Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence: Appropriate or Appropriation?



Drag group toes the line between respectfully parodying and disrespecting the Catholic Church


In McMahon 109 on April 9, 2019, Melissa Wilcox gave a presentation about the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, a group of gay activists who dress in the fashion of Roman Catholic nuns. The author of “Queer Nuns: Religion, Activism, and Serious Parody,” Wilcox portrayed the organization in a positive light — a light that it fails to merit.    

The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence often parody sacred religious rituals in an offensive manner.  Examples include their “Our Bother” prayer and their “Condom Savior Communion,” which makes fun of the Catholic Mass while distributing something of which the Church strongly disapproves. Additionally, they sexualize religious figures with their annual “Hunky Jesus” and “Foxy Mary” contests. A slogan at the bottom of the Sisters’ webpage reads, “Go forth and sin some more,” the very opposite of what Christianity endorses.

As a practicing Catholic, I find the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence’s parody upsetting. In the interest of the freedom of speech, I maintain the right of this order to exist, but having the right to do something is not the same thing as being right in doing so.

During the Q&A section of Wilcox’s presentation, I asked her if this group’s actions were classified as appropriation and, if not, why not. Wilcox answered that when using terms like “appropriation,” it’s important to look at the power dynamics — in this case, the dynamic between the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence and the Catholic Church. In her view, the actions of the order are excusable because they borrow language and traditions from a powerful group rather than a marginalized minority.  

She added that their actions could be seen as emulation, not appropriation. To clarify, I then asked if “emulating” a powerful group is not a form of appropriation, or if it is just a form of appropriation that is not problematic.

Wilcox cautioned that she could not speak for the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence or the Catholic Church, but said that “appropriation” was perhaps not the best term to use. She did indicate that, because this “emulation” was of a more powerful group, it was less problematic than other examples of appropriation we might envision.

While I do agree that it is less problematic to appropriate a powerful group than a powerless one, I do not think that the power dynamic excuses the actions of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence.  

An analogy might be helpful: a strong 18-year-old punching a weaker 6-year-old would be in the wrong. If a weak 6-year-old were to punch a stronger 18-year-old, he might cause less damage than when the situation is reversed. Nevertheless, the fact that the 18-year-old is stronger than the 6-year-old does not justify the 6-year-old’s actions.

The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence wear Catholic nun habits and parody sacred religious rituals. They are, by definition, appropriating Catholic culture, unless one stipulates that for an action to qualify as appropriation, the appropriator must be in a less powerful position than the one appropriated. Then, a much longer conversation must be had about how to calculate power dynamics and relative agency. One can argue over whether this appropriation is a bad thing, but, good or bad, it is happening within this organization.

In response, I have heard members and supporters of this organization say that the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence are sometimes supported by Roman Catholic nuns. However, nuns are not official mouthpieces for the Church, and some actually hold opinions contrary to Church doctrine.

The majority of practicing Catholics and Church officials neither appreciate nor approve of this organization’s “emulation” of Catholic vocabulary, imagery and rituals. Archbishop George Niederauer stated, “The manner of dress and public comportment of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence is deeply offensive,” and acknowledged that involvement with the organization is objectionable enough to preclude one from being able to receive Catholic Communion.  

The appropriation of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence crosses a line. Rather than offering a helpful and productive critique of Catholicism, the organization celebrates mean-spirited  sacrilegious mockery of the religion. When a group like this focuses more on insulting Catholicism than on having a constructive dialogue, it loses credibility and detracts from whatever positive impact it could have.