Florida State University : Research in Review

[Skip Navigation]


(Page 2 of 2)


Today's nuns bear little likeness to the nuns of yesteryear, thanks to a painful era aimed at righting a world of wrongs.

To someone whose ideas about nuns were formed mostly by watching The Sound of Music and talking occasionally with a couple of sisters who taught at the local Catholic high school, a conversation with Amy Koehlinger is an eye-opener. In just a few minutes of conversation, the assistant professor of religion at FSU manages to tear down a lifetime's worth of stereotypes.

For instance, few sisters outside of convents in the United States wear traditional habits any more. The modern nun's clothing is typically no different from that of anyone else, Koehlinger says, except that it's generally not as expensive. Today's nuns, who still take the traditional oath of poverty, try to spend as little as possible on clothing and thus tend to get their clothes from second-hand stores or clothing banks.

And most nuns no longer live in convents, Koehlinger says. Their work takes them out into the community—often into the less desirable parts of town—so it is seldom convenient to base out of a convent. They live instead in houses or apartments rented or owned by their congregations. It is only when they retire from active service and no longer require separate housing that they move back to the convent. As a result, she says, convents today function primarily as nursing homes for aged sisters.

Modern-day nuns drive cars, carry checkbooks, and generally do the same things anyone else does—again, mostly as a matter of expediency, Koehlinger says. If you're traveling from prison to prison to minister to the convicts, for instance, you need a car.

Even the terminology used to describe sisters is different. As Koehlinger explains, although "nun" is still used colloquially to refer to any of these women, technically speaking it is only those sisters living cloistered lives in a convent who are called nuns, and the term "women religious" is increasingly heard, Koehlinger said, although "sisters" is also acceptable.

What hasn't changed about nuns, Koehlinger says, is that their primary commitment is still to the Christian God. They still have robust prayer lives, for example, even though living outside the traditional convents means that they no longer gather several times a day with their fellow sisters for prayer. And their vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience—even though they are generally interpreted somewhat differently than they were 40 years ago—still remain. Nuns own nothing more than necessary, and they do not marry. The singular difference is that today's nuns interpret their mission in a very different way than was normal a couple of generations ago.

How those changes came about is a long, fascinating story and one that has not yet been completely told, although Koehlinger has now made a good start. In her recently released book, The New Nuns: Racial Justice and Religious Reform in the 1960s (Harvard, 2007), she describes how a small group of nuns immersed themselves in the civil rights movement and the broader quest for racial justice and, in so doing, developed a template for a new sort of nun, one that has come to predominate in the years since the 1960s.


Koehlinger's interest in nuns began quite by accident. After finishing her junior year at Indiana University, where she was majoring in political science and religion, she decided to take some time off from school. "I wanted to make the world a better place," she says. It was 1989, and the AIDS crisis was in full swing, so she chose to work for an AIDS service organization.

Moving to Washington, D.C., she began interviewing at different agencies that worked with AIDS patients. One of them was Damien Ministries, a small organization founded by Roman Catholic priests with AIDS, most of whom had been quietly asked to leave their orders when they got sick. Its mission was to provide homeless AIDS patients, mainly poor and black, with food and housing.

Damien Ministries was in a particularly bad part of town, Koehlinger remembers—so bad that when she got there the cab driver wasn't sure he should even let her out. When she insisted, he told her he would stay around long enough to make sure she would be okay. She ended up working there for a year.

The organization, she discovered, was connected with all sorts of radical Catholic groups—"radical" in the sense that they identified themselves with leftist causes and groups that fell outside of traditional mainstream Catholicism. These radical elements formed a sort of underground in the Catholic Church, that was interested in a variety of social-justice issues. And of all the radical sorts Koehlinger came in contact with at Damien, she found the nuns most interesting. She remembers one group of Irish nuns in particular who were very well educated and exceptionally intelligent. "I thought, Where do these women come from?"

