The New Yorker Has Its "Fun with Nuns"

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” 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.

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9 years 8 months ago
Amen. it would not be, but Catholics are an easy target because few defend us.  That's ok, because as it says in the Beatitudes blessed are you who are persecuted for holiness' sake for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  Most of these women could not care less what the world thinks of them and even though no one likes to be made fun of, they have bigger problems to worry about.  They have people to help, governments to argue with to get what they people they are helping deserve.  Dorothy Stang was my Aunt, and I can tell you, she would probably laugh at what this man wrote and just figure he was desperate for a laugh, then move on.  Some people are desperate, but for more than a laugh, and that's what many of these nuns provide.  How many of us can say that?
9 years 8 months ago
Thanks Fr. Martin. I know a number of young women who have recently joined orders and they are such wonderful young women, full of life and verve. I also happen to be teaching a class this summer with three Nashville Dominicans in the class. What a joy these well-educated, bright and faithful women are to have in a class. Not scary, dictatorial or sexually repressed at all! You were probably too kind to mention the treatment of RC priests in the media, especially the movies. When I was doing research for my book ''The End of the World: The Apocalyptic Imagination in Film and Television,'' the one thing that stunned me, as I had not been looking for this, was the craven, cowardly, theologically ill-informed, and, on numerous occasions ''evil'' priests I found portrayed. When not in league with the devil, they were cowering in the corner, sending out hit men (really), or uttering these words of wisdom (I recite them from memory): ''Our God, he didn't say he would save us, he said we had to save ourselves'' (Rod Steiger as theogically confused priest in ''End of Days''). God Bless all the priests and nuns, especially when they go to the movies.
9 years 8 months ago

Fr. Martin, with your connections or the connections of the Archdiocese of New York, you can let Mr. Rudnick know of our concerns and possibly have him respond.  There is nothing like holding someone's feet to the fire to get them to rethink their position, especially when it is an organization like the Archdiocese of New York!  We need to either speak up or shut up.

9 years 8 months ago

Thank you, Fr. Martin for your support of women religious.  Perhaps if the clerical leaders of the Catholic Church were openly supportive of the dedication and ministry of women religious, we wouldn't be such easy targets for others. 

9 years 8 months ago
and I thank you, too.
Mary Helene Mele
Bellingham, WA
9 years 8 months ago

Jesuits are wholly, holy men who believe in Justice, Love, and Truth. I so appreciated your remarks since I am one of those women whom you describe so accurately. We serve a church (the real church that is the body of Christ) not the hierachy that is now investigating us for the tremendous educational system, the healthcare systems that serve the rich, the very rich and the destitute with no descrimination, the ministries too numerous to name that offer hope to the voiceless, the poor, the ones who need someone when no one else will come to their aid, that countless women have given themsleves to.
There are many whole, holy, women in my community, especially our leaders, who support us wherever we see unmet needs or simply can't actively serve any longer except to offer spiritual guidance, retreats, and acceptance to people whose lives beg for guidance into slowing their pace into the present moment. That exception is probably the best gift I have. A whole lifetime honoring my commitment to know the Lord and follow his teaching. Thanks Fr. Martin, for honoring us with your feedback to the New Yorker.  

9 years 8 months ago

I am a religious ministering in Los Angeles.    I got the online version of America and read the article yesterday when I accessed the Internet for urgent matters (I am on retreat; it made for a good reflection).
  Thank you for what you wrote about sisters and how The New Yorker article depicted us, mocked us. I have been a religious for 42 years. I have met my share of "interesting" sisters; some with very heavy burdens that came to bear on the community as well. What the writer Paul Rudnick  failed to note is that religious communities are microcosms of society; almost every group is. We are human, but we are trying to be our best selves for love of God and others.
  What surprised me is that whatever mix-match of writers and film makers came up with the hodgepodge of "Sister Act," they got some parts right. My favorite scene is when the nuns raid the ice cream after a day of working hard in the neighborhood. That was so real. Maybe he's fixating on the pre-transformed Maggie Smith mother superior character. He is believing his own stereotypes. That sense of belonging and community is what energizes gives so many of us to keep going for the sake of the Gospel. Then there is the scene between Whoppi and the novice. How does a writer get some parts so right and then forget? Maybe he wrote all the inaccurate parts of the film.
  When I was going to school in the UK several years ago I did some classroom work in a state school. Our sisters there don't wear a habit, but the teacher introduced me as a sister etc. etc. The kids, 9th graders, all started raising their hands and asking me if I had seen "Sister Act," if I liked it. I turned the question on them and they loved it because it was so much fun and real. In the 1990'a, "Sister Act" was #7 on the all-time best-selling video tapes in the UK.
  All I mean to say is, Rudnick can mock, but he cannot win. Maybe he's trying to be another Christopher Hitchens. God help us. These people are so much work.
  The person making a difference last night on NBC news was a nun from Boston... a beautiful profile.
  Anyway, thanks for taking on The New Yorker. Although I am an educator I find that defending against bias can sap ones energy; I prefer to engage in the media in a positive way by educating future media makers to work from the premise of human dignity and the common good.
  And you know what? We just keep going. If we were not living and ministering for the love of God and people, we would never have stayed. It is why we stay.
  Bless you! Thanks again.

