Why Would Anyone Become a Nun?

In Great Britain, more young women are getting thee to the nunnery — and not the way Shakespeare meant it. In recent years, the motherland has seen an upswing in new, younger entrants into religious orders. The Anglican Church has been ordaining women into the priesthood since 1971, and Anglican priests are allowed to marry. Why would a woman opt to forsake the possibility of a family or traditional service in the name of religious service when an alternative is available?

The BBC reports that the number of young women in training to be nuns — also called "formation" — is small, but growing, and that most of those who choose a life of faith are doing so at a younger age. While becoming the Bride of Christ is hardly as common among young women as, say, earning a marketing degree or chopping all of your hair off after a breakup, it's gaining in popularity. The last five years has also seen a dramatic increase in the proportion of new nuns under the age of 40; in 2006, 42% of entrants were 39 or younger, and now it's 70%.

Women interviewed for the BBC piece weren't considering the potential involvement of the Anglican Church's respective hierarchy in their decision, nor did they mention considering the priesthood instead. One woman considering joining an order is a former model with a university degree. She's wanted to be a nun since she was a toddler, but hesitated to take the final leap, reporting trepidation over the idea of giving up marriage and family.

The sisterhood isn't faring as well stateside. There are about 60,000 Catholic nuns in the US, down from more than 179,000 in 1965 and 101,000 in 1991. Part of this may be due to what professionals refer to as "high-level fuckery" in the Church; for example, in early 2010, an Arizona nun was excommunicated after recommending a first trimester abortion to a woman with a life-threatening condition. Justice for Sister Margaret McBride was swift; she was out of the church within months. In contrast, as The Daily Beast pointed out, it's taken years for the Church to take action in many cases of priests who have abused children. Meanwhile, the church has launched an investigation of all American nuns, to quell what the cardinal that ordered the investigation called "a certain secular mentality that has spread in these religious families, and perhaps also a certain feminist spirit." Congregations of nuns have been ordered to turn over financial records to the Vatican and answer exhaustive questionnaires about their practices and philosophies. (The Catholic Church doesn't ordain women. In 1992, they finally got around to apologizing for the crappy way they treated Galileo, so it's probably fair to guess that lady Catholic priests are probably not going to be ordained in our lifetime.)

It makes sense that a potential American Catholic nun may feel averse to taking her vows due to possible overreaching from the church's hierarchy, but in the absence of similar meddling on the part of the Anglican Church, the lifestyle of a nun could appeal to a particular brand of faithful woman. Perhaps young women who opt to become nuns when priesthood is offered as an alternative aren't interested in the power and visibility of the priesthood. Perhaps they're simply interested in living communally with like-minded women and pursuing their common religious interest without distraction.

If something similar existed for female atheists — a quiet single sex residence for devotion to reading, study, gardening, hanging out with your friends, running charity marathons, and singing — the waiting list would be years long.

The growing number of young women becoming nuns [BBC]

Image via photobank.ch/Shutterstock.