Thursday, April 26, 2012

Party On, Catholic Nuns!

Today, I'd like to talk about the intersection of castanets, Leslie Knope, and nuns.  It's gonna be a long one, but here's a dancing nun to keep you going!

Yup!  I love Knope!

I'm a huge fan of Parks and Recreation (on Thursday nights on NBC!), the Amy Poehler-helmed show about a can-do, small town, bureaucrat with an obsession with waffles, a tendency to try too hard, and a heart of gold.  One of the things I appreciate most about the show is how beautifully, powerfully, quirkily, and honestly it represents friendship between women. 

As a playwright, and as a woman, I've been hugely frustrated with the lack of two-women scenes...let alone authentic depictions of female friendship.  More often, if - and sadly, it's often still "if" - two women dominate the stage, they're at each others' throats, or they feel like women attempting to be male-tough, or they're solely caught up in their separate romantic intrigues and not in the special dynamic that exists between two female friends.  We've seen plenty of bromances celebrated...so it's refreshing to see a galmance.

All this is made possible, of course, because of Amy Poehler's unwavering feminism.  Today - and even for myself - "feminism" is an evil word, summoning up images of masculinized women bent on the destruction of the other half of the population.  Those were the feminists I grew up with: ugly inside and out.  Not the women who fought for the right to vote; not my great-aunt who was a working woman in Boston at the turn-of-the-century; or my great-great-aunt who was a short story writer under her own name - but the bitter, men-hating women who changed the laws so that my Caucasian father is now discriminated against in his multiple job searches, who changed society so that my Caucasian brother is low on the list of supposedly merit-based scholarships, who changed men themselves so that my Caucasian professor kept railing against himself for having been born a "white male oppressor."  Never mind that those three men are perhaps the most mild-mannered men...heck!  Humans that I know!

Therefore, I greatly appreciate Amy Poehler's (and to a different - quirkier - extent, Tina Fey's) contribution to understanding what feminism can be.  Although I still don't consider myself a feminist (or, more precisely, a feminazi), I have to admit - and admit proudly - that I find myself more and more invested in bringing representations of actual, strong, strange, and wonderful women to the stage, as a playwright, as a director, as an actress, and as a woman.  Why?  Because our modern American society - for better or for worse - receives its theology and philosophy from the performing arts.

Which is why I was frustrated as I re-watched the second season opener, "Pawnee Zoo," of Parks and Recreation on Netflix during the show's recent Spring Break.  I've seen all the episodes before, of course, but in rewatching them, I had purposely skipped this one since it has such a heavy-handed - and therefore noxiously offensive - message against Christians and for gay marriage.  It would have been enough to have the latter.  It's the Desperate Housewife waspy WASP who heads the Pawnee Christian coalition who's the real slap in the face.  Let me break down the episode:
  • Leslie Knope of the Parks Department, in an effort to promote the Pawnee Zoo "marries" two penguins.  As the penguins engage immediately in marital bliss, the zookeeper reports that they're both male.  Leslie is suddenly considered a "political activist" rather than someone just attempting to promote the zoo with "something cute."
  • Immediately, those in favor of gay marriage - including the always hysterical, dead-panning April Ludgate and her gay boyfriend and his gay boyfriend - congratulate Leslie and offer to throw her a party down at Pawnee's local gay bar, "The Bulge."
  • Also immediately, in storms Marcia Langman, a member of the Society for Family Stability Foundation, who demands not only that Leslie "annul the marriage" but that she also resign from the Parks Department.
  • Leslie, who keeps insisting that "she has no stand" other than to do something "cute" (and it is a cute idea!), goes to the Bulge to thank her supporters there and reiterate that she didn't mean anything by it.  However, she's swept away when she's revealed as their local hero, given free drinks, emotionally supported, and made the life of the party.
  • The next day, still riding high from such bon viverie, Leslie is called into the court of public opinion by Marcia Langman on a local cable access talk show, where Marcia gets even more brittle and toxitic - prompting Leslie to declare that she is in support of gay marriage.
Now, it's a clever episode, and rightfully won the GLAAD Media Award.  But let's take a quick look at what logic and philosophy are employed:
  •  "Pawnee Zoo" began with a straw man of what marriage isn't.  
    • Marriage isn't between animals (even penguins who purportedly mate for life) and;
    • Marriage isn't merely "cute" - as everyone knows, it's a grueling decision to wake up every day and decide to act loving towards one's spouse.  
    • Marriage isn't a step taken lightly...despite the fact that the modern Western human treats marriage as a way to "legalize" our animal instincts, and enter into it more focused on the "cute" aspect of wedding-planning than on the actual marriage.  
    • I won't go into whether Leslie had a right to perform the marriage ceremony (if she had been a Catholic feminist, the episode probably wouldn't have happened to begin with), but the more important thing is that Leslie - and by extension ourselves - was basing all her subsequent decisions on a definition of marriage that was "cute" and for "animals."
  • The argument for gay marriage included another straw man, and ad hominem attack.
    • When making a proper argument, one must first list what the question being argued is, what the opposition to the question may be, what your answers to the question are and why, and final conclusions.  (See the Summa Theologica for the textbook examples...literally.)
    • The argument against gay marriage was made by an unlikeable character - worse for Amy Poehler's commendable feminism - a female character - who was also rather shrilly identified as Christian.  She is shown as having absolutely no mercy as well as no reason: a hypocritical and easily criticized Christian.  She could have been a Muslim or Orthodox Jew or Mormon - other religions which also oppose gay marriage.  She could have just been an English teacher with a good grasp of what a definition is.  But she was a cartoon straw man of a "Christian" who never argued, only attacked - and therefore is easily ridiculed by the audience.
    • The argument for gay marriage consisted of no particular content besides the message that "Gays are FUN!"  In fact, Leslie might say, "Gays are cute."
    • Ultimately, then, Leslie is swayed not by a political party...but by an actual party.  Here endeth the lesson.
God and Chocolate is Better than Just God

So, what can we ultimately learn from "Pawnee Zoo?"  Certainly, not arguments - pro or con - for gay marriage.  There was very little arguing in the episode, and whole lot of feeling.  But what we did learn, and I think it's a valuable, possibly essential lesson, is that:

1) No one will want to listen to you if you're a jerk, and;
2) You'll only be embraced if you hug people first.

