by Fr. Jay A. Finelli

Not too long ago it was a normal occurrence see a Religious man or woman in their distinctive Religious habit anywhere you went. In the recent years since the Second Vatican Council we have seen a widespread abandonment of is practice. In the current time, we rarely see Religious wearing a distinctive form of dress. What is the reason for this change? Is it still mandated by the Church for Religious to wear clothing which is distinct from the ‘world, ” and if so, should this be worn in public? What exactly does the Church teach with regards to the dress of Religious?

Many Religious have abandoned their distinctive Religious dress, or wear it for Religious functions alone. Some of the reasons they give for this are: “We can better approach people when we are like them; We will not offend people who are not of our Faith; it is very uncomfortable to wear a habit because it is cumbersome; You should not wear the habit to certain places or the people who see you will be scandalized. ” These are among many of the reasons that I have heard personally from many different Religious.

It is important to examine Church guidelines on this issue. In the 1983 Code of Canon Law, there is a specific section concerning the Religious habit which is entitled, ‘The Obligations And Rights Of Institutes And Their Members.’ St. Thomas, talking about obligation says, “all positive law, if it be just and prudently made, whether civil or ecclesiastical or religious, binds in conscience and must be observed UT IN PLURIBUS (see ST la 2ae, 96.1 ad3; la 2ae, 96.6 and passium) under pain of sin and corresponding punishment as laid down in the law itself.” In Can. 669 section §1 we read: “Religious are to wear the habit of the institute made according to the norm of proper law as a sign of their consecration and as a testimony of poverty.” And in section §2 we read: “Clerical religious of an institute which does not have its own habit are to wear clerical dress according to the norm of can. 284. ” The second part of the same canon pertains to those clerical Religious who do not have a specific habit and not those who do. The Code of Canon Law makes it clear that the dress of Religious is the habit, and those clerical Religious who do not have a habit are to wear clerical dress. In this case, when should the Religious habit be worn? Should the habit be worn in public or only in the Religious house?

The document, “Essential Elements in the Church’s Teaching On Religious Life,” by the Sacred Congregation for Religious and for Secular Institutes, of May 31, 1983, states, “The witness of religious is public. This public witness to Christ and to the Church implies separation from the world. “No one lights a lamp to put it under a tub they put it on the lamp-stand where it shines for everyone in the house to see (Mt 5:15). ” How can the sign value of the habit touch people outside the religious house if it is not worn outside the religious house? “In fact, if it is not public, it is not witness,” says Fr. John Hardon in Religious Life: What the Church Teaches.

Pope Paul VI knew the great responsibility of Religious to be witnesses. In his document “Ecclesiae Sancte,” he pointed out the obligation of wearing the habit at all times, and that it should be removed only in very serious situations. He stated that Religious are to obey the local ordinary and episcopal conference who, “to prevent scandal to the faithful can prevent clerics, even exempt religious from wearing lay dress in public.”

Pope John Paul II in a letter to the Bishops of the United States, dated April 3, 1983, listed among the Essential Elements of religious life, “public witness.”

The habit is not just for the good of the Religious, but it is for the good of the people of God and for those who do not know, or refuse to know, God. As stated in canon 669, the habit is a “sign.” For something to be a sign it must be seen The sign does not point to itself but in the sign one sees something else.

The habit as a sign points primarily to God and also that the person who is wearing it is the sole property and possession of God. The person bearing the sign attests to his or her being consecrated. Consecration means to be totally set apart and for the use of God alone.

Cardinal Jean Danilou in his book, Why The Church? stated that we are, “Behind the times.” We can all attest to the fact that many cults and religions wear a distinctive form of dress and they are not ashamed. We who have the fullness of truth as Roman Catholics are afraid to let people know it.

The Holy Father is not afraid to stand up for this. In one of his talks in 1979, Pope John Paul II stated, “I say: rejoice to be witnesses to Christ in the modern world. Do not hesitate to be recognizable, identifiable in the streets as men and women who have consecrated their lives to God and who have given up everything worldly to follow Christ. Believe that contemporary men and women set value on visible signs of consecration of your lives. People need signs and reminders of God in the modern secular city, which has few reminders of God left. So do not help the trend towards ‘taking God off the streets by adapting secular modes of dress and behavior yourselves!” This desire to have Religious wear their habits at all times is not only the desire of the Holy Father, if that is not enough, “but the desire of the Church often expressed by so many of the faithful (Pope John Paul 11, 10/7/78).”

By careful study of Church documents and talks of the Holy Father it is clear what the mind and will of the Church is. The mind and will of the Church is that religious have a distinctive habit and wear it wherever they may go.

The wearing of the habit then is the outward sign of a Religious’ total consecration to God; a witness to holy poverty; a kind of armor or protection; and it is the visible sign of union with the Holy Father, who is the Vicar of Christ and the visible head of the Church.
Vatican City
October 16, 1987

Dear Brother Bernardo,

I congratulate you on the clear and convincing exposition about “The Religious Habit.” It is completely conformed to the doctrine and wishes of Popes Paul VI and John Paul II.

I hope that many priests and religious, if they shall read your defense of the Catholic discipline, shall be more obedient to the ecclesiastical Authority and proud to dress in the religious habit, as a sign of consecration to God and conformity to Jesus Christ, Who, as the Word of the Father, did humble Himself, dressing in human nature.

Sincerely your brother in Jesus Christ,

Mario Luigi Cardinal Ciappi, O.P.

