Frequently Asked Questions About Sisters

Who are Catholic sisters?

Catholic sisters are women who dedicate their lives to Christ by publicly professing the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience for life within a particular religious congregation.

In some congregations, a fourth vow is added according to their particular charism and tradition; for example, stability or service.

What is the difference between a sister and a nun?

The terms “sister” and “nun” are often used interchangeably and are understood to mean the same.

Historically, however, there was a difference between nuns and sisters in canon law. Nuns were women who profess solemn vows and lived a cloistered life, primarily as contemplatives. Sisters have always professed simple vows and are actively engaged in ministries outside the places where they live. The difference most commonly noted between vows that are simple or solemn relates primarily to property and inheritance. Under a simple vow of poverty a sister may retain property she had prior to vows and any she inherits later but gives up the right to the administration and use of it. A solemn vow of poverty required that a nun renounce all ownership of property held before vows or inherited afterwards.

Whether solemn or simple, the three vows of poverty, chastity and obedience are the most common expression of religious profession today.

A term frequently used, particularly in North America, to refer to sisters or nuns is "women religious." The Latin term religiosae, used in canon law, refers to both nuns and sisters.

What is meant by the charism of the community?

Each religious congregation or community has its own unique spirit or character, or charism. It develops from its founding inspiration, mission, spirituality and lived experience of the members. The charism is articulated in the congregation’s documents and mission statements.

In addition to having its own charism, some congregations also share a “family” charism, such as the Franciscans, Dominicans and Benedictines. Each congregation may be autonomous but also follow the inspiration or spirit of the initial founder such as St. Francis and St. Clare of Assisi, St. Dominic or St. Benedict and St. Scholastica.

Why do some sisters wear habits and others do not?

In medieval times, sisters wore the dress of pious women and widows. Over time, this style of dress, known as habits, became institutionalized and continued to be the way sisters dressed for centuries. In the 1950s Pope Pius XII, concerned about the health of sisters, encouraged them to simplify their habits.

Vatican II called religious to renew their lives by returning to the spirit of their founders and adapting to the changed conditions of the times and to the needs of the ministry. Through this renewal, some congregations chose to change to simple, contemporary style of dress more suited to their ministries. Others chose to retain the traditional habit or a modified habit. 

Are sisters part of the clergy?

Because sisters are not ordained, they are considered part of the laity, not the clergy and therefore are not part of the hierarchical structure of the church. Although religious communities or congregations are officially recognized and established by the church, either at the diocesan or pontifical level, they are autonomous in their governance.

Religious congregations use the income from their ministries or rely on donations to financially support themselves; they are not supported by the bishops or the Vatican. 

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