Nuns are more than "no"


Last week, the Oprah Winfrey Show aired a report from the convent of the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist, in Ann Arbor, Michigan. I recognized the sisters as soon as the video started to play -- my household is on their mailing list (we seem to be on every religious order's mailing list), and we frequently receive newsletters advertising their impressively large postulant and novice classes. They're a new (founded in 1997) and very young order -- they call themselves "the new face of the new evangelization" on their Web site. Presumably they saw the Oprah appearance as another potential recruitment and fundraising tool, as well as a general awareness-raising opportunity. And God bless.

You can see clips from the show, and read a kind of transcript, on the Oprah Web site. (I watched the whole thing on YouTube -- it's been posted in four parts, the first of which is here. The video's a little glitchy, but the audio is fine -- but I can't say how long it will be available.) I suppose you won't be shocked to hear that the Oprah take on vowed religious life is a little shallow. Reporter Lisa Ling, who got a tour of the convent from the sisters (and, gasp, spent the night in a cell!) approached the assignment as another one of her boldly-going-where-no-journalist-has-gone-before missions. (A teaser on the Web site says: "Lisa Ling goes inside a real-life nunnery!") But the footage itself undercut the breathless tone of the reporting -- the sisters looked like the pleasant, ordinary women they are, enjoying each others' company, playing cards, and talking easily about their lives. Which may explain why, in the final cut, we learned so little about their lives. How does the order support itself? What kinds of work do the sisters do? How are they educated? How do they live the Dominican charism? I can answer many of those questions from reading all those newsletters, but they weren't even broached on the show. Instead, here's how Oprah set up the studio interviews: "So, the life of a nun means no sex, no possessions, no children, no makeup, no jewelry.... Think you could do that?"

Talking to Oprah, the sisters tried gently to note that those deprivations, exotic as they are, are not really what the life of a nun means. I would have liked to see them drop the mission-statement language a little more often -- at some point it might have been better if they just said, "Of course we still have sexual desires. But we survive." Still, they sneaked a valuable insight or two into the discussion. For the most part, though, the broadcast kept cycling back to the "no makeup, no sex" framework, and Oprah got embarrassingly hung up on the idea that "the nun's habit represents their wedding gown." She seemed to think she'd put her finger on a central teaching of the church. (Oprah, if you want to start an argument among religious sisters, ask them what a nun's habit -- or style of dress -- represents!)

The second part of the show (following the first commercial break) began with an amusing overview of religious life. Ling's voiceover attempted to acknowledge that the particular order she visited isn't fully representative of all women religious: "Some sisters choose an independent path. They don't wear a habit... live alone... go to college... and pursue careers." Again, that's a pretty impoverished definition of what apostolic religious orders are about. (It also implies that cloistered and contemplative sisters don't go to college, which certainly isn't true.) That's what got the attention of Giving Voice, an association of young religious sisters. They've posted a letter to Oprah on their Web site that politely points out the limitations of the above description of their lives.

We live in community with our Sisters, often in small groupings close to where we minister. We go to college to develop the skills needed to be effective agents of loving service to God's people. We do not pursue careers, but seek to educate and transform the world as Jesus would. Our clothing is the least significant part of our lives, yet receives so much attention. However, most of our religious communities choose to dress simply rather than wear habits. We are called to be prophetic, giving voice to God's love in the world.

The letter also invites The Oprah Winfrey Show to take a look at their lives and ministry, to "help broaden your viewers' understanding of religious life." I get the feeling they won't be taken up on that offer. They're just not exotic enough to be worth a visit from Lisa Ling. Even the Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist were an awkward fit for the prefab "going inside a real-life nunnery" framework. Discovering that there's more to a sister than what she wears and what she doesn't do may be broadening, but it doesn't make for good daytime TV.

Mollie Wilson O’​Reilly is editor-at-large and columnist at Commonweal.

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