Are Women Religious Being Exploited?

By Therese Ivers, JCL


An article recently appeared in the L’Osservatore Romano [Vatican newspaper] by Marie-Lucile Kubacki, about religious sisters in Rome being exploited in providing cooking, laundry, and housekeeping services for male Church officials.  Sisters, some with doctorates or licentiates in theology or other fields were being assigned to serve in menial positions for “random” “modest” or “no pay”.  The phrase “male Church officials”, used in an English report on this issue, in practice, denotes communities of male religious who often have a whole team of sisters dedicated to providing these services, as well as individual priests and prelates.

Not unexpectedly, another article appeared, whose author, Jeff Mirus, claimed to be “bemused and confused” about the claim of exploitation of women religious in Rome.  It was entitled Is It Wrong For Women Religious to Serve Priests and Bishops?  Of course, any person who celebrates the feast of St. Joseph the Worker knows that work is dignified and menial labor is dignified.   However, this is a trick question.  It is only acceptable for women religious to serve male religious and clergy if it is part of their official charism.  Apparently Mirus, who does not have “living in Rome for an extended period of time” in his bio, sees the articles against exploitation of women religious as an exaggerated “feminist” outcry.

Indeed, Mirus sees the services of doing the cooking, laundry, and housekeeping for “clergy” (he doesn’t realize that teams of religious sisters are often assigned to do the same for communities of their peers, non-ordained religious brothers) as opportunities for reducing ministry costs of clergy and for growing in humility!  This is shortsighted thinking.

What Mirus does not appear to appreciate is that the articles speak of many sisters not having proper labor contracts; hence, they are financially vulnerable. They are often not paid even if they or their communities desperately need funds.  This is not Catholic social justice in action; it is exploitation.  Further, it may be true that the salary a cleric receives will not be greatly diminished by free or cheap labor, but the cleric is given a reliable salary, which is supposed to include sufficient funds for decent living.

Housekeeping services are part of the salary equation for many clergymen, particularly if they live in spacious rectories with a lot of shared common space. Little or no pay means that there is true exploitation of women’s labor on the part of the male cleric.  The exploitation is not limited to simply the woman/women religious and their own religious communities.  It extends to the local Church, who, by their donations, are supporting the women religious to do something which is often contrary to their stated charism!  Would rightly thinking lay and ordained faithful be so quick to donate to women religious communities if they knew that a portion of the members were being siphoned off from their stated mission to be underpaid or unpaid servants to religious brothers and clergy?

Unlike Mirus, I have personally witnessed vast numbers of women religious being exploited in Italy.  I have seen religious sisters scrubbing toilets and cooking for male religious communities or individual clergymen.  For the vast majority, it was historically accomplished by a sympathetic superior helping out a busy cleric or a religious community of men despite the fact that the charism did not support this type of work.  A teaching or nursing community has no business scrubbing the toilets of male religious communities!  This isn’t a matter of menial labor being “unsuitable”, but the context is wrong.  It is wrong for a community with a stated charism that does not include menial labor for the personal benefit of male Church officials to assign sisters to do just that.

Furthermore, there must be consideration of jeopardy to the promise/vow of chastity on the part of both male clergy and religious and on the part of the vowed women providing these services. There is no need to expound on this point. Young religious women should not be working in the private quarters of men. Parish priests are not supposed to have live-in housekeepers unless they are of mature age. Barring advanced age or disability, men should take a little time to maintain their own quarters. This is a part of normal living, and the exercise will be good for their health.

This exploitative practice needs to end. It impoverishes communities of religious women. It helps men to entertain an attitude of entitlement.  Yes, I have personally heard or participated in conversations where religious communities of men felt entitled to free housekeeping services from religious women.  This custom also fosters an attitude of superiority, where men can overlook the intellectual abilities of religious women because they only see them engaged in menial tasks. Both major superiors and superiors of individual houses need to stand up for their rights and either demand labor contracts with proper pay if these services are within their declared charism or refuse to delegate sisters to provide this work.

If it is true that, as Mirus states, cooking, doing the personal dirty laundry of the men, and cleaning can engender humility in religious women, why can’t it work the same way for men?  Why can’t men pick up a broom or do their laundry or take a hand in the kitchen?  If doing a spot of manual labor is not deemed part of a healthy balance in life for men, who should not be doing simply white collar intellectual work to keep physically fit, why can’t lay people be hired at just wages?  If “recruits”, as he labels postulants or novices, can be redirected to these “humble” tasks, why not do the same for male “recruits” at seminaries? Oh wait. There’s actually a purpose for the seminary and novitiate! Strange that it does not include providing housekeeping to busy male religious or clerics as an integral part of the formation program.

One possible response to the existing exploitation is for the Vatican to insist that religious strictly follow their charisms.  This may lead to a widespread withdrawal from the downstairs crew comprised of religious sisters.  Another solution would be to amend the constitutions of the religious congregations to reflect “service to male religious and clerics” as part of their charism.  Of course, one wonders why no male religious community of brothers has written “service to female religious communities” as part of their charism.  Or, a devout woman may feel impelled to start a community dedicated solely to providing menial services to religious males and clergy.  To my knowledge, no community has this as its specific and sole charism.  There is a community I have encountered that has as part of its charism helping out diocesan clergy as needed, which may include housekeeping.

Let us pray that an equitable solution be found.

Therese Ivers, JCL, OCV

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