9 years 8 months ago
Not to defend Rudnick (as I did not read the article nor do I have any desire to - the best way to disrespect an author is to ignore him), but let me remind you all that in various Catholic magazines, cartoons with sisters and nuns are still published - sometimes by magazines operated by religious orders! 
Humor, it seems, depends on whom is making it.  For example, some words are acceptable from African American commedians that an Anglo comedian could never use in an act.  Outside ridicule is never acceptable.  Inside humor is something different.  As long as we maintain barriers, there will always be some humor that will be considered "outside."
9 years 8 months ago
When my father, a life-long Episcopalian, was near the end of his life, an Ursuline sister who was a colleague of my mother's, came to his nursing home room every day to read the Daily Office to him.  That act of generosity and kindness was the greatest peace he had all day.  I'm clear about who nuns are.  Writers about nuns?  Results are a bit more mixed.....
9 years 8 months ago

Hey, here's a really radical idea:  If you want people to treat nuns with respect, you could try treating them with respect yourselves.  Have you noticed how many nuns were present when the Pope was elected?  That's right, ZERO.  Sure seems like priests don't have a whole lot of respect for nuns either.

9 years 8 months ago
Janice - good point about the abusive jesting about religious and religious traditions; while such about race would not be tolerated, so should it not be about religion; shame on the city and people that allow and tolerate such demonstrations! How can this be?
Robert Imbelli, that is a good article by Chaput on the "fourth estate" and the role of the press and such. Hope he practices what he preaches!
Great work John Marten on investigating how priests are often portrayed in movies! There really is a war between truth and lies!
9 years 8 months ago
Amen, Sister "RP". And blessings on your retreat.
9 years 8 months ago
Thanks to James Martin SJ for expressing the discomfort I, too, felt on reading Rudnick's article. Rudnick, of course, doesn't think he's insulting actual people. ''Nuns'' are a part of the American cultural landscape, and as such, an ostensibly fair target. Because there is so little knowledge of the history of anti-Catholicism few people understand that Catholics sisters have long been treated the way Rudnick treats them and far worse; in the 19th century, many American Protestants believed that Catholic sisters were prostitutes, and that Protestant girls who converted and entered convents were being held there against their will. When I told a student of mine about this, an Episcopal seminarian, she couldn't believe it.  Today we have  films about Sister Helen Prejean, and sophisticated rebuttals like those from Father Martin and Sister Walsh. But further education is clearly needed.
9 years 8 months ago
9 years 8 months ago

My daughter is a sister (Fransiscan), and I have come to know many of the sisters in her order as friends.
What I found deficient in "Sister Act" (other than the stereotypes mentioned above) is that, in the movie the central part of the Mass was never shown - Communion.  There's a reason that Catholics aren't generally the best singers, or for that matter, preachers.  Our Mass is not about the music or the preaching (although they are both important) - it is about receiving our Lord in the form of the Eucharist.
We can celebrate Mass without song or homily - but the Mass is incomplete with the Host.

9 years 8 months ago
Fr. Martin, let me add my thanks also to the rest of those who appreciate your response to the anti-Catholic bias of the New Yorker article.  I don't happen to read that periodical, but I have become increasingly aware of the anti-Catholicism that appears all over the Internet.  I find it in the comments sections of prestigious news organizations' online news, and also on blogs.  I have the impression that no one monitors the comments or the moderators don't care.  Personally, I will do my best to speak up and say that sort of rhetoric offends me, and I hope others will do likewise.
9 years 8 months ago
I too am an avid and long-time New Yorker reader. As I read Rudnick, a voice in my head kept saying, ''this will get better.'' Alas, it did not. I agree with much of the commentary here and, as Sister Julie stated above, most nuns are used to these sorts of attacks... sadly. Thankfully, we are able to discuss this piece here and, hopefully, there will be a response in the fine letters to the New Yorker itself. BTW, here's a positive online ''nun story'' from Brian Williams @ NBC Nightly News:
9 years 8 months ago

If the Catholic Church would treat Sisters with the respect and dignity they deserve, then others would do so.  The Catholic Church (read: the hierarchy) oppress the Sisters and all women, treating them with no reaching out for unity. They (read the hierarchy) seem to think they are the only ones who matter and all others are beneath them. They are so caught up in their rules and dogmas and puffed up pronouncements that they just brush off all others who are not as "holy" as they are. We are all called to holiness and to bring all the universe to the Great I AM as we were meant to do and divinize all.  Read some Teilhard de Chardin and  some others who are working with the interface of religion and science and find out how much we are missing out on  just by ignoring and denying what is being discovered again. I say "again" because the mystics knew all about it many years ago. When will we listen and act on it instead of making sure there are those below the great holy ones (who strut around in all their finery) so that they can step upon those lowly ones to gain greater heights themselves. How petty!

