Catholic Classroom: Religious Habits
Question: Why don't all religious sisters wear habits?
If you were a Catholic school student decades ago, then chances are, you were taught by religious sisters. Your image of a typical religious sister, then, might be of a woman in a long habit and a veil. However, not all sisters wear a habit like this, or even any habit at all. Sisters simply dress based on the rule of their particular order.
Many orders choose to make a distinctive habit the everyday dress of their members in order to represent the Church and “to make her presence visible in everyday life, especially in contemporary culture, which is often very secularized and yet sensitive to the language of signs” (Vita Consecrata 25). Each order’s habit is designed to suit the particular needs, whether practical or symbolic, of its apostolate. A habit is always intended to identify its wearer as a consecrated religious, and it will often be worn with a cross or other symbol. The members of a community must look to the rule of their order to comply with its standards of dress.
In some cases, orders choose not to have habits, or to require that a habit be worn only on specific occasions. These orders are not any less Catholic or “religious” than others—sisters belonging to orders that do not wear a habit are just as devoted to God and take the same vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. Even in cases where an order does not have a specific habit, sisters are expected to dress simply and modestly in compliance with their vow of poverty.
The manner of dressing is never the be-all, end-all for a religious sister or nun, but habits can serve useful functions for both their wearers and the people who encounter them. No matter what, a religious sister should be willing to identify herself as a woman consecrated to God, whether she does so in the way she dresses (according to her rule) or in some other fashion.