It’s ironic in a way that the drag-satirical group, the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, founded in Iowa City before establishing itself in San Francisco in 1979, came into existence after the religious habit revolution in the Catholic Church had essentially stripped the common Catholic sisters, sans contemplative orders, of their time-honored uniforms.
Those uniforms, as varied and rich as a fireworks display on the 4th of July, never failed to impress the secular world. Yet by 1979, many Catholic nuns were indistinguishable from other women in the street. While some orders of nuns went through a series of modified habits before ditching the habit altogether—think truncated veils with matching skirt and tops that made them resemble parochial school students—most of the big religious orders went whole hog into secular fashion.
How to figure out who was a nun and who was not? Well, you might look for a miniature cross-pin, but a cross-pin that doesn’t flaunt the ‘Jesus thing’ in a big way.
Nuns, at one point in American Catholic life, were the pit bull guardians of everything Catholic: faith, morals, you name it. Many were over the top and abused their authority (ear twisting, ruler beatings, etc.) but at least you knew they weren’t heretics. Those days are gone.
Today, many of the most public nuns are guardians of social justice causes commonly associated with the Left.
Enter the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence (OPI), a confusing drag group that has run the gamut from committing sacrilegious acts to performing serious works of charity.
The group is not composed of “thrown together” members but is modeled on “real” Catholic religious orders. Prospective members must be serious about a lifetime commitment. Candidates go through postulant and novitiate stages and then are voted in or out by members of the community. There are OPI houses of drag nuns in Canada, Australia, Europe and South America.
OPI religious habits are hyper-absurdist concoctions that bear little resemblance to what traditional Catholic nuns wear today. Given that the group was founded as a performance organization whose mission is to satirize issues of sex and gender—OPI was not founded as a charity organization. They must by necessity be a clownish and follow a “theology” of buffoonery.
From a “gay rights” historical perspective, OPI has always been a fringe group that interested primarily Catholic and ex-Catholic gay men who were still trying to “process” their homosexuality. OPI was called “a Catholic thing” that had little resonance with non-Catholic (gay) activists. True scandalous behavior and revolutionary “punch” was reserved for the infamous San Francisco group, The Cockettes, who were irreverent drag queens extraordinaire that filmmaker John Waters once called “hippie acid freak drag queens.”
In 2011, gay conservative writer Andrew Sullivan, a Catholic, criticized OPI for hosting a “Hunky Jesus” contest. He also said that the group was composed of “smug liberal bigots.”
“I am a First Amendment absolutist….And I’m also a solid defender of the right to blasphemy,” Sullivan said. “But there are smart ways of doing this, ways that illuminate broader issues—think of ‘The Book of Mormon’ or any South Park episode….You want to grow some balls? Hold a Hunky Mohammed Contest on Ramadan…”
Sullivan got a lot of flak for that comment. OPI told him,
“Rail against the supposed grief we cause believers and wrap yourself in self-righteous anger if it makes you feel good—it’s your shtick and in these tough times I know you need a paycheck…..Our fervent prayer for you is that next year we might see you in Dolores Park, lounging on a big pink blanket, wearing a fabulous Easter bonnet, pounding back dome Dom and laughing as a new line of Hunky Jesii parade before you. Until then, go and sin some more.”
During Pope John Paul II’s visit to San Francisco in 1987, OPI preformed a public “exorcism” of the Pope while a number of demonstrators held signs that read, “Pope go Home” and “Nazi Pope.”
The New York Times reported,
“The Pope’s visit to San Francisco was the most problematic so far of his American tour. The demonstrators—homosexuals, feminists and some Jews – gathered about 2,000 strong behind metal barricades near the 196-year-old mission to protest the Pope’s conservative theology and social agenda.”
Meanwhile, The San Francisco Chronicle ran the following headline: “Pope Tells AIDS Sufferers They Have God’s Love.”
