Is a blasphemous drag show really ‘anti-Catholic’?

Just yesterday Bobby pointed out a practice of double attribution, asking whether it goes beyond attribution into the dreaded scare quote territory. I wonder the same thing in a few stories I’m reading about the nomination of Chuck Hagel to be Secretary of Defense.

I started looking around when Michael Brendan Dougherty asked, on Twitter:

Curious why reporters put “anti-Catholic” in scare quotes in their stories.

Jonah Goldberg responded, “because they think the anti-Catholics are right.”

What are they talking about? Well, when Hagel was nominated, some groups mentioned that he’d opposed Bill Clinton’s nomination of James Hormel to be an ambassador because he was “aggressively gay.” Those words might not have been as controversial during the Clinton administration as they are now, but people were upset.

I was surprised to learn the rest of the story today:

Hagel also told the World-Herald he has seen tape of Hormell (sic) at an event by the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, a San Francisco-based performance and activist group comprised of gay men in drag as nuns.

“It is very clear on this tape that he’s laughing and enjoying the antics of an anti-Catholic gay group in this gay parade,” Hagel told the paper in the 1998 interview. “I think it’s wise for the president not to go forward with this nomination.”

It is always good to consider the context of any remark. Hagel has apologized for his remarks either way, but knowing that Hagel was upset by Hormel laughing it up at a blasphemous drag show is an important detail. But is the group really blasphemous or anti-Catholic?

Wikipedia explains the group’s activities:

Using their attire to parody nuns and religious sacrament, some actions of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence have gone farther to offend Catholics. As early as 1982 the Catholic Church in San Francisco protested the methods of the Sisters, particularly when they attended an interfaith prayer service at St. Mary’s Cathedral. Balking at the stage names of Sister Hysterectoria and Sister Boom Boom, an editorial in a local Catholic magazine named the Monitor stated, “The organization, their names, and their use of religious habits is an affront to religious women and Catholics in general”.[31]

Starting in 1995, the Sisters began a Castro Crawl on Easter Sunday to celebrate their anniversary. The event features a 13-stop pub crawl that parodies Stations of the Cross. At each station in front of a gay bar or similarly affiliated organization, the Sisters call out “We adore thee, O Christ” to be answered by their traveling audience in “Luvya, mean it, let’s do brunch”. Actors portray the Virgin Mary, Mary Magdalene, and other people integral to Easter traditions, and the Sisters continue to educate for safer sex by passing out condoms, ending the event with a toast of vanilla wafers and Jägermeister.[44]

In 1999, San Francisco Supervisor Tom Ammiano came into conflict with some in San Francisco’s Catholic community when the Board of Supervisors, at Ammiano’s request, granted the Sisters a permit to close a block of Castro Street for their 20th anniversary celebration on Easter Sunday, that included a “Hunky Jesus” contest among other activities. San Francisco’s archdiocese requested the event be moved to another day.

It’s so tricky. If the target of mockery were, say, Muslims, we know we’d call the group anti-Muslim and avoid scare quotes at all costs. But when it’s Catholics, do the same rules apply? Do we need scare quotes around “anti-Catholic” when describing this group? (For another comparison I’ll just throw out there, count how many times scare quotes are used around the phrase “antigay” in this New York Times article today — be sure to check out the url, the headline and the copy and let me know if you find any.)

I’m on record as generally opposing scare quotes. I think they do a lot to skew a story or remove trust with the reader … and not a lot to benefit it.

Let’s get back to what Hagel actually said:

Ambassadorial posts are sensitive, Hagel explained.”They are representing America,” he said. “They are representing our lifestyle, our values, our standards. And I think it is an inhibiting factor to be gay – openly aggressively gay like Mr. Hormel – to do an effective job.”Hagel noted a documentary, filmed with money Hormel donated, that showed teachers how they could teach children about homosexuality. He said he had seen another video clip that showed Hormel at what Hagel called an anti – Catholic event in San Francisco, featuring the “Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence,” a group of male drag queens.”It is very clear on this tape that he’s laughing and enjoying the antics of an anti – Catholic gay group in this gay parade,” Hagel said. “I think it’s wise for the president not to go forward with this nomination.”

Luxembourg, he noted, is about 95 percent Roman Catholic. …

Hagel, meanwhile, said a homosexual should not necessarily be disqualified from all ambassadorships.His approach to nominees, he said, has been to examine the person’s qualifications first. The United States has had gay ambassadors in the past and gays in the military, who have done well by quietly adopting the Pentagon’s current “don’t ask, don’t tell” attitude.Hormel, however, has gone beyond that, Hagel said.He “very aggressively told the world of his gayness and the funding and all the things he’s been involved in. I think you do go beyond common sense there, and reason and a certain amount of decorum,” Hagel said.

Now let’s look at how BuzzFeed characterized Hagel’s view (which is representative of most of the stories I saw on this matter):

Hagel detailed his objection to Hormel’s nomination, saying he was concerned that Hormel had aligned himself with a group he considered “anti-Catholic,” and asserted that being gay was “beyond common sense.”

Yeah, no need for the double attribution. You can use the quotes or you can use the word considered. Doing both is too much. Also, it’s not true that Hagel said “being gay” was beyond common sense. I know the journalists at BuzzFeed don’t have a lot of time to compose their posts but the same article they link to from 1998 includes Hagel’s view that being gay is not a disqualification from an ambassadorship. The particular activities funded or participated in by Hormel seem to be the issue.

I know that it’s downright passe to report comments in context, much less accurately, these days. But it’s worth it. And go ahead and avoid the double attribution. It’s inefficient and at least gives the appearance of scare quoting.

Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence image via Matt Ragen /

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  • Kristen inDallas

    I always get scared when I see the phrase someone “asserted that” (almost always a cue that the writer is about to paraphrase) followed by quotation marks.

    • Spencerian

      I’ve learned fast that ANY use of quotes in an article, except when a complete question is shown and the complete answer is printed, is an automatic flag. Context without the subtext is pretext. The opposition to the nomination in those articles are clearly advocacy journalism. Not everyone fits every job: Charles Manson would not make a suitable babysitter. A Jewish cleric may not necessarily be a good fit as the Saudi ambassador. A country with a large Catholic majority may not be the best fit for this nominee. This is the point glossed over in the original story.

  • Julia

    “A country with a large Catholic majority may not be the best fit for this nominee. This is the point glossed over in the original story.”

    Amen. If you read the wikipedia article you’ll see that this started with some men lying to an order of sister in Iowa that they wanted the real habits to put on a performance of “The Sound of Music”. How is that to be explained away an not “anti-Catholic”.

  • bob

    Whenever I see someone write about this group it makes me wonder just when anyone last saw what a typical nun wears and has worn since about 1976 or so; none of the males are dressed like bankers! To find anything remotely like the grotesque version of their costumes you’d have to look around for pictures of nuns taken before most of them were born. There’s a story (religious or psychiatric) I’d like to see written: what is it that makes people dress up like their *imaginary* picture of a monastic, one they have never seen? What exactly is the point? Besides amusing themselves I know they mean to shock, but if no one knows what the original image looks like doesn’t the mocking fall short? If you can do a funny impression of Calvin Coolidge’s secretary of agriculture, who knows it and appreciates it?

  • Will

    Because they follow what “Everybody Knows”, not mere boring facts.