Last week, the Vatican’s Congregation for Doctrine of the Faith released the results of its on-going doctrinal assessment of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), the larger of two umbrella organizations representing the majority of women religious in the U.S. Since then, the story has been picked up by hundreds of media outlets across the U.S. and abroad, and these stories have already led to campaigns in support of LCWR sisters. Many others have discussed and will continue to discuss the details of the Vatican’s recent decision to reprimand the largest leadership organization of women religious in the United States. The substance of this story is surely important to readers of “The Catholic Conversation,” but I have been especially fascinated by the pictures and images that accompany these news stories.
The Power of Image
While most Roman Catholic nuns and sisters in the United States have not worn the full habit for over 40 years, images of nuns and sisters in habit can be readily found in popular culture. Illustrations of habited nuns on brand name greeting cards and calendars, the popularity of the habit as a Halloween costume, and a plethora of television shows and movies such as The Flying Nun (1967-1970), Sister Act and Sister Act II: Back in the Habit (1992; 1993), and most recently the award-winning Doubt (2008) have popularized the habit as a key identifier of Catholic nuns, or as those in noncloistered religious communities are more accurately called, women religious. As a sociology graduate student at Notre Dame writing my Master’s thesis on Post-Vatican II and Millennial generation women religious, I have been intrigued by how nuns and sisters have been represented in American culture. (For anyone interested in a film analysis of this issue, I would recommend viewing the documentary “A Question of Habit,” which discusses the portrayal of women religious in the pop culture.)
I have noticed a common theme in perusing the different news articles written about the LCWR doctrinal situation this past week. It comes in the form of a written story about the Vatican “cracking down” on women religious for their “radical feminist views,” accompanied by a photo of an innocent looking sister in habit. Especially common in these pieces have been images of women religious praying quietly in church, listening intently at Mass, and expressing joy in partaking in World Youth Day events. I show some of the pictures that I have found here, and I will provide additional examples in future posts. What I have found most fascinating in exploring these pictures is that some of the communities I recognize, e.g. the Little Sisters of the Poor, the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist, and the Sisters of Life – are women’s communities that are actually not affiliated with the LCWR. In fact, a majority of the photos are of members belonging to communities aligned with the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious (CMSWR), the other umbrella organization of women religious unaffiliated with the LCWR.
I think it is worth reflecting sociologically on how women religious have been portrayed. First, I want to make a general sociological point about the power of images to create boundary lines. Images of women religious in habit are evidence that most women religious are still imagined by the public as wearing traditional religious garb. The habit remains a crucial symbol of religious identity today. In the popular imagination, women religious are still distinguished from others in society by their dress, which arguably creates and maintains a boundary line dividing group members from those not included (Kanter 1972; Joseph 1986). Despite most LCWR communities changing to secular dress long ago, this fact has not been picked up by broader society. Image can be powerful and long-lasting despite efforts to change it.
Second, images impact how people interpret media stories. On the one hand, images of nuns in habit can strengthen the view that the LCWR has been unjustly attacked by the Vatican. Whether or not the CDF’s actions are unjust I leave to the judgment of the reader. However, a photo of a meek looking woman in habit with her head bowed in prayer has the power to make her appear especially innocent and defenseless. Coincidentally, many of the photos I have come across contain pictures mostly of women either young (20s or early 30s) or later in age (80+). Both the young and the old have been associated as particularly vulnerable in American culture, and thus worthy of special protection. So, we are left with an interesting contrast – vulnerable nuns versus the powerful Vatican. That those women are capable of the things the LCWR has been accused of is rendered ridiculous. On the other hand, in not showing women religious in the LCWR as they actually dress, the photos give an inaccurate picture of work that the LCWR considers important. So far I have not come across any photos of women religious working for social justice in the articles, e.g. LCWR sisters marching in the School of the Americas protest at Fort Benning, Georgia, or lobbying Congress for environmental justice.
Perhaps the editors of the articles did come across more representative pictures of LCWR women religious but chose not to use them because they would be less dramatic, or maybe such photos would have associated LCWR sisters with the “radical feminist themes” of which the Vatican has taken note. Either way, image is powerful, and not showing women religious in the LCWR as they are downplays the values that the LCWR has chosen to uphold. Thus, it is a double-edged sword; current depictions can strengthen the view of the LCWR being unjustly attacked, but only at the expense of a truer and more accurate view of these women religious, the powerful positions that they hold, and the strong stands that they take for issues of justice. These pictures do not accurately depict the women they are discussing. It is ironic that the women religious of LCWR continue to be absent in visual depictions of their own battles.
What is your opinion of the photos and article titles shown above? How do you imagine women religious to look?
For additional pictures click here
Kanter, Rosabeth Moss. 1972. Commitment and Community: Communes and Utopias in Sociological Perspective. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Joseph, Nathan. 1986. Uniforms and Nonuniforms: Communication Through Clothing. New York: Greenwood Press.