A movie like Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit (1993) can tell you all you need to know about what Hollywood thinks of Catholicism. It is not all bad. It is not all good, either. In fact, the majority of it is enough to make you clutch your Rosary beads just a little tighter in frustration. On my dissertation committee at Loyola University Chicago was the late Bren Ortega Murphy. She wrote about nuns, and in her crosshairs were the Sister Act films. One of her many insights was how female religious were seldom taken seriously in American culture. This has only increased since the so-called “liberation” of the sexual revolution in the 1960s when the easing of bedchamber mores led to sharp declines in women entering the convent. Along with the eugenics inspired contraception pill (look it up), the vocational choices for women seemed to have suddenly opened up to a wide range of possibilities. As such, adhering to traditional structures like those who live as religious sisters comes off as goofy. Only somebody who is prone to the kinds of shenanigans you see in Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit and its predecessors would become a nun. Still, this idea cuts both ways, as I will explain.
Remember Deloris Van Cartier (Whoopi Goldberg) from Sister Act (1992)? In Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit, she is not back in the traditional clothing of a nun, at first. Instead, she is once more headlining at a casino in Las Vegas. During one of her performances, a group of nuns she briefly worked with in the last film come to see her sing. After the show, they are ushered backstage, and Deloris is happy to see them. They have come to ask a favor. Since last we saw them, they have been transferred to work in an inner-city parochial school in San Francisco. They want Deloris to re-assume the mantle of Sister Mary Clarence and teach their music class. Out of a sense of loyalty, if not enthusiasm, Deloris agrees. When she arrives in her new classroom, she finds a group of unruly kids who view it as a “bird class,” one they can fly through without needing to do any work. Sister Mary Clarence is there to put an end to this, despite them gluing her to her desk chair at one point. The kids are not the only problem. Leading the charge to close down St. Francis Academy is diocesan administrator Mr. Crisp (James Coburn). Much to the horror of the school’s principal, Father Maurice (Barnard Hughes), Mr. Crisp believes it will be more profitable to tear it down and build a parking lot. This is an issue for Sister Mary Clarence who believes that the school must spend money on the music program in order for it to work. She has an extra impetus to want to do so when she hears her students sing one day, and is inspired to get them to form a choir. None of the students are interested in this, thinking it is lame, until she takes them to see her fellow nuns perform for a retirement home. Seeing this little concert begins to win them over, except for Rita Watson (Lauryn Hill). Rita loves music, but has a complicated relationship with it because of her mother, Florence (Sheryl Lee Ralph). Florence believes that music is a waste of time, and because of what it did to Rita’s father, her daughter is not going to follow the same path. Rita has talent, though, and it is soon discovered by Sister Mary Clarence. As the choir comes together, Sister Mary Clarence starts seeing it as a possible way of saving the school. Still, there is the lack of funds with which to contend. Nonetheless, when they discover that the school has a history of entering the state choir competition and winning, Sister Mary Clarence gets Father Maurice to let her raise the money to get the kids to Los Angeles for the meet. Rita forges her mother’s signature and goes as well. Another person who objects is Mr. Crisp, who does not want anything to disrupt his plans for St. Francis Academy. They all converge in Los Angeles. Father Maurice’s fellow friars manage to trap Mr. Crisp in a supply closet, clearing the way for Sister Mary Clarence’s students to give their recital. Their song earns them first place, of course. The judges were not the only people on whom they made an impression. In the audience is Florence, who finally sees her daughter’s talent and promptly forgives the dishonesty. More importantly, other diocesan administrators are present. So enthusiastic are they about the triumph that they agree to keep the school open so that they can compete next year and defend their title. Job done for Sister Mary Clarence, and the film ends.
One of the aspects of the climactic moment in Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit that I did not mention is when Mr. Crisp figures out that Sister Mary Clarence is not who she appears to be. Up until this point, whenever he looks at her, he feels there is something recognizable about her. Then he pulls out a magazine featuring a story about Deloris’ music career. The reason I did not mention this is because it does not seem much to affect the plot. For all intents and purposes, Deloris is a nun. She can scratch at the confines of her habit all she wants, but she is basically a nun. A critic of this film (which would be understandable) might look at her behavior and say that she does not act like a member of a female religious order. That sentiment is a stereotype, which Hollywood, of course, relies on far too often when portraying characters about which there is little understanding. This brings me to the silly behavior you see in the film. Most of it is outrageous, and should be readily dismissed for the nonsense that it is. Still, nuns can have fun, just like the friars who also work at St. Francis Academy. Some of it is encouraged, too, for when anyone is too serious all the time it can lead to problems down the road. Out of all this, the most interesting moment is when Sister Mary Patrick (Kathy Najimy) is teaching sex education. I would not blame you for reading that last sentence with a healthy dose of skepticism, but there again I would tell you that you are relying on stereotypes. A Catholic sex education course would, undoubtedly, preach abstinence instead of what you might see in the public system. The stereotype is that Catholics, particularly nuns, are too holy and pure to talk about sex. That simply is not true. It is just that they have a different take on the matter.
There is nothing wrong with watching Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit, although you would probably think the 1990s stuff to be corny. It is, but that is okay. I recommend it because while I do not necessarily like the lampooning of nuns, I see a small part of it as humanizing them. God rest her soul, but Dr. Murphy would probably disagree with me on this count, but that is fine, too. There are definitely worse examples out there of nuns in film.