Sister And Nuns


My son has a sister for a teacher. She told him there is a difference between a sister and a nun. Would anyone know what she is refering to. I thought they were the same thing.


I believe the difference is nuns are cloistered, sisters are out in the world. Nun is typically used interchangibly, but, sister is more appropriate for those who teach and are out in the world.


Effectively, “religious sister” and “nun” mean the same thing. Those orders founded more than 500 years ago usually use the term “nun”, while most more recently founded orders usually use “religious sister”. But neither term is inaccurate or offensive to describe any woman belonging to a consecrated Catholic religious order.

Similarly with “monk/friar” and “religious brother”.


[quote=dal11]My son has a sister for a teacher. She told him there is a difference between a sister and a nun. Would anyone know what she is refering to. I thought they were the same thing.

It is as noted above and also has to do with the type of vows taken.


I think, too, this has somewhat to do with the way that the Church has treated women’s religious communities differently from men’s.

Not so very long ago, the Church said to all women religious “you have to have a cloister somewhere.” But within the last 400+ years various women were called to establish worldly ministries like caring for orphans and elderly. The Church of the time frowned upon a bunch of women doing just that, so in order to become “legitimate” they had to formally become a religious community (I think the founding of the Mercys and the Presentations fit this bill…maybe others). But because they were some upstart group, founded to be out-in-the-world, and they didn’t intend to keep the lifestyle of the traditional Benedictine, Augustinian-type nuns, they were considered to be something like a “pious institute” or an “apostolic society” rather than an “order.” They were termed “religious sisters” and could only take “simple vows”, wheras the term “nun” was reserved for those who were cloistered, renounced patrimony, and took “solemn vows.”

To my knowledge, men religious do not have these distinctions and all take solemn vows.


Here’s a simple rule to remember:

All nuns are sisters, but not all sisters are nuns.

Sister is the preferred and correct title for any woman living the Consecrated Life.

The term “nun” describes only certain religious orders, typically those who live in cloiser.

“Sister” is the correct form of address for any such person.

“Monk” and “friar” are not interchangable either, and refer to two quite different subgroups of religious orders: monks and mendiant orders.

God bless you all,


That’s one thing I love about the Catholic Church. We can describe the 1400s as “not so very long ago”.

Diaconia, I didn’t mean to imply that “monk” means the same as “friar”. I grouped them together for brevity and simplicity.

I’m sure no one would object to anyone calling a religious sister of a non-cloistered order “a nun”, although in a very technical sense it is incorrect.

Chemical Bean, men’s orders have always been treated just the same as women’s orders. Non-enclosed male orders like the Franciscans were also told that they must be based, at least in name, in a monastery. All members of all religious orders take solemn vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. Depending on which order is being joined, there may be various additional vows concerning other things like enclosure or special works of the order.


Petergee, I must respectfully disagree with you. It may not (or no longer) be explicitly written into formal church documents, but men’s and women’s religious communities have been treated differently throughout history.

Just by browsing through the 1983 Code of Canon Law, I find several specific references to “cloistered nuns”. There are no similar references to a nun’s male counterpart, a cloistered male religious.

*Can. 609 - ß2 For the establishment of a monastery of cloistered nuns, the permission of the Apostolic See is also required.

Can. 667 - ß3 Monasteries of cloistered nuns who are wholly devoted to the contemplative life, must observe papal enclosure, that is, in accordance with the norms given by the Apostolic See. Other monasteries of cloistered nuns are to observe an enclosure which is appropriate to their nature and is defined in the constitutions.*

Stories abound of women’s religious communities who had to struggle against a Church that would not relate to them in the same way that it would relate to a counterpart community of men. An excellent example is the history of many American Benedictine women.

From “Upon This Tradition”, a statement of the Conference of American Benedictine Prioresses,

*The first Benedictine women to settle in North America arrived at Saint Marys, Pennsylvania, in 1852 from Eichstatt, Bavaria. With generous hearts and a spirit of adventure, they had left their abbey and homeland in response to the invitation from Abbot Boniface Wimmer, who came to Pennsylvania in 1846 to serve the needs of the many Catholic Germans immigrating to these shores…

The founders of the first Benedictine communities expected to continue their European monastic way of life in the new mission field. But because of the primitive living situations on the frontier, the extreme physical poverty, and the apostolic needs of the Catholic immigrants, the sisters had to adapt their lifestyle to new circumstances in order to survive and to serve. The most evident adaptation was their inability to observe the confines of the traditional European cloister, as their crowded quarters often served as convent and boarding school.

Mother Benedicta Riepp, the superior of the sisters at Saint Marys, soon found herself in conflict with Abbot Wimmer over questions of jurisdiction. When she appealed to Rome to clarify her authority as superior, the Vatican responded with a decree (December 6, 1859) that the Benedictine women in America were to be under the jurisdiction of their local bishop. Furthermore, they were required to substitute simple vows for solemn vows, apparently because they were not keeping the strict enclosure which was associated with solemn vows. (1)

Another alarming change was initiated by Abbot Wimmer, acting solely on his own authority. Without consulting the sisters, he petitioned Rome in 1858 to decree that the American Benedictine women should substitute the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary for the Divine Office. (2) No doubt he thought he was doing the sisters a favor by lightening their prayer obligations. But this decree, granted in 1866, together with the previous decree of 1859, effectively deprived the American sisters of three of their basic monastic rights: autonomy, solemn vows, and the Divine Office.

Some major consequences followed. First, certain members of the hierarchy refused to recognize the sisters as Benedictine monastics. For example, Bishop William Ullathorne, OSB, of Birmingham, England, wrote to an American prioress in 1880, “From all that I have heard about Benedictine women of the United States, . . . you do not appear to be true religious in the canonical sense of the term, but rather a pious Institute, bearing the Benedictine name.” (3)

Second, the Benedictine nuns of Europe considered the Americans unfaithful renegades who had indifferently abandoned their precious monastic tradition. The separation from the European motherhouses was officially solidified in future church documents, in which the strictly enclosed Benedictine women were classified as moniales or nuns, and the American Benedictine women were classified as sorores or sisters. From all sides it appears that the American sisters were considered apostolic rather than monastic religious.

Moreover, salt was rubbed into the American sisters’ wounds by the realization that their brother monks in North America, who lived a similar lifestyle without strict enclosure, were not deprived by Rome of their autonomy, solemn vows, nor the Divine Office. Thus, the American monks were not divided into a class separate from their European roots, but continued to be recognized as observant monastics.*


[quote=ChemicalBean]I Not so very long ago, the Church said to all women religious “you have to have a cloister somewhere.” .

there was always a provision for a woman who wanted to take vows but remained at home, Catherine of Sienna in the 14th c. was an example.


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