(Cardinal Ciappi was the personal theologian of Popes John Paul II, Pius XII, John XXIII, Paul VI, and John Paul I)

*** Please note: I wrote this article when I was a Franciscan.  This is the reason Cardinal Ciappi addressed me as Brother Bernardo.


Religious Habit — 14 Comments

  1. Hello,

    You prabably get quite a few questions concerning Islam and Shiria Law. My question is pertaining to the habit that nuns wear. I live in Oklahoma and there has been an ongoing issue of drivers lincenses and the removal of the hajib, worn by muslim women and often cover the entire face, and the habit. What was introduced was that the hajib needs to be removed for the photo on an official government ID. Islams defense is that by creating this law, nuns will be forced to remove their habits for photos also. Would that be an issue for nuns? If a law was passed to remove the habit for the purpose of the photo? And Islam is using the same argument for TSA and national security issues. I admit I am not a very strong Catholic but I have never been under the impression that if the situation warrented a nun could remove the headgear portion of the habit. For example, if she were to enter a construction site she may remove it because OSHA states a proper fit for a hard hat. It needs to be snug. Or playing in sports, she may remove it to wear the proper helmets.
    I feel that this is a weak argument that Islam presents. Am I correct or incorrect?

    Thank You

    • There would be no reason for a Religious Sister to remove her veil, it doesn’t cover her face. Most Sisters would not want to remove their veil in public. Some trim their hair very short and it would be a public humiliation.

      What they need to do is profile. Everyone knows an old granny doesn’t fit the profile of a terrorist. The way they do it in Israel works and they have never had a terrorist go through. If they want to say it’s not politically correct to profile, they are full of nonsense. Everyone profiles! Most people see a Priest and they profile, even though a small minority have betrayed us all. If someone goes in for a job interview dressed sloppily, they are profiled. Or someone who looks shady in a store is profiled as maybe stealing. So!

  2. Thank you very much, Fr. Jay. Are there any recent remarks by Pope Benedict XVI on why sisters should wear the habit? When I joined my order in the 1980’s, the others were beginning to remove the habit. I researched about it, and became convinced that there was no valid reason to change to secular clothing. Still, this question has bothered me for years (especially since I now belong to a minority, and the few girls who are joining us are not being encouraged to wear the habit). In spite of the confusion I have lived with all these years, I am personally convinced that there is no reason to change to secular clothing, and I have retained the habit in spite of pressure to remove it. But how to convince the others? It is still a burning question, particularly for those who have removed the habit (strange, isn’t it? when they were the ones who said that it was not essential). I would be grateful for any links, references, etc. Thank you, Father.

    • Dear Sister, I am not aware of anything that Pope Benedict has said about the Religious habit. It has all been said by all previous Popes. Pope Benedict’s vision is a return to tradition. Understanding the Holy Father’s vision is continuity. Everything flows from tradition, so I believe he would desire Religious in their habits. The problem today is that there are so many major problems to deal with that the habit is a small issue.

  3. Father.
    I am a solitary following the rule of St. Benedict. However, I am having trouble finding someone, anyone, who can make a nun’s habit. Can you help me?
    Sister Joan

      • First,
        Thank you Father for speaking truth. I belonged to a Congregation of Religious Sisters for six years. I had to leave for issues concerning my health. My vocation came very early in life, as I watched my Great Aunt… Sister Nicholas. As a child, I remember her “clothing.” It was special. I associated her with God and with happiness – so I wanted to dress like her and therefore be happy and holy like her.
        Still, the Sisters not only wear the habit, but they see it as a major witness of God’s love in the world. The Congregation of the Sisters of Christian Charity, (whose Motherhouse is located in Mendham, NJ) continues to attract many new young vocations because of their traditional religious garb. The community continues to grow, whereas many religious congregations without habits are dying. If I had to reenter, I maintain the importance of wearing a habit. It reminds people that Jesus is in our midst. It remind people of heaven. It reminds the Sisters that they are consecrated to Christ and are to in essence, remain poor and simple. It helps them to also remember that they belong to a group of consecrated religious who uphold not only the teachings of Jesus, but live it in a way distinctive to their Founder/Foundress.
        Sister Joan, I know for sure that the SCCs would probably be more than happy to help you with making you a habit.
        If there is anything I can do to help you get in touch with them, please let me know.
        God Bless you both.
        Please pray for me as I continue to follow God’s will for my life.

  4. Dear Father,

    I am currently very new in formation for the third order secular discalced Carmelites. I am troubled that we are not allowed to wear the full habit. We go through 7 years of formation. We are a living witness and although we live in the world, we are still Carmelites. We should still be able to wear the full habits.
    I feel very drawn to this. How is it that I would go about bringing this up without sounding dis-obedient or prideful? I know I am not alone in this as I have read so many other women’s pleas to wear the full habit as third order candidates or professed of different orders.
    Yours humbly in Christ,

    • As a lay person associated with the Carmelites, your role is not to be a quasi Religious. 3rd Orders or lay members of a Religious Congregation is the call/ commitment to live the spirituality and take it into the world. In the past, the Church allowed lay people to wear the habit of their orders for specific occasions. That practice is no longer allowed. Members of a 3rd order are called to evangelize the world by fidelity to Christ & His Church in the world – actions, moral life, words, voting, religious practice, interaction with others, reaching out to the poor and needy. All of these things are the lay person’s witness to the Carmelite, Franciscan, Dominican or any other 3rd order spirituality.

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