Tom Langan wanted Catholics to create an effective plan to respond to those who publicly demean or marginalize Catholicism. Photo courtesy of the Catholic Civil Rights League

Standing up where apathy won’t

  • October 31, 2013

Now that the annual costume-and-sugar festival called Halloween has passed, I will comment on what I believe is a new low reached this year in the sale of adult Halloween costumes.

Like many individuals and organizations, I wrote to the retailer Spirit Halloween to question why their management would include sexualized versions of traditional clergy and nun costumes in their inventory. Costumes involving clergy and nuns are not unusual in Halloween stores, but most are presented — and worn — in a spirit of good humour. Some might be tacky, but are rarely offensive.

Two costumes that came out this year, however, are another matter. The first, “Happy Priest,” shows a priest waering a cassock in an obvious state of sexual arousal, while the second, “Thank you Father,” features an obviously pregnant nun.
These costumes are insulting to Catholics and many other religious believers. The store has no similar costumes that mock other religions, reinforcing the impression of an anti-Catholic mentality driving this selection. Not many days go by when we aren’t reminded of the double standard when it comes to the ridicule of Catholicism compared to other religions.

A second incident comes from this year’s Stratford Festival stage production of The Three Musketeers. This is not a critique of the play itself, but only one element of it that I don’t think appeared in the original classic. In one scene, in a convent, an “altar” is set up to celebrate Mass. There is a chalice, a paten containing hosts and, in the middle, a very large monstrance.

At one point, the actress playing Milady de Winter picks up a host from the altar and snacks on it as you would a potato chip. Later, de Winter uncovers the chalice from the “altar,” pouring poison into it and giving it to Constance Bonacieux to drink. This drink poisons her.

As a guest at the play asked in a letter to the Festival’s board of governors: Why include a chalice, an object used by Christians to celebrate the Eucharist? Why the monstrance? Why have a character snacking on a host? Many would find that sacrilegious. The loud gasp from the audience should have suggested something was not right.

In response, the board said the scene was meant to depict evil, not sanction it. While this may well have been the director’s intention — and I’m not suggesting that a stage play equates to the barely adolescent humour of the offensive costumes — surely a depiction less directly focused on the sacrament would have been as effective.

Is it always worthwhile to protest such things? A really loud shout can sometimes backfire by only bringing publicity to a retailer or theatre company. After all, they are quite free to market legal products. On the other hand, inaction and silence fuels the apathy (among Catholics and others) that helps perpetuate such desecrations.

The alert I received about both these incidents coincided almost to the day with the release of An Anthology of Witness, a book of columns by the late Tom Langan, who co-founded the Catholic Civil Rights League and was president or president-emeritus for almost 15 years. In the six years I worked with him I can safely say we never discussed what to do about Halloween costumes. In fact, we rarely discussed tactics, since Tom usually left that to staff members while he ocused on the League’s mission and direction. The challenge he identified most often was apathy in the political and cultural realms.

“Because Canadians are blessed with a peaceful society and strong political institutions, they tend to forget that nothing human persists without constant hard work to keep it on the path,” he wrote in 1998. “There is no sense of urgency about fixing what ain’t broke.”

He believed Catholics needed to exert more effort and craft a more effective response to those who marginalize or demean Catholicism in the public forum. He advocated letter writing and making presentations to official bodies.

Those who have tried it certainly know the frustration of letters ignored or answered by form replies, not to mention the more general sense that successful protests are rare. Nevertheless, even a short e-mail or phone call puts a concern on the record. Making an effort is always the first step to any change.

(McGarry is executive director of the Catholic Civil Rights League of Canada.)

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