Saturday, November 21, 1998
Society's outdated image of religious women
is a constant frustration to modern nuns
By Patrick T. Reardon
CHICAGO -- Most of the time, the real nuns laughed from deep
down in their bellies as Sister put them through their Catholic
Wearing the old black habit with the white wimple, Sister exuded
the take-no-guff self-assurance that kept generations of Catholic
children in line.
When at first no one in the audience would volunteer to explain
what Easter duty is, Sister warned, "Don't make me call on
you -- because you know I will." Later, discussing what it
takes to be holy, she laid down the law: "You don't get to
be a saint by being stupid."
Sister is the star of the long-running comedy "Late Nite
Catechism," and on this night actress Cynthia Desmond was
giving a special performance of the one-woman show to an audience
of more than 50 nuns.
These nuns were attending a recent three-day conference sponsored
by the National Communicators Network for Women Religious. They
had been working with a cadre of lay people, trying to figure
out what to do about the way they and their lives are portrayed
-- and, to their minds, often distorted -- in movies, ads, commercials,
news stories and in the minds of the American public.
Now they were taking a break from their workshops and meetings
for a careful viewing of one of those portrayals.
And they were guffawing; they were giggling uncontrollably.
After all, like other Catholics their age, most of these women
had been taught by sisters who looked and, in many ways, acted
But not everything was so funny.
When Sister lovingly caressed her long, metal-edged ruler and
talked with gusto of employing it to keep the 52 children in her
classroom quiet and attentive, there was an undercurrent of unrest
among the real nuns.
Another even more awkward moment came when Sister talked of
the changes that have come in the church and the sisterhood since
the Second Vatican Council.
"When I was young, the nuns were the most amazing women
in the neighborhood," Sister said. "Nowadays the other
nuns live in apartments and work for Commonwealth Edison and look
like everybody else."
For most audiences, this is a line that stimulates a nostalgic
wish for the good old days.
Not for these women. These modern nuns actually do live in
apartments. They do look like everybody else -- only one was wearing
a habit. And, if they don't work for Com Ed, they and colleagues
are involved in a dazzling array of ministries unthought of 30
What they can't understand, what really bugs them, is that
no one seems to want to know who they actually are and what they're
actually doing -- today, in the real world.
X X X
The 1992 movie "Sister Act" was a huge commercial
success. It starred Whoopi Goldberg as a Las Vegas lounge singer
who, to escape contract killers, hides out in an inner-city convent
among a group of black-habited, generally ditzy nuns. The joke
is: She wears the habit, too, but doesn't act like the real nuns.
She's cool, she's hip and she eventually helps save the convent
from financial ruin (while the nuns, in turn, help save her life).
The film, which spawned a sequel, was so popular that it became
one of the 100 top-grossing movies in American cinema history.
Many nuns hated it.
"I'm offended by 'Sister Act,' " said Sister Judy
Morris, as she sat waiting for the start of one of the sessions
of the conference. "It portrays sisters as naive, sometimes
stupid, harmless creatures who haven't ever been around the block."
Morris has been around the block. She is the communications
director of the Dominicans of St. Catharine, Kentucky, and knows
how to deal with the news media in a straightforward, savvy manner.
(Most of the nuns and lay people at the conference were communications
directors for their congregations, although there was a wide variation
in training and experience.)
Morris' 176-year-old congregation has sisters throughout the
United States. One, for example, is a lawyer who provides free
legal services to the poor in Louisville; another, in Boston,
helps homeless women move into new housing and provides follow-up
support. In the Mississippi Delta, two nuns teach adult education
classes in reading, math and writing.
These women far more closely resemble the plainly dressed nun
played by Susan Sarandon in "Dead Man Walking" than
the caricatures in "Sister Act."
Few American nuns today wear the habit. And relatively few
-- no more, probably, than the general population -- are particularly
ditzy. Indeed, Morris noted, "Sisters, in general, are probably
the best-educated group of women in the country." (This was
true even in the old days when, for summer vacations, the teaching
nuns would leave their classrooms and go to college campuses to
work on another master's degree or a doctorate.)
Yet, a comic stereotype of nuns, repeated as a quick gag in
many movies and sitcoms, has caught on and blossomed.
"We feel helpless to have a rebuttal time," Morris
said. "You want to say" -- and she put her hands in
the form of a T, the way a basketball coach would call for a time-out
-- "Do we get to respond to this?"
In fact, given the nature of American media, especially the
entertainment media, there is very little room, if any, for direct
rebuttal. The result is frustration.
And that's on top of a deeper frustration at the difficulty
that many people, Catholics and non-Catholics alike, have in accepting
sisters in their new roles as advocates for the poor and participants
in debates over public issues.
The Dominicans of St. Catharine, Kentucky, for example, have
gone on record against the death penalty and in support of civil
rights for gay people. In 1991, the order issued a statement against
U.S. intervention in the Persian Gulf.
