I and a friend attended a Sunday, Jan 13, 2013 premier showing of the new documentary film about liberal religious sisters, Band of Sisters at Sinsinawa Mound, the motherhouse of the Sinsinawa Dominican Sisters.
The film centers on some liberal women religious who are former heads of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, NETWORK progressive political lobby, and some of their friends. Featured in the film: Reiki, “women’s ordination”, animals, plants, rocks and air have rights from the same source as humans have rights and one species shouldn’t be privileged over others, “the whole earth is a manifestation of God”, and the Sisters’ new cosmology apparently doesn’t have a heaven and hell anymore. Jesus is hardly mentioned. The film also shows one or two of their ministries that seem good. But so many of the beliefs highlighted aren’t those of the Catholic Church, and some of the Sisters in the film are key dissident figures, like Sr Theresa Kane in regards to “women’s ordination” and Sr Jeannine Grammick in regards to homosexual behavior. There’s no narration but it does present a certain angle on the story of American women religious and obviously a heavy concentration on some in leadership roles who hold dissenting views.
Although there wasn’t actually a standing ovation, the film was warmly praised by other attendees. I heard Sinsinawa Dominicans say: “I wonder if she went in the Academy Awards for best documentary!” “I saw so many people I knew, it’s like a reunion!” “The film was true to my lived experience. We’ve been part of something growing like yeast, we’ve been on a trajectory. You [filmmaker Mary Fishman] did it the best I’ve ever seen.” In talking with several Sinsinawa Dominican Sisters after the showing, I was sad not to find one who believed, for instance, the infallible Catholic teaching that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women. They were nice to me, they were hospitable, they seemed rather sweet, and I would have been consoled to get to know one who supported Catholic doctrine completely. Sisters whom I and my friend spoke with also seem to believe and highly value Vatican II about “follow your conscience” but disbelieve Vatican II about us being gravely obliged to form our Catholic conscience in keeping with the Church’s teaching (Dignitatis Humanae).
This is a long post thrown together late at night full of raw information of what I heard, and I apologize that it’s not a neat edited presentation. I am going to tell you much more about the film and my conversations with Sinsinawa Dominicans (scroll down if you want to go right to that), but first some background on Band of Sisters.
According to the website of this new documentary film:
Band of Sisters tells the story of Catholic nuns and their work for social justice after Vatican II of the 1960s. For Catholics who wonder what became of the nuns they knew in habits and convents many years ago, for activists who may feel profoundly discouraged given the problems of today’s world, for women seeking equality in their church, and for people of all faiths yearning for an inclusive and contemplative spirituality, Band of Sisters challenges us to ask what really matters in life. And as we seek what matters, how do we go about changing our lives and the world around us?
So, it has a lot to do with Sisters as liberal change-agents. The filmmaker is Mary Fishman of Chicago, a lay associate of the Sisters of Mercy who realized when she started filming in 2007, “2 years before the Apostolic Visitation and the LCWR investigation were announced, the conflict between U.S. women religious and the church hierarchy (over the role of women in the church, the rights and intrinsic goodness of gay and lesbian persons, the primacy of one’s conscience in making moral decisions, etc.) was a situation I was well aware of and wanted to address somehow in the film.” However she says she mainly wanted it to be about how religious life changed after Vatican II. Here’s the trailer, which alludes to the role of the Civil Rights Era in this change of focus for some religious communities:
There are a variety of things to notice here. What I most want to point out is the Sister who says “I did exactly what the Church told me to do.” She’s a key figure both onscreen and in the making of the film: Sister Nancy Sylvester, IHM, who is involved with the notorious dissident group “Call to Action“, and also a past president of the powerful Leadership Conference of Women Religious, of which the Sinsinawa Dominicans are a member order, and also former National Director of NETWORK Lobby, the progressive political group that did the Nuns on the Bus tour (which also by the way stopped at Sinsinawa Mound) and that was singled out by the Congregegation for the Doctrine of the Faith as a problematic group that LCWR was required to dissociate itself from (many of the Sisters in the film are associated with NETWORK). A Catholic World Report article titled “Post-Christian Sisters” says:
In her presidential address [to the LCWR], Sister Nancy Sylvester talked about LCWR’s “tension and conflict” with the Vatican, stating, “We believe in the power to change unjust structures and laws. We respect loyal dissent.” She continued that the sisters had been “disappointed, frustrated, angered, and deeply saddened by official responses that seem authoritarian, punitive, disrespectful of our legitimate authority as elected leaders, and disrespectful of our capacity to be moral agents.” She then presented what she called a “casualty list” sustained from dealings with Church officials. That list of injuries included: sisters who had signed the New York Times 1984 abortion statement; the 1995 Vatican letter on the ordination of women; theologians and scholars who had been silenced by the Church; the canonical approval of the alternate superiors’ conference; and the CDF discipline of Sister Jeannine Gramick. In conclusion, Sister Nancy observed: “I do believe that we are at an impasse with the official church that we love,” and she speculated about whether the Vatican would de-legitimize the LCWR.
