The Thinking 

Too Poor to Take a Vow of Poverty

October 22, 2012


IN A CULTURE where women are encouraged to take out massive debt for higher education, it is not only difficult to become a housewife, it’s hard to become a cloistered nun. Tara Clemens is trying to pay off more than $100,000 in loans she took out for law school so that she can enter a convent.

— Comments —-

James P. writes:

I don’t understamd why she doesn’t just join the convent now, and tell whomever owns the debt that she’ll pay them back as best she can on her nun’s salary.

Terry Morris writes:

Well, whatever the true nature of her underlying motives, it seems that she and her parents have been and remain consistent in one thing.

So long as she does not tie herself down to a family relationship through marriage and child rearing, they will be very supportive of any decision she makes.

Sounds like the typical modern American soap opera with a religious twist.

Laura writes:

She said her parents just wanted her to be “happy,” but a cloistered nun might fit better (it’s a career of sorts) into their expectations of their daughter than if she dropped out and became a mother and wife. That, of course, is just speculation and may not be true at all. Maybe they never wanted her to go to law school.

A reader writes:

James P. writes:

I don’t understand why she doesn’t just join the convent now, and tell whomever owns the debt that she’ll pay them back as best she can on her nun’s salary.

Er, she wants to become a nun. That includes a vow of poverty; nuns don’t have personal salaries. Their living expenses are covered, and sometimes they will have a small allowance for incidentals, but that’s it. Non-cloistered nuns who have outside jobs donate it all to their order. Being free of both debt and dependents has long been a requirement for pursuing a religious vocation, and the ubiquity of student debt has become a real problem in recent years.

Laura writes:

I believe James P. was joking.

Karen I. writes:

Tara Clemens is not the only person who is finding it difficult to pay down staggering law school debt. I am sending a link to an excellent interview on YouTube of Brian Tamanaha, author of Failing Law Schools, that addresses the topic of law school debt and employment rates after graduation. Tamanaha’s statistics are shocking. He says that many law school graduates have over $100,000 in student loan debt. Of the class of 2011, only 55% have found permanent employment in the legal field. Of the 55%, Tamanaha says many don’t make enough to make the minimum monthly loan payments that are due. You can find the interview here.

I can’t help but wonder if Tara Clemens is simply overwhelmed by the mountain of debt she is facing and seeking to run away from it by joining a convent.

Laura writes:

No, she is not seeking to run away from her debt. She is working to pay it off and cannot join the convent until she has.

Karen I. writes:

Tara Clemens is not just working to pay off her debt. She has also sought help from the Laboure Society. In doing so, is seeking and will likely receive a great deal of assistance in paying down her debt. As the article stated, she is trying to “raise” $45,000 this year, which I understand to mean she is trying to persuade donors to contribute to the Labor Society to help pay down her debt by that amount. Or, she is trying to get the Laboure Society to give her a grant for that amount. The article was not entirely clear to me on that point. Either way, by going public with her story and accepting help from the Laboure Society, Clemens will find well-meaning donors to help her cause and substantially reduce or eliminate her student loan debt, which would not be the case if she was simply another student among millions in overwhelming debt.

The Laboure Society page shows it is a very generous charity. Among other things, it states that it “completes loan payoff at ordination or vows”.

Despite the fact the debt stands in the way of her calling, Clemens continues to think it was not a bad idea to get herself over $100,000 in student loan debt for a degree she will not be using, as shown by her comments at the end of the article. Perhaps the regret would be greater if she was actually working to pay off the entire debt, but that is not the case. She is working to pay part of the debt, with the knowledge that she does not have to worry about the roof over her head because her parents have taken her in. She will apparently be receiving substantial help in paying off the rest of her loan, which means she will eventually be free to pursue her dream. That must certainly make the whole situation more bearable. It is a far more bearable situation than one I was reading about recently, that is no doubt more typical. In that case, a young waitress was living with her parents and paying $1,000 a month on student loans for a basically worthless liberal arts degree. She has no job prospects, insufficient money left after her monthly loan payment to afford a place of her own, and no Society helping to pay her loans. She is in deep financial trouble with no good way out.