"What religious women are doing today," Morris said,
"is considered dangerous by people. I've had doors slammed
in my face, and I've been told: You need to be in chapel or in
the classroom. Why are you making statements about nuclear weapons
and the death penalty?"
X X X
A few days before the conference, during a telephone interview,
Rebecca Sullivan, a doctoral candidate in communications at McGill
University in Montreal whose dissertation is on the image of nuns
in popular culture, made this point: "People don't tend to
think of nuns as counter-cultural or radical, but these are women
who live a very radical lifestyle, a very independent lifestyle."
And then she added: "I wish I had a nickel for every time
people asked me if nuns have sex on the side. They can't understand
Nuns are aware of how their lives can seem extremely weird
or even unsettling to outsiders.
During a conference workshop on media stereotypes, titled "Funny
Nuns," Sister Beth Murphy suggested that nuns come off so
silly and empty-headed in movies and on television because they
represent a strong threat to the values -- or lack of values --
at the heart of American culture.
"Celibate women are powerful women," said Murphy,
a Dominican and the creative director of media resources for the
National Coalition of Church Vocations. "Women who don't
give their bodies to men are women in control."
But Sister Mary Luke Jones of the Sisters of St. Benedict disagreed.
"I think people look on celibate women as naive: 'How
can you live without sex? How can you live without a man? You
don't know what's going on.' They find it unfathomable and stupid.
A lot of our culture thinks we're pretty stupid."
Then, Sister Kieran Quinn of the Dominicans of St. Mary of
the Springs told this story:
Many of the children with whom Quinn works in Ohio don't realize
that she is a nun. One day, a teen-age girl asked Quinn if she
was married. No, Quinn said, and she explained that she was a
"Does that mean you're a virgin?"
"Well, yes, in fact, I am."
To which the teen-age girl responded: "Yeah, right."
X X X
Sister Patricia Knopp of the Sisters of Notre Dame DeNamur
likes hats. She likes stylish hats.
As the conference was nearing its end, she was sitting in a
coffee-break room, wearing a blood-red, soft-fabric, exquisitely
feminine bowler hat, tilted at a rakish angle off her forehead.
But it was a different sort of fashion that concerned her.
It's been a quarter-century since Knopp and most other sisters
stopped wearing habits. Those ecclesiastical uniforms were heavy
and hot, and they were based on fashions out of date by centuries.
Yet, in the clearest of ways possible, they announced to the world,
to anyone and everyone, who the women in them were and how those
women were living their lives.
"We were not only visible before, we were conspicuous,"
Knopp said. "There was a certain status along with being
visible. There was a certain authority and power."
Those habits set nuns apart from the rest of the world. Sisters
were put on a pedestal. They were holy, and everyone else was,
well, struggling to get by.
Then, with the Second Vatican Council, all that changed. Nuns
were told by church leaders that they needed to be more active
in the world. No longer could they pride themselves on their isolation.
So nuns got rid of their habits and moved out of the classrooms
and hospitals to take on new forms of ministry, often among the
poor and others with little status in society. They began flexing
their muscles in determining what needed to be done and how they
would go about doing it.
In the past, nuns had been told they were the handmaidens of
the clergy and the laity, that they were second-class citizens
who were supposed to enjoy their second-class status. But, suddenly,
they were full-fledged feminists, setting their own course and,
at times, butting heads with the clergy, cardinals and even the
pope -- all male, of course.
It's been a heady time, and only now are nuns starting to realize
some of the costs that have been levied because of the massive
One of them, as Knopp noted, is: "Now, we're invisible."
If a nun is on a picket line, there's no easy way to know she's
a nun. If a sister is working at a shelter or as an assistant
state's attorney or rehabbing a house, she's most likely dressed
like everyone else. She could be your aunt or your sister.
"Since we are invisible, people don't realize what we're
doing," Knopp said. "They think we're not there at all
because they can't see us."
This is at the heart of the frustration nuns feel at "Sister
Act" and other dated (and frequently distorted) popular images
of them. The habit, such a strong image to begin with, hangs on
as a representation of nuns because there is no similarly powerful
image of a modern sister to replace it.
And what makes it even more frustrating is that nuns feel they
are being trivialized at a moment in history when, to their minds,
they are doing work of the highest order.
"We're sort of the conscience of society," Knopp
Instead, they're treated as punch lines.
X X X
Knopp has been a nun for more than 40 years.
"When I came out of the habit, I was getting one sinus
or throat infection after the other," she explained. So she
asked her doctor if there was anything she could do to prevent
all those infections. He suggested a hat.
At first, Knopp wore dull, shapeless ones, hand-me-downs mainly.
"Then I realized I didn't have to wear ugly hats. I could
wear neat hats."
And so she does.
Friends help out by spotting fun ones and buying them for her.
Like the blood-red hat she was wearing at the end of the conference.
Knopp and her friends have a name for it.
They call it her cardinal's hat.
X X X
(c) 1998, Chicago Tribune.
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