She was hooked, and the subject of Catholic nuns—particularly the ones interested in social justice—became a topic that she would immerse herself in. After getting her undergraduate degree, she went to graduate school with the goal of studying the relationship of religion to social reform and political activism. "How do you get from good Catholic schoolgirl to radical nun?" she wondered. The question dovetailed with her broader curiosity about how religion shapes social critique and social engagement. After receiving her doctorate in religion in 2002 from Yale, Koehlinger joined FSU's religion faculty as an assistant professor of North American religious history.

In researching the Catholic sisters, Koehlinger found herself drawn particularly to the group of nuns in the 1960s who worked for racial justice in various ways. They created free summer schools and playground programs for inner-city black children, they helped keep open Catholic parish schools in the inner city after white students left for segregated neighborhoods in the suburbs, and they even taught classes at historically black colleges so that the professors there could take time off for sabbaticals and research projects. Working behind the scenes in this way, they did not play the sorts of roles that get much mention in the many histories that have been written about the civil rights movement, and so their story had been mostly ignored, Koehlinger discovered.


The 1960s were a time of transition for the Catholic Church as a whole, and a major factor driving change in the church was the Second Vatican Council, Koehlinger said. Pope John XXIII had called the council to address theological issues as well as questions about the role of the church in the modern world, and the initial agenda had been set by the Vatican. But once the 2,000-plus bishops arrived and the council began, the bishops took over. They decided to set the agenda themselves—with the Pope's blessing—and over the next three years the council took on a wide range of issues, and the documents issued by the council eventually influenced the church in a number powerful of ways.

Among the most noticeable changes that resulted from the Council were the use of less Latin in services, having the priest turn around and face the congregation, and allowing nuns to shed their traditional habits. But there were also a number of internal changes that affected mainly priests, nuns, and others who had taken religious vows. One such change, Koehlinger said, was an increased emphasis on collegiality and a corresponding de-emphasizing of hierarchy. For nuns, this meant a move away from the time-honored model where mother superiors are the absolute heads of a convent and whose orders are obeyed without question to a more democratic model where nuns work together to determine God's will and the convent's direction.

It took years—decades, even—for the various ramifications of Vatican II (as the council was called) to make their way through the church, and, indeed, the meanings and implications of some of the directives are still being argued about. But what was perhaps more interesting, Koehlinger learned, is that many of the changes in the church that led to the appearance of the new nuns actually predated Vatican II. Koehlinger discovered that in the early 1960s a group of progressive, socially activist nuns began chafing under the restraints of the old order and were already fighting to transform the church from within.

Koehlinger traces the presence of these socially active nuns to several factors. Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, the church had sent many nuns to universities to earn advanced degrees, and because many of these sisters chose to study the social sciences, they were exposed to the various ideas in vogue among social scientists of that era. In particular, in the wake of World War II, many academics were trying to understand and come to grips with fascism and, at the same time, rethinking democracy, and the nuns listened and heard.

In another sense, Koehlinger says, the new nuns were simply harkening back to a tradition of focusing on social justice that has been a part of the church for centuries. Particularly in the United States, historically the Catholic church has reached out to oppressed minorities—e.g. the Irish, the Italians, and the Poles—and paid attention to economic issues, labor issues, and racial justice.

"It's an older, deeper tradition," she says. "The church has always been progressive on certain issues."

As far back as the 17th century, the church hierarchy took a stand for racial justice and against the evils of slavery, she said. However, rank-and-file members weren't necessarily as opposed to slavery as was the church hierarchy. The racially activist sisters that Koehlinger met while working at Damien Ministries as an undergraduate were, she says, "a clear embodiment of this form of Catholicism."


So even before the changes set in motion by Vatican II appeared, a growing number of sisters with progressive ideas were bristling under the restrictions of the church, Koehlinger said. They were eager for ways to work outside the traditional jobs the church had laid out for them. They wanted to minister to everyone, not just to Catholics, and, in particular, they thought they should be ministering to the neediest in society. Koehlinger spoke with several nuns who told her about the discomfort they felt teaching in Catholic schools in what they saw as all-white, upper-class, suburban enclaves. The sisters "didn't like the effect of prosperity on the students." They felt stifled, and they wanted to get out into the world to work with the less fortunate. It's this group of nuns that Koehlinger focuses on in her book.

