join any profession, to do anything with their lives - the opportunities are open. And so what's distinctive, now, about being a nun is that more spiritual, is that more traditional form of life.

So the younger women who are coming in, and I say younger, but these are often, on average, women in their 30s, they are attracted by the distinctions of the life of a nun; the prayer cycle, the living in community and perhaps even wearing the habit.

The studies found that about two-thirds of the women you'd joined in the last few years, who had joined a religious congregation, joined one that wears a habit.

NEARY: Laurie Goodstein is a religion correspondent for the New York Times, and she joined us from our New York bureau. Thanks so much for being with us, Laurie.

Ms. GOODSTEIN: Thank you, Lynn.

NEARY: And joining us now is Kenneth Briggs. He is the author of "Double Crossed: Uncovering the Catholic Church's Betrayal of American Nuns." He joins us now from his home in Easton, Pennsylvania. Thanks for joining us, Ken.

Mr. KENNETH BRIGGS (Author, "Double Crossed: Uncovering the Catholic Church's Betrayal of American Nuns"): Thank you.

NEARY: Now, there were dramatic changes in the lives of nuns after the Second Vatican Council, which occurred in the 1960s. How exactly did Vatican II transform their lives?

Mr. BRIGGS: Well, as most listeners might know, a Vatican council is the highest council of the church, and they don't meet very often, sometimes hundreds of years before they meet to make major decisions about church practice.

In 1965, during the Second Vatican Council, the council passed a specific document that addressed to religious, both religious men and women, but it fell more heavily on women because there are more of them, and the situation was different for them. That document gave permission for something that many sisters had wanted for a long time, a chance to re-form themselves in order to fulfill their mission in the world in a better way, in order to be able to relate to the modern world in a way that allowed them to be more effective.

That's what got the ball rolling. And the decisions about how a particular group of - a particular convent or a congregation or a community was to go about that modernizing and updating was left largely to them. And this was a very big development because nuns had never had any authority to do anything in the church. They were totally at the behest of the hierarchy.

They began to develop patterns of re-forming themselves - their dress, where they worked, where they lived. And all of the old patterns began to unravel, but it didn't unravel without tremendous process that went on for 10 years or sometimes longer, where nuns in particular communities held chapter meetings. They debated these changes. There were tensions. There were conflicts between liberals and conservatives, and out of that came this kind of new life based on the Vatican document and aimed at fulfilling their mission in the world.

NEARY: But as you've written, these changes also created a lot of tension at times, not always, but at times, between many of these religions women's congregations and the Vatican and the church hierarchy.

Mr. BRIGGS: Yeah. A lot of times I think the hierarchy didn't realize what it had given permission to do because after a while, they began to object that too many nuns were making too many of their own decisions, becoming too independent, and the accusation grew that it had become too immersed in the most dreaded of all things, feminism. And that once you attached that label to it - and I'm not just passing that by lightly because that charge was lodged by a number of very high officials in the church, including Cardinal O'Connor in New York - that these women were becoming radical feminists and not obeying anymore.

So it largely became a battle over authority: Who is going to decide what that community of nuns is going to live like and be like? Who's going to make those decisions, and what's the proper role of sisters toward the hierarchy in this new situation?

NEARY: And is that now playing itself out in these Vatican…?

Mr. BRIGGS: There has been a grievance - a very, very, sharp, painful grievance - by Rome, the Vatican and many in the hierarchy; against the nuns that they think have become much too free, much too conformed, they say, to the society and that the whole movement that they thought they could contain at one time, had - became too much in the hands of women themselves, making their own judgments. And this is bearing that out.

This is - there has been an effort to roll back the changes and renewal, reform process before, but it has continued…

NEARY: Ken, let's - we're going to take a short break now, and I want to remind you, we're talking about the lives of nuns. If you'd like to give us a call, the number is 800-989-8255. My guest is Kenneth Briggs, former religion editor at the New York Times. He's joining us from his home in Easton, and we'll be back in a moment. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Lynn Neary.

(Soundbite of music)

NEARY: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Lynn Neary in Washington. We're talking about the lives of nuns and how the work and lifestyle of nuns have changed over the years. We'll be talking with Sister Mary Pellegrino in a few minutes.

