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Indulging The Sisters-1981

Updated: Jan 5

This was written by the San Francisco Examiner newspaper's religion writer (who is Catholic) after letters urged him to condemn the Sisters. This was his reply:

October 12, 1981. By Kevin Starr.

INDULGING THE SISTERS

This newspaper has received some vociferous complaints regarding the Sisters of Perpetual indulgence a gay activist group currently involved in the ongoing drama of ideological street theater, San Francisco-style. Many of the complaints have called them irreligious for mocking organized religion, specifically the Roman Catholic Church. Many readers have asked me to comment. The expectation in general has been that I would, naturally, be outraged by the Sisters and their antics.

Quite frankly, I am outraged that I should be expected to be outraged! I find the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence a totally understandable phenomenon both from the point of view of the ancient art of religious parody and from the perspective of guerrilla theater, a venerable genre of social activism.

Western Christianity has since medieval times nurtured a tradition of religious parody. This tradition had its origins in ancient Roman civilization, which was in part the seedbed of the Christian religion. The Romans made fun of their leaders in a periodic indulgence of satire: once a year the chief centurion of a Roman legion was entitled to yell, "lo Saturnalia". This meant that all hell was entitled to break loose. Discipline was totally abandoned and Roman soldiers cavorted in drunkeness and gaiety. The officers, almost godlike in their remoteness during the rest of the year, put on theatrical costumes, including drag, and performed riotous, even obscene plays for the troops. When a Roman emperor was crowned, a clown dressed in emperor's clothes, usually bestriding a monstrous leather dildo, cavorted behind the emperor's chariot during the grand procession. The emperor was expected to take the parody in good humour. Emperor Claudius of "I Claudius" fame did not prove to be such a good sport: he had the clown who followed him executed.

For their own purpose, the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence are tapping into this ancient tradition. By dressing up as nuns, the Sisters carry off several psychological, theatrical and ideological ambitions. First of all, individuals among the Sisters who are of Catholic background exorcise themselves of rage and guilt over what they consider the church's hostility to their homosexuality. Second, they can shock the church by cavorting in costumes long associated with an institutional religious dedication. Third, they make the ideological point that they consider organized Christianity a "litote" (the part standing for the whole) of the entire repressive establishment that has declared them personae non grata because of their sexual preference.

As theater, the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence are electric. They cannot be ignored. The minute they appear on the scene, the atmosphere is charged with humour, hostility, disgust-but rarely indifference. I also have a sneaking suspicion that a lot of Catholics don't mind the Sisters that much at all. Every modern Catholic sustains within himself or herself a complex relationship to the official church, and amalgam of reverence and resentment, gratitude and anger. Catholicism holds itself in individuals through tangled roots penetrating into the deepest recesses of the psyche.

The Sisters from this point of view, might even be considered representative of Roman Catholics. They are, after all, caught between polarities of anarchy and order, parody and affirmation, humour and guilt. The very fact that they choose to masquerade themselves as nuns is a left-handed compliment to the power and authority of the church's in general and to the specific power of the Roman Catholic sisterhood-the teachers, the nurses, the social workers, the medical missionaries of the Catholic Church. And as one priest said to me regarding the ersatz Sisters, "At least they've got the nuns back into their habits!"


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