Where are parents when their children are getting into this kind of financial trouble? Do they just sit by and let the kids get into crushing debt? I have a teenage son and I would do anything to help him avoid this sort of nightmare. If nothing else, all the horror stories of young people in severe student loan debt are a cautionary tale for the next generation.

Laura writes:

I agree, parents are negligent in this regard, especially with daughters.

Regarding her loans, she is still working hard to pay them off. Also, I think it very unlikely she would join a convent to escape her debt, given that she would have the earning power to recover financially.

James P. writes:

Of course I was joking!

My point was that the nun will not be able to pay the debt back, and there would be nothing the government or collection agencies could do about it. The lack of a salary is exactly why nuns need not fear the principal negative consequence of defaulting on their debts — wage garnishment.

I still want to know why the convents won’t let people with debt become nuns. This is, in effect, making the convent an agent for government debt collection, which should not be their role.

An amusing aside, when I googled “Laboure Society” (mentioned in the story as the group that helps aspiring nuns pay off their debts), the search engine “helpfully” corrected my search and sent me to the website of a British pinko group called “the Society for Labour Lawyers.”

Catherine H. writes:

Perhaps I am reading into his words, but Mr. Morris seems to imply that Tara Clemens is merely making an excuse of her vocation to escape the potential responsibilities of marriage and motherhood, as if the life of a cloistered religious were just another carefree version of the single life. I am also at a loss as to why Mr. Morris regards her situation as the “typical American soap opera,” religious twist or no. Would he take a more respectful tone if Miss Clemens were instead striving to pay down her debt with the hope of someday marrying and beginning a family (as it is very wise to embark on a marriage with as little debt as possible)? Would that be a more worthy goal in his mind? Perhaps Mr. Morris does not understand that, while it is a very good and honorable thing to become a man’s bride and to bear his children, it is yet better and more beautiful to become a bride of Christ Himself.

Laura writes:

I read Mr. Morris’s comment differently. I thought that he meant that the story fit into the typical script of a woman trying to make something of herself outside the home and that her parents had led her to have unrealistic expectations. If they had considered, for instance, the likelihood that she would be a mother and wife, it would be much easier for her to become a nun. In other words, preparation for a career as a lawyer doomed her to being unable to follow any of her natural inclinations.

Perhaps I misread his comment, but I didn’t think he meant that being a nun was inferior to being a mother. I certainly don’t think it is inferior.

Mr. Morris writes:

To Catherine’s objections to my comments, I meant no disrespect towards Tara or her choice of vocations. You read me right. It “sounds like” the typical American soap opera. I concede that it may not be.

Mary writes:

What a beautiful story! A fine, intelligent young woman snatched from the jaws of the machine in the nick of time. I commend the Laboure Society, named after the wonderful St. Catherine Laboure, for the fine work they are doing. And started by a successful businessman – patriarchy in action. I love to see the private sector fulfilling their role in ways like this.

James P. wrote: “I still want to know why the convents won’t let people with debt become nuns. This is, in effect, making the convent an agent for government debt collection, which should not be their role.”

Except that it’s not just debt to the government via student loans, it’s commonly credit card debt, too, and even debt owed to Aunt Beatrice if she wants it back. Moreover, I believe it extends to commitments of any kind, whether monetary or in the form of unfulfilled contracts, marital engagements; they all need to be settled. The idea is total surrender of worldly ties for spiritual but also for practical reasons, as it prevents false vocations i.e. people from hiding from their troubles by joining religious orders.

David C. writes:

I personally find this subject very frustrating. Last night I was having dinner with a female friend and her parents. I’m 26 years old. My friend is a few years younger than me and graduated recently from a prestigious university with a degree in Latin American studies. Total cost: $75,000… almost totally financed by student loans, one of which has, I believe she’s told me, an 11 percent interest rate. She is currently unemployed and is certainly having difficulty finding work in her field. The most realistic opportunity she has found so far is work as an au pair for a family in Spain, which she may be able to do next year.

