Radical Grace is a documentary that follows three American nuns—Sisters Simone Campbell, Chris Schenk, and Jean Hughes—whose social activism throughout the course of their lives has put them at odds with the Catholic hierarchy. Labeled “radical feminists,” these three women put their concerns for equality and care for the marginalized over the concerns of the institution. They struggle to stay committed to their sisters and brothers in the institution as the institution is increasingly hostile towards them. Radical Grace is a touching, challenging, and, for me, encouraging documentary, as I also find it difficult to remain committed to the institution of the church that so often seems to adopt policies that run counter to the Gospel while I still love the people I know in the Church and believe those people joined together as the Church are the best hope the world has redemption.
“Progressive” is a term often applied to Christians who remain committed to the institutional church while pushing from within it for change. “Progressive” means they want the institution to persist, but they want it to move forward into a new way of being the Church in the world. They want the best that has been to continue and the worst to fall away. That kind of attitude is challenging to the parts of the church that want the institution to preserve what power and authority it has at all cost, those that see the best days of the Church in the past instead of in the future. These politically active, habit-less nuns who believe women are as capable of leading as men are icons of progress. That they even believe change is possible is a sign that change is happening.
At one point in the film, the nuns go to a museum to see frescos, murals, and altarpieces that record notable women of the past who held positions of leadership in the Catholic church. The nuns cry as they look at these images, because the images connect their current work with a much longer history of struggle than they were aware of before. One woman here, another there, then this group of women, and all the women and men who line the streets to advocate for the equality of all women in the Church as the nuns continue on their bus tour becomes like a wave of hope that promises to crest sometime in the future. I was reminded of Martin Luther King Jr’s paraphrase of Theodore Parker: “The arc of the Moral Universe is long, but it bends toward Justice.” Radical Grace situates these nuns’ work in history, and we can see the bending.
The sisters don’t necessarily believe that they will live to see the change they’ve worked their whole lives for, yet still they continue on. That kind of faith is remarkable, because it hopes in something eternal that outlasts all our petty wars over ideologies and institutional structures. The love of God is not bound by time, and God’s love and justice will prevail in time.
Radical Grace is being featured in the 38th annual Denver Film Festival. More information and showtimes can be found here.