Catholic Nuns & Discipline

Catholic nuns have a reputation as strict disciplinarians.
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For centuries, convents were the only place for women who wanted to travel and make a difference outside the home. It’s not surprising then that the women who chose this path have a larger than life reputation. Throughout American history, nuns have served selflessly, from the San Francisco earthquake to the Civil Rights movement to hurricane Katrina. As far back as the Civil War, more than 600 sisters from 21 different orders cared for soldiers on both sides of the conflict. Catholic nuns have founded orphanages, hospitals, schools and more than 110 colleges and universities throughout the U.S. Wherever there has been a need, nuns have risen to the occasion. Yet what nuns are most famous for is being stern Catholic school disciplinarians.

1 Nuns and Catholic School

The U.S. Catholic school system is the largest private school system in the world, and it was established and run for most of its history by Catholic Sisters. Nuns began teaching in the U.S. during the earliest days of the nation, with their numbers growing steadily to a peak of 180,000 in 1965. However, by 2002, that figure had dropped by 94 percent with the decline in Catholic grade-school students. Today the number of American nuns has fallen to fewer than 60,000; these days 92 percent of Catholic educators are single or married women and men.

2 Catholic School and Discipline

Nuns got their mandate for discipline from Catholic cataclysmal doctrine, which emphasizes external discipline in order to foster self-discipline. This philosophy stems from the Catholic principle that a person should strive to become Christlike. To achieve this, an individual must learn to take responsibility for his actions and respect others. Through discipline, Catholic schools teach students to recognize the presence of Christ in themselves and others. This reverence for people permeates all aspects of school life.

3 Nuns and Catholic Doctrine

Nuns in their long dress-like habits are visual symbols of their consecration with Christ; as such, they are living examples of the reverence for others. They exemplify self-sacrifice in the pursuit of the salvation of student’s souls. In this role, they command authority and demand respect and discipline in response. Nuns, in this sense, are the vehicle for compliance with Catholic doctrine.

4 Catholic Schools and Results

The pedagogy of Catholic schools seems to produce results. Studies show that Catholic school students outperform their public school classmates in all areas, with more than 90 percent of Catholic school students advancing to and graduating from college. Catholic educators say their demanding approach is what produces this result. They argue that by communicating their high expectations, students internalize these values and, in turn, develop stronger self-concepts and achieve success, both at school and in life.

Based in Medellín, Colombia, Maryanne Schiffman has a B.A. in economic development from UC Berkeley and an M.A. in Latin American studies from the University of Texas. Writing for more than 20 years, she has contributed to academic journals and online publications, including the Colombian NTN24 news website.