Another Sister in the film is Theresa Kane, another LCWR past president who most famously confronted Pope John Paul to his face with a call for women to be ordained (something the Church definitively has absolutely no authority to do)–and still feels the same way. Another is Sr Carol Coston, founder of NETWORK, who, together with Kane, signed “NCAN” dissident sisters’ group’s letter protesting canonical censure for notorious and later involuntarily laicized “women’s ordination” activist Fr Roy Bourgeois. Another is Sr Margaret Brennan, another former LCWR president and very dissident theologian who has also advocated for “women priests“. Appearing briefly in the film (at least the part I saw) in convivial conversation with Sr Nancy Sylvester and a couple of the film’s other featured Sisters, is Sr Jeannine Grammick, an intransigent supporter of homosexual behavior, who has continued to disobey the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith which prohibited her from ministering to same sex attracted individuals. You get the idea, this is a troubled bunch.
At any rate, the Sinsinawa Dominican Sisters announced that their motherhouse, Sinsinawa Mound, would be one of the sites of the premier through all their channels of communication, including their website, facebook, and twitter. Although I have seen them announce many of their events in the Madison Catholic Herald diocesan newspaper, news of the movie showing doesn’t appear there, either because it wasn’t submitted or because it wasn’t welcome–though the Jan 10 issue does include a lengthy and lovely story (not available online) in a “Vocations” theme section, about a local young woman who joined the habit wearing, joyful, thriving (nay, BOOMING with vocations), faithful Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist of Ann Arbor, MI. And there’s a prominent article about a Jan 19th showing of the pro-life feature film “October Baby”, in Verona.
Anyway, I and my friend, “K”, got there a bit late, apparently missing some historical background from the filmmaker and the beginning of the film, but I think we saw most of it.
- Genesis Farm was the first “ecological farm” founded by Sisters. An important figure in Genesis Farm’s philosophy is Thomas Berry (at this link to the farm’s website, he advocates that every component of the earth has rights) who says some things in the film that Catholics may find unusual, such as “none of the religions have shown a responsibility to the fate of the earth.”
- Santuario Sisterfarm in Boerne, TX cultivates biodiversity and human diversity, and advocates living in a way that is protective, appreciative and fair to all the creatures.
- One of the stories of Sisters’ ministry that the film follows is Sisters who want to minister in a prison (they also “give blessings”?) and face barriers to getting in, and feel looked down upon and scorned. A legislator assures them that a new IL law requires that they be allowed access. In a later segment, the Sisters have been ministering to men and women at the prison for 2 years and a sheriff explained that the issue was trust, the prison administrators didn’t have that trust before, and now they do. An inmate shared his insight their care helped him with, that all people are his brothers and sisters including other inmates and also the guards and he should treat them as such.
- A Sister explains that for modern Sisters like her (many not only have a paying secular job but live independently in secular housing), religious poverty works like this: we give all our money/paycheck to the congregation, then make a personal budget, and the congregation gives that amount back to us.
