How do you know a Roman Catholic nun when you see one? It used to be easy. They wore long black habits and veils with confining headgear, traveled in pairs, were teachers or nurses, and lived quietly in convents. There was a timelessness about them: the essentials of their way of living had remained unaltered for centuries.
Then came the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), with its mandate to bring the church ”” nuns and all ”” into the 20th century. Shortly thereafter, the Dominican Sisters at my school, St. Mary’s in Rutherford, N.J., took the plunge and modernized their garb. But otherwise, they still conformed to the traditional model, living in community and teaching primary and secondary school.
Their change of habits was but a baby step toward much broader subsequent changes for Catholic nuns. And the church’s current response to these changes suggests how resolutely clueless the hierarchy remains when it comes to what these religious women are up to, and how the changes in the realities of their dedicated lives mirror changes for women in American society at large.