What is it that you don't understand about the lives of nuns? And if you are or have been a nun, what don't we understand about your life as a religious person?

Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255. Our email address is, or you can join the conversation at our Web site. Go to, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Kenneth Briggs is our guest. He's a former religion editor at the New York Times, and wrote the book "Double Crossed: Uncovering the Catholic Church's Betrayal of American Nuns."

We're going to take a call now from Barbara(ph). She's calling from Ardmore, Pennsylvania. Hi, Barbara.

BARBARA (Caller): Hi. I was a sister in a wonderful order in Philadelphia, and I guess in terms of what I noticed changed, in the '70s, when we could open our doors to people.

I mean, it wasn't just that you went out and got new jobs. I stayed a teacher. But people said to us in the parish I was in, just across the bridge in New Jersey, it's the first time the convent ever opened its doors to people.

I mean, it was - it used to be in the olden days, you went to mass, and you walked and that people, lay people, walked the other way. We were doing our work, but we were able to serve people. The Sisters of St. Joseph in Brooklyn do all kinds of work with prison people. And I don't think a lot of those jobs really need people in habits. I think they want to look at people who are - just, their hearts are reaching out to them, and I think this whole thing about putting people back in habits is just misdirected, I really do.

NEARY: So you - but you left the…

BARBARA: I (unintelligible) a change from a habit to a non-habit, and I just happened to be going to graduate school when we made the rule that you could teach without a habit, and I was going to the University of Pennsylvania. And I cannot tell you how many students were able to - they knew I was a sister. They identified. You know, it was just a different way to be with people without having to have, as one professor said to me, furniture in your clothing. For some people, the habit is not exactly a, you know, an access.

NEARY: Why did you decide to leave the convent?

BARBARA: Oh, you know what? My leaving is so much part of my family, and it has nothing against my order. I still work with the order - I love the order - so that probably had I had a different background, I'd still be a sister.

NEARY: All right, well Barbara, thanks so much for calling us.

BARBARA: And I just don't want the Vatican to do this.

NEARY: Why are you concerned about that?

BARBARA: Because I think they know right now there is this alternative. Laurie Goldstein wrote about them this morning in the Times. There are all of these alternative groups that are calling themselves the neo-feminists, and they're being founded by men.

New York Archbishop O'Connor founded two groups. They've got huge money from, you know, Domino's Pizza, and they're very savvy, but they're not the only face of religious life, and I think the Vatican knows it now has a wedge.

NEARY: All right, well thanks so much for calling, Barbara.

BARBARA: Okay, thanks. Good luck to everybody.

NEARY: Kenneth Briggs, I'd just like you to comment on what we just heard from Barbara about what she thinks may be going on right now.

Mr. BRIGGS: One thing I heard from her is a bit of the excitement that accompanied this opening up - again very based in that official document of the church - that opening up to life that took place in the '60s and '70s when there was a chance to re-create religious life in a way that was more touching and relevant and exciting. And there was tremendous excitement about this among so many of the religious orders.

The other thing I think bears attention is that yes, there is a certain degree of interest in the much more traditional, habited orders of nuns, but not many.

We're dealing with - we're talking about very small numbers here, and there's some evidence that those who enter - who leave by the back door are about equivalent to the number who are coming in the front door. So I wouldn't want a study like that to be too misleading. It's not as if suddenly there's a surge of interest in the conservative, very traditional orders.

It hasn't worked that way, and I don't think it's going to work that way. There will some… And just one footnote about the habit itself. The habit does not go back all that far in the history of nuns.

It's not as if it's been there forever. It took place only, I think, about 250 years ago. And so it, like many things in the church, is a matter of fashion.

Pope Pius XII, probably the most conservative pope of the century, of the 19th century, wrote a letter before the end of his papacy urging nuns to see how the habit could be modified to be, to put them in closer touch with the society around them - so that that movement was going on a long time, and everyone kind of knew that something had to be done.

NEARY: Ken, I want to read an email that's come in, a very interesting email.

Mr. BRIGGS: Sure.

NEARY: From Sister Imelda(ph) in San Francisco. As Ken Briggs talks, I am made aware once again that of all groups within the Catholic Church, Catholic sisters have been most faithful to the dictates and spirit of Vatican II.

