Is Dr Oddie Unfair?

A number of articles have appeared recently commenting on the sale by the monks of Ramsgate (now Chilworth) of several of their treasures. Yesterday William Oddie addressed the same story in the online edition of the Catholic Herald here. I do not wish to comment on the internal affairs of another community, although my views on conservation are well-known and regular readers of this blog will know something of the struggle we ourselves are having to obtain even the most basic permanent accommodation. That is not the point I wish to take up. Dr Oddie enlarges his argument to embrace some more general censures of contemporary religious and these, I think, need challenging.

He refers to the monks’ sale then says

How typical of today’s religious is this, in my view, astonishing example of secularity? How is one to know? In the nature of things, lay Catholics know little of what goes on behind the closed doors of a religious community. And yet, there are visible signs that must mean something. In the same edition of the paper, we see (p11) a photograph of Archbishop Vincent Nichols with a group of Sisters representing female religious communities of the Diocese of Westminster. Of 14 sisters, only five (possibly six) are wearing habits: the rest just look like ordinary lay women with handbags (what could be more unambiguously secular than a handbag?) and one is actually wearing trousers and a polo neck sweater.

Ah, so the real subject of his article is not the sale of pretiosa by Ramsgate but the dress of female religious? You notice Dr Oddie has nothing to say about male religious, who frequently wear lay clothes. What is particularly ‘secular’ about ‘handbags’ or ‘trousers and a polo neck sweater’, I wonder?  Could prejudice be masquerading as an argument? Please don’t get me wrong: I enjoy Dr Oddie’s columns but I think he has allowed one of his King Charles’s heads to get in the way here. Although he mentions that the Holy See recognizes that ‘for valid reasons of their apostolate’, religious may dress otherwise than in a habit, he continues in negative vein and concludes:

It is a question of the unambiguous witness which consecration to the religious life should present to the world. I ask simply, are we necessarily always getting that witness from our religious today? Perhaps there are occasions when they should ask that of themselves.

Perhaps Dr Oddie and those who agree with him should ask themselves what witness they give religious. It is easy to criticize others for not being what we should like them to be, but I wonder whether Dr Oddie actually knows anything of the lives of the people he writes of so slightingly. Even allowing for journalistic exaggeration, I was left feeling that the article overlooked the generosity and fidelity with which most religious live their vocation. I know none of the religious sisters to whom Dr Oddie takes such exception, but I would dare to say that their fidelity to prayer and observance, the austerity of their lifestyle, and the renunciation of self that each of them represents counts for something in the eyes of God. And ultimately, isn’t that what matters?


17 thoughts on “Is Dr Oddie Unfair?”

  1. Interesting that Dr Oddie, a convert from Anglicanism should be so critical of Sisters, whose clothing he doesn’t like.

    He seems to be trying to be more ‘Catholic’ than those who are born in Catholicism and who seem to have a more mature attitude towards these matters.

    I was in care with Sisters of Mercy, in the 1950’s, they wore traditional habits in the hottest weather, carrying out all sorts of work. How uncomfortable it must have been – but a discomfort borne with fortitude.

    If a more modern form of dress is appropriate, even secular, than why not. Most Sisters that I’ve met in secular clothing, always wear a symbol of perhaps a crucifix, which marks their religious profession. And I’m sure that most people are able to identify them quickly by their words and actions, which are decidedly not secular.

  2. You raise an interesting point and I suspect that UKViewer is right about converts trying to be more Catholic than those of us who grew up in the Faith.

    However I also regard it as a general representation of the lower status of women in the Church. There seems to be a a hint of “these upstart women, how dare they!” in Dr Oddie’s article that is symptomatic of many of those who are most vociferous against the idea of full female equality within the Church.

    • Do I have a lower status in the Church? Really? Goodness, all these years and I’d never noticed. I’d always been under the impression that the baptized woman is in a way the summit of creation and salvation history. Now I know better. I’m OPPRESSED!


  3. I think the problem people have with religious not wearing the habit, is not the habitlessness per se, as what it is seen as being part and parcel of. If you explain habitless congregations such as those of Bl. Honorat Koźmiński, no reasonable person has anything against their habitlessness.

    I agree that this comment of Oddie’s was both unkind and unjustified. There is though a difference in life and spirit between the sisters I knew who had chucked their habit, and those I know now who were by design and charism habitless (which of course might not be the case with other communities). Having seen some secular institutes close up, it seems to me that the formerly habitted sisters really now live more as a secular institute. That’s just an impression I’d be hard put to substantiate, and quite possibly wrong, but it’s the best way I can find of expressing my impression.

    This is not to deny the generosity of these sisters. They are most impressive, even if I think playing a CD of meaningful pious music with ostinatos for fifteen minutes a poor substitute for Lauds. Yet this sort of substitution is also associated in people’s minds with the giving up of the habit, and is also associated with “pebble worship” prayer sessions replacing liturgical prayer or traditional devotiosn (and denigration of the latter), with devotion to the mystery of climate change and campaigning on third world debt, rather than changing incontinence pads for the bedbound etc. And devotion to the mystery of climate change and campaigning on third world debt is associated with middle-class handwringing and self-congratulation as opposed to concrete help for actual people in difficulty. And so on.

