Whatever happened to nuns? Once familiar figures in American culture, sometimes lampooned but more often admired, nuns and religious sisters (not the same thing) in the United States numbered 181,000 in 1965. As of 2010 that number had plunged by more than two-thirds and the visibility of these women was reduced by much more than that: Of those remaining, the vast majority are elderly (88 percent were 60 or older as of 2009) and many of them live in homes for the aged. Nuns and religious sisters are a dying breed.
Nuns, who lead cloistered lives, often in convents, and avoid contact with the outside world, and religious sisters, who tend to be active in charity and are often at work in hospitals and other places where their comforts are needed, are strongly identified with Roman Catholicism, though other religions have them as well. Nuns take “solemn vows” that require them to renounce all property but religious sisters take “simple vows” that allow them to inherit it.
What caused the ranks of these women of deep devotion so rapidly to diminish after that 1965 peak? American life certainly started changing rapidly in the 1960s, but factors such as the sexual revolution, the explosion in drug use, and the Vietnam War didn’t apply so much to the Catholic sisters. What did apply to them — what tore the foundations out from under them — was the 1962–1965 work of the Second Vatican Council, known as Vatican II, which ordered several steps meant to moderate and modernize Church practices. Henceforth, Mass would be celebrated in English or any other contemporary language rather than Latin, by a priest facing the congregants instead of standing with his back to them. And nuns learned that they could no longer consider themselves closer to God than anyone else. Their lifelong devotion to sacrifice seemed to be rendered moot.
This event is seismically portrayed in the thoughtful new film Novitiate, which centers on a graceful, sensitive teen named Cathleen (a riveting Margaret Qualley) who decides to take vows after attending parochial school. Her largely secular family and its disappointments fade to the background of her mind. “I’m in love,” she tells her disbelieving mother (Julianne Nicholson). She yearns to be a bride of Christ.
In an age of nonstop distraction, Novitiate has a mesmeric appeal. Despite the tightly circumscribed nature of life in the convent by the harsh Reverend Mother (Melissa Leo) who tells the postulants (first stage of training) and novitiates (second stage) to consider her orders to be the word of God, we can sense what binds Cathleen to the vocation: the silence, the solitude, the solemnity. All of these things are even rarer as we watch the film today, which makes it that much more gripping. The Reverend Mother hasn’t left the grounds in 40 years, and it’s impossible not to marvel at that level of dedication.
Cathleen’s poise is jolted by the arrival of a novitiate, Sister Emanuel (Rebecca Dayan) who transfers from another, less strict, order. “I thought it would be easier,” she says, and the statement sounds bizarre. Easier? Here? Where the Reverend Mother is known to hand out “the discipline” — a knotted rope — and order some charges to flog themselves with it? Later, though, Emanuel explains: Sometimes having more restrictions — fewer choices — can be “easier.” The film, written and directed by Margaret Betts, links this attitude directly to the departure of tens of thousands of nuns after Vatican II. The Church’s decision to modernize may have inadvertently cost it dearly. For Cathleen and the others, there is an intense need for a very different and more rigorous lifestyle than obtains outside the walls of the cloister. Breaking down barriers in hopes of allowing more people in turned out to have the unintended consequence of ushering those within to leave. Theologian Sandra Schneiders has noted that “religious life could no longer be understood as an elite vocation to a ‘life of perfection’ that made its members superior to other Christians.”
You could hardly expect a film about nuns made in 2017 to be as positive a portrayal as The Nun’s Story, Fred Zinnemann’s 1959 film that starred a radiant Audrey Hepburn, but Novitiate mostly avoids the usual cheap shots that tend to characterize films about Catholic matters. The Reverend Mother, while a mostly nasty figure, isn’t just the cartoon villain you’d expect and is genuinely anguished by Vatican II’s edicts. To her, the pre-Vatican II Church is perfection itself. Her conversations with God reveal all the pain of someone whose foundations have been ripped out from beneath her. Leo has a tendency to lay it on thick (and was richly rewarded for it in, for instance, The Fighter, which won her an Oscar), but with momentary exceptions her depiction is controlled rather than overwrought. Despite her occasional histrionics, Novitiate is mostly an open-minded consideration of the devotion that makes some women choose a life of limits, as well as a useful illustration of why inherently conservative institutions are wise to be skeptical about change.