Thursday, September 20, 2012

Band of Sisters [2012]

MPAA (NR)  Fr. Dennis (4 Stars)

IMDb listing
Official Site

Band of Sisters [2012] (directed by Mary Fishman) is an excellent and timely documentary that recently had its world premiere at the Gene Siskel Film Center here in Chicago.  It is about the main current of Catholic religious sisters in the United States since the reforms of the Second Vatican Council.  In recent years, both Catholic women's religious congregations in the United States in general as well as their principal umbrella group, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), have been investigated by the Vatican for both quality of life and doctrinal concerns.

The process and attendant controversies have been playing themselves out and have been thankfully well documented, from the publication of the initial decrees (Cong. to Inst. for Cons. Life,  to the creation of an official website for the "Apostolic Visitation of Women Religious in the United States" ( to IMHO the honestly indispensable "watchdog coverage" of independent Catholic news sources like the National Catholic Reporter (honestly folks, a lot of more traditionalist folks may not like the NCR, even calling it at times "The National Catholic Inquirer" but it has served for decades by helping to keep our Church officials honest, because no one and I mean no one wants to end up on the front page of the NCR because the good folks at CNN and 60 Minutes to say nothing of SNAP read the NCR ;-), to more traditionalist papers like the National Catholic Register (sort of the more traditionalist faction's NCR), to the LCWR itself.

Alas, the final report of the "apostolic visitation by the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated life has not been published (though probably for good reason as it would involve specifics of individual communities).  However A Doctrinal Assessment of the LCWR was published by the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith this year.  Discussion over implementation of the reports' recommendations continues.

In all this, the American Catholic religious sisters have not taken the inquiries "sitting down."  Instead, approaching the situation with characteristic politeness but conviction have maintained their truths.  To a significant extent, this film, Band of Sisters [2012] articulating to the Church and to the world who America's Catholic religious sisters have been over these past 50 years and what the Church and the world stands to lose if they come to be crushed.  And I do think it is an eye opener for Catholics and perhaps especially non-Catholics who may harbor petty and largely uninformed opinions about both the Catholic Church in general and Catholic religious sisters in particular.

"The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ. Indeed, nothing genuinely human fails to raise an echo in their hearts. For theirs is a community composed of [people]. United in Christ, they are led by the Holy Spirit in their journey to the Kingdom of their Father and they have welcomed the news of salvation which is meant for every [one]. That is why this community realizes that it is truly linked with [humanity] and its history by the deepest of bonds." [Vatican II - Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et Spes - #1].   With these words the Council's Bishops began the closing document of the Second Vatican Council.  It was an invitation for all the world's Catholics but especially its leaders and its teachers to put themselves in solidarity with the rest of the world and ESPECIALLY with "the least among us" (Matthew 25:40).

This was a call that was perhaps most enthusiastically embraced by the Catholic world's religious sisters.  Why?  As one of the Sisters featured in this documentary put it: "When I was young and discerning my vocation in life, I loved Jesus and I wanted to be perfect.  And in the mid-1960s for a young Catholic woman who loved Jesus and wanted to be perfect, there was only one place to go ... into the Convent."

But what did perfection mean in the years immediately after the Council.  Look to the quote above, it meant OBVIOUSLY standing with the poor.  The testimonies of easily over half the sisters in this documentary point to this obvious conclusion.  Whether they were from the Sisters of Charity, Mercy or Providence the conclusion was the same: "Our Foundresses built schools, hospitals, shelters for the poor.  Who are the poor, the oppressed and the marginalized today?"  That's why Sisters Pat Murphy and JoAnn Persch get-up week in and week out every Friday often before dawn to stand often in freezing temperatures outside the Broadview Detention Center outside of Chicago, IL to pray the Rosary on behalf of the undocumented aliens detained and deported from there.  That's why the Sisters of Mercy inspired by their Foundress Mother Catherine McAuley provide some 40,000 people around the country who'd otherwise be homeless quality low income housing.  That's why not satisfied with simply providing "charity" but asking the larger question of "Why?" Dominican Sister Carol Colston along with both male and female Catholic religious founded the Catholic Social Justice lobby NETWORK so that the interests of the poor would not simply and forever remain buried by the interests of corporate lobbyists of Washington's K-Street.  That's why Sister of Providence Kathleen Desautels founder of Chicago's 8th Day Center horrified by the 1980 rape, torture and murder of three American sisters - Dorothy Kazel, Marua Clarke and Ita Ford - and one catholic layworker - Jean Donovan at the hands of an El Salvadoran death squad also helped organized SOA Watch, which monitors and annually protests the activities of the "School of the Americas" of the U.S. Military, where American instructors provided training to Latin America military officers in "enhanced interrogation" and "counter insurgency" techniques (often torture...).  Many of these same "techniques" have subsequently come to be used by U.S. personnel in facilities like Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay ...

