On social media, the subject of nuns and sisters, and who are the “authentic” ones, can get people screaming at each other like almost nothing else. There are some who insist that the only “real” nun is a habit-wearing one, and others who argue that the “real” sisters are the ones who have shed the habit and taken on a full engagement with the world, times and trends.
The truth lies somewhere in the middle: the authentic religious life must have within it elements of commonality, prayerfulness and contemplation in order to foster strength within the community, but must also be attuned to (as opposed to “in-tune with”) the times, if a group is to render clear-headed service to the Church.
Putting monastic orders aside, because monasticism is very different from the apostolic religious life, it’s worth thinking back, in a very general way, to how most (not all) female religious orders were formed and how their communities developed spiritually and socially.
Usually a religious order grew out of identified need. The Little Sisters of the Poor developed through the simple action of one French woman, Saint Jeanne Jugan, seeing a poor, elderly woman on the street and taking her into her home. Jugan soon saw that the indigent poor were being neglected and she took a beggar’s steps — both in the Church and the secular world — to make a difference.
Both the Little Sisters and the Cenacle Sisters were co-incidentally formed by ordinary French women who listened to the promptings of love and the Holy Spirit. As they pursued their callings, other women asked to join them and share in the work. Both orders evolved into a “contemplative/active” model that had become (mostly) the norm for “active” religious orders: the women worked “outside” in the public — among-and-in-service-to the laity — but beyond that work they would separate, living and praying together as a community, with daily Mass and some amount of liturgical prayer, silence and recreation. The idea was that in order to sustain their ministries, which were arduous, the sisters needed the stability of a place to live and opportunities for both individual and communal spiritual respite. The taking of vows further stabilized the communities — they knew who would be in their numbers, what their gifts were and where they might best be of use to work — and female apostolic orders flourished, particularly from the 19th century until midway through the 20th century, when the post-war Church seemed to be abundantly rich in vocations to the priesthood and religious life.
The social and sexual upheaval of the 1960s, combined with a Second Vatican Council that meant to open the windows of the Church for a bit of fresh air and encountered a whirlwind, brought changes to the contemplative/active model. As career opportunities broadened, and artificial contraception “freed” them, the numbers of women considering the religious life dropped. Religious women read the Council documents, specifically Gaudium et spes and Lumen gentium, and found within them a call for further evolution and definition of the religious life, one that involved — among other things — a broader involvement with the People of God, and a return to the roots of their charisms.
One Council document that rarely gets mentioned when the subject of habits arises is Perfectae Caritatis, the Second Vatican Council’s Decree on the Adaptation and Renewal of Religious Life, which counseled in favor of adapting religious habits in practical ways: