I’ve recently noticed a problem with the conventions for certain honorifics, and I have a solution.
Vowed religious women (aka nuns, sisters) are entitled to, and generally use, the honorific Sister [Sr.].
Persons who have earned doctoral degrees are entitled to, and generally use, the honorific Doctor [Dr.].
Now, ordained clergy, who are entitled to and generally use the honorific Reverend [Rev.], if they also hold doctorates, are entitled to and frequently use both honorifics together [Rev. Dr. Such-and-so]. They don’t have to make a choice between identifying themselves either in terms of their ecclesiastical status or their educational status: they get to do both. Why shouldn’t our vowed religious women be able to do the same thing?
I therefore propose that vowed religious women who also hold doctoral degrees should be referred to using both the honorifics to which they are entitled. Following the pattern for clergy, the ecclesiastical title should precede the educational title: thus, Sister Doctor [Sr. Dr.].
I plan to start doing this immediately, and I urge you to do the same. Use it in your writing and conversation, and encourage its use by others as well.
Why is this important? This is a feminist issue: it’s about perceived power and status. In our society, a doctorate is a significant status marker both socially and academically. It identifies one as possessing significant expertise. In theological discussions, this expertise matters. The use of the honorific stakes a visible claim to that expertise.
Presently, vowed religious women with doctorates are in a double-bind. Both as women, and as laity (non-clergy), they are likely to be perceived, if only unconsciously, as inferior in status, power, and expertise when compared to male clergy: they need that visible claim of expertise in order to counter the non-level playing field. But if they choose to use the title Doctor instead of the title Sister, then they are vulnerable to the accusation that they’ve lost their identity as vowed religious, that they value their education more than their religious vocation, that they’ve lost their way, have strayed from the vision of their founders… and need to be reminded, by those male clerical experts, of who they should be. It’s a lose-lose.
Let’s make it a win-win. Using both honorifics together affirms, and honors, both their religious vocation and their educational expertise.
If you’ve been wishing for something you could do to support the nuns in this current, difficult situation, I’m convinced this is something we can all do together that can make a difference. I suspect that most Catholic bishops have spent most of their adult lives immersed in a male clerical culture, which means that when they think of nuns, chances are they think of Sister Mary Margaret who taught them in elementary school or prepared them for their first communion. They don’t think of women who are scholars, academics, experts in their fields.
So let’s help them remember that Sr. Dr. Elizabeth Johnson, and Sr. Dr. Margaret Farley, and women like them are simultaneously nuns and experts, worthy of respect on both counts.
Spread the word!