- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Catholicism and feminism don’t exactly go hand in hand. However, the most unlikely warriors in the women’s movement are nuns challenging the Vatican and the patriarchal structure to which they are devoted.

The documentary “Radical Grace,” which recently screened at the District’s AFI Docs film festival, follows the mission of three fearless nuns, sisters Simone Campbell, Jean Hughes and Chris Schenk, as they explore “nundom” in the 21st century. The sisters and film director Rebecca Parrish spoke at the U.S. premiere in Washington Saturday.

Ms. Parrish encourages people to not think of the Catholic Church as “over there,” but as a powerful influence over the everyday lives of women and social issue debates, such as empowerment within the family structure and access to contraception.

“The oppression that happens within the institution isn’t just about what happens for people at Sunday Mass, it affects people’s everyday lives in a really deep way,” Ms. Parrish told The Washington Times.

Ms. Parrish classifies herself as a “none,” or a nonreligious “spiritual seeker” who never predicted her first feature would center on Catholic nuns.

Originally seeking out unique acts of social justice for her documentary, Ms. Parrish first came across the work and life of Sister Hughes, who worked with formerly incarcerated felons in Chicago to help get their lives back on track after serving jail time.

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“My goal is to love people as unconditionally as I can so they have that experience at least once in their life,” Sister Hughes, who passed away in January, said in the film.

“What drew me to this story as a nonreligious person [was] what I saw in the sisters a model for how social justice work could be approached as a spiritual practice,” Ms. Parrish said.

“Before that, my image of Catholic nuns was drawn entirely by Hollywood,” she said. “I thought they all wore habits, lived a cloistered life of prayer and ritual and were very conservative. Sister Jean exploded my stereotypes. Her passion for justice and deep, irreverent spirituality had me hooked.”


In 2012 the Vatican reprimanded American nuns for promoting “radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith.” U.S. bishops also opposed the nuns’ defiance.

In the film, Thomas Paprocki, Bishop of the Diocese of Springfield in Illinois, said, “The sisters say that religious life is changing and evolving. The question is, are you still religious? Are you still nuns? Are you still Christian?”

Sister Schenk rebutted such accusations that the feminist nuns were “radical,” claiming that their search for equal opportunity should not be considered an absurd idea.

“What do they mean by feminist? The radical notion that women are equal? That women are people like other people are people? If that’s a sin, then I’m guilty as charged,” Sister Schenk said.

The Vatican investigation specifically cited Sister Campbell’s organization Network, a lobby in D.C. that supported the Affordable Care Act, thus challenging U.S. bishops’ opposition to the bill.

“The girls played the boys, and for once the girls won, and they [the cardinals] were pissed,” Sister Campbell said of Obamacare’s passage.

Rather than backing away from the Vatican’s threat to excommunicate the nuns, Sister Campbell launched a cross-country “Nuns on the Bus Tour,” focusing on economic inequality in the United States.

Meanwhile, Sister Schenk traveled to Rome to promote women’s equality in the Church, flaring pink smoke while the world awaited a new Pope.

When Pope Francis was instated in 2013, Sister Schenk noted that she “didn’t want to get [her] expectations up” about women gaining equal opportunities within the Catholic Church. However, Francis turned out to be “more inclusive, engaging [and] welcoming” than his predecessors.

The nuns are ecstatic for Francis’ U.S. trip in September to address both chambers of Congress — presumably including his calling on the world to take action on climate change.

“The pope gives me hope,” Sister Campbell said. “It’s like he’s walking toward his biggest critics with love, within the Church and within Congress. There is going to be this fabulous Holy Spirit moment when we really focus on what matters for our nation.”

Millennials are less religious than previous generations, with younger women dropping out of Catholicism at faster rates than young men. The nuns voiced their concern, noting that the structure of the Catholic Church needs change to hang on to young people.

“How do we have young women stay in the Church?” Sister Schenk said. “It all goes to the perception in the public mind that institutional church is anti-woman and sexist. We need to stay and fight this out. We have to get involved and change the structures.”

Sister Campbell encourages everyday people to engage in “holy curiosity” for what others think and believe, followed by “sacred gossip.”

“What we need to spend our time on is this: Are we spreading love?” Sister Campbell said. “It’s not just within the Catholic Church, it’s all of us together. We are one, and we cannot separate ourselves from each other or from creation. We have a huge task in front of us.”

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