Editorial cartoon isn’t funny to many Catholics

An editorial cartoon that critics contend portrays religious sisters who teach in schools as violent and uncompassionate has caused intense reaction from Catholics in the archdiocese. The Boston Globe estimates that over 100 people contacted them to protest the cartoon that appeared March 1.

The cartoon causing the stir was drawn by syndicated cartoonist Pat Oliphant and depicts a tall nun holding a ruler and looming over a bloody and beaten young Mel Gibson. A light bulb appears above his head, and the cartoon caption reads, “In his early school days, little Mel Gibson gets beaten to a bloody pulp by Sister Dolorosa Excruciata of the Little Sisters of the Holy Agony, and an idea is born.” Some have complained that Gibson’s movie, “The Passion of the Christ,” is excessively gory.

Sister Marian Batho, CSJ, archdiocesan Delegate for the Religious, was appalled by the cartoon and its stereotypical portrayal of women religious. She said that she has heard from many other sisters who are “positively outraged” by the depiction. Dozens have called and written to the Globe, and some have even canceled their subscriptions, she said.

"The cartoon is tasteless and really a very inaccurate portrayal of religious women," stated Sister Marian. "Whoever put it in the paper really is not in touch, doesn't know, isn't familiar with, the work and the lifestyle of religious women or of what religious women have done in terms of education social services and healthcare delivery."

She feels that the cartoon plays on hackneyed perception that women religious, who have historically played a pivotal role in Catholic education, physically discipline their pupils. “The negative experiences of a few have been taken as the norm,” she explained. “The portrayal of beating a child just doesn’t go with what is the reality of religious life and ministry in religious life.”

The cartoon even merited a public comment by Archbishop Seán O’Malley. Speaking at a Catholic Schools Foundation fundraiser March 4, the archbishop addressed the hurt caused to many sisters in the archdiocese who have selflessly dedicated their lives to the education of young people.

"I know you are all as offended as I am by the cartoon ... because we all know that if it weren't for the Catholic sisters there wouldn't be a Catholic school system," he told those in attendance.

President of the Sisters of St. Joseph, Sister Joan Duffy, CSJ, wrote a letter to the editor of the Globe on behalf of their congregation. She wrote that Oliphant’s work “demeans and does a disservice to the positive and life-giving contribution of thousands of women religious.”

The Sisters of St. Joseph, the largest congregation of women religious in the archdiocese, have run schools and taught thousands of children in their 130 years in the archdiocese.

Sister Mary Ellen O’Connell, CSJ, co-chair of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), which represents over 1,200 women religious in the Greater Boston area, also wrote to the Globe decrying the publication of the cartoon. It “perpetuates a stereotype of religious women that is vicious, divisive and inaccurate,” Sister Mary Ellen, who plans to personally contact Oliphant, said in her letter on behalf of LCWR.

The Boston Globe’s ombudsman, Christine Chinlund, reacted to criticisms like these on March 5. Chinlund stated that the Globe editors knew the cartoon was “edgy” but did not view it as hurtful or “offensive.”

"We are concerned pthat a fair number of readers were disturbed or offended by the cartoon," editorial page editor Renee Loth said in the ombudsman's column. "We never intended to insult Catholics or nuns or even Mel Gibson by running what we saw as a comic take on a cultural subject prominently in the news."

"We underestimated people's sensitivities to what appeared to us a broadly satiric commentary," Loth continued. "I regret that."

Chinlund goes on to state that “stinging commentary and sharp satire are essential to any editorial page.”

"Some of that material is bound to offend and spark complaints. That's OK," she continued. "But any time lampooning involves religion (or a handful of other particularly tender topics), the commentary's message should be crystal clear and worthy. In this cartoon, it wasn't."