A Millennial Nun Responds

As millennial nun, I would like to respond to the article “Behold, the Millennial Nuns” published on Huffington Post by Eve Fairbanks. The millennial generation is the generation born between 1990 and 2010, and apparently, it stands out for its selfishness and depression. Fairbanks is a young American journalist who lives in South Africa. She states that change fascinates her. In this article, she investigates an unexpected change in American society: young women are becoming nuns in a much higher percentage than just ten years ago. She frames this change in society within the broader context of an attitude of openness towards God and towards traditional values. I would like to share some of her profound insights but also critique some core aspects of her presentation and conclusion. I am going to argue that although the societal changes she presents can partially account for our generations’ greater thirst for God and truth, and perhaps even our openness to the possibility of a religious vocation, they are in no way an explanation of our conviction of God’s existence nor of the vocation itself. Although ethnically Jewish, Fairbanks’s reasoning is thoroughly secular, and so it is also thoroughly reductionist in its vision of Catholicism and of religious life. 

We can start with Fairbanks’s description of my generation. The millennial generation was supposed to be a proof that “democracy and American society was, indeed, the greatest that ever could be made, now that primitive superstitions had been cleared, tech and science and finance reigned, major political threats had fallen and our hegemony seemed complete.” However, Fairbanks admits that, “none of this was true. The tech bubble burst. There was 9/11 and the financial crisis and the surprise election of a reality-TV tycoon as president—all things that loosened our faith in the world’s goodness and in our comprehension of and control over things”. She presents her dialogue with a High School teacher, who points out that many seemingly successful and over-achieving students ask themselves if they have ever done anything that really has any depth. “The level of anxiety and sadness these kids have, I don’t think we can even understand it at this point,” the teacher shares. The generation that was supposed to be a proof of America’s supremacy ended up being more wounded and weak than ever. Having experienced disappointment in life (despite success) and emptiness (despite a busy social life), the millennial generation thirsts for love, fulfillment, and security more avidly than other generations. The idea of being loved unconditionally and called to greatness by a good and eternal God sounds not only refreshing, but deeply attractive and even necessary to millennials.

One indication of this turn towards God and towards definitive truths is the high percentage of young women who become nuns. Fairbanks brings forward some surprising facts. In 2009, more Catholic sisters in America were over 90 years old than under 60. Now, the opposite is true. The same year, the average age for becoming a Sister was 40. Now, in 2019, it is 24. These “new” Sisters tend to be doctrinally conservative, much more so than just 10 or 20 years ago. They also join orders “that force them to wear a habit,” as Fairbanks puts it. They see chastity not just as a way to have more free time for doing good deeds, as many older American nuns seem to see it, but as something that is holy in itself. Fairbanks presents the young women’s own explanation for their call (more often than not, an experience in prayer) but at the same time, she suggests that what moves young women to enter convents is the thirst for stability and authenticity, so desperate in millennials. 

When Fairbanks noted in her article that her father was a fervent reader of Nietzsche, all the pieces began to fall into place in my mind. She articulates a fierce and accurate critique of American consumerism and demonstrates how destructive it is. She sketches out a truthful portrayal of my generation’s thirst for meaning, for stability, for truth, and for God. However, there is something fundamentally wrong about her explanation of this change. Ultimately, she sees our thirst for God and our openness to religious life as a pitiful weakness, a sad yet inevitable effect of our wounded psychologies. Nietzche’s criticism of Christianity and Christian ideals discreetly runs through the entire article.  

Initially, I wanted to argue against Fairbanks that religious life is not about being controlled, but about true freedom. Poverty, chastity and obedience are not at all an oppressive prison, but are the key to authentic love and union with God for those called to religious life. However, those arguments would have fallen short. Fairbanks’s misunderstanding of religious life goes much deeper. In a certain sense, it boils down to two questions: First, did God create us in His image or did we create God in ours, as Feuerbach held? She seems to agree with Feuerbach, which explains why she has to point to a wounded psychology as the only reasonable cause of faith. And second, who is Jesus Christ? If He is the Son of God— born in poverty in Bethlehem, obedient unto death and death on a Cross, wholly dedicated to preaching the kingdom of God and calling others to leave behind everything and everyone to follow Him— religious life makes sense. If not, it does not. 

I appreciate Fairbanks’s attention to feminine religious life in the States. Although she shakes the very foundations of Christianity as she attempts to rationalize this change in society, she writes with sincerity and respect. We must not forget that Christ’s apparent weakness on the Cross brought about the redemption of humanity. It should not surprise us that our decision to follow Him, offering our life as a sacrifice in union with His, is also seen as weakness, despite the fact that in reality, it requires an interior strength that goes far beyond our human capacity.