    Of course, in the UK one has less exposure to large be-habited congregations with many young sisters, and so less chance of learning at first hand of the lack of Christocentricity in an environment of that kind. And people often have one idea of what a religious community ought to be like, and don’t realise that there are very different ways that observant and healthy communities can “feel”. One of Koźmiński’s congregations chose to become a secular institute when canon law provided for that form of life, because it better allowed them to live their particular charism.

    End of stream of consciousness comment.

  4. (I really did mean that the sisters I knew who had chucked the habit and played pious CDs as morning prayer, are impressive. I wasn’t trying to mock them. They are quite terrifyingly impressive!)

  5. Thank you Catherine.

    As a religious sister whose only “habit” is her congregational medal and a smile (and who has been recognised as a religious even when the medal was buried under a scarf) I get fed up with reading spiteful comments which equate wearing M&S cardies with gross infidelity… especially when these comments are made by people who profess devoted following of Jesus Christ (who, incidentally, never wore a habit!)

    Many of these M&S wearers, handbag carriers etc are women who have given decades of their lives in generous service of God and the Church, and they certainly do not deserve the contempt they receive simply because of what they wear.

    In Italy we say “l’abito non fa il monaco” – “the habit doesn’t make the monk” – something religious understand even if Dr Oddie clearly doesn’t.

  6. There are three points at issue here.

    The first is regarding inward and outward expressions of Faith and Witness (neither being essentially superior). The Lord searches our heart for sincerity and respects that alone.

    The second is in relation to women. We know that ever since the Garden of Eden, Eve can’t get it right in the tussle between the sexes (and often hasn’t helped herself by aggressive demands for ‘liberation’ and the lamentable ‘putting down’ of men.) Jesus shows us that we already *are* equal. We have to labour humbly in the knowledge that it is through the glorious ‘Yes’ of a Our Lady, Creation has been given a means of Salvation.

    I may be doing him an injustice, but I suspect Dr Oddie is revealing a touch of male chauvinism here which seeks to contain women in a ‘safe’ and untroublesome place.

    The third point involves perceptions of Catholicism.

    Catholics generally don’t have an opportunity to find out what goes on in other brands of Christian witness, It would surprise many to know that Anglo-Catholics in their observances and even in their beliefs, often actually do seem more Catholic in expression than today’s Roman Catholics. We pray for the Pope, share the same liturgy and hold to the same doctrine regarding the Eucharist. We like our incense, our rituals and our consecrations and find them deeply symbolic, transforming, and essential to worship. In ordinary parishes at least, my experience of Roman Catholic is very similar to Pentecostal.

    As UK Viewer points out, perhaps Dr Oddie is trying to be more Catholic than those born into the RC church, but I suspect the truth is that, subconsciously, he is struggling to reclaim something he feels was lost when he forsook the Anglican Church whose Anglo-Catholic wing is indeed in conflict with the floundering Relativism of its middle and lower registers. As the Established Church, it tries to garner all shades of witness and keep the peace, fearing a return to the political and religious extremism of former centuries which had little to do with Christ’s gospel.

    At the end of the day, we can only say that the Lord searches out and judges the true state of individual hearts in the light of his love. The reasons we wear the clothes we do do indeed matter to him, but only as an expression of who and where we are on our journey to the place he has prepared.

    Lest there be any doubt about my sympathies, let me end by saying that I always seek out the Roman Catholic church when abroad. To me, it is the universal Christian church.

  7. Clearly Dr. Oddie’s comments are cruel and judgmental. He is a poor example of a convert as he seems to have missed a great portion of instruction and perhaps should return to the classes of the R.C.I.A. As a middle aged RC woman, married for 40 years, I can attest to the fact it is not what one wears that makes the commitment, it is what one puts into it. I wear a crucifix for the same reasons some religious wear habits, but at the end of the day my examination of conscience does not include a review of that day’s clothing. Perhaps Dr. Oddie should spend less time staring at religious and more time examining his own conscience.

  8. I had such a surprise when I signed into the blog this evening. I hadn’t expected so many comments! Thank you for taking the trouble to discuss this subject. I think my sense of ‘fair play’ was affected by the article so it was encouraging to find you commenting so thoughtfully.

  9. Well, I am not Catholic, but I’m pretty sure that if the only way people can know that you belong to Jesus is by how you dress, then you are doing it wrong.

    I know one nun here in my city. She dresses like anyone else. Two years ago at an event where my students were singing at the zoo, it was pouring. She prayed, and it stopped raining when she said “amen.” No joke. I was there.

    If she had been wearing a potato sack and combat boots I wouldn’t have cared, because her faith in God was evident and she prayed with such passion and intimacy (even in front of a whole amphitheater of people, in the middle of the zoo no less!) that it was more than evident that there was something different about her.

  10. A note from the distant past, from desert hermit, Abba Paphnutius, may add something useful to the discussion:

    “… it is plain that it is not so much profession or habit that is pleasing to God as the sincerity and affection of the soul and honesty of deed.”

    In fact, his dying words.

    (Taken from the preface of the book, The Desert Fathers, trans. Helen Wadell, Vintage, 1998)

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