Nuns and Nones

by Susan Rose Francois

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A nun and a “none” walked into a Chinese restaurant. No, that’s not the beginning of a bad joke or a complicated riddle, but rather describes my Monday afternoon lunch date. The nun in question is yours truly, even if I am an apostolic Catholic Sister and technically not a nun. My friend Diane is the none, a spiritual but not-religious friend who claims no particular religious affiliation.

News stories about nuns and nones have been filling up my social media news feed the past few weeks. These similar sounding terms are used to describe two distinct sociological groups. Yet, while the experiences of nones and nuns are vastly different, both groups are nevertheless navigating the same rapidly changing landscape of religious life, when understood in its widest sense.

According to the Pew Research Center’s new religious landscape study, the number of Americans who claim no religious affiliation – the aforementioned nones – continues to rise. This category includes a smaller number of self-identified atheists or agnostics (7  percent of U.S. adults) plus the 22.8 percent of U.S. adults who claim no particular religious affiliation. There are 19 million more religiously unaffiliated adults in the U.S. today than there were in 2007, adding up to a grand total of 56 million nones in 2014. This means that there are now more nones than either Catholics (51 million) or mainline Protestants (36 million). The Pew study points to religious switching as a major dynamic behind the rise in the number of nones. Nearly one in five U.S. adults was raised in a religious tradition, but now claim no affiliation. My friend Diane fits into this category.

I first experienced the phenomenon of nones when I attended Lewis and Clark College in the 1990s. The Portland, Oregon, school is consistently ranked as one of the least religious in the country. Fresh from 12 years of Catholic School, I remember being amazed during my first year in college when I met students who were raised without a religious tradition, or even raised atheist, and yet were signing up to spend a Friday night working at the soup kitchen or at a homeless shelter. This was a formative realization for me – you didn’t have to be a religious person to be a good person. As it happens, I had recently become a none myself, proclaiming to my parents when I was 17 years old that I no longer believed in organized religion. It would be another 10 years before I found my way back to the active practice of my Catholic faith.

My transition from Catholic school girl to being a none was made easier because I spent my non-Catholic decade in Portland, a place where nones are normal. Another study, this one released by the Public Religion Research Institute, names Portland as the most religiously unaffiliated American city, with 42 percent of residents claiming no religion. In that context, my return to Catholicism in my late 20s was almost as hard to explain to friends and coworkers as my later decision in my early 30s to become a Catholic Sister. Almost.

While the majority of my friends had never met a nun, everyone seemed to have a preconceived notion of what it meant to be one, fueled by popular culture images ranging from movies like “The Sound of Music” to “Sister Act” and to “Nunzilla,” the fire-breathing wind-up toy. (For an insightful look into the power of popular culture images of nuns, I highly recommend the documentary “A Question of Habit.”) The range of stereotypes attributed to nuns – from stern disciplinarian to simple souls who break into song at the drop of a votive candle – made it difficult to explain why I was making the major life choice to live a life of poverty, celibacy and obedience in community.

Vowed religious life is an unusual way of life. While there are approximately 51 million U.S. adult Catholics, there are currently fewer than 50,000 Catholic Sisters. That number will continue to decrease dramatically as the median age approaches 80. I’ve often reflected on what this means for a younger Catholic Sister in her 20s, 30s or even 40s. You are pretty much treated like a unicorn, one of a rare and exotic species that may or may not exist. When I have self-identified as a Catholic Sister, I have been asked, on many an occasion: “Really? Are you a real Catholic Sister?”

There is a certain fascination with Catholic Sisters. Earlier this month, I had the privilege of attending an excellent symposium in London: “Nun in the World: Catholic Sisters and Vatican II.” Dan Stockman’s coverage of the symposium here on Global Sisters Report gives you a good feel for the gathering. I found myself fascinated that so many people – academic historians, sociologists and theologians – study the experience of Catholic Sisters. When I shared this insight with another attendee, she commented that we were comparable to an endangered species. Instead of a campaign to save the whales, the conference was almost like a save-the-nuns event, looking at the history and present experience of Catholic Sisters in order to help ensure our future.

In a society where the numbers of nones are on the rise, the number of nuns is declining. I believe it is possible to view the dynamic forces behind both trends as part of the same rapidly changing landscape of religious life and shared socio-political context of increasing inequality, poverty, violence and environmental destruction. This trend and shifting landscape also apply to the wider church, especially given that the number of U.S. Catholics is also declining according to the Pew research.

This raises a number of questions for me. First of all, the attention paid to Catholic Sisters, combined with the not insignificant efforts to help ensure our future, make me think that somehow it matters that we are present in the church and society. But are we merely symbolic figures, or is the way we engage the signs of the times and live the Gospel of some relevance and importance beyond ourselves? If so, how can we remain relevant and engaged in the larger questions of meaning and justice in the context of a society which increasingly eschews religion? If I do not want to be limited or defined by popular culture images or stereotypes of nuns, how does my life of ministry and prayer lived in community witness to the Gospel in a sea of growing inequality and indifference?

[Susan Rose Francois is a member of the Congregation Leadership Team for the Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace. She was a Bernardin scholar at Catholic Theological Union and has ministered as a justice educator and advocate. Read more of her work on her blog, At the Corner of Susan and St. Joseph.]