It’s hard to imagine anything more innocuous. Band of Sisters opens with two Sisters of Mercy, Pat Murphy and JoAnn Persch, praying the rosary in front of a deportation center in Chicago. Immediately one sympathizes with the saucy, white-haired Persch who stands up to the security guard who tries to move them off the sidewalk in front of the facility. And what’s not to love? She’s quick-witted, frail, and full of righteous anger. She’s also a Roman Catholic nun.
And yet these sisters, like many of the others portrayed in Mary Fishman’s first documentary, are some of the most controversial members of the Catholic Church, and the life of religious women in the United States as a whole is under investigation by the Vatican as a result. The documentary, which director Mary Fishman (present at the screening I attended) called her tribute to “the risk takers of the Church,” follows about a dozen different sisters who saw the sweeping changes of Vatican II and adapted as they saw fit. Fishman succeeds in gaining sympathy and admiration for the sisters, especially to an audience already suspicious of the Catholic Church’s male hierarchy. As far as documentaries go, Fishman’s has little artistic merit, though—it’s too long, slowly-paced, and the interviews are redundant. It’s much more valuable as a study of the stories of Catholic female religious in America in the mid-to-late-twentieth century.
Citing documents from the Second Vatican Council, the sisters point to a call for a greater involvement of religious people in the affairs of the world, with a special attention to social justice issues. They specifically quote the 1964 document, Lumen Gentium, the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, which states that
“even when occupied by temporal affairs, the laity can, and must do valuable work for the evangelization of the world… the whole laity must cooperate in spreading and building up the kingdom of Christ” (35).
For many Catholics, this emphasis on the necessity of the laity broke down traditional ideas about the importance of priests and religious, or at least the idea that the laity were somehow of less value. With this seeming rise in the status of the laity came a simultaneous call for religious to reexamine themselves, which resulted in religious sisters and brothers becoming involved in the secular world in an unprecedented way.
For Sisters Pat and Joanne, that took the form of working for the rights of immigrants through political lobbying. The film follows their efforts to pass a bill through Illinois legislature that will allow detained immigrants awaiting trial and deportation the right to pastoral care. Eventually the sisters are allowed to bring ministers to pray with the detainees, but they report back to their local congressman about the lack of uniform enforcement of the bill. The sisters are both compassionate and politically savvy and defy the stereotype of a quiet, obedient nun.
The reforms of Vatican II took on different shapes. One of the sisters acknowledges that they were never explicitly told to stop wearing their habits, for example—“it just began to happen.” Nuns began to get involved in causes ranging from the Chicano movement and racial equality to workers’ and women’s rights. “I did exactly what the Church told me to do,” says Sister Theresa Kane, who was president of the LCWR from 1979-1980.
Yet this doesn’t quite tell the whole story. As the sisters became involved in various social justice issues at home and abroad, they also came into contact with controversial movements that put them in conflict with members of the Church hierarchy, such as liberation theology in South America. Work in what are more typically considered “conservative” ministries, like the pro-life movement, is not mentioned in the film; this omission is glaring given the emphasis it has received from the American Church.
And with the social revolutions of the 1970’s and their tendency to completely mistrust or even renounce authority, came a questioning of all traditional authority, including that of the Church. During Pope John Paul II’s visit to Chicago in 1979, Sr. Theresa Kane gave a speech asking his holiness to allow women to serve in all levels of Church hierarchy, including as ordained members of the priesthood. In what is meant to be a climactic moment in the documentary, Sr. Kane’s words are met with thunderous applause from the other women religious gathered in the cathedral. Pope John Paul II, seated behind her, is caught with a quizzical look on his face, accenting the film’s view of Church hierarchy as elderly, out-of-touch men. Protesters outside the cathedral, among them female religious, stand holding signs that say, “Ordain women or stop baptizing them.”
The last part of Fishman’s film focuses on the Vatican investigation of the nuns, launched by Pope Benedict XVI in 2010. The sisters who were interviewed react with surprise and anger to the investigation. They claim that they have been faithful to the Church their whole lives, even as the documentary shows the ways in which they divert from orthodoxy in their beliefs on the male priesthood and other issues. In the documentary, the words “social justice” are spoken over a dozen times; the name of Jesus is spoken once. It begs the question: who, or what, is being worshipped?
Catholic Orthodoxy is not the only lens—and probably not the best lens—through which to view this film. Most of the work that the sisters have done is of immeasurable value and was done not for profit or fame but simply out of their moral convictions. And yet for the knowledgeable Catholic, the documentary remains problematic. The sisters insist that they are faithful “daughters of the Church” when their stance on certain vital issues remains suspect.
The documentary is most helpful as a showcase of a particular kind of religious life that arose in response to the socio-political movements of the sixties and seventies. It goes into deep, sometimes monotonous detail about the work of the sisters and records the projects to which they have dedicated their lives. But Band of Sisters also sheds light on a deep rift in American Catholicism, that between a social-justice oriented “left” and a more traditionally inclined “right.” As long as this schism is widened by American Catholics, the power struggles seen in Band of Sisters will continue, despite the fact that the two sides ostensibly have the same goal: a radical living out of the Gospel in the modern world.