Sister Theresa Aletheia Noble recently asked the faithful to please stop fixating on whether religious sisters are habited or not, remarking that such an approach objectifies women. She writes,
I cannot tell you how many times I have been pulled aside only to hear, “I am so glad you wear the habit Sister,” and then in a low whisper, “and not those ugly polyester pantsuits.”
She goes on to remind us, “Our vows and how we live them make us religious, not our clothes.”
Agreed. 100% percent agreed.
I have to say that, although it’s certainly a more pressing issue for women because there’s far more history of masculine objectification of women, this isn’t only a women religious problem (and here I would slightly disagree with her, but again, male perspective alert!). As a priest, I’m constantly bombarded with questions about what I’m wearing. For instance, the fact that “Father doesn’t wear socks” is a source of constant amusement to the schoolchildren.
Adults, too, take great interest in what I wear and are open and free with questions and commentary. I kid you not, after six months in my current parish assignment I still answer a question about my biretta at least once a week. These questions from parishioners are genuinely curious and I’m delighted to explain, especially since the vast majority of them express their appreciation for the biretta once they understand its spiritual meaning. There’s also the matter of the Roman chasuble, which people aren’t very familiar with, and they wonder why mine look so different. Adults, too, want to know about the lack of socks. And of course, if children want to compare me to Harry Potter because of my hat and giggle because I don’t wear socks, I actually kind of like it. First, because I’m not a monster unable to laugh and have fun with kids. Second, because if they’re noticing a priest’s clothing and talking about it, that really is a good thing and a genuine teaching moment.
Priests are meant to be a sign of contradiction, and this extends even to the clothing we wear. In this sense, I really don’t mind people making comments about my clothing. Sometimes, though, the questions aren’t so benign. Strangely enough, the interrogatories that fall in this more sinister category don’t often come from parishioners, but from seminarians and fellow priests. They tend to be either a knowing comment about how it’s such a relief to see a “serious” priest wearing a cassock, or it’s a double-take followed by a joke laced with hidden disapproval. As someone who doesn’t wear a cassock, etc. for ideological reasons, these reactions are head-scratching. That is to say, I’m not wearing a cassock because I’m a rigid clericalist or because I yearn for a pre-Vatican II paradise (It may or may not have been paradise, the point is, though, I wasn’t alive at the time and wouldn’t have any idea). I don’t have anything at all against priests who wear different clerical attire and am not trying to prove anything.
It’s interesting, though, that there’s something about the cassock (and apparently, the habit) that loosens tongues and elicits opinions of all types. I suppose it’s because these items of clothing are loaded with symbolic meaning but we don’t always quite know how to interpret that meaning. All we know is that a priest in a cassock is a sign of contradiction, a semi-public figure who stands out in any environment in which he happens to find himself. These associations have been hard-earned by generations of faithful priests, meaning that much of the reaction I receive when I wear a cassock has already been gained for me by others. In others words, I personally have very little to do with it. I’m a stand-in for a much larger concept.
This can sting sometimes, because it means I get pulled into debates against my will. The choice of a priest to put on a cassock or not is not the same as that of a man to put on this t-shirt or that t-shirt. People assume facts about my personality that are not true based on how I dress. They also feel quite free to discuss the way I dress, which, if I’m tired, I might not react to very well (the comments about how my lace surplice looks like grandma’s drapes wasn’t even funny the first time, let alone the 50th). No one wants to be objectified.
Here’s the heart of the matter, though. Maybe, as far as being a priest goes – I should be objectified? I know that my heart is gray at best, certainly not a saintly pure white, but to make up for what I lack the Church has provided an efficacious symbol to complete the iconography of a priest. I say “efficacious” because in my experience this is true – I am asked to pray for and bless far more random strangers when wearing a cassock than when I’m not (and this “not” includes times when I’m wearing a white collar and black suit). My heart could theoretically be bursting to full with the love of God and the anointing of the Holy Spirit, but if that inner reality isn’t communicated somehow publicly then I as a priest have failed in one of my main vocational tasks, which is to exercise a prophetic ministry.
I don’t quite know how to draw the line between the clothes and the sacramental reality, but there is a real sense in which the exterior must communicate the interior. There’s a valid connection to be made between the two, and it won’t do to simply plead that priesthood is all a matter of the heart. After all, Yahweh was quite clear with his priests in his instructions on how to dress, indicating that it really does matter that there’s a visible separation from secular work. In fact, in the logic of sacramentality more or less demands that the exterior function as a sign of the interior.
Personally, I would like to blend in more and discuss my clothing less, especially because the readiness with which people comment on my clothing does leave me feeling somewhat objectified, even if that’s not the intention. But on the other hand, isn’t this simply one small way in which a priest might take up a cross and carry it? To be a somewhat public figure on display for the sake of the gospel? Even a quick trip to the grocery store to pick up milk might end up in a ministry moment (or a snide comment). And if the faithful or even other priests want to talk about it, I can handle that, too.
Seriously, though, let’s all give our women religious a break. My advice (thanks for asking) is that, if we choose to comment on the clothing of religious or ordained ministers, we simply thank them for their service to the Church and tell them that their chosen attire looks really great.