The Catholic Thing
Oprah and the Dominicans Print E-mail
By Joan Frawley Desmond   
Thursday, 11 February 2010

Oprah Winfrey recently lined up a series on alternative communities and wanted Catholic nuns to be a part of the mix. Sounds easy enough, when you consider that Oprah can get almost anybody to talk about almost anything on her highly-rated show. But when her producers called around, they got the cold shoulder. Most nuns were too busy to schedule their fifteen minutes of fame. And the voice answering the phone at one California convent responded to the invitation of a lifetime with some perplexity: “Who’s Oprah?”

Then, a breakthrough: the fast-growing Ann Arbor, Michigan, Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist (median age twenty-six, with approximately 100 members) decided to accept Oprah’s invitation. This week, her fans were treated to an appearance by several nuns clad in full habit. Another contingent participated via video conferencing, and correspondent Lisa Ling narrated footage from her exclusive tour and overnight at the convent.

The feature offered deeply compelling insights into contemporary religious life. How often do talking heads on television speak of their spiritual hunger for ultimate things? But what followed was just as much a window into the preoccupations and pastimes of the show’s host and, it was suggested, her television audience.

A wide-eyed Oprah peppered the sisters with questions about their religious calling, previous work, and dating history. The coverage of life within the cloister featured the sisters kneeling in prayer, individual “cells” with bare-bones furniture, and a spirited game of indoor field hockey.

But even more airtime was devoted to repeated questions about the difficulty of signing on to religious vows. Did the sisters no longer indulge in bouts of retail therapy at Target? Did they occasionally experience “sexual urges?” Oprah was hard put to decide which was more challenging: the vow of poverty or chastity.

A voluntary decision to cut off access to designer clothes, jewelry, makeup, iPods, and sex? The mind boggled.

So one sister tried to explain that her religious vows weren’t very different from marriage vows. Wives generally remain faithful to their husbands and the family budget precisely because they understood that a breach harms them as well as their spouses. Oprah, a single woman and outsized celebrity, who often appears to inhabit a realm far beyond such mundane concerns, gulped and nodded.

The talk-show host became more animated on the subject of religious apparel. She got the Real Simple Appeal of the nuns’ identical outfits. She loved the notion that their habits symbolized a kind of wedding dress for their marriage to Christ. She envied their “sensible shoes.” At one point, she lifted her metallic stiletto heel in the air, bemoaning the pain stylish women daily endured for the sake of turning heads.

But the specter of sexual repression and its distorting effects on the human psyche clearly haunted Oprah, prompting her to raise the matter repeatedly with her polite and gentle visitors. She didn’t seem daunted by a life without marriage and childrenat least she didn’t raise the issues during her studio interviews. The absence of sex and boyfriends, though, truly worried her: How did the sisters maintain their emotional and mental stability while living celibate lives?

Flashing a beatific smile, one sister explained that her sexuality was integrated into her relationship with Christ, who is “incarnate love” after all. Given that fact, another sister confided shyly, “When there is a problem in the relationship you know it has to be you.”

That got a good laugh and scattered applause, but Oprah still looked unconvinced. So a young Dominican explained that while the sisters were quite human, the decision to foreswear men was no more likely to provoke insanity that a vow to limit one’s consumption of chocolate. Oprah, whose on-going battles against weight gain regularly make tabloid headlines, nodded sympathetically.

The show raised more questions than it answered about Oprah’s true impact on her vast television audience. A passionate reader and self-styled literary critic whose imprimatur assures the commercial success of any book she recommends, she couldn’t be entirely ignorant of religious lifeeven if traditional orders have moved towards the periphery of mainstream culture, such as it is.

Yet her practiced interrogation, though clearly well-intentioned, revealed only the remotest understanding of traditional religious life. The persistent questions about sex began to appear crass and myopic. Were they prompted by her own skepticism, or merely designed to mirror the audience’s eye-rolling reaction?

The show made you wonder whether Oprah’s influence hinges on her role as a widely touted spiritual touchstone for American women, or merely a kind of facilitator, whose success depends on an adroit balancing act between a bland mainstream ethos and exotic cultural developments. “The High School Quarterback Who Became a Lesbian” was featured on one recent show.

By contrast, correspondent Lisa Ling revealed a ready appreciation for the special gifts and serene lives of these women. She described the Dominicans as among the “kindest” people she had ever met. And contrary to the stereotype of traditional religious life as overly strict, Ling suggested that the sisters were blessedly “liberated” from the static generated by a consumerist, sex-saturated culture.

Oprah, for her part, vigorously agreed with a senior Dominican who regretted the impact of materialism and secularism on American culture and family life. But when confronted with a deeply countercultural response to such woes, she maintained an arm’s-length distance that suggested the nuns might well have come from Mars, not Michigan.