One of the first things these activist sisters faced, Koehlinger discovered, was a constant need to negotiate with their church superiors to do the things they thought needed doing to answer their calling. In her book, for instance, she describes a group of nuns who set up a free summer school for children living in a housing project in central Chicago in the summer of 1965. The sisters wished to rent apartments in the housing project itself to be close to the people they were helping. Diocesan officials balked and insisted that the sisters follow the traditional pattern of staying in a convent, which required them to drive a long distance to and from the project each day. In this case the sisters did not get what they wanted, but by constantly pushing for new ways of doing things, new nuns like these would manage to open up many doors previously shut to them.

One area of change was where nuns were allowed to work. Before Vatican II, the sisters were largely confined to the traditional Catholic sphere: the church, the convent, Catholic schools, Catholic charities and hospitals, and so forth. (Nuns who established the free school near the Chicago housing project used an abandoned Catholic school that was still owned by the diocese.) But this severely restricted the types of people that the nuns could minister to, and they gradually expanded the list of acceptable ministries until eventually it no longer seemed strange to have nuns spending most of their time with non-Catholics in places that had little or no connection with the church.

A second area of change was the sorts of work that nuns were allowed to perform. To that point, most nuns had worked in very traditional jobs, such as teaching—mainly in Catholic schools—and nursing. In the 1960s, nuns interested in helping disadvantaged minorities took on many new types of jobs. They developed food co-ops, organized summer camps, and set up programs to visit the elderly. A number of sisters with doctoral degrees taught in historically black colleges to enable black faculty there to take sabbaticals for research and writing. Others created programs to help blacks and white learn to communicate and get along. One traveling workshop of "nuns on wheels" consisted of a group of sisters who rode in a station wagon from convent to convent and held seminars on racial sensitivity.

These experiences transformed sisters' views of both themselves and their religious purpose, Koehlinger says. Many sisters who had worked with the disadvantaged came to feel a sense of purpose and to believe that they were grappling with many of the central issues facing American society, such as poverty, hunger, race relations, and the insufficient education and health care available to the disadvantaged. And once they had experienced this sort of involvement, many found it difficult to return to the sorts of traditional jobs that nuns had performed in the past.

Other changes were happening in the church at the same time, Koehlinger said. For example, the three traditional vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience were being reconceptualized. In the past the vows had been seen in terms of denial: no possessions, no marriage, and limited personal autonomy in decision-making. Now, the sisters see the vows instead as a form of freedom and empowerment—they represent clearing one's life of things that might interfere with doing God's work. By refraining from marriage, for instance, the sisters aim to avoid the problem of love for a particular person making it difficult to love everyone.

In a sense the first two vows have remained pretty much unchanged—nuns are still expected to forgo sex and the accumulation of possession—but the vow of obedience, Koehlinger says, has changed quite a bit. Whereas in the past it was seen as pledging obedience to one's superiors, it is now seen as obedience to the call of God in one's life. This leads some sisters to what Koehlinger calls a "radical obedience to self and God" instead of obedience to traditional authority, which leads sisters to listen much more to their own conscience than to their superiors.

The 1960s were both an exciting and a confusing time to be a nun in the United States. Some sisters who lived through it speak of it as a "painful period" which saw a mass exodus from the church in the 1960s and 1970s, Koehlinger said. Nuns were torn--some thought the church wasn't changing fast enough and others thought it was changing too fast.

But in the end, Koehlinger said, it was the sisters on the racial justice front lines—those who opened summer schools in inner cities, taught at historically black colleges, and were willing to be beaten by police in Selma, Alabama—who finally rewrote the script for what it means to be a nun.

Interestingly, while the activist nuns ultimately played only a minor role in the civil rights movement, Koehlinger found that the movement nonetheless blazed a trail for the socially active sisters of today, and irrevocably turned a 1,600-year-old institution on its head. —R.P.     



Florida State University Member of the University Research Magazine Association Florida Magazine Associaton