9 years 8 months ago
Some of the commentators write that "The Catholic Church should respect the nuns" and by that they mean the institutional bureaucracy.  I suggest that respect and honor should begin "at home".  For centuries the sisters have been regarded as slaves or servants by most of the laity.  They taught our kids for a salary that often was not enough to put food on their table by the end of the month.  When asked for decent pay for good work, we responded with rancor and a phariseeism that said: "They took a vow of poverty.  They should not expect to live as well as the rest of us.  Let them be hungry."  We, and the pastor, are the ones who made up the jokes about the sisters and made them objects of ridicule.  That's where it started.  And, when it filtered out to "the world", we didn't do a damn thing to couteract it.   Like most of the abuse that goes on in government and in The Church, it happens because we let it happen.
Might also mention, for the record, nuns are vowed religious who live in enclosured convents and are rarely seen outside those convents.  Sisters are vowed religious who belong to congregations whose principal ministry is in the world.
9 years 8 months ago
May I add my nickel.  Fr. M., yes you can write a decent response.  But let not forget
yes, there was ridicue, but the whole article was bed, all of it; a pastiche of memory
of more than 20 years ago about a film he worked on and everything else. He
unwisely chose one of the strictest sem-cloistered orders and then visited apparently
only the gift shop and chapel briefly. Duh. As we used to say, "consider the source"
when you consider Rudnick.  How this ever got into print, I don't know. Nuns and
all, it is tripe and trite. There.  Take that.
9 years 8 months ago
''America'' readers who have not seen Archbishop Chaput's reflections on ''The Fourth Estate'' might appreciate reading it here:
I also am a longtime reader of "The New Yorker." And though I would not call it professedly ''anti-Catholic,'' its tin ear regarding things Catholic is patent, and, as Father Martin suggests, would not be tolerated were it to appear in such a sustained way in its treatment of other religious traditions.
9 years 8 months ago

I am 71 years old. Sisters have been a part of our extended family my whole life. They were incredible teachers in my youth. As I grew older I saw them as strong leaders in many professions, Health Care, Soup Kitchens, the Business World, the Ecolological/Green Profession. Last year at the Woodshole Film Festival, an audience full of Scientists gave Dorothy Stang a standing ovation for her incredible dedication and love for Sustainable Development. Many of them came up to me and said David you need to know she is extemely well respected for her Scientific Work not only in this country but Worldwide. So who is this person insulting our Sisters who contribue enormously to the development of our Human Race? Perhaps if the leaders of our Catholic Church were more respectful of our Sisters such writers would be more embarrassed to write such trash.
David Stang

9 years 8 months ago

Thank you, Father Martin for a beautiful tribute to our Catholic sisters.  I'd like to add another contemporary living saint to your list.  This nun is called "The Prison Angel" for good reason.  Mother Antonia Brenner has lived in a cell in the La Mesa prison in Tijuana, serving its inmates and officials for over 30 years.  At age 50, after living a life as a wealthy, Beverly Hills socialite, being married and divorced twice and being mother to seven children, she received her religious calling.Her order is the Eudist Servants of the Seventh Hour.  She is now in her 80's and in ill health, but to see and hear her is to be in the presence of one of the happiest, most fulfilled persons I have ever met.  She shines with the love of Christ.  But, one must also pay tribute, as you did, to the unnamed, unrecognized sisters who gave their all for the Mystical Body.  They were powerful role models for many women of my generation and I hope today's nuns fill that need for younger women.
The issue of anti-Catholicism is one that many of us have experienced throughout life.  I wonder if the bigotry hasn't gotten more virulent. As an individual, I really don't know how to effectively deal with it.  Maybe, living in CA, in the shadow of Hollywood, the peddlers of our degrading and degraded culture,makes one more sensitive to its perversity.  In 2007, at the Folsom Street Fair, along with the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, there was a widely distributed poster.  Since the Fair celebrates gay sado-masochistic sexual practices, the poster follows the theme, by using "The Last Supper" to further the cause and to ridicule Catholic belief.  Men and women dressed scantily in leathers and articles of bondage represent Jesus and the Apostles.  The table is cluttered with sex toys, whips and BDSM rstraints.  If this isn't blasphemous, what is?  Knowing about it, what does one do besides pray for the participants and the tens of thousands who witness the SM demonstrations?
I have attended plays at the La Jolla Playhhouse for many years.  The performance of "Cry Baby" includes a scene where a Catholic priest is disciplining the young people who are in a correctional facility.  He is dressed in clerical garb including a biretta and has an Irish name, so you can't mistake he is Catholic.  He wears a large cross and carries a rod that he uses to sadistically hit the kids.  They steal his clothing and the last hilarious (?) scene has the priest running across the stage in his funny underwear.  I wrote to the director of the Playhouse with my concerns in what I think was a reasonable fashion.  I never got a reply from him or one of his underlings.  I really doubt that they even care what I or anyone else thinks.  They have their agendas  Recently I attended a concert of Renaissance music at a Protestant church.  The music was composed by Italian nuns and was mystical in nature.  The director gave a talk snidely ridiculing the nuns for their sexual repression.  He got a lot of laughs.  Reminded me of a boys' locker-room conversation.  I did nothing about this even though I thought about it.  The article in The New Yorker and these two examples of bigotry in the arts, i suspect are purposeful.  American Catholics have become too numerous, too powerful (5 soon to be 6 supreme court justices and a Catholic V.P) and too rich.  We are a danger to the intellectual elite as well as to the usual suspects -radical fundamentalists.  More and more, it seems to me, that we are in the process of dechristianization in our country.  Christ and his Church are just too dangerous.

