The truth of the matter is that the Church does require that we have a habit. There are very few religious institutes for whom the habit is not required. I only know two and both are male: the Marianist Brothers and Mother Teresas Missionary Brothers of Charity. Church law does not require these two communities to have a habit. They are an exception for very special reasons.
The rest of us must wear a habit. The Church said that the habit should be simplified, not eliminated. She also said that it must be appropriate for the work that the religious do, becoming, and modest. There is nothing wrong with a congregation of sisters having a shorter habit, as long as it looks like a habit
Religious men should wear the habit of their community or a Roman collar. Diocesan priests have never had habits, because they are not consecrated men. They are secular men. They must dress according to the rules of their local bishop. Most bishops require a Roman Collar and some require a cassock.
There are times when a habit would be damaged and it can be taken off for a few hours while you perform a specific task. However, the expectation is that you design a habit that does not need to be taken off.
Those religious women who have adopted secular clothing, jewelry, make-up, and other fashion accessories are out of compliance with Church law. That's why they are being investigated by the Vatican, several other reasons too. One of the observations made by the Vatican is that these communities not only dress in secular clothing, but also live very secular lives. They have no local superior. They decide where they're going to live. They have little or no community life and they do very little to promote religious life. Some have engaged in teaching heresy. They are now in big trouble.
To be fair, not every sister who wears secular clothing is a heretic. I know the Carmelite Sisters of Charity, who no longer wear a habit. They have a very strong prayer life, strong community life, and they are also very obedient to their superiors. Their way of dress is very simple. They usually get their clothng from a thrift shop. But I would imagine that they will soon be in a habit, because Pope Benedict is insisting on it and they are a very obedient group.
There were experiments with different forms of dress. But after 40 years, we have see no growth in those communities that have dropped the habit and on-going growth in the ones that keep it. This is very telling.
As to secular jobs, I'm not sure what you may call a secular job. Teaching, nursing, social work, running soup kitchens, running shelters, group homes, serving the disabled are all secular jobs. Any secular person can do them. You do not enter the religious life to be a teacher. You enter the religious life to be a consecrated man or consecrated woman. Your love for God must always come before your love for your work.
Among the Franciscan Brothers of Life, my community, we wear a habit 24/7. You cannot go without a habit, since we have no other clothing. We don't even own a black suit.
The same is true of the Franciscans of the Renewal, Franciscan Missionaries of the Eternal Word, Franciscan Brothers of Peace, Franciscan Brothers of the Eucharist, Franciscan Friars of the Ancient Observance, Franciscans of the Immaculate, Capuchin Franciscans of the Primitive Observance and the Little Brothers of St. Francis. In all of these groups, we must ask for permission to wear anything that is not the habit. That permission is granted only when the superior feels that it is appropriate not to wear it. This means that it is rarely granted.
The other religious orders of men have never given up their habits, but they do have the option of wearing other clothing. However, they do preserve a habit that they must wear for certain occasions. There is no prohibition against wearing the habit.
The big problem with the habit has been with sisters, not with nuns. Nuns still wear a habit of some kind. Many sisters also wear a habit, but most sisters in the USA do not wear a habit. This is something that Pope John Paul II and now Pope Benedict XVI said is problematic and unacceptable.
Some bishops are now cracking down on this. In the diocese where I serve, if a sister refuses to wear a veil, she must leave the diocese. It's that simple. The bishop prefers to run his institutions with faithful lay people, than dissenting sisters. This may mean that an individual sister must leave the diocese or that an entire community must leave. If they choose to stay, they may not work in any diocesan ministry.
But if you work in a diocesan parish, school or other diocesan ministry, you must comply with the local bishop. If he insists that you comply with the Holy Father's wishes, he has the right to fire you if you fail to do so.
Precisely today, I attended a meeting with the bishop and all of the religious working in his diocese. Guess what the topics were?
The alternative offered by the bishop was, "If you don't like it, you don't have to work in my diocese. I rather close more schools and more parishes.." But as I said above, this only applies to ministries that are paid for by the diocese, not by your community.
I hope this helps understand the Church's expectations on this matter. One more note. It is forbidden for the laity to intervene and opine in matters concerning religious men or religious women. This rule was made in the 12th century at the request of St. Francis of Assisi. It has been the standing law in the Church every since. This was done to protect the religious from lay control. Many wealthy lay people felt that they had a voice in the life of the religious community because they were generous benefactors.
Br. JR, OSF :)