- The deaths of 4 Catholic nuns (and 6 Jesuits) in El Salvador motivated a lot of Sisters to get involved with demonstrations for the first time, which had a profound effect. This apparently became the School of the Americas Watch demonstration (this was founded by Fr Roy Bourgeois, not mentioned in the film though I wonder if he is in some of the old footage they show, who last year was involuntarily laicized for his “womenpriests” activism) against the school they hold responsible because the perpetrators of these war crimes received training there (though one must admit they themselves and not the school or US Military decided to kill innocent religious). A Sister recounts her decision to get arrested and her solidarity in that moment with a surviving family member of one of the El Salvador victims.
- We are introduced to a Milwaukee center called CORE/El Centro that serves poor and non-poor people with exercise and alternative health services. These include accupuncture (which a Hispanic woman client tells us was used to treat her diabetes), massage, Reiki (which the US Bishops have said “is not compatible with either Christian teaching or scientific evidence”), energy work (same problems as Reiki, in fact arguably accupuncture has similar problems if you buy into the spiritual beliefs behind it), and holistic exercise.
- Vatican II stated a universal call to Holiness. For a Sister in the film, this means no way of life is higher or better than another, and “opened the Church to the laity.” Some Sisters were upset, thinking, isn’t this way of life holier? Shock followed–”we had all these people leaving.” There was literally an exodus, they saw they could continue to serve the Gospel in other ways than the religious life, the celibate life.
- We are introduced to a former sister who tells us: “I was active in the women’s ordination movement. I saw the consequences and impact of my activism and decided conflict in myself was not abating, so I sought dispensation from the Sisters of Mercy… most painful decision of my life, but the most honest way to go.” (yes) Now she directs a ministry program for laity, at a college.
- Sr Margaret Brennan, as a Major Superior, interviewed 300 who left.
- Some kind of a70s era protest march singing: “We are a gentle angry people…”
- Pope John Paul II came to the US and Sr Theresa Kane, president of the LCWR, is shown in a generous amount of archive footage of her famous act of defiance, speaking up to the Pope that the Church “must…include women in all ministries of the Church” (her full remarks at this link).
- Sr Jeannine Grammick, the famously intransigent supporter of homosexual behavior , appears in a scene of Sisters quite excitedly reminiscing about that famous moment, Sr Nancy Sylvester participates animatedly, also Sr Christine Schenck the head of the dissident change-the church organization FutureChurch, together with of course Sr Theresa Kane. (I think this scene perhaps takes the cake) “LCWR inspired us”
- We are told that most American nuns see the Vatican as conservative and hardline and don’t expect changes for years.
- Sr Teresa Kane talks about forming the LCWR. The Pope and bishops asked for LCWR to be founded, “but now we think they don’t want it.”
- We are told not to worry about not having new vocations, religious life was never that big.
- Sr Yolanda Tolango talks about the Apostolic Visitation of “active” women religious in the US, and meeting with the visitator. The way the questions of the questionnaire were asked assumed a different lifestyle than what they live, “questions we couldn’t relate to” therefore some questions went unanswered.
- Sr Lillian Murphy says of the visitation, “we don’t think it is necessary. We were asked to pay for it, we can’t see the results, the report–would you buy that project? They did not respect the history of religious in our country.” And, “as to where it’s going, I don’t think anyone has a clue; frankly I don’t really care.”
- A scene of prayer/protest against deportations of (illegal) immigrants outside a deportation center, with people praying the rosary. A sister is having a confrontation with the police. The Sisters’ perseverence eventually paid off, “now we are permitted inside Broadview. There are so few families present compared with people being deported (ie, most do not have family on hand on their deportation day to support them because of distance or other factors). We are there for all those who don’t have anyone there to support them. We give information on who will meet them, a group in Juarez, Mexico…. When people hear that we are actually in the deportation center on the day of deportation and families can bring bags and we can go on the buses on the way to the airport, people can’t believe that.” (my friend and I both liked this, I’d say this was what I actually kinda liked in the film)
- Following scenes of Santuario Sisterfarm and stuff from Thomas Berry about everything, all life forms, being descended from the same source and bonded in a single community of life, Sr Nancy Sylvester appears to express a pantheistic/panentheistic belief: “the universe itself is a manifestation of God.” The language for that in different religions is different, because “we didn’t know then what we know today.” (I would call this post-Christian)
- Sr Patricia Siemen says “difficulty comes when we privilege one species over others, and diminish others. The Church has a stewardship model, I teach my students a partnership model.” She runs something called the Center for Earth Jurisprudence. “We need to recognize they have the same right to exist that we have, their right came from the same source as ours…. We need to expand our concept of justice, justice toward the planet.”
