Experts are warning that stress, abuse and an “unattainable ideal” of spirituality are causing a drop in the number of the world’s nuns and a decline in new vocations.

– Burnout, the “disease of giving”

Women religious “are so profoundly dedicated to their mission, that they sometimes neglect personal needs such as sleep or even food and recreation”, psychotherapist Anne-Marie Saunal denounced to La Croix March 4.

“They have an extremely high and even unattainable ideal, they work for Christ, follow him with their whole being, and not to achieve this any more calls into question their faith”.

Priest and medical doctor Pascal Ide coincided with Saunal’s diagnosis of the stress so affecting nuns today, for whom the ideal of “giving one’s life” can quickly turn into a “disease of giving” too much.

“Some people can’t set limits”, added Jean-Baptiste van den Hove, the operator of a retreat in the French countryside for people, including religious, who are suffering from burnout.

“There is a kind of headlong rush to excess, which is accentuated by a misguided spirituality”.

– “God’s call can get buried under an agenda”, more and more sisters denounce

The good news, however, is that more and more nuns are becoming aware of the excesses expected of them, and are starting to set limits to their duties, for the sake of their personal wellbeing.

“God’s call can get buried under an agenda. ‘Doing’ can make us forget the reason why we follow Christ”, one sister told La Croix.

“Religious life is not primarily about ‘doing’, but being with God”, she added.

But Sister Véronique Margron, the president of the Conference of Religious Men and Women in France (Corref). told La Croix the stresses of religious life are not necessarily any more intense than those of secular women.

“Overall, religious sisters in France live in less harsh conditions than many people who have children and may be exhausted by work or experience precariousness”, Margron recalled.

– Abuses of power

But there is one problem the world’s over half-a-million sisters can’t solve for themselves, however much they try.

That’s the problem of the abuse – sexual or of power – that they suffer at the hands of their (mostly male) superiors.

“When a sister – often coming from abroad – is at the service of a clergyman or even of her elderly sisters, when she has to carry out a multitude of household tasks, keep the house, have a permanent presence, and when she no longer has time to rest or to have a healthy community life, is it this burnout or the consequence of an abuse of power?”, Margron wondered.

“The superior must make sure that the living conditions are in conformity with the vocation and fundamental rights”, the president of the Corref emphasised.

“She must also remember that the first thing that makes a religious live her life is the reading of the Word, prayer and community life”.

– Can sisters solve it for themselves?

But can superiors of female orders alone tackle by themselves the burnout epidemic in growing numbers of women religious?

It’s a question that’s on not a few minds at the Vatican, where the women’s supplement to official newspaper L’Osservatore RomanoDonne Chiesa Mondo (“Women Church World”) – dedicated its February issue to exposing the workplace, sexual, physical, emotional and spiritual abuses suffered by thousands of nuns around the world.

How to tackle the epidemic of stress and suffering in nuns is also on the minds of the leadership team of the International Union of Superiors General (UISG) in Rome, which in January set up a three-year inquiry to understand the dimensions of the problem and some possible solutions.

So great are the challenges that Pope Francis has opened a house in Rome to welcome and help former sisters who just can’t take the religious life any more.

In the meantime, the UISG is working on recommendations for greater workplace rights for female religious, where at home in their convents or abroad on mission.

“Not being in control of one’s life, not being able to plan, damages mental health”, Australian psychologist Sister Maryanne Loughry wrote in Donne Chiesa Mondo, explaining what’s at stake in this problem.

“Working in ambiguity, without precise rules, can contribute to intimidation, abuse and harassment”, Loughry warned.

Next on Novena:

Burnout, stress, exploitation, prostitution… Vatican magazine lifts lid on abuse of nuns

Vatican paper implores Pope “to break wall of inequality between women and men in Church”

Former Vatican journalist says unpaid women’s work keeping Church alive

Former Vatican journalist doubles down on claims nuns enslaved, abused by priests “all over the world”

Italian convent forced to close… was Mother Superior ousted over affair?

French superiors who considered pensions contrary to Gospel sentenced to pay damages


Progressive Catholic journalist, author and educator. Working on social justice, equality and Church renewal.