Freedom of expression can go too far

By  Dorothy Cummings, Catholic Register Special
  • February 18, 2008

I believe firmly in freedom of speech, but I do draw the line. Incitements to violence and murder are illegal in Canada, and well they should be. Libel, treason and sedition are also illegal. It is also wrong to pass off another’s words as one’s own. Meanwhile, I am not at all interested in freedom to create images — especially pornographic images.

In Boston and New York recently there were storms brewing because an advertising firm named Fallon Worldwide has produced a piece of soft porn on behalf of a health club chain. In this photograph, three young nuns in a large cell stare intently at a naked male model as they draw his image. Another nun stares in through the bars. All the nuns are heavily made up. All the nuns are in full habit. One of the nuns is showing a lot of leg. The advertising firm defends this as “fantasy.”

Five years ago,, an online music company in Canada, put up huge billboards featuring a nun in a low-cut, midriff skimming top. I thought that this was in very poor taste and so, thanks be, did the Canadian Advertising Standards Bureau. For what may be the first time in history, a Canadian firm was told it was not allowed to demean Roman Catholic beliefs, and it had to take down the billboards.

For years I have been complaining that Madison Avenue and Hollywood are decades behind the times. Whenever they show nuns, they show them in full habit, rosaries dangling at their waists. (Susan Sarandon as Sr. Helen Prejean in Dead Man Walking was the welcome exception.) This has not been an everyday sight in any American or Canadian city for 35 years. However, now that young women are embracing both traditional orders and the habit, things are changing. And because the new nuns are so young, so sweet and so pretty, to say nothing of going into dangerous neighbourhoods to live with the poor, we must continue to protest salacious images of nuns.

The sexual culture of North America is sick, as sick as Britney Spears, its fallen high priestess. It is, frankly, rather disgusting. The sex gurus are no longer kindly grandma-doctors but acid-penned, ex-Catholic gay men like the author of “Savage Love” and ex-Catholic strippers like Toronto’s “Sasha.” (One would be hard-put to determine who hates Catholicism more, Savage or Sasha.) The culture is suffused with porn. Men and women are told that in order to be worthy of love, they have to have all the bedroom “talents” of particularly inventive prostitutes. I do not know what G.K. Chesterton would have to say about such an age. Tacitus and Livy would have recognized it.

And because the culture is sick, advertisers can photograph lascivious and libelous scenes of young women religious and bleat about “fantasy” as if fantasies about young nuns weren’t shocking and disgusting. My heart hammers in my chest for fear of what could happen if one of the sweet new nuns came across a man who, stoked by “high art” advertisements, had developed sexual fantasies about nuns.

I never became a nun because the changes to religious life left me completely cold. However, after it began to look like women’s religious life was dying out, here comes the next generation: young, pretty, traditional, in habits. We’re used to nuns as grandmotherly sweethearts or tough old dames working on their doctorates. But now it is time to see nuns as little sisters or daughters, and they deserve our protection.

(Cummings is a freelance writer in Toronto.)

Please support The Catholic Register

Unlike many media companies, The Catholic Register has never charged readers for access to the news and information on our website. We want to keep our award-winning journalism as widely available as possible. But we need your help.

For more than 125 years, The Register has been a trusted source of faith-based journalism. By making even a small donation you help ensure our future as an important voice in the Catholic Church. If you support the mission of Catholic journalism, please donate today. Thank you.