- Sr Margaret Galiardi (of The Spiritual Life Center, a “non denominational” peace/justice/earth center) says our role as Christians and humans is to reconnect and realize not only we but all institutions built on the false premise we are separate from earth.
- Sr Nancy Sylvester says “social justice to me is becoming more about living together with differences. Everyone has a right, including the other species, to come to their full potential.” These (decidedly novel) ideas “only came out when we had the freedom to explore these things.”
- Sister Nancy Sylvester today leads the Center for Communal Contemplation, which has a big theme of “engaging impasse”. Their program is kind of hard to explain but they have these intense group processes geared toward, well, liberal change-making. (my friend was particularly bothered by these scenes and interpreted the intimate “communal contemplation” process as psychologically manipulative) “To change consciousness is the next stage of systemic change.”
- “The Gospel needs to be interpreted in this new way.” The cleansing of the temple, for instance: Jesus was really annoyed with the moneychangers. What does “my Father’s house” refer to in context? The temple. “The universe opens up these texts, coming to deeper understanding, interpreting it with a wider lens.”
- Sr Nancy says, “it is a cosmology that doesn’t have a heaven and a hell, not a three level universe anymore.” (I can hardly believe she said that)
- There is a protest chant addressed to President Obama to stop the deportations.
- “Religious life is a great thing, but not supposed to be big, not thousands. We’re the reminder there is something else we are in this for.”
- At Santuario Sisterfarm it is stated “we’re not trying to be another church.”
- Sr Nancy says we need reintegration of contemplation with our action.
I can only be honest, the sum of the movie does seem to express some different religion than the Catholic faith I know and that the Catechism describes.
One of the elderly Sisters in front of us told another, “I wonder if she went in the Academy Awards for best documentary!” I watched the face of the one Sister I noticed who was honestly wearing a habit, as she got up and left, and there was not happiness on that face. It was attended by a hundreds, mostly Sinsinawa Dominican Sisters. I’m 34 and I did not notice anyone else around my age or younger. My friend “K” thought the average age might be about 60.
After the film there was a Q&A with the filmmaker, Mary Fishman. I messed up and forgot my camera at home, but dear “K” got cellphone pictures, here the Sister with the mic approaches her so she can ask a question:
The questions were not too probing. The first one was, where are the two farms in the film–they are in New Jersey (Genesis) and Boerne, TX (Santuario). That sister in front of us asked next, “Have you been nominated for an Academy Award?” I think the answer was no.
Next, “K” got to ask a question. She liked the work with the immigrants, and some of the mysticism. But she didn’t hear Jesus Christ mentioned. At this point I started clapping so much she got annoyed with me, I was hoping someone else would clap for love of Jesus, but no one did, and when I stopped, “K” continued, wondering why Scripture was not used more to unify.
Mary Fishman said, “I think that’s what the film is all about”, and pointed out the themes of social justice, etc as being actually about Jesus (later I think someone pointed out the mention of Jesus in the context of the scene of turning over the tables of the moneychangers. so there’s at least one, though it came immediately before Sr Nancy Sylvester let us know that in this new belief system they’re talking about, there’s no heaven or hell, so I am not clear on how Our Savior actually fits in). Mary didn’t attempt the second question.
The next question was actually a comment that I didn’t catch in full, “I really appreciated that you told the story of the Sisters by laying out the issues…” I can’t tell who said my next note, I think it was Mary, something about some elderly sisters are, if I heard correctly, “bloomers”, as they became free, Sisters had progression of life in the world.
A dear old Sister said happily “I saw so many people I knew, it’s like a reunion!” Another (or the same? my notes are far from perfect) said “The film was true to my lived experience. We’ve been part of something growing like yeast, we’ve been on a trajectory. You did it the best I’ve ever seen.” The next one I didn’t understand well, the speaker apologized for her imperfect English “I’m from Mexico but when I see the differences religious life is much different picture of what it means to be a Sister. I think Jesus is the identity of the Sisters.” This last part was responding to “K”‘s comment and supporting Mary Fishman’s answer.
