Dedicated to God and devoted to a life of service and spirituality, nuns are among the consecrated religious, an institution that dates back to the first ages of the Church. They are devoted women of the Catholic Church who have chosen to leave their families behind in favor of communal lives in service of God since the third century. Catholic nuns, often called “women religious,” make solemn vows of poverty, obedience, and chastity upon entering their order. The vow of chastity has been made by nuns for approximately 2,000 years, and it is through this vow that these women promise not to marry.
It is said that the sacred vows of nuns, the female equivalents of monks, enable them to follow their divinely ordained mission without distraction. Moreover the sacred vows are considered an expression of the religious vocation. These vows are taken and carried out in imitation of Jesus who lived poor, chaste, and was obedient to God. Consecrated celibacy is said to free one’s heart for God and humanity and is a sign of the desire to be completely conformed to Jesus.
The imposed chastity of nuns, as well as monks and priests, has been criticized by many in recent history. Celibacy is often seen as unnatural and repressive, and many believe it to be a major underlying culprit for the highly publicized sexual misconduct scandals in the Church. Still others believe that the expectation of celibacy goes directly against the teachings of the Bible, citing verses such as Timothy 4:1-5 which speaks of false teachers forbidding marriage.
Proponents of the discipline argue that nuns voluntarily profess their vows of chastity, and it is the keeping of these vows that is expected. Historically nuns have been called “spouses of Christ,” and many Catholics believe that nuns are already married to Jesus. Though intended to be a lifelong commitment, in the event that a nun is no longer able to remain faithful to her vows, a dispensation can be granted. Once dispensed, a former nun is free to marry. There was a time when leaving the order would result in a former nun’s excommunication from the Church, but that is typically no longer the case.
Throughout history nuns have voluntarily given themselves over to God and to the service of God’s people. This solemn vow frees them for this life. When choosing to become a nun, a woman is faced with the hard choice between marriage to God and the possibility of a more earthly union and family. A strong commitment is essential in this calling though any nun may seek to be released from her vows and return to the world to marry if she so chooses while still being both faithful to and active in the Church. Will this change in the near future? It’s anyone’s guess, but the chances of this changing is highly unlikely.