Oprah and the Dominicans

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 children—at 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 life—even 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 graciously—silently 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.