A man commented “For us Dubuquers this was a wonderful complement to the Sisters in America museum exhibit.” This must refer to a traveling exhibit that was at the National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium, in 2011.
I had my hand up and Sister brought me the microphone. I stood and said: “I am interested in why you chose to include in the film so many Sisters who dissent against the Church on various Catholic beliefs. For instance in particular I think of Sr Theresa Kane who we saw so famously supports “women’s ordination” though of course the Church has absolutely no authority to confer priestly ordination on women, and Sr Jeannine Grammick the well known supporter of homosexual behavior. And I’d like to know if all the Sisters in the film agree with their views. Thank you.”
“It takes a lot of of courage to ask that question,” said Mary Fishman. She didn’t ask the Sisters whether they all agreed with Sr Teresa and Sr Jeannine, she says. Theresa Kane and Jeannine Grammick speak to a lot of people. Also, the film is about Sisters over the last 50 years. And, some laity also have similar feelings. Vatican II said we need to listen to conscience. At times the Church doctrine has evolved. I don’t want to seem to tell people what to think, said Mary–we tried to edit in a way people can draw their own conclusions.
That was the last question, and after that some Sisters came up, not really to me, but to “K” and one Sister asked her what order she belonged to. And there ensued a very confused conversation. In hindsight it was really funny. In a big room full of Sisters in secular clothes, a lay woman looks like a Sister.
I had a series of conversations with very nice Sinsinawa Dominicans, asking each whether she believed in “women’s ordination”. Indeed all whom I spoke with thought it was possible. There was every appearance of pretty homogenous support for the content of the film. It did cross “K’s” mind and mine: how could someone get by and thrive in a community like this if they believed fully faithfully as the Church teaches? Both “K” and I had separate conversations in which a Sister told us, in response to our pointing to moral and doctrinal beliefs, Vatican II says we have to follow our conscience. I pointed out it also says we are gravely obliged to form our conscience in keeping with the Church, and that’s what Bishop Morlino has told us too. There was more to the conversations but I hardly remember and I am tired, and at any rate they were private conversations, and not really edifying ones. This post is long and perhaps overly-thorough, but that is the best I can do at the moment.
I believe public showings of this film do not belong in Catholic venues. I feel like this is the kind of material that a bishop should consider saying something if this film is scheduled for a Catholic venue in his diocese. I don’t have a sense of how broad an appeal it would have to non Catholic audiences other than new-agers. It’s a kind of insider tour of dissent, not by using the very biggest-name liberal Sisters like Joan Chittister or Sr Simone Campbell who you already know your opinion of, but other figures who’ve filled precisely the same leadership roles and hold similar views. It won’t tell you everything you need to know to understand who you’re seeing and what they’re up to, but what it does do is give a sufficiently informed viewer a rather eye opening portrait, crafted with extensive insider input from leading LCWR Sisters (though I assume not current–and the current ones should disown and distance themselves from this film, though I’m afraid they won’t), of quite a bit of what their crowd are actually up to and most keenly interested in. I do feel like I have a new understanding of that and why it’s described as post-Christian. This is some powerful evidence backing up the findings of the Doctrinal Assessment of the LCWR.
Please, pray for Sisters. We love them, need them so much, and we need them faithful to Jesus and His Church.
[Update: there was an earlier, longer trailer for this film, that someone found:]
[Update: no surprise:] Cardinal Newman Society’s blog reports that according to director Mary Fishman, “Fishman in a podcast with “A Nun’s Life Ministry” said she researched the documentary by reading the heterodox National Catholic Reporter as well as networking with the dissident Catholic organization Call to Action, a group that advocates female ordination. Call to Action showed the film at their annual conference in November.”
[Another update:] “acardnal” supplied this helpful video under Fr Z’s post about this. Ann Carey, an expert on the subject and author of the book Sisters in Crisis, explains what has happened to Sisters. An updated edition of her book is due to be released very soon.