Benedict, Nuns, Christians…and “freedom” to proclaim the Gospel

In his daily meditation for today (April 24, 2012), Franciscan Fr. Richar Rohr writes:

I am not denying that Jesus could and undoubtedly did physical healing. It still happens, and I have seen it, but the healings and exorcisms in Mark’s Gospel are primarily to make statements about power, abuse, relationships, class, addiction, money, the state of women and the poor, and the connections between soul and body—the exact same issues that we face today. [emphasis added]

Just as Jesus’ actions made statements about those parts of the world in need of healing, so have the actions of many of his followers. In the United States, religious women — sisters and nuns (there is a difference, by the way!) — for more than two centuries have been at the heart and forefront of two of the most important activities of any society:  Education and Healthcare.  Communities of religious women have founded hospitals and clinics and hospices; they have opened schools and colleges and universities. And while they have ministered to people across the social spectrum, they typically would be willing to serve where others would dare not tread.

Even Pope Benedict XVI has praised the historic role of women in building the Church in America.  Just yesterday, the pope noted that two women from this continent will be canonized later this year — Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha and Blessed Mother Marianne Cope.

While recalling the historic role of women in the Church in the United States, the pope notably did not praise the current role played by so many tens of thousands of women religious in the daily lives of hospitals, schools, parishes and communities across this land.  Instead, he gave voice to that growing canard that the bishops of the US have latched on to, i.e. the notion that the “freedom” of religion is somehow under attack.  In concluding his speech to some visiting Americans, Benedict stated:

In these days I ask your continued prayers for the needs of the universal Church and in particular for the freedom of Christians to proclaim the Gospel and bring its light to the urgent moral issues of our time.

I don’t know where the Pope gets his information, though given the Vatican’s recent actions regarding congregations of women religious in the US (see coverage in US Catholic for one perspective), I suspect it’s not from very good sources. Concerning religious freedom, however, I’ve yet to see any roadblocks put forth hindering the proclamation of the Gospel or the light it sheds on the “moral issues of our time.”  What the Pope fails to understand is that his voice and the voices of his brother bishops are not the only voices empowered to proclaim the Gospel. The voices of religious women and men, of priests and lay people, all the Baptized together have a right and responsibility to proclaim the Gospel in both word and — like Jesus in Mark’s Gospel — in action. At times, those voices will differ as we collectively discern “the signs of the times” and struggle to understand where and how God’s Spirit might be leading us here and now.

Benedict rightly notes that “Christians” (he didn’t limit this to the hierarchy!) have the freedom to proclaim the Gospel.  I pray that he and his brother bishops will listen to the voices of Christians doing just that, even when what they have to say might not be what Benedict wants to hear!

Gay Men Mocking Nuns: UPDATE

This is an update with related information to my earlier post calling for an end to using Catholic religious women — i.e. sisters and nuns — as fodder for humor and cheap laughs.

  • This promotional review of the performance provides several images of GMCW members dressed like nuns, singing and dancing.
  • And this Washington Post story from earlier this month starts off with a reference to the “dancing nuns” rehearsing.

So, tell me again … why is it funny to make fun of Catholic religious women who have devoted their lives to doing good as nuns and sisters? Granted, many LGBT Catholics have legitimate beefs with the Catholic Church. Many of us feel rejected, unwelcome, and at times even demonized.  But rarely, if ever, did this rejection come from religious women.  In fact, it has been communities of religious sisters who have often stood up to the power of bishops and others and promoted an atmosphere of respect and welcome for gays and lesbians in the Church.  So why is  it funny that we repay them with such mockery?

The answer is, it isn’t.  This isn’t funny, it’s not OK, and it should stop.

Let’s Stop Mocking Religious Women

So I went to the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington (GMCW) Red & Greene holiday concert last evening.  It was the first of four performances of this annual event here in DC, and usually has a delightful mix of serious and light hearted entertainment. Last night was no exception. I was entertained, I laughed, and was even moved at times.  I’m no drama/theater/music critic, so this isn’t a “review” (if you can go, I recommend going!), but there was one piece last evening which irked me.

Here’s what it was, and here’s why.

Shortly into the second part of the show, the part that is usually more funny and a bit campy, a group of chorus members performed dressed in black habits — the generic habit one sees when someone wants to “dress up as a nun.”  They all had names that were variations of Sister Mary Something — the French accented Sister Mary Antoinette with a large white pompadour; the Latina Sister Mary Juana with … well, you get the picture. The performers were  talented and the parodied lyrics of familiar Christmas songs were certainly clever and witty.

In Catholic parlance, “religious” can be a noun, and “a religious” is a woman or man who takes certain vows, lives in community, and spends her/his life in prayer and service.  Now, even most Catholics would look at last night’s skit and see the humor in it, or at least the intended humor.  But I knew in my gut that I didn’t like it.  Even my companion — a non-Catholic — at one point leaned over and, with a reference to San Francisco’s famous (or infamous) Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, said he never understood why dressing up as nuns was funny.  And, to be blunt, I don’t either.  I found it offensive and sexist.  Religious women (interchangeably referred to as sisters or nuns, though there is a difference) seem to be fair game within the LGBT community when it comes to groups or types of people to make fun of.

You’d think we’d know better.

Just earlier this week I received a Calll It Out alert from HRC seeking support for its very legitimate appeal to ABC about its upcoming show, “Work It.” The premise of that show appears to be that two straight men feel the need to dress up as women in order to get jobs. As HRC puts it, such shows make light of the “very real challenges transgender Americans face,” and it asks supporters to Call It Out, reminding us that transgender people are “worthy of the same dignity that all Americans deserve.”

Actions like this, which challenge us to re-think our received ways of thinking and seeing — especially when it comes to the ways we think of and see others — is what makes me proud of such efforts from within the LGBT community.

Catholic religious women have historically been the unsung heroines of pastoral ministry in the Church (and, I would say, society).  They are the ones who teach and heal and comfort and nurture and care for others each and every day. They typically do so quietly, without much fanfare or recognition. They also are active promoters of Gospel values by seeking social justice, advocating for the poor and the “least among us” by challenging ecclesial, social, and political institutions, often being the voice of those who can’t speak for themselves.

Currently, there are over 55,000 women religious in the US in many and varied ministries, doing good and transforming the world.  Aren’t they also “worthy of the same respect all Americans deserve”?  Let’s stop using these good women as cheap props and easy targets in gay skits, Pride Parades, and drag shows.  They deserve better, and we should know better!