9 years 8 months ago
Thank you for this, Fr. Martin.  I've come to the conclusion that what I read recently on another blog is correct: the mavens of pop culture, and many on the "creative" left are perpetual adolescents stuck at age 14.
9 years 8 months ago

Jim, a gem!

I have a sister who is celebrating her golden jubilee this August and she and her sister Ursulines of Cleveland are among the very finest and giving people anyone would want to meet. 
For The New Yorker writer's attempted facetious rant--and I am a reader of the magazine--the days are over when one can 'get away' with dismal stereotypes.  The history of Nuns throughout the world is filled with repellent stories, and true ones, of the clergy and hierarchy treating these holy women shabbily, without any kind of dignity.  In the schools, hospitals, and social agencies which the Nuns faithfully managed it was slave labor amounting to a pittance in salary for work performed so nobly.  Now the Vatican is again launching an 'investigation,' which amounts to a reenactment of the modern tools of the infamous Inquisition.  But this time, they will not get away with the terror tactics of the past and present.  The American Church is wise to their game and even many Bishops will come to support the Nuns in this one.
Sunday's New York Times (July 12, '09), in a short but standout editorial referred to the American Nuns as a 'class act'.  That's an understatement, for they are the pillars of the American Church!

9 years 8 months ago
I do hope Father Martin shares his perspective directly with the writer of the ''humor'' piece in the New Yorker.  He is preaching to the converted to speak.
9 years 8 months ago
Thank you, Fr. Martin
Maureen Limer rsm
Rumbek, S.Sudan / Nairobi
9 years 8 months ago

Father marin,
I, as a Catholic historian, am familiar with some of your work.  Your comments about the New Yorker article were well stated and admirable.  I am well aware of the centuries-long anti-Catholic bias that is still so profound in America.   My own paternal Irish Catholic ancestors came to America from Ireland in 1844 through my great grandfather and grandmother, likely from Kerry or Cork (it is uncertain).   My late father spoke to his sons (we had no sisters unfortunately) about the prejudices that he and his family experienced when they were young kids growing up in California.   But, as one of the commentators so correctly pointed out, with the collapse of American culture led by Hollywood now so prominent in our society, it seems that the assault on the Catholic Church has declined to ever-more low levels.   Such is likely to continue inasmuch as our American people overall are so poorly taught regarding literature, history, languagr, and more.   Nuns throughout the narrative of American Catholic history have had a major positive influence on societal cultural and moral purviews.   I know many nuns; and they are holy, intelligent, hardworking, and very decent human beings.   Here in Texas, where I live, the first female religious order, Ursulines, came to Galveston from New Orleans on 8 January 1847, brought here by soon-to-be Bishop of Galveston, Jean-Marie Odin, C.M.   Since then they and so many other dedicated nuns have uplifted the lives of countless numbers of people in Texas.  Let us all stand up for our nuns of the Church and never again allow them to be made fun of.
Dr. Patrick Foley

9 years 7 months ago
I try to be considerate and gentle but sometimes (pardon the comparison) I feel like I have encountered the moneychangers in the Temple. When times get tough , the journalistic prostitutes come out of the woodwork and try to sell their sensational entertainment!! There is no excuse for this except financial gain. Let us not dignify it with the title of journalism


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