At the end of the episode, Oprah thanked the Dominicans for accepting her invitation. The sisters smiled graciouslysilently praying, no doubt, that the Holy Spirit would complete their day’s work.

Joan Frawley Desmond is a Maryland-based Catholic journalist; she blogs at The Cathoholic. A graduate of the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and the Family, she leads Theology of the Body study groups.

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Comments (12)Add Comment
Spirit v. Flesh
written by William H. Phelan, February 12, 2010
Thank you for bringing this incident to our attention. I cannot decide which nuns I support in this, the nuns who declined "the invitation of a lifetime" (? I have never seen her show) or the nuns who accepted. I have had a hard enough time over the last forty years explaining Catholicism to "Catholics", without even considering explaining it to one of the wealthiest women in the world. She might as well have had Amish or Mennonite women on the show. She would not understand them either.
"A Way of Seeing";
written by Ars Artium, February 12, 2010
This is yet another example of what former Harvard Professor James Kugel called the loss of "a way of seeing." A great gulf between believers and materialists has been created; it is almost impassible even for people of great good will.
Do not be yoked...
written by Joseph, February 12, 2010
Not the nuns fault that they got roped into the Oprah snake pit, which has included the likes of rapists, porn queens, and other lowlifes. This is a woman with a vast influence on American mores who is the epitome of multiculturalism, pluralism, diversity and political correctness, acting as the chief arbiter of good taste in all manner of things, literature and right and wrong. As one of the sisters said, "Who's Oprah?" Exactly. As a neo-pagan, she has zero cred in the ranks of believers.
the nuns\' gift to Oprah
written by Laura, February 12, 2010
After the show, the nuns gave Oprah a rosary. Her comment was to thank them and say, "no one ever gives me anything." She also asked them how to use it. (This was relayed through my nephew who attends one of these sisters' schools in Ave Maria, FL -- his teacher told him.) May God be praised!
Great piece!
written by Wil, February 12, 2010
I really enjoyed this one... wish I'd seen the episode. It's good to see the cloistered life getting some air time!
the Rich Saints
written by debby, February 12, 2010
gave up TV 17 yrs ago this Lent, so i missed the show. a friend taped it-i will see it later.
1 ? to all those who criticize these wonderful, joyful sisters: ever hear of conversions? even the rich CAN BE SAVED! how about praying something Traditional, a Rosary, the Fatima Ejaculation, the Mercy Chaplet for the graces that our Lord chose to bestow on Oprah & viewers to take root? why ALWAYS doubt what God can do with common DIRT? afterall, where do you come from? He can do ANYTHING!
written by Paul, February 12, 2010
I am not really certain why the author of this article is critical of Oprah? Nor do I see why the commentators are critical? She is not a believer. Nor, does she claim to be. I thought the show was great because it showed exactly why "faithful" religious orders are so important: there very existence draws a responce from people. They makes us halt in our daily routines and question our opinions, our habits, our very existence. Which is my impression of what was happening during the show.
Nuns in public
written by Susie Lovato, February 12, 2010
thank you for the article I missed it, but heard about. I am so glad for nuns to be in public and show the truth about religious life. With 5 daughters I am always seeking ways for their exposure to the beauty of religious life. It is hard these days. Perhaps this show is an insight to Oprah's own search for the divine, but just a baby step. I always have hope for each person's soul.
Beautiful Nuns
written by Marie-Therese, February 12, 2010
I did watch the show and was amazed at how the sisters were not intimidated by the cameras nor by the questions- even those awkward questions that you mention in the article. On the contrary, they answered all the questions so convincingly and with such joy! They were beaming with excitement for Christ and for their vocation. God can work through anyone: Persian King Cyrus or Queen of TV Oprah! Millions watched and seeds were planted. Praise God! Thank you for this insightful article!
Dominican Sisters
written by Judy, February 12, 2010
The Dominican Sisters on Oprah were so refreshing. There is so much garbage on television that it was beautiful to see women who are living a life that has meaning and it is possible to live without stylish clothes and shoes, remain celibate because they are living out their vows to religious life and love for Christ and they are HAPPY. It was clear that Oprah was very puzzled. It showed on her face.
an \"arranged\" date?
written by patricia, February 13, 2010
it would seem that Someone, or His Mother, arranged that all other sisters asked to participate by Oprah's show would say no thank you! Thanks be to God (?) these lovely sisters made themselves available to be visited.
...entire episode here...
written by Tito Edwards, February 13, 2010
Great article!

For those who are fortunate enough to not watch television or having missed the Oprah show, I have the entire nuns episode on my website, The American Catholic.

[Ed.'s note: Thanks, Mr. Edwards. The link is now embedded at the end of the column's second paragraph. -Brad Miner]

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