Last night she was telling us that she had called her student loan company and asked for a forbearance because she will not be able to pay her loans any time soon. She was told that in order to obtain the forbearance she would need to submit a letter, signed and dated, outlining her plan to put herself in a position in the next few years to be able to pay the loan on a consistent basis. My friend has no such plan. She has never, as far as I am aware, so much as attempted, even for a moment, to formulate one. She told us she is trying to do the ‘responsible’ thing by asking the student loan company for a forbearance. After all, her only alternative is to default. Her father said something to the effect that the student loan company wouldn’t be able to do much to her if she defaulted. When I replied that they could, in fact, devastate her credit score, he said, “No big deal. She’s young.”

“I’m trying to do the responsible thing and get a forbearance.” The responsible thing, as if $70,000 in debt is something that mysteriously happened to her, was beyond her control, is in no way her responsibility; as if the corresponding useless degree earned at a prestigious private university is something she was entitled to receive. I understand that no one sympathizes with a profit-oriented loan company, but what a lack of appreciation for the risk this company took to finance the education she chose for herself. Someone is out $70,000 and she thinks she is the victim because they are demanding to know how she intends to pay it back! They are right to demand an account of her plans for the future. All they did wrong was wait until now to ask for such an account, and granting her loans before she provided it. It would be far more sensible for financiers of education to force prospective college students to make the case, based on the near-term outlook of their chosen careers, that they will be able to begin repaying their student loans shortly after graduating from college. If the student can’t make a convincing argument to this effect, they shouldn’t be given loans. Why would you give up $70,000 on a wing and a prayer? How is that good for anybody?

People seem to sympathize a great deal with college graduates (my generation) who ‘find’ themselves confronted, ‘suddenly’, by a mountain of debt after college. If a twenty year old, sitting in his dorm room one day, off-handedly opens that student loan statement and is staggered by the debt he has already accumulated halfway through his college career, and doesn’t stop to think seriously about what he is doing with his life, then perhaps that twenty-year-old is playing down to the standards that are set for him by his elders. But who is he fooling? Does he really not know any better? Of course he does. He knows better: he has been taught all his life that he is entitled to a college-level education and that if he doesn’t make good on his debts someone else will be there to bail him out of them. We set our expectations too low. All this ‘sympathy’ is play-acting: even the ‘adults’ (I put this in quotes because eighteen-year-olds ought to act like adults as well – they’re old enough) fail to take the problem seriously. It is a monumental, and sickening, joke. “I am trying to be responsible…”

I was similarly disgusted with Romney when in the first debate he says he aims for an America in which every college graduate has a job. What kind of fantasy is this? We start from the ideal (and why it’s the ideal for so many people, I don’t know) that every young person ought to be college-educated, and then proceed to say it’s the responsibility of society to make that education work somehow in terms of employment. Should we not start instead from reality, from the real needs of society, and place the burden upon our young people to match themselves to those needs? Or if it is society’s responsibility to put a job in place for every graduate, can we at least acknowledge that young people themselves are a part of society, and so share in the responsibility to create the jobs they want?

My frustration, in summary, with this situation is not the same as that of other people. I do not consider ‘the system’ to blame, as if the system, this mysterious, abstract scapegoat for our collective moral and spiritual bankruptcy, somehow acts independently of the people. No, the people are to blame. The system is the people. We are the system. We the self-infatuated People of these United States are to blame. We cannot deny that on some level we wanted to find ourselves here.

I want to conclude by saying the father went on to rant that today’s young men are immature, which I, being a young man myself, am so sick and tired of hearing. That’s a separate subject, but I just want to point out that his daughter who is shocked, shocked, to discover she cannot pay her student loans (and who are we to expect it?), strikes me very much as the sort of young woman who was often praised by her teachers growing up as a mature and responsible girl. She carries herself with just that kind of subtle condescension.

“From the least to the greatest, all are greedy for gain; prophets and priests alike, all practice deceit. They dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious. ‘Peace, peace,’ they say, when there is no peace.” Are they ashamed of their loathsome conduct? No, they have no shame at all; they do not even know how to blush.” Jer 6:13-

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