Oprah and the nuns

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In the April issue of US Catholic, I wrote about Oprah turning her attention to the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist on her show this February. It doesn't seem that Oprah really knew what she was getting into-a wider debate about religious life.

On the show, Correspondent Lisa Ling spent the night at the sister's Ann Arbor, Michigan convent. This is a young group of nuns, and clearly very traditional in their full habits. The convent was founded in 1997 and its 98 sisters have an average age of 26, according to their website.

Ling said her experience with the nuns offered a different perception of religious life: "I think the perception of sisters and nuns is that they lead very strict existences. So many of the women whom I met, they had successful lives and careers, but they never felt like they could be skinny enough or consume enough. They always felt this underlying insecurity and they wanted more out of life. So in a way, rather than being very strict, their lives are actually much more liberating."

Clearly, this is a good thing to be sharing with Oprah's audience. But we got a letter the editor recently that thought Oprah didn't go far enough. Sr. Joanne Koehl, S.C. wrote that the show "presented one form of contemporary religious life." Her organization sent an open letter to Oprah, published on their website, giving-voice.org:

"We were disappointed and concerned by how we, as Sisters who are engaged in active ministry in the community, were presented on The Oprah Winfrey Show and on your website: ‘Some sisters choose an independent path, which means they live alone, go to college, pursue careers and don't wear a habit.'

"We live in community with our Sisters, often in small groupings close to where we minister. We go to college to develop the skills needed to be effective agents of loving service to God's people. We do not pursue careers, but seek to educate and transform the world as Jesus would. Our clothing is the least significant part of our lives, yet receives so much attention. However, most of our religious communities choose to dress simply rather than wear habits. We are called to be prophetic, giving voice to God's love in the world." 

The theme of this episode of Oprah was the need for quiet and prayer or meditation in one's life, but Oprah entered into a debate about how Catholic sisters should express their vocation through clothes, living arrangements, and jobs. These are issues being discussed with the apostolic visitation (check out our special section). Should Oprah have known better and invited different representatives of religious life to her show?

Personally, I wouldn't want the positive themes of the show to be lost in arguments, but at the same time, the women religious who balance working in the wider world with prayer and quiet are those that most inspire to me as a non-vowed lay woman.