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.”
She said 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.
“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 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, Mother Maximilia 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.
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.
Full story at Catholic News Agency.