In other words, if you want people to even consider your party...throw a party!

Interestingly, Leslie Knope and the good people of Pawnee are not the first to have reached that conclusion.  Consider the case of my dear saint, Theresa of Avila.

Now, Theresa joined the Carmelites when those good sisters were in dire trouble.  Spanish nobility were foisting off their youngest daughters to the convents against their will so that they wouldn't have to pay their dowries.  No one was happy with this - except maybe the miserly parents - and so it's no wonder that many of the young sisters would sneak out to have parties and sexy times with their former Spanish Golden Age Jet Setters.

Unfortunately, the women being of sound mind and body had taken their final vows of poverty, chastity and obedience.  Although many of them took those vows under pressure, ultimately, these women of sound mind had made the rather hefty promise.  And - crazy notion - the world at that time thought that when you gave your word, you kept it.

Enter Theresa of Avila.  She enters Carmel all full of excitement over becoming a bride of Christ, and is pretty quickly shocked at the shenanigans she finds within the convent walls.  Outrageously, she sets about founding reforms in the Carmelite order.  (What?  A woman who thinks that a thing should be what it says it is?  What a concept!)  She encouraged the sisters how to live their lives according to the vows they took, even if they didn't originally have a vocation to Carmel.  And you know what?  The woman was successful.

My favorite tactic of hers was this:

Whenever her sisters would complain, glum that they had given up their luxuriant lifestyle, glum at the lack of male sexytimes, she would grab her castanets, drag all the sisters into the great hall, and have a dance party.  Is there any wonder I love this lady?  She famously said, "God and chocolate is better than just God."  Which, for my money, is a really good mantra.

Once again, though, I want to point out what ended up convincing folks on the fence - even folks in opposition - to living poorly, chastely and obediently - was a good old fashioned party.  Interesting, huh?  Things don't change much in 500 years.

Nun of that Nunsense, Now!

Recently - despite the news-free cocoon I wrap myself in when I'm in triple tech week(s), as I am now - even I managed to hear about this LCWR thing and thought I'd poke around the interwebs about it.  What is this "LCWR thing" you ask?  In brief:
  •  Four years ago, the Vatican launched a formal investigation into the doctrines (beliefs taught and held) of the "Leadership Conference of Women Religious."  This group isn't a religious order themselves - it's not a specific of Carmelite nuns, for example - but it is an organization of abbesses from all different religious orders (Franciscan, Carmelite, Dominican, etc. - different flavours of Catholic nuns).  About 80% of American abbesses belong to the LCWR.
  • The reason why the investigation was launched was because many of these sisters, and more consistently the LCWR, were publically and consistently denying basic dogmas (beliefs you have to believe if you're a Catholic) about the very Church they'd willingly made vows to.  For example, that Jesus is not God, and did not rise from the dead.
  • Just last week, after four years of observation, the Vatican released their findings - which, frankly, has been an open secret among the entire nation since the 1960's - that about 80% of Catholic nuns were violently anti-Catholic.
  • The LCWR replied that they were "shocked" at these outrageous findings...and then hired a speaker for their latest conference whose talk will be about how Jesus didn't rise from the dead...and then issued a statement saying that the LCWR may be forced to break from the Church.  (Which would at least be an honest action!)
What I found from the secular media is a lot of the usual suspect type polemic; feeling-based "arguments" similar to those used in "Pawnee Zoo."  For example: "Stop bullying nuns!" "Vatican hates women!" and so on.  Example here.  Quite a turn-about from the secular media which has for the past several decades typified nuns as stern-faced, ruler-beating, children-hating nazis.  I guess the only cool nuns are ones who've literally fallen out of the habit.  (*rimshot*)

Most of the arguments from the LCWR and their supporters mirror the "Pawnee Zoo" logical fallacies, beginning with a complete misunderstanding of what it means to be Catholic.  Essentially, those dissenting from the Catholic Church to whom they voluntarily made their vows (unlike Theresa of Avila's sisters) is that: you don't have to believe in Catholic teaching to be Catholic.

Now, this is the same as saying "I don't have to wear clothes in order to believe in clothes."  Either way...you're naked.

So what is a Catholic who - outrageously! - believes in her faith to do?  Well, I'd suggest that between Theresa of Avila and Leslie Knope there's an answer.  Parks and Recreation is a hugely entertaining show that gets us to laugh and love those characters, and therefore opens us to listen to Amy Poehler's and the writers/producers' philosophies.  Theresa of Avila, one of the most distinguished Doctors of the Church (author, philosopher, theologian - a deep thinking lady - check out her books!), knew when to put aside her arguments and break out the castanets. 

What we as Catholics, particularly as Catholic women, need to express is the defiant joy of orthodox Catholicism.  Yes, we need arguments.  Yes, we need apologists.  Yes, we need to take a stand and shout the truths from the mountaintops.  But none of it will do any good if no one listens.  So put down your spectacles, and make a spectacle.  Don't just talk about love - love first and then speak.

Because to change society, my fellow Catholic feminists, you need to be sociable.

Party on, Catholics!  You can argue afterwards.

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