What’s Life Like For Nuns Who Choose To Leave The Roman Catholic Church?

Can nuns leave the Roman Catholic Church? The answer is, technically, yes - but nuns who do decide to leave their posts often struggle with adjustment issues as they transition into the secular world.

When the Second Vatican Council ended in 1965, what had once been a rigid, fixed religious doctrine transformed into something more revolutionary and flexible. The Catholic Church's new attitude toward devoutness and ritual encouraged exploration and freedom. This, in turn, gave many nuns time to reconsider their choices, especially as subsequent Roman Catholic officials reversed many of Vatican II's policies. It's estimated close to 40,000 nuns rescinded their status between 1966 and 1981.

The reasons nuns leave the Catholic Church are myriad. Some are kicked out as a result of what critics consider problematic views within the church toward women. Others endured various forms of maltreatment before they were able to flee - and it wasn't until 2019 Pope Francis finally acknowledged how many nuns are and have been taken advantage of, especially by priests, within the church.

What ex-nuns have to say about their experiences - before, during, and after - is also varied. Many have come forward to share their stories with the media, shedding light on why they joined, what happened while they were members of a convent, why they left, and how they adjusted to life without the structure their positions provided.

  • Moving Out Of A Convent Can Lead To Culture Shock

    The mass exodus of nuns who left the Catholic Church between the late 1960s and early '80s placed a lot of formerly religious women into a tumultuous culture defined by change, conflict, and uncertainty. During this era, activisim was a normal part of life for secular folks, and involved issues like civil rights, anti-war protests, and feminism.

    Interested "in spirituality and a meaningful life of service," Nancy Bancroft took the habit in 1966. But, after seven years, Bancroft realized the convent wasn't for her. Seeing that women in the outside world were achieving more autonomy - and unwilling to suppress her desire to have a family of her own - she left.

    Bancroft experienced culture shock when she returned to American life. As she told The Atlantic:

    It was like Rip Van Winkle waking up. People were smoking pot and [being] promiscuous. Everything was open. It was a huge shock. My life had been pretty sheltered from the [substance] culture and free love. I found a lot of that culture shallow and boring. I did miss the closeness of community life, and there was a depth of experience in religious life.

  • Some Have Trouble Dating For The First Time Ever

    Pennsylvania native Patricia Dwyer made her first vows as a nun in 1972. Four years earlier, when she was only 18, Dwyer began her service at a convent called Sisters of St. Joseph. She joined at such a young age because the "civil rights movement and themes of social justice were a rallying cry to serve."

    Some years later, in 1990, Dwyer acknowledged the life was no longer for her. Taking a leave of absence from the order, she met with her mother and finally came to terms with the truth. "I’m pretty sure I’m gay," she admitted.

    Dwyer left the Catholic Church for good in 1991, new to the decade and to her own sexuality. Having never dated anyone seriously, initiating contact with other women was daunting for her:

    Even more intimidating was dating women for the first time. In high school, I had attended the occasional school dance or prom with a boy, but being out and open as a lesbian was terrifying and exhilarating at once. Determined to get my new life started, I picked up a copy of the Washington Blade, DC’s gay newspaper, and found a listing for a lesbian happy hour at a bar in Dupont Circle.

    Eventually, Dwyer was able to find like-minded companions after reconciling with the fact that she'd been emotionally stunted by her time as a nun.

  • Ex-Nuns Might Become Activists To End Celibacy Or Give Women Greater Roles In The Church

    Many former nuns have dedicated their post-convent lives to speaking out against celibacy and the downgraded role women deal with in the church.

    One ex-nun, Dorothy Donnelly, has written and spoken extensively about what she calls "sexual spirituality." Once a member of Sisters of St. Joseph in Orange, Donnelly realized it "was not honest to declare a vow of celibacy" anymore. Instead, she testifies that "sexuality is a gift, not an affliction," and has even been invited to share her stance at her former convent.

    For Donnelly, there is nothing holier than empowering women and their voices within the church. In her opinion, attraction and sensuality are at the core of anyone's spiritual experience:

    The essence of being human is learning how to love. Prayer is a relationship, a love affair. Change your image of God to God as lover. God is in the act of constant seduction - we are in the act of constant resistance.

    Donnelly continues to do what she can to stir the pot with the Catholic Church.

  • Spending Money After Years Of Poverty Might Lead To Guilt

    Nuns take vows of "poverty, chastity and obedience," and they acclimate to life devoid of material possessions or monetary value. When they leave their convents, many ex-nuns struggle with participating in a society ruled by money and spending.

    Dwyer, around the time she disavowed her designation, described herself as having an "external persona that represented integrity and honesty" competing with an "interior life plagued by guilt." Many former nuns have admitted to struggling with the same guilt.

    When nuns left the church en masse in the '60s and '70s, they labored to find work in an ever-evolving job market. They left the church with no money, and they had no financial literacy skills.

    In Toronto, Canada, a woman named May McGovern helps what she calls "other dropouts" adjust to life outside the church, especially when it comes to finances. She and other volunteers like her help former nuns wrap their heads around rent, work, and recurring bills. One ex-woman of the cloth, when asked about her financial experience, told McGovern, "Oh yes, I added up the money in the poor box every month!"

  • Ex-Nuns Often Find Work In ‘Helping’ Careers, Such As Social Work Or Teaching

    While some former nuns struggle with inner demons and substance dependency, others adapt by turning their dedication to service into a viable career in the secular world. Bancroft was able to do exactly this. As she describes her work:

    I got my master’s in counseling and worked in a women’s substance... program. I wasn’t sure if I’d like it or be any good at it, but I figured this could be a good field for me. Later, a superior I had written to suggested private-practice counseling, specializing in working with clergy and the religious.

    Another former nun, Karen Leahy, believed her "heroes were out­side the con­vent. They were work­ing in the neigh­bor­hoods, among real peo­ple with real prob­lems, try­ing to bring justice."

    In the mid-'80s, a non-canonical group called the Sisters for Christian Community formed to create a network for sisters who feel outside the Roman Catholic tradition. Claiming that 90% of their members were former nuns in 1985, the group's purpose is to guide these women toward a life of service.

  • They Frequently Fall In Love, Marry, And Have Children

    A large number of Catholic nuns who leave the church do so because they want to fall in love, marry, and have their own families. One such story focuses on two former nuns in Italy.

    Federica and Isabel both worked at a treatment center for substance users while they were nuns. During their time as colleagues, they fell in love with one another. In order to be together, both women were forced to leave the Catholic Church.

    The couple was able to officiate their bond via a civil union in 2016, but the fact that the church will never legitimate their status haunts them. "God wants people happy, to live the love in the light of the sun," Isabel shared with the Italian newspaper La Stampa.

    For straight former nuns, love and marriage are also major motivating factors behind their choice to leave the convent. Bancroft "met a man at the state hospital, and it was love at first sight." As she described:

    He was the one for me, and it was the first time I’d felt that way. We went out a month after we had started working together. Two weeks later, he asked me to marry him. We’ve been married for 44 years.