But reflection on and pursuit of "perfection" soon took another post-Vatican II turn.  The fifth chapter of Second Vatican Council's Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium was entitled "The Universal Call to Holiness in the Church."  So it ceased to be the _specific_ role of Catholic religious, male or female, to "seek perfection" -- ALL Catholics were called to perfection (Holiness) regardless of their state of life.  So "vocations" (to priestly and religious life) have declined since the Second Vatican Council and in the years immediately following the Council and many, many Catholic priests and religious left their previous religious / priestly vocation.  At the same time, the question of why women could not be ordained to the ministerial priesthood (or for that matter to the Episcopate, where to anyone who knows how to read a hierarchical flow-chart, the Church's institutional power resides) became more or less inevitable.

The Second Vatican Council did, in fact, point to a source of authority that exists beyond the hierarchy and really even beyond the Church to which the Church, in fact, seeks to conform.  "The truth cannot impose itself except by virtue of its own truth, as it makes its entrance into the mind at once quietly and with power." (Second Vatican Council, Declaration on Religious Freedom, Dignitatis Humanae, #1).  Indeed, if we truly believe that Jesus is the "the Way, the Truth and the Life" (John 14:6) and seek to "conform ourselves to Christ" (and therefore to the Truth) then this requires even the hierarchy to seek to convince not merely through the exercise of power ("Accept this because we say so ...") but through appealing to arguments which convince by the virtue that they are, in fact, True.  Let us indeed remember that the Catholic Church has long (arguably _always_) maintained that ultimately there can be no serious conflict between Faith and Reason (Catechism of the Catholic Church #159).

The argument over Authority and Truth that plays itself out with question of women's ordination where the various decrees that have come down from the hierarchy on this question over the past years have simply become _necessary_ articles of faith to Catholic faithful (because if one doesn't ascent to them, one finds oneself outside communion with the Catholic Church) and yet remain thoroughly _unconvincing_ to both the young and to those outside the Catholic Church (The young simply _don't understand_ why a woman could be an astronaut, a CEO, a teacher of theology, even a Prime Minister or President but _not_ a Catholic Priest or Bishop) actually goes beyond this question.  Women today find themselves at the bottom of the human hierarchy in the Catholic Church's present conception, presently not even allowed to normally discuss the Scriptures in the context of the Mass (even if they teach Scripture at truly _all levels_ in the classroom).  Why is it surprising then that many Catholic religious women would find themselves more in solidarity with the rest of Creation then perhaps the higher rungs of the human hierarchy?  These sisters are arguably hierarchical neighbors to the rest of Creation after all and perhaps feel the rest of Creation's pain and marginalization in a way those "higher up" do not.

Then when one considers that America's Catholic women religious have been school teachers, nurses/doctors, directors of schools/Universities and CEOs hospitals and hence among the most educated people in this country, it should be clear that Catholic women religious can not be credibly "talked down to."  There is a reason why the mainstream of Catholic religious sisters in this country have arrived at the place that they have arrived.  And this film shows very well, how and why America's religious sisters have become who they are.

So in the end, given that within both the Catholic hierarchy and within the Catholic women's religious congregations are intelligent, well educated and sincere believers, I do believe that the Holy Spirit will intervene and out of this crisis something good and new will arise.  But in any case, I do believe that this film articulates quite eloquently what the mainstream of America's Catholic religious sisters have been doing over the last 50 years and why it would be a tragedy if their voices were simply to disappear.