We were told by Vatican II to listen to and respond to the signs of the times. This is what led many of us from the classroom to the secular places, where there were unmet needs. Secular work is not Christ in each person we meet. If you did this for the least of my brothers and sisters, humbled and proud that I have been a sister for 51 years, part of this circle of remarkable women.

This is a woman who embraced the change that came after the 1960s, after Vatican II, clearly has been a nun for a long time and so has seen both sides.

Mr. BRIGGS: And very - and it's a very common response. Nuns will say, lots of them will say, we're getting punished for doing what we were told to do. You know, we were supposed to fulfill the promise of that Vatican II document, and when we started doing it, then we alarmed people who said oh, we don't think - we think this has reached beyond what we intended to, and there is no clear evidence that there was a water line or… And so sisters went ahead, and they evolved a way of life that I think was in keeping with the Second Vatican Council. I would have to agree with that.

NEARY: Ken Briggs, I want to thank you for being with us today.

Mr. BRIGGS: Oh, thank you very much.

NEARY: Kenneth Briggs is the author of "Double Crossed: Uncovering the Catholic Church's Betrayal of American Nuns."

And joining us now is Sister Mary Pellegrino. She is the congregational moderator of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Baden, Pennsylvania. She's with us today from New Orleans, where she's attending the annual meeting of the Leadership Council on Women Religious. Thank you for being on the show so much, Sister.

Sister MARY PELLEGRINO (Congregational Moderator, Sisters of St. Joseph of Baden, Pennsylvania): You're welcome, Lynn. Thank you for having me.

NEARY: Now, there are a lot of stereotypes about nuns, we know. What would you say are some of the really big misconceptions that people may have about the life that you and other women religious lead?

Sister PELLEGRINO: Well, I think there are a lot of stereotypes, and they do still linger in our culture, certainly films like "Sister Act," you know, contributes to those stereotypes, things like "Sound of Music."

You know, some of the misconceptions, you know, that I've, you know, run into and certainly other sisters have run into is this perception that our life is very austere, that we at some level are - women who make vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, at some level are repressed.

You know, so there's stereotypes in terms of the kinds of persons who would really respond to a call, to this kind of life. I think there's stereotypes in terms of what sorts of things should sisters be doing, what kinds of ministries should we be involved in.

NEARY: And there are no limitations, you would say at this point, on what sisters - well, I'm sure there are some limitations, but I mean, within a certain acceptable norm, there are…

Sister PELLEGRINO: Well, and the norm, I think for sisters, would be certainly the mission of each of their congregations. Every congregation has a particular mission and articulates that mission in some fashion rooted in the spirituality of their founders, their original sisters. And so the works, particularly of apostolic women religious, are really grounded in the history of the congregation, in the mission of the congregation.

Some congregations, you know, may have very specific ministerial focuses that are defined by their founders or their constitutions, and other congregations, like my own, have very - you know, don't necessarily have a very focused ministerial expression. And we are to really respond to the most urgent needs of our dear neighbors, doing all the works of which woman is capable. Those are words from our primitive constitutions, from 17th-century France.

NEARY: Well, let me ask you this. I think since Vatican II and since many nuns stopped wearing habits; and many nuns started working in areas like social work, teaching in both secular institutions, as well as religious institutions, living in apartments, perhaps away from their communities, the question then arises: Why do you need to be a nun? Why do you need to be a nun to do any of that if you're going to live apart from your community, look like anybody else? What then does it mean to be a nun?

Sister PELLEGRINO: Well, I think that, you know, to be a sister or a nun, to be somebody, you know, a person really rooted in a relationship with God in that mystery, and within that mystery, finding that there is a call to something more, a call to give fully a life as one might give fully a life to some other great enterprise or some mission. And I think that it's a question of meaning, you know, what is the deepest meaning of a person's life, and how can that be expressed?

I think another thing is, you know, many people might thrive in, you know, they thrive to fulfillness(ph) in their human development and autonomy. Others thrive to fulfillness in their human development in a committed relationship with another person. And still others, like women and men who are called to this life, thrive in our fulfillness of our relationship with Christ, our relationship with God and our human development, in giving ourselves, through the vows, through our community life to the works of the congregation. And it's really about a relationship with God. It's not necessarily about what work will I do.

