In April of 2012, the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) issued the findings of a three-year doctrinal assessment of the Leadership Council of Women Religious (LCWR), a support network for American Catholic nuns. The document was heavily critical of the LCWR, and accused the group of being influenced by “certain radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith.” The CDF’s position was clear: the LCWR would have to reform or lose its official sanction from the Vatican. This was widely interpreted as a reprimand to the group for focusing too much on issues of “social justice” instead of campaigning against abortion and marriage equality, the two political issues most widely associated with Catholicism.
Filmmaker Rebecca Parrish conceived Radical Grace as a profile of three Catholic nuns, each fighting for social justice in her own way: Sr. Jean Hughes, who worked with convicted felons on Chicago’s West Side; Sr. Simone Campbell, executive director of the lobbying group NETWORK and vocal supporter of the Affordable Care Act; and Sr. Christine Schenk, executive director of the reform-advocacy organization FutureChurch. The CDF dropped its bombshell early in the documentary’s production and the subsequent two-year follow-up investigation provides Parrish’s film with its story-spine; amongst the film’s “subplots” are the Supreme Court’s examination of the ACA and conservative Pope Benedict XVI’s surprise resignation.
Campbell proves the most memorable of the three sisters, touring the country as part of NETWORK’s Nuns on the Bus campaign, drawing attention to the services Catholic sisters provide the poor, advocating for the ACA, and protesting Republican Congressman Paul Ryan’s proposed “Path to Prosperity” budget. (Ryan, a Catholic, cited the church’s social teaching as an influence on his budget, which drew criticism from some clergy and laypeople.) Along the way she encounters some resistance and criticism, but the overwhelming response to Nuns on the Bus is positive.
Schenk’s story involves a pilgrimage to Rome to await the unveiling of the somewhat liberal Francis as Benedict’s successor, and these scenes perfectly capture the anticipation felt by many Catholics during this period. Hughes ministers to ex-convicts and teaches GED classes; through her, Parrish provides a vital portrait of the practical, day-to-day duties and roles a nun can perform in modern Western society.
The world is changing faster than ever before and its institutions must change with it. Radical Grace provides a fascinating snapshot of that change in progress.
Tuesday, April 28, 9:15 PM, TIFF Bell Lightbox
Thursday, April 30, 4:30 PM, TIFF Bell Lightbox
Friday, May 1, 3:30 PM, TIFF Bell Lightbox
Tickets can be purchased at the Hot Docs website.