Are religious sisters exploited by the Church? Three sisters respond
Last week, the women’s edition of a magazine distributed in the Vatican published an article claiming that religious sisters in the Church are poorly treated and economically exploited.
The article appeared in Women Church World, a monthly women’s magazine published by L’Osservatore Romano, the newspaper of Vatican City. The Associated Press called the story an “exposé on the underpaid labor and unappreciated intellect of religious sisters.”
In the article, three religious sisters, whose names have been changed, expressed that the work of women religious is undervalued, that sisters are treated poorly by the priests and bishops they serve, and that they are not recognized or paid fairly for their work.
One nun, identified only as Sr. Marie, said that nuns often work long hours in domestic roles for little pay. She also lamented that some sisters are not invited to eat at the same table with the clergy that they serve, causing frustration and resentment.
Another sister in the article lamented that sisters with advanced degrees are sometimes tasked with menial jobs.
“I met some nuns in possession of a doctorate in theology who have been sent to cook or wash the dishes the following day, a mission free from any connection with their intellectual formation and without a real explanation,” said a religious sister identified in the article as Sr. Paule.
But several religious sisters have told CNA that the article does not reflect their experiences in religious life.
Mother M. Maximilia Um, who is the Provincial Superior of the Sisters of St. Francis of the Martyr St. George in Alton, Illinois, said that the article might indicate specific problems in particular sisters’ situations, rather than systemic institutional problems.
“None of the concerns or problems pointed out in this article can really be completely dismissed, but...I don’t think that they can be confined to relationships between men and women, and those who are ordained and those who are not,” she said. “I suppose in the end it’s a problem as old as sin.”
While Mother Maximilia’s order of sisters mostly serve in health care and education positions, they have “quite a history” of serving in the households of priests or bishops, like the sisters in the article.
However, the views of the sisters in the article do not reflect “the very real experience our sisters have had in these apostolates, where there is real care and concern shown for the sisters and for their service,” she said.
Mother Marie Julie is the Superior General of the Sisters of Charity of Our Lady, Mother of the Church, headquartered in Connecticut, whose apostolates are primarily in health care and education. Their charism is “to serve the people of God in a spirit of heartfelt simplicity.”
“So by our charism, we’re not looking to get our name in lights, we’re not looking for adulation or praise or notice even, we just want to be in the heart of the Church, and I think that’s pretty much the feeling of most religious congregations and their members,” Mother Marie told CNA.
She added that she was “saddened” by the L’Osservatore Romano article, because, she said, it paints a “misleading and bleak picture” of religious life, and does not emphasize the gift of the vocation, both to the consecrated individual and to the Church at large.
“There are disgruntled people everywhere, and also I have to admit there is probably some truth to what was written in that article, I can’t say that those people have never had any of those experiences,” she said. “But that has not been my experience or the experience of those sisters that I know.”
Rather than a feeling of servitude, religious sisters typically feel that they are daughters of the Church, and are loved and respected as such, said Mother Judith Zuniga, O.C.D., Superior General of the Carmelite Sisters of the Most Sacred Heart of Los Angeles, California.
“I feel and know myself to be a daughter of the Church, which in essence means that the Church is my Mother and I sincerely love her,” Mother Judith told CNA by email.
“If there is sexism and discrimination, my sisters and I have not experienced it. There seems to be more a feeling of respect, affection, and gratitude for the services we render, for who we are. This would be the more standard response we've received from people within and outside the Church,” she said.
When it comes to monetary compensation, Mother Maximilia noted that while the salaries or stipends of a sister doing domestic work might be less than what she might make in other apostolates, “that was never an issue for us because first of all we see this as a real service to the church,” she said. Furthermore, the households in which sisters served often provided other compensation, such as meals or lodging.
“I feel like we were always adequately compensated for service,” she said.
Mother Marie told CNA that sometimes, if a particular parish is struggling, the sisters serving there might be paid less, or paid later as the funds come in, but “those are the parishes that are struggling, that is not the norm by any stretch of the imagination,” she noted.
“We don't expect that we would live simply on the love of God, we have to have insurance and we have responsibilities and overhead,” Mother Marie said. “But when that happens - when we’re in a ministry and we’re not paid adequately as the world would see it - that’s not servitude, that’s Gospel, and that’s a privilege,” she said.
Religious sisters in the Church typically make three vows - those of poverty, chastity and obedience. During the celebration of the final profession of those vows, a sister often lies prostrate, face down, before the altar and the cross, in a symbolic gesture that she is giving up her old life and rising with Christ as someone who totally belongs to him, Mother Marie said.
That moment is “one of the holiest moments of our lives as sisters,” Mother Marie said.
“When we laid our lives at the service of the Gospel, we also laid at the foot of the altar our expectations for what we would gain in life,” in terms of worldly success or recognition, she said. Instead, “our hope is that we would gain souls, and I know that that might sound sort of Pollyannish, but that’s what gets us up in the morning,” she added.
Regarding the complaint that sisters with advanced degrees might be working in positions of service that are considered less intellectually stimulating, Mother Maximilia said that kind of thinking reveals a bias about what makes work valuable.
“The thought that [intellectual work] is objectively more valuable is already a biased opinion,” Mother Maximilia said.
“The point of any work is to serve and love God and neighbor, and I think actually that shows itself in a very particular way in direct service to a person’s needs,” she said.
“I would argue that it often is very intellectual work to balance and manage a household, so I think first of all we have a skewered notion of what valuable work is, and I would accentuate that what makes work valuable in the end is love, and we’ve always understood that service to the clergy is primarily that,” Mother Maximilia said.
It is natural, Mother Marie noted, that a religious sister with an advanced degree would want to work in her field of expertise at least for a time, and that is often the plan for those sisters. However, sometimes extenuating circumstances necessitate that sisters serve in other apostolates.
“If God calls us to do something else either through our superiors or the signs of the times or just through events, then we respond to that...we see that as the will of God,” she said.
When a sister is serving in a position that may not have been her first choice, it is not unlike the sacrifices that mothers and fathers make for their families, she added, such as staying up all night with a sick child, or taking a lower paying position in order to have more time for their family.
“That’s done for love, and it’s love that drives what we do, and a recognition of this great gift that we have,” as consecrated people, she said.
Mother Judith added that while education is a good and necessary thing, it is not ultimately the measure by which souls will be judged at the end of their lives.
“In the final analysis, when we come to the end of our life and we come before the Lord, I think it's safe to say that He's not going to ask us how many degrees we had or how we used our education,” she said. “He's going to ask us how we loved.”
Mother Judith noted that the article misses, as contemporary culture often misses, the gifts that women in their femininity bring to the world, regardless of what specific tasks they are performing.
“We live in a culture that doesn't seem to value the true gifts that women bring to our culture - motherhood, gentleness, patience, intuition, sensitivity, attention, warmth and the list goes on. These qualities are now seen in a negative light, seen as weaknesses, when in fact, it's our strength,” she said.
“For consecrated religious, these elements of true femininity should be even more deeply rooted in us simply because of who we are. People see us and right away they associate us with God, the Church and rightly so. What a blessing and privilege it is to be a daughter of the Church.”