If I told you that someone told me a story where the nuns were the villains, you’d scoff. Nuns, as the bad guys? What kind of topsy-turny world is this? Nuns can be casually cruel, wrapping your knuckles with a ruler if you step out of line in school, or they may occasionally harbor actual criminals (Nuns on the Run, Sister Act), but villains? Never. Well, the way the Vatican reacted to a group of American nuns advocating for the poor, the sick and the disenfranchise – you know, the stuff the church is supposed to be about – you’d think that Sister Simone, Sister Jean and Sister Chris were the Joker, Penguin and Two-Face of Catholicism.
You don’t need to read between the lines to tell that director Rebecca Parish has affection and respect for the three sisters she’s following. Of course, it’s not hard to like a nun. They’re educated, charitable and have dedicated their lives to helping people without thought of reward. Well, except for the one in the afterlife. We see Sister Jean in her capacity as a lobbyist for social justice, Sister Chris as a passionate advocate for church reform, and Sister Jean as a community organizer that works with former convicts and assuring their rehabilitation. Clearly, they’re up to something.
Radical Grace is not only the story of these nuns, but it’s a ripped from the headlines pot-boiler of a story that tackles healthcare and faith. How did the sisters and their brethren get into trouble? They came out in favour of the Affordable Care Act, the so-called and cynically named Obamacare, President Barack Obama’s signature legislation allowing millions of uninsured Americans to get healthcare coverage. The nuns, believing that everyone’s entitled to see a doctor, actively supported the ACA; senior leadership in the Church though, disliking mandates to cover contraception in the law, were dead set against it. After the ACA was passed, 43 Catholic organizations appealed it, while the nuns that supported it were under investigation for their faithfulness by the Vatican.
“Radical” isn’t just part of the title of this documentary, it was basically what the nuns were being charged with. These sisters don’t wear their habits day-in, day-out. Why would they? They give food and shelter to the poorest of the poor, they educate prisoners who barely have a high school education, they bring aid and comfort to the sick and dying, so how can they possibly know anything about the ways of Christ?! As you can imagine, there was a lot of rebutting on my part to the screen whenever a priest appeared to explain himself. Kudos to people like Bishop Poprochi though, as he had to know he was entering unfriendly territory talking to Parrish’s camera.
Radical Grace isn’t so much about blaming the individual though as it is about blaming the system. These issues that have been churning up in the Church for a long time now, especially the status of women and how those who dedicate themselves to the faith want a bigger part in how it’s administered. The bishops’ explanations about a woman’s place in the Catholic Church come off as stale talking points as much as they represent “old fashioned” notions about gender rolls, so you can’t really blame Poprochi, or at least you can’t blame him any more harshly than the president’s press secretary for being a voice box for his boss’ opinion. Such is the burden of being a mouthpiece.
As the Vatican figures out what to do about the so-called “radical” nuns, a couple of big things happen. For the sisters personally, they decide to take their message on the road with a bus tour across America that coincides nicely with the 2012 presidential campaign. They even stop off at the constituency office of Paul Ryan, the then future vice-presidential candidate and self-professed Catholic who brought forward a budget that cut taxes while slashing social spending. Meanwhile, the ACA was upheld in a 5-4 ruling by the Supreme Court, and big change was coming back at the Catholic Church’s head office when the modest Jesuit Pope Francis I was elected to the papacy.
Political developments are almost incidental though because I think the point is that things have been getting too political in the church for a while. The three sisters are impressive for the modesty they show in making such hugely important contributions in the lives of others. Even on the issue of politics, I think their attitude is the correct one: working with people for the greater good makes more sense than working against creating something positive on the basis of ideology. If you agree on eight out of ten things, then clearly you’ve got more things in common than don’t have in common. According to the bishops though, if one of those two things is being pro-abortion rights, then you’re not as pure in faith as they are.
It may be easy to focus on the injustice of it all, but Radical Grace doesn’t do that. As a viewer you may be ready to go through the screen at these bad men in black robes who are bothering these nice ladies, but the sisters lead by example and keep pushing on with their own message of hope and inspiration. Although there are signs under Francis that things are changing – the nuns were recently allowed to skate on the Vatican’s charges after all – because of the size and age of the institution, things move at a glacial pace. It doesn’t matter though, because these nuns will keep doing what they’re doing, and fortunately for the Catholic Church, that’s a good thing.