Yesterday, Donald Trump held one of his infamous campaign rallies in Circleville, Ohio. It was his usual show, unremarkable in anything he said or did, but there was an interesting addition in the background behind his podium.
Many people have pointed out that there were three religious sisters, wearing old-fashioned full-coverage habits with veils that didn’t seem to want to stay in place properly, standing behind the president for the duration of his speech. The sisters’ habits were a strange shade of purple and had a distinctive silvery crucifix. Their mouths were covered by black masks that said “MAGA,” quite a surreal sight; the masks matched their habits so well that I assume they made them in advance. One of the sisters had a “Four More Years” sign. They were consciously posturing for the camera: they were making googly-eyed faces at it, they were conspicuously praying the Rosary with the beads dangling over the barrier that held back the audience as if it was a pew, and at one point they held a Bible aloft and waved it. They were putting on a little show.
At first I thought these must be pranksters dressed as nuns, because I’d never seen such a habit before. But I later found out they’d been identified as sisters from a small order called the Children of Mary, based in Newark, Ohio. They are a diocesan Public Association of the Faithful founded about 20 years ago. In addition to their unusually colored habits they have an unironically beautiful charism of adoring the Eucharist, and they also have the kitschiest website I’ve ever seen. The website has both beautiful things on it like a description of their daily schedule adoring the Eucharist, and hair-raising things like the place where they insist women shouldn’t wear pants or sell prayer cards that call the Coronavirus pandemic “This so-called COVID-19 emergency.”
It’s been pointed out to be me that religious sisters have the worst of both worlds, canonically speaking: they count as laity and not clergy in one sense but they’re still bound by a lot of rules that don’t apply to plain old ordinary lay people like me. I want to stress that I can’t find any canonical rule specifically that says that a religious sister may not endorse a political candidate the way a priest absolutely may not. But I will go as far as to say that the sisters’ little show was, in my opinion, deeply imprudent.
If a religious sister wanted to go to a political protest or rally for a just cause, such as demonstrating against a war or the death penalty, or for the closing of an abortion clinic, or against a city ordinance that banned feeding the homeless, I’d say that was great. I still don’t like conspicuous show-off Rosary praying because Christ was pretty definitively against reciting loud prayers to show off. But that kind of demonstration is for a specific cause, something we can definitely point to and say Catholics ought to support that. But when you go to a political reality for a specific person, a candidate, especially in this day and age, you’re not going to a rally for a cause. You’re going to a rally for a single human being and his cult of personality. If a nun wanted to go stand in the audience of such a rally I’d say it was a bad idea but not the worst. If the nun, in her full habit that she wears as a representative of her religious order and the Catholic Church, specifically put on a mask with the candidate’s slogan on it and allowed whoever was organizing the rally to place her smack in front of the camera– and we know that the nuns knew they were being placed in front of the camera, because they awkwardly waved the Bible and posed showing off their Rosaries– then that’s no longer attending a political rally, that’s making yourself an ad and a mascot for a candidate and all they represent.
I’ve made no secret about which candidate I think is the worst choice, but the fact is, neither presidential candidate’s platform is unproblematic for Catholics. We as Catholics have a responsibility to choose to vote for the person we think will do the most good or the least damage. I think the answer to that question is obvious and you are free disagree with me. But we cannot do that without being willing to critique and fight our favorite candidate where he’s wrong. And there’s no room for that kind of nuance if you’ve made yourself into a mascot at a political rally. You’re not saying that “I believe President Trump when he says he’s against abortion and I support him in that, I believe him when he says Christianity is in danger and I think he will protect us, but of course I’m concerned about his history of racism and contempt for the poor, not to mention his sordid personal life and the way he glorifies violence against his enemies.” We can discuss whether that stance is wise or not, and I don’t think it is, but at least it’s a Catholic one. When you show up at a rally and agree to stand behind the candidate with a MAGA mask, wearing a nun’s habit and jangling a Rosary, you’re just saying “MAGA,” meaning what Trump means by “MAGA,” and pretending that has something to do with your Catholicism. It doesn’t. You may think it does, but it doesn’t.
Our kingdom is not of this world, neither Trump nor Biden is Christ, and the nationalism you espouse when you say “Make America Great Again” is against our Faith.
I hope those sisters quit putting on such imprudent and unbecoming shows in favor of earthly leaders and go back to adoring their Eucharistic Lord full-time. We’ve had enough terrible examples from Catholics in the news lately. This election year has been brutal and a challenge to everybody’s charity. Catholics need a good example from our clergy and religious, and this was a huge mistake.
Image via Pixabay.
Mary Pezzulo is the author of Meditations on the Way of the Cross.
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