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  1. "(The young simply _don't understand_ why a woman could be an astronaut, a CEO, a teacher of theology, even a Prime Minister or President but _not_ a Catholic Priest or Bishop) actually goes beyond this question. Women today find themselves at the bottom of the human hierarchy in the Catholic Church's present conception"

    It is so dismaying to see a priest saying this kind of foolishness. I am a young Catholic woman (34) and I do indeed understand well why a woman cannot be a Catholic priest. It's explained not only by Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, but by common sense precisely from my own perspective as a Catholic woman. A priest, who acts actually in the person of Christ, is sacramentally an image of Christ the Bridegroom of the Church. A woman cannot be an image of a bridegoom, period. As a lay woman privately vowed in celibate chastity for life, Jesus does have the place of Spouse in my life, and a woman is NOT the image of my Spouse, period. I have absolutely no sympathy for the feminist power-politics of wanting to mess with Holy Orders to try to achieve a warped notion of "equality". AS A WOMAN I must strenuously object to the contemporary lies that men and women are simply interchangeable, or that women only have dignity if they take on male roles. What offensive nonsense.

    According to the filmmaker, this film was created by networking within the dissident group "Call to Action". It's not by any means just about the story of Sisters, but focused specifically on a particular sort of liberal Sisters who threw Catholic doctrine and obedience to the wind, and have created their own new age religion which the film itself shows is not even really Christian anymore, for instance they promote the idea that "one species shouldn't be privileged over others", pantheism/panentheism, and the new cosmology apparently doesn't have a heaven and hell--no need for Jesus our Savior, who is barely mentioned in the film. This film thoroughly illustrates the accuracy of the CDF's LCWR doctrinal assessment and Sr Laurie Brink's famous comment in a speech to the LCWR, about some Sisters "moving beyond Jesus".

    I saw "Band of Sisters" at the motherhouse of the liberal Sinsinawa Dominican Sisters, and blogged it:

  2. Hi Elizabeth, consider simply that THE CHURCH is supposed to be THE BRIDE OF CHRIST and yet 1/2 of the members of the Church are male ...

  3. Dear Fr Dennis, as a priest you know that signs matter. To consecrate the Eucharist you must have wheat bread and grape wine. Rice cakes and beer (or Chartreuse liqueur or whatever else) cannot become the Body and Blood of Christ, and it does not mean rice cakes and beer are bad. It is not discrimination against rice cakes and beer (or Chartreuse). The sign necessary for the Sacrament of Holy Orders is a man. Men and women are not simply interchangeable, thank goodness. Men cannot be Sisters or Nuns either, who are for the Church signs, images, of the Bride of Christ, without this being a Sacrament. If you think men should be allowed to be nuns then go ahead and start that campaign and see where it gets you.

  4. Elizabeth, I think you miss my point. I'm not talking about nuns here, I'm talking about THE CHURCH. One of the images of THE CHURCH is that IT (composed of BOTH men and women) is the BRIDE OF CHRIST. And yet there is no insistence that that THE CHURCH be composed _only_ of women ...

  5. To make the point, this is what the Cathechism of the Catholic Church says about THE CHURCH BEING THE BRIDE OF CHRIST:

    The Church is the Bride of Christ

    796 The unity of Christ and the Church, head and members of one Body, also implies the distinction of the two within a personal relationship. This aspect is often expressed by the image of bridegroom and bride. The theme of Christ as Bridegroom of the Church was prepared for by the prophets and announced by John the Baptist.234 The Lord referred to himself as the "bridegroom."235 The Apostle speaks of the whole Church and of each of the faithful, members of his Body, as a bride "betrothed" to Christ the Lord so as to become but one spirit with him.236 The Church is the spotless bride of the spotless Lamb.237 "Christ loved the Church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her."238 He has joined her with himself in an everlasting covenant and never stops caring for her as for his own body:239

    This is the whole Christ, head and body, one formed from many . . . whether the head or members speak, it is Christ who speaks. He speaks in his role as the head (ex persona capitis) and in his role as body (ex persona corporis). What does this mean? "The two will become one flesh. This is a great mystery, and I am applying it to Christ and the Church."240 And the Lord himself says in the Gospel: "So they are no longer two, but one flesh."241 They are, in fact, two different persons, yet they are one in the conjugal union, . . . as head, he calls himself the bridegroom, as body, he calls himself "bride."242