Nuns were poor women with no status
In elementary school, I learned that nuns were poor. Every year a note was sent home around Christmastime, asking that if gifts were being considered for the nuns who were our teachers, personal care products like shampoo and deodorant would be appreciated. Other items that would be useful were also welcome, like stamps and stationary. The notes explained that because of their vows of poverty, the nuns didn’t have money to buy these items for themselves.
At the same time, I learned that priests were not poor. The three priests in our parish all drove new cars, the pastor’s a very large, shiny Buick. They smoked, and the pastor drank a great deal. The priests, I learned, were paid salaries and bought their cars and cigarettes and liquor themselves.
When a priest came to my classroom for a periodic visit, the nuns would always show a great deal of deference, as though the priest were the pope himself. The priests of course did not return that obsequiousness, for they were the bosses, and they treated the nuns like they treated the children. But far from resenting being patronized by the priests, the nuns were thrilled to be noticed by them.
And so I learned how the world worked: women who dedicated their lives to God’s service lived so poorly they couldn’t afford deodorant. Men who dedicated their lives to God’s service received a nice salary and a lot of status. Nuns were the servants, priests were their superiors.
Nuns wore wedding rings
Our nuns wore thin gold wedding bands, to show they were married to Jesus. It didn’t occur to me until much later that seeing those wedding rings every day reinforced for all the children in my school that it was a woman’s job to be married. She could marry a man, or she could marry Jesus. Whichever, marriage was women's job.
In her book Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny, Kate Manne explores misogyny as a tool of social control. The patriarchal order, she writes, defines women as human givers, not human beings. A man owns, she writes, while a woman owes.
Manne could have been writing about the Catholic Church. The nuns were our daily reminder of who we would become when we grew into women. How they lived and how they were treated helped teach us the difference between men and women. The nuns were givers, receiving no salary for teaching, giving everything they had to their Church. The priests were not givers like the nuns. They were beings. They had agency and status. And they had a salary.
Or, as Manne might have written, the nuns owed.The priests owned.
For me, as for every other child in my class, in my school, in every Catholic family, this was normal. It did not seem odd that the nuns had nothing while the priests drove new cars, or that the nuns were treated like children by the priests. That was just how things were. That was the world, and I was being taught my role in it.
The economics of women religious (or, Follow the money)
The church’s relationship with nuns is multi-faceted, and one aspect has to do with the economics of unpaid labor. Jesus, of course, was not interested in power or in wealth. But the Catholic Church is deeply interested in accumulating both. Teaching girls that their job is to be givers, and providing some of them with the opportunity to give everything by becoming nuns, presents the church with a large labor force to exploit in return for the expenses of room and board only. On which it surely does not spend a great deal.
What does it get in return? In my parish, the teachers in our elementary school were mostly nuns. By having a school, my parish was able to attract a multitude of families who attended mass and put money in the collection basket every Sunday. Some of that money was sent out of the parish, to the diocese and the Vatican. Our parish’s families also pledged additional money to build a new church, a new rectory, and a new convent, all of which were not owned or controlled by the parishioners who paid for them. They were owned by the Church and controlled by the diocese*.
Not having to pay the nuns meant tuition at our Catholic elementary school was much lower than it would have been if the nuns had been paid a decent salary (or any salary at all). Thus more families could afford to send their children, who were then indoctrinated with all the beliefs of the Catholic Church, including the identity of men as beings and women as givers, men as owning and women as owing.
And what is the effect of hundreds of thousands of nuns working in thousands and thousands of schools like the one I attended, distributed all over the world? On the backs of those nuns, the Catholic Church increases its bank balance and its properties. It also prevents millions of children from receiving a public-school education, which would place less emphasis on the unequal roles of women and men. And so the whole cycle continues.
And yes, the number of nuns in the US and Europe is declining, but those numbers are offset by the surge in the number of nuns in the developing world. And these nuns work not only as unpaid teachers, but also as unpaid domestic servants to priests and bishops.
Is there something wrong with being a nun?
I am not in any way condemning nuns. It is every human being's right, whether woman or man, to decide how to live her life. For some women, a life of poverty and service and prayer is deeply meaningful and fulfilling.
It is, however, very wrong for the Catholic Church to profit from the work of these women. To build its wealth and power on the backs of unpaid women servants. As it is deeply wrong for the Church to teach little girls that this is how the world works, and this is their role in the world.
What is normal for women raised Catholic?
What we learn as children we accept as normal. I didn’t question what I learned about the nuns, and for a long time I didn’t question what I learned about myself through their example. I accepted that it was my role to give, and to owe.
I am very lucky to live in a part of the world that offers women the opportunity to work at understanding our indoctrination, and to learn a different way of comprehending ourselves and our place in the world. It's not easy to change the beliefs one learned as a child. But for us, the choice is to comprehend that we are human beings, or to continue to believe that we are human givers.
*If the diocese needed to raise money, like the archdiocese of Boston did to compensate victims of sex abuse by priests, the parishioners could be legally evicted and the church sold, with the money going to the diocese.