The New Yorker, as a rule, is not anti-Catholic. I say this as a longtime reader and avid fan. And I say it despite the fact that the magazine featured a painting of a crucified Easter bunny during Holy Week in 1995; despite the fact that last year the estimable literary critic James Woods wrote in an otherwise sensitive review of Marilynne Robinson’s book Home that he found priests “at once fascinating and slightly repellent;” and despite the fact that the famously fact-checked magazine often gets some basic facts about the Catholic church wrong. (Sorry, no hyperlink: these lapses are too numerous to mention, believe me. And if you don’t believe me, there’s one listed below.)
But the article by Paul Rudnick in the latest issue, called “Fun with Nuns,” I found, to borrow Mr. Woods' phrase, “slightly repellent.”
The conceit of the article, which is in places highly amusing (full disclosure: I’m a fan of Mr. Rudnick’s occasional pieces in the magazine and, especially, of his alter-ego, Libby Gelman-Waxner, who was for many years the best thing about Premiere magazine) is the picaresque tale of Mr. Rudnick’s efforts to find a producer for the screenplay that eventually became “Sister Act.” The piece is both trenchant and lighthearted, especially when he turns his gimlet eye on Hollywood.
Of course one’s response to humor depends on whose ox is being gored, and my beef is not with his treatment of Hollywood, but (at the risk of landing myself in the “Block that Metaphor” department) I will take the bull by the horns. Mr. Rudnick’s article trades in the worst kind of stereotypes, even ugly ones, about nuns to get a laugh. You wonder whether any other religious group or, frankly, any other group at all, would be subject to such treatment in a national magazine.
Pondering a possible screenplay using nuns, Rudnick muses that they can be “dictatorial, sexually repressed and scary.” A grumpy elderly nun at a convent gift store looks like a “bat” or a “long fossilized chimp.” “’I hate this!’ the chimp yipped,” he writes about the elderly woman who has taken vows of “silence, poverty and chastity” (fact checkers--you missed a vow: obedience) and has led what even she describes a "hard life." Rudnick admits that the prioress of Regina Laudis, which he visits to do a full two days’ research, is “kind and helpful,” but most of the article depicts the nuns—scratch that, all nuns--as at best cartoonish, at worst absurd. “'Nuns,' I declared," writes Rudnick about his efforts to cajole studio execs into considering them attractive, “I’d do ‘em!” (Later the same execs wonder which nuns in the upcoming movie are “f---able.”)
It’s a humor piece, but come on. Does anyone think that any other religious group would be subjected to the same treatment? Can you imagine someone writing, for example, “Rabbis can be dictatorial, sexually repressed and scary”? How about comparing a Muslim woman to a “bat” or a "chimp”? To quote Libby Gelman-Waxner’s signature line, “If you ask me”...no way.
Ironically, in the very same issue the film critic Anthony Lane offers a highly nuanced analysis of the new movie "Brüno," which features (yes, I've seen it) Sasha Baron Cohen as a flamboyantly gay fashionista. Lane carefully analyzes whether the movie trades in anti-gay stereotypes. "You can't honestly defend your principled lampooning of homophobia," writes Lane, "when nine out of every ten images that you project on-screen comply with the most threadbare cartoons of gay behavior." Gays and lesbians rightly deserve to be protected against prejudice. Don't Catholic sisters deserve the same?
None of this is new. Arthur Schlesinger, Sr. once told the church historian Msgr. John Tracy Ellis, “Anti-Catholicism is the deepest held bias in the history of the American people.” It is a slippery bias with a long history, the “anti-Semitism of intellectuals,” which can very easily be overstated. But its presence can also be understated. Here’s a much longer piece I wrote about the topic in 1995 in America called “The Last Acceptable Prejudice.” QED.
Like I said, none of this is new, but the timing stinks. The Vatican has just announced its official “Apostolic Visitation” of all U.S. women’s orders, to the dismay of many women religious in this country. What a time for sisters to read about themselves as “dictatorial, sexually repressed and scary.” They're a pretty resilient lot, but still.
For the record, here are some nuns who aren’t “dictatorial, sexually repressed and scary.” There’s Helen Prejean, C.S.J., author of Dead Man Walking, who works with prisoners on death row. She’s hardly “dictatorial.” In point of fact, Sister Helen has confronted the powers that dictate that men and women on death row are to be considered beneath our contempt. There’s Dorothy Stang, S.N.D., who gave her life while working with indigenous peoples in the Amazon. She’s hardly “scary.” In fact, Sister Dorothy helped the landless poor in Brazil to find hope, and gave courage to environmentalists across South America. There’s Wendy Beckett, the popular “art nun,” whose gentle demeanor and lively scholarship introduces fine arts to the masses through books and on television. Sister Wendy is hardly “sexually repressed,” especially when you consider how she waxes poetic about some “lovely, fluffy pubic hair” in a Stanley Spencer portrait.
More importantly, there are other sisters you probably don’t know. But I know them, and many readers of The New Yorker know others very much like them. Sisters who spent their entire lives working in the inner cities teaching poor children (Catholic and non-Catholics) for paltry salaries, and who are living in religious communities with dwindling resources. Sisters who worked with refugees in the developing world in the most appalling conditions, and who were shot at, beaten and robbed. (Yes, I know sisters in East Africa to whom each of these things happened). Sisters who work long hours in understaffed parishes as teachers, principals, spiritual counselors and, often, parish leaders. Sisters who for many years made almost nothing, took very little and gave everything.
For that, they are treated as objects of contempt in The New Yorker. Yes, The New Yorker.
Mr. Rudnick is a talented and funny writer. His books and screenplays are usually delightful. I’m sure he’s a decent and caring guy, and I’m sure he meant no harm with his piece. But to mock, belittle and, let’s face it, reduce to less than human a class of people for a derisive laugh--no matter what your religious beliefs are or aren't--should be named for what it is: bigotry.
It’s enough already, if you ask me.
James Martin, SJ
Update: Sr. Mary Ann Walsh, RSM, director of media relations at the U.S. Bishops Conference, has posted her comments on The New Yorker article on the USCCB website here.