Women of Faith: Women of the Catholic Church Speak. Directed by Rebecca M. Alvin. New York: Women Make Movies, 2009. 60 minutes.

In Good Conscience: Sister Jeannine Gramick’s Journey of Faith. Directed by Barbara Rick. New York: Out of the Blue Films, Inc. 2004. 82 minutes.

Reviewed by Emily Baxter

Women of Faith (2009) by Rebecca M. Alvin is a film of contrasts—most importantly, the difference between people’s perceptions of Catholic nuns and how sisters express and define themselves. Throughout the film, nuns are asked about their experiences in the Church, ranging from a life spent in prayer behind cloistered walls to working intimately with refugees and the poor during the life-threatening violence of the El Salvadorian and Nicaraguan revolutions. The contemplative, cloistered-from-the-world, Poor Clare Sisters are put into relief against the Maryknoll Sisters’ active missionary work. The views of a Womanpriest—an unofficially-ordained Catholic woman who serves underground congregations—and those of a gay ex-nun are contrasted with those of their counterparts who remained in convents.

As a filmmaker, Alvin has let the women speak for themselves, allowing their forthright voices to come forward and, perhaps, surprise some viewers. That said, the film bounces from story to story and interviews are interspersed with archival footage. It can feel disjointed or as if the goal is to hit on every one of the “big” topics within the Catholic Church—from women priests to Catholic sex-abuse scandals to feelings about the Vatican’s hierarchy. Additionally, although the emphasis on individual women is interesting, a more concrete discussion of the past and future is lacking: Vatican II is hardly mentioned and while the women talk hopefully about the future of the Church, they are never asked their opinions about the future of consecrated religious life and the dwindling number of sisters. Furthermore, the film was made before the Vatican’s 2012 reprimand of American nuns for “radical feminist themes,” among other things, making it rather ironic when one sister in the film notes that the Church hierarchy has not been too harsh on dissenting sisters.

For those familiar with sisters and nuns, the revelations in Women of Faith fit in with other scholarship on American sisters’ lives and role within the Church—they are remarkable women1. For those new to these stories, however, this film can serve as an engaging starting point for conversation and inquiry. As such, it can be a useful tool in the feminist classroom for understanding not only where women fit in the Catholic Church, but how they act and claim their personhood within a hierarchal institution.

In Good Conscience (2006), an award-winning film by Barbara Rick, is compelling not only as portrait of a remarkable activist, but as a commentary on Catholic and Christian theology of sexuality, especially around lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) issues. The film follows Sr. Jeannine Gramick, SL, a Catholic sister, LGBT activist, and a founder of New Ways Ministry, a Catholic advocacy and education organization for LGBT justice.

The film, which his slightly dated, follows her a few years after the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith in Rome—headed by then-Cardinal Ratzinger (in a few more years after the filming, Pope Benedict XVI)—officially reprimanded her for ministering to gays and lesbians. This reprimand led her order, the School Sisters of Notre Dame, to demand her silence. When she “chose not to collaborate with [her] oppression,” the film depicts her move to another order, the Sisters of Loretto. The audience sees her trying to visit Cardinal Ratzinger while in Rome, giving television interviews, speaking in coffee shops and at conferences, and advocating at the annual meeting of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops at the height of the American Church’s sex-abuse scandals. At the same time, the film is careful to paint a picture of her off-duty life, including celebrating her birthday dinner with friends, getting her hair done, and taking her elderly father out for donuts.

In Good Conscience is important because it offers an analysis of religious life and Catholic and Christian theology, as well as theories and science of sexuality, through the story of this seemingly indefatigable nun. As such, it is a film that can fit as comfortably in a gender/queer studies classroom as it can in a theology or religious studies one: Whether in a discussion circle with the parents of LGBT people or when Sr. Gramick speaks to a group gathered in a bookshop, the film highlights how remarkably articulate pro-LGBT people of faith can be about their theological differences with the Catholic Church’s official teaching on sexuality and sexual orientation. When Sr. Gramick encounters a group of protestors from the Westboro Baptist Church or faces the silence of the Church’s hierarchy, it raises questions about what it means to claim a Christian or Catholic identity, to live according to one’s conscience, and to work for justice out of love and in the name of understanding.

1 For recent writing on this subject, see: Anne Butler, Across God’s Frontiers: Catholic Sisters in the American West (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012) (a history) and Cheryl L. Reed, Unveiled: The Hidden Lives of Nuns (New York: Berkeley Publishing, 2004) (an ethnography/journalistic approach). For shorter sources, this article is fantastic: Ruth Graham, “What American Nuns Built,” Boston Globe 24 February 2013. Web; and the following interviews and articles may be helpful: Paul Brandeis Raushenbush, “Sister Simone Campbell: What Makes This Nun on the Bus Roll?Huff Post Religion. Huffington Post, 3 May 2013. Web; Nicholas D. Kristof, “Who Can Mock This Church?New York Times 1 May 2010. Web.; and Anne M. Butler, “Nuns on the Frontier,” New York Times 15 May 2012. Web.

Emily Baxter is a research assistant for women’s economic policy at the Center for American Progress. She was previously the special assistant for the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at the Center. She holds an MSc in Gender from the London School of Economics, and her award-winning graduate dissertation and other anthropologic fieldwork focused on the political intersections of the lives of American Catholic nuns. Her writing has appeared on ThinkProgress, Sojourners, and Religion Dispatches.