In my growing years, I was fascinated by a nun’s habit. It was romanticized in The Nun’s Story and even had aerodynamic capabilities in The Flying Nun. And, yes, I had a nun doll complete with wimple and veil.
As a history student, I had the privilege of doing some archival research at a Benedictine Priory. I was studying the process of community discernment during the heady days after Vatican II. The habit was a major issue and a difficult one for many. The younger sisters happily embraced the modified habit (shorter veil and skirt) and eventually removed the veil altogether. Meanwhile, some of the older sisters were adamant about retaining the full, traditional habit – wimple and all. What I admired the most was the freedom that was given to each. When the sisters gathered in chapel, there was a sense of acceptance amid the diversity.
There is a lovely Australian mini-series called Brides of Christ (1991) which chronicles these same struggles in a teaching convent during the years following Vatican II. (It features a very young Russell Crowe.)As with my Benedictine friends, these fictional sisters showed a true sense of collegiality and subsidiarity in their discernment process. Decisions were made as a community, with respect for each individual sister to make her own choice in the end.
I read an interesting book last year called Unveiled: the Hidden Lives of Nuns by Cheryl L. Reed. In her travels, Reed interviewed diverse religious women from sisters living and working in down-town neighborhoods to fully cloistered nuns. A whole chapter is dedicated to the “Politics of the Habit”. And there is nothing subtle about the politics. Many people have pre-conceived notions about a woman wearing a full habit and veil in today’s society. It is often seen as an intentional statement of traditionalism. Conservatives love this. Liberals not so much.
Veils and/or full traditional habits don’t have to be a political statement. Many orders allow individual sisters and communities to choose their dress. Many sisters involved in apostolic work choose simple, secular clothing. Some cultures still prefer some form of modified habit with the veil. The diversity is reflected in international congregations when sisters gather from around the world. And, women can also choose to join an order which gives them the full meal deal with traditional garb.
As with all things catholic, there is room for diversity. There should be no room for judgments. Respect, love, and support is given to the vocation and good works of our vowed religious women, not to the clothes that they wear.