I Call BS on Nun Reality Show

Move over, Kardashians: the hottest new reality stars have sworn off sex and wear the same outfit every day! At least, that’s the desired outcome for Lifetime’s upcoming TV series, The Sisterhood. The Hollywood Reporter tells us that the reality show will follow five young novices through the discernment process, as they decide whether or not to take vows.

“For the first time ever, cameras will be granted access inside a Catholic convent where the five women live and work together before making the life-changing decision,” boasts the announcement. (Um, what? Cameras have been inside lots of convents. Talk to me when you’ve greenlighted a reality show about a Mormon temple.)

While the THR article (and most of the surrounding press) uses the word “nun,” the actual description of the show states that the women are taking vows to become “religious sisters.” There’s a difference. Nuns are cloistered; sisters work with the community. Nuns take solemn vows (the unbreakable lifelong kind) of chastity, poverty and obedience; sisters take “simple vows,” which seem to vary between churches, but are somewhat less restrictive (i.e. sisters can own property). So while both are enormous, life-changing spiritual commitments, the women on the reality show will not be cutting themselves off entirely from society. It may be a slightly less dramatic shift than the one most people associate with the phrase “becoming a nun.”

Either way, the decision to join a religious order isn’t meant for reality TV. All the requirements for making the decision—prayer, contemplation, a desire to serve others—are synonyms for “cutting room floor” in reality TV-speak. It’s not like women can be thrown into the discernment process like Paris Hilton being dropped into rural Arkansas. Potential nuns have to really, really want this. And the women need to know what they’re getting into. They need to live with the community for a specified period of time before taking vows. They must already be devoted Catholics, with no romantic attachments and no dependent children. For these reasons, it’s rare for young women to become religious sisters (at least in the United States), yet Lifetime is promising us five camera-ready “young novices.”

Basically, filming the actual discernment process for standard reality TV would be impossible. Even if it didn’t require long months or years of filming (which it would), the cameras would disrupt the sanctity of the proceedings. Filming would turn the process of embracing obedience and humility into a process of attaining fame, which goes against the entire ethos of belonging to a community and devoting one’s life to others. There’s a reason nuns dress alike, and it’s not because black-and-white habits look good on film. Their mission is to serve, not to be seen. Obviously, it’s not for everybody.

So I’m calling shenanigans on The Sisterhood before it even starts filming. While all narrative reality shows involve faking it to some degree, the idea of producers manipulating a spiritual calling is particularly abhorrent. The production company’s track record doesn’t give me much hope for authenticity either; it’s the same producers who created the TLC show Breaking Amish, which is reportedly a big fraud. I don’t know how they’re finding their cast members, but I can’t shake the image of a casting director going into trendy bars and recruiting potential nuns, just like Rock of Love recruited wannabe Bret Michaels girlfriends who had never even heard of Poison.

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The Ursuline Sisters of Youngstown, Ohio, posted this video to explain discernment. Think it can compete with Honey Boo Boo? You can watch more of their videos here.

gwynnewatkins@gmail.com'

Gwynne Watkins is a Christian, but not the kind that sucks. Visit www.gwynnewatkins.com or tweet @gwynnesanity.

  • Poly

    I call bs on it too, the crew is at my job and everyone is saying its so fake!!!

  • Allison

    Coincidental, I’m sure, that these aspiring “sisters” are amazingly photogenic.

  • teresadelosandes

    well written article, I agree, and props to you for getting it right on the difference between nuns and sisters! I’m discerning religious life, specifically to the cloistered contemplative life (ie to become a nun) and have met a lot of other young women discerning as well, with both active and contemplative communities, and it is nothing at all like the trailer I just saw for this show! this is ridiculous, and so high drama. how silly. I’m also really disappointed with how it seems this show is going to depict religious, as stereotypically frumpy/chaperon type ladies, in contrast to the lively young women. what I experienced of religious life is so far from this.

    there are really quite a lot of young women discerning and entering (and making final vows) religious life in the United States today (check out for instance the Nashville Dominicans, the SSVM Sisters, or the Carmel of Jesus, Mary & Joseph that has so many young women entering that they had to found a new monastery in PA in 2009, then another in CA in 2012, and now another next year, most of these women are under 30 – just to name a few of many growing communities these days) anyway, but as you say correctly, discerning a spiritual calling is not the type of thing that can be depicted on a reality show, or at least not the way they did!

  • e lemme

    The discernment of a religious vocation is something precious and hidden in the innermost depths of one’s heart. To dramatize and expose this on television is shameful, not to mention harmful to the true reality of what discerning a religious vocation is truly like. I discerned a contemplative vocation for two years, and I was a contemplative nun for four years, and it was absolutely nothing like this ludicrous trailer. How dare these Mother Superiors endanger the souls of these young women by participating in this nonsense, using them in the name of trying to “get more vocations.” Vocations are not won by fame. The Carmel of Jesus, Mary and Joseph is absolutely bursting with beautiful young vocations, but they have virtually NO internet presence, and there certainly isn’t a reality tv show about them, and there never will be! How is it then that they have so many vocations? Obviously they are doing something right. This outrageous tv show is not the right path for trying to “get more vocations” or even “educate” young women about religious discernment. The intention behind this tv show has already led its professed purpose astray. I will pray for these Mother Superiors who are subjecting these vulnerable young women, who don’t even know what they are getting themselves into. It is a case of throwing pearls to swine.

  • vdp

    as my name implies , I was sr vincent de paul for 7 years and I was really looking forward with hope to this series. As all of you have indicated, it is a farce….I can’t stop cringing …it is so not what religious life is about . I’m concerned because one of the future orders that will be on this series is a wonderful local community and I hate to see them portrayed this way. I wonder if it is too late for the orders to cancel future shows ??????????????