NEARY: We're talking about what it means to be a nun in America, in the United States, contemporary United States. If you'd like to give us a call, the number is 800-989-8255. We're going to take a call from Cecilia(ph) in Wellington, Florida. Hi, Cecilia.

CECILIA (Caller): Hi. Thanks for taking my call.

NEARY: Go ahead.

CECILIA: First of all, I think that 65 was - the Vatican was beautiful because it brought back all wonderful women to work into society. I'm a practicing Catholic. And my question is, isn't it the bishopers(ph) and all this investigation geared more on the threat that women could be priests and could be doing the same ministries as the men? When Jesus was - when the beginning of the history, women also had the same ministries, so, I was wondering if this is a threat to the organization of the church.

NEARY: Sister Mary Pellegrino?

CECILIA: Thank you.

Sister PELLEGRINO: If the - I think what I'm hearing is not necessarily the inquiry or the investigation, but being a threat. But the Vatican proceeding…

NEARY: Women as a threat.

Sister PELLEGRINO: …apostolic women - religious. And, you know, and I think that there are those, I think, who certainly see this as, you know, kind of a threat to the manner in which we have been expressing religious life since the Second Vatican Council. And I think that, you know, there's a broader context with regard to the function of authority in the church. And right now, authority in the church does reside with clergy.

And so, beyond even the, you know, the gender, the concern about gender imbalance, there is the reality that laypersons in the church, those who are not ordained do not have the same possibility in terms of really decision making in the church or direction in the church. That kind of authority and power resides with ordained members in the church. And so, there's…

NEARY: And you're saying - and that's priests who are men?

Sister PELLEGRINO: It is priests. It is priests. That's right. Priests, bishops, cardinals and the pope. And so, oftentimes, I think that the conversation stays within the realm of gender because the clergy is all male at this point. But I think there's a deeper conversation to be had about…

NEARY: If I can interrupt you one moment? I…

Sister PELLEGRINO: …the exercise of authority.

NEARY: I just want to interrupt for a moment and remind our listeners that you are listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And we're going to take a call now from Ann(ph) who is calling from Houston, Texas.

ANN (Caller): Yes. Hello. I was a Benedictine sister for 24 years and feel that a major contribution that women religious give is the sense of community, and the idea of commitment and also that their ministries, when they've expanded, have been not just to Catholic schools like in our - in the case of the Benedictine I was in, but also to those that are poor, those who can't defend themselves, those that probably weren't in the Catholic schools, not that I don't love Catholic schools.

NEARY: Sister Mary Pellegrino?

Sister PELLEGRINO: Yes. Thank you, Ann, for that. Really, just a beautiful summary, I think, of what the gift of apostolic religious life is in the church. And, you know, by its nature, apostolic life is to be sent into the world, to minister in the world, to both find and follow Christ there. And for many congregations, our ministries have taken us to the, you know, to the most disenfranchised, the most alienated within our cultures, within our neighborhoods. And that cuts across religious boundaries, that cuts across, you know, the - if somebody is Catholic or is they're non-Catholic.

The call of Christ in the world is, you know, calls out to really alleviate the suffering of people within a culture, alleviate those who have no - the suffering of those who have no voice, to teach those who have no opportunities for education. And that really does cut across religious boundaries. And I think women religious - apostolic women religious in the United States have really demonstrated an enormous amount of energy and commitment to that.

I just came off of a tour this morning in New Orleans. Some of the Katrina relief sites that women's communities throughout the United States sent monetary support and, in some cases, there are members down to help do some relief. And it's amazing the kinds of - just the human suffering that has been alleviated with no sense of whether, you know, is this person Catholic? It's really Christ calling to us from the world, and that's beyond any kind of boundaries.

NEARY: Sister Mary Pellegrino, thanks so much for joining us today.

Sister PELLEGRINO: You're welcome, Lynn. Thanks for having me.

NEARY: Sister Mary Pellegrino is with the Sisters of Saint Joseph. She joined us today from New Orleans where she's attending the annual meeting of the Leadership Council on Women Religious.

Up next, cliches served freshly. What phrases would you want to ban from restaurant menus, ice-cold world's best? Give us a call, 800-989-8255.

Stay with us. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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