In older pictures of OPI from the early 1980s, one notices a far more serious intent on the part of the “Sisters” to mock the piety of Catholic saints in ecstasy, either while gazing upward or at a crucifix. The habits worn by OPI at that time then (mostly all black) were more in alignment with the habits of nuns prior to the Second Vatican Council.
The LA Dodgers’ decision to award OPI with its so-called Community Hero Award on June 16th has garnered the support of a number of progressive (real) Catholic nuns, or the nuns with little cross-pins who ditched their habits for secular dress. These nuns are referred to by Traditional Catholics as ‘Hippie-Dippy’ nuns from the 1960s, the folksong/Mass nuns whose religious orders are dying out because young women who want to become nuns today are joining the traditionalist orders.
A recent National Catholic Reporter piece on real Catholic nuns who support the drag nuns in OPI caught my eye. (The progressive National Catholic Reporter is not to be confused with the conservative National Catholic Register, two very different publications claiming loyalty to the same Church.)
The Reporter quotes a Sister of Saint Joseph (Sister Nancy Corcoran), a Sister Barbara Battista from Sisters of the Providence of St. Mary-in-the-Woods, and Sister Jeannine Gramick of New Ways Ministry, whom Pope Francis has called “a valiant woman.”
These nuns have glowing things to say about OPI. Sister Gramick, for instance, notes that,
“While I am uncomfortable with the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence using the nuns’ old garb to draw attention to bigotry, whether Catholic or not, there is a hierarchy of values in this situation. The choice of clothing, even if offensive to some, can never trump the works of mercy.”
The secular dress nuns say they support the drag nuns because of the charity work they do. But charity work falls under the social justice umbrella when it is moved into first place over prayer and contemplation.
I might ask Sister Gramick the following question: What about OPI’s misuse of the crucifix, or its mockery of genuine religious ecstasy?
What about OPI’s condemnation of Pope John Paul II in 1987? Charity work—that is, giving publicly in order to receive recognition and adulation—isn’t as grand as it seems when something far more important is being mocked.
I’m reminded of a satanic group in Philadelphia in the late 1970s, the Church of the Process, that did charity work when it came to feeding the homeless. “I give you this meat loaf, oh homeless one, in the name of Lord Lucifer. Enjoy!”
While OPI was more of a sacrilegious group in the 1980s and 1990s than it appears to be today, the group can still be viewed as having played a role in the continued “decomposition” of all things Christian in today’s world.
That “decomposition” has resulted in, among other things, a burgeoning “Queering Jesus” movement that is now almost the norm in progressive Churches and divinity schools.
In this new world, theology is being turned into a clown drag show and masquerade, where fetishes like sadomasochism are seen as having “spirituality.”
Another story for another time….
In the meantime, over in Dodger-land where the drag sisters were scheduled to receive their Community Hero Award for charity work among marginalized communities, a watershed-miracle protest occurred: a crowd growing exponentially from hundreds to thousands of people until the numbers outside Dodger Stadium looked uncountable. Nobody expected so many Catholics and other Christians to come together, especially in woke Los Angeles. The numbers were stunning, especially compared to the nearly empty stadium during the pre-game ceremony when the tinfoil sisters, facing empty seats, were lauded as heroes.
News anchors and talking heads on TV stations all over the country attempted to hide their disbelief as they reported on the thousands of Dodger prayer vigil protesters. You could see the consternation in their eyes as they ran film clips of the empty stadium as the tinfoil sisters took their bow.
Yes, in some sense it was a miracle, an extraordinary blowback in the face of Woke.
While some LGBTQ organizations will interpret the Dodger stadium miracle on June 16 as yet another sad example of attacks on the safety and well-being of LGBTQ people—a display of hate and intolerance—that view has been shown for what it is: a lie.
Dodger pitcher Clayton Kershaw and many in the crowd of prayer warriors said their protest was not against the LGBTQ community. This is about a group mocking religion, they said, a group that mocks the Blessed Virgin and Jesus Christ; in effect, a group that crosses the line into serious blasphemy.