Tuesday, November 13, 2007

When Narratives Collide With Reality

Thanks to A Typical Joe for helping me learn an important lesson.

I wrote earlier on the interesting phenomena of the Folsom Street Fair poster controversy. I maintained then, and still maintain, that the fair organizers chose that poster for its religious implications. I agreed with Andrew Sullivan that it was just cheap blasphemy, and I felt that the fair organizers welcomed the bigoted reaction they got.

So I was convinced by this that there were some members of the San Fransisco gay community (even though the FSF is not, strictly-speaking, a gay event) that did things that were deliberately intended to provoke bigoted reactions from religious conservatives.

And this story seemed to reinforce my views. The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, dressed in clown outfits, attend mass. I see the videotape, see the outrageous getup, and the archbishop's hesitation before giving them communion.

I watch Bill O'Reilly on the topic, and I'm as upset as he is by what I see as mockery of the Eucharist.

So I felt I knew what was going on - the Sister's attending a regular Sunday Mass, and having themselves videotaped, hoping to record the scene of anti-gay Catholic bigotry they provoke. Sunday Mass as a stage for some political theatre. I summarized my view in a comment on Joe's blog:

I know the Sisters do charitable work, but I have a problem with this stunt. I’m considering the people who went there to celebrate Sunday mass, and found themselves cast into an unwilling role in a videotaped political drama. I don’t think that is fair.

My suspicion is that the Sisters did it because they wanted to provoke a bigoted reaction. I’m sure Catholics could go to gay bars, order a few beers, and start saying the rosary, and that might provoke a similar reaction. In general, I think if we want tolerant society, it is best to refrain from things like this, and allow different types of people some space to be themselves.

Except I was as wrong as I could be, because the story doesn't fit the narrative I had imposed on it. One of the Sisters wrote a note to Joe, saying:

The video was actually shot by a right-wing, very homophobic group based in San Jose, CA called Quo Domine. They filmed in secret and then sent the tape to other right wing blogs like “Americans for Truth” and to Fox News.

Their intention was to create a controversy that would perpetuate the right-wing attack on “San Francisco values.”

The group has attacked Most Holy Redeemer parish in the past, because they vehemently oppose the church’s open ministry to queer people, whom they believe are living in sin and should repent. The group holds a fundamentalist inspired vision of the Church that does not welcome diversity.

The sisters who attended that day did so because they, like others in the Castro-neighbourhood parish, genuinely wanted to welcome the bishop on his first pastoral visit and because they wanted to remind him that this was a gay-affirming parish.

The Sisters were attending mass in a gay-welcoming parish, called Most Holy Redeemer. They are certainly no strangers to the parish - they've even run "Revival Bingo" events at the parish! The Archbishop was - to his credit - reaching out of his comfort zone in visiting a somewhat divergent parish in his diocese. The video was shot not by the Sisters, but by a conservative religious group, named Quamdiu Domine. That group doesn't like the idea of a gay-inclusive parish, and wanted to embarrass not the Sisters but the archbishop. And when the story was presented, he caved under the pressure.

And this is even more interesting. The group, Quamdiu Domine, that filmed the video has a link on this page to what they claim is a parish bulletin that has a note from one of the Sisters - Delta Goodhand. The note thanks the Archbishop for coming to say mass. Again, the group is outraged that the Sisters participate so easily in the parish. You can see Delta's note on the bottom left of the bulletin PDF on this page. But when you go to the parish website, and look at the same bulletin (10/14/07) - downloadable from this page - there is no such note. There is a "save the date" notice in the archived parish bulletin in the same place where the Quamdiu Domine version has the note from Sister Delta. So either the parish is going back and rewriting history, or the conservative group is doctoring parish bulletins.

Clearly I have too much time on my hands!

I'm still no fan of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, and I'm certainly no fan of Quamdiu Domine. Nevertheless, I learned an important lesson: the world is far more complex than the stories we tell ourselves.


Joe said...

I'm interested in all of this on so many levels.

First, the blogosphere. Some worry that the blogosphere simply reinforces our pre-existing views and only serves to polarize us even more than we otherwise would be. I don't agree with that. I think we are forced to, or rather, have the opportunity to see other sides and think things through in a way that broadcast media never enabled. Your first impression would have stood were it not for the blogosphere.

On the other hand, in the end you still conclude that you don't like the sisters, even as they've done all kinds of tremendous charitable work and were, in all likelihood, embraced by the church in their community. Does that mean that we stick to our preconceived notions come what may?

Whatever, good to read your post!

Sweating Through fog said...

Thanks for your comment, Joe

Regarding the Sisters I'm not impressed. I generally don't like shock humor, and I consider their mocking of religion pretty juvenile. Religion is such an easy, safe target in largely secular culture.

As far as I can see their charitable work consists largely of fund-raising, rather than personal works of service that require real sacrifice on their part - the sort of work real nuns often do. I have a similar opinion of celebrities that claim their fund-raising demonstrates what loving, caring people they are - I see charity work of that sort as primarily a self-serving act, the marketing of an image.

My opinion has changed somewhat from what I've learned. I certainly learned that my preconceived notions of them were totally wrong. Before I was hostile - I'm now more indifferent. I'm happy that they are embraced by their parish. I see this as a sign of long-overdue inclusiveness in the Church, or some part of it at least. And it makes me far less skeptical of their claim that they are not against religion and spirituality.

joe said...

Actually, I generally applaud and defend celebrity fund-raising too. Yes, it's self interested but it's a better use of celebrity than other things celebrities get into.

And street theater and art in the service of a good cause is as good a use as any. In the end, though, I'm probably as indifferent as you!

Eric said...

Many Sisters across the country and the world go out into the bars every week handing out condoms, or cards with safety information to keep them out of harms way when on the streets. Some Sisters go to hopsices and hosptials to visit the sick and the dying.
The Sisters also attend AIDS Walk, Breast Cancer Walks, Protests and all kinds of events. Their website only gives a glimpse at the actual work that the Sisters do, I'd recommend you meet and talk to a Sister about the work they do instead of assuming you have the full picture

Sweating Through fog said...


Thanks for the comment. Good work like you mention is indeed worthy of praise and acknowledgment.

And I agree that the only way to get a better, more complete picture is to actually meet and speak with a Sister. I wouldn't mind doing that.

hedera said...

Let me add that there was a letter to the editor published in the San Francisco Chronicle shortly after the incident, in which a very senior local Catholic cleric (I don't recall who, unfortunately), essentially stated that the Eucharist should be offered to anyone who asks, that being dressed funny is not a basis for refusing the Eucharist, and that there was absolutely no reason for the bishop to apologize, as he had correctly performed his office.