The Radical Grace documentary is dissenting, misleading propaganda

The award-winning film about “three fearless nuns” pursuing social justice, sponsored by several notorious “reform” groups, is full of distortions, misrepresentations, and manipulations.


“When the Vatican reprimands U.S. nuns, citing their ‘radical feminism,’ three fearless nuns risk their place in the Church to follow another higher calling: social justice.”

This bold declaration is the promotion for a documentary film entitled Radical Grace that is being widely disseminated free of charge on World Channel’s America Reframed website through June 12.

Fact challenged, progressive supported

Radical Grace falls squarely into the documentary genre of propaganda, and can be summarized in this way: The out-of-touch male Catholic hierarchy is oppressive and cares only about rule-keeping and maintaining authority, while sisters are following the real Gospel message by working for “social justice.”

This message is driven home by the film’s symbol of a woman’s raised fist clutching a rosary on which the crucifix has been replaced by the symbols for male and female. And then there is this endorsement by Susan Sarandon, the film’s executive producer:

This film comes at a major crossroads in the Catholic Church, and the nuns are everything that’s right with the institution. They stand with the marginalized, and won’t be bullied by a hierarchy that still doesn’t treat them as equals. I was raised Catholic — and while I couldn’t stay in a Church that sidelines women and the LGBT community, spirituality is still an important part of my life. I feel a deep connection to the women featured in Radical Grace and this film will hopefully build a movement towards a more inclusive and just Church, and world.

Judging from the few reviews of Radical Grace available on the Internet, this propaganda is being swallowed by people unfamiliar with the Catholic Church. In the words of one reviewer:

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.

The film, however, is full of inaccuracies presented as facts. These distortions seem at times to be the result of shoddy, shallow research on the topic, with the primary source appearing to be sensationalized television news clips, such as the one proclaiming a “holy war” between sisters and the Vatican, or the false charge that the Vatican accused sisters of being “radical feminists.”

At other times it seems that misinformation was purposely employed as a tool to advance the film’s self-admitted agenda posted on the Radical Grace website:

Collaborating with feminist and faith-based social justice organizations, we will leverage the film to support reform within religious institutions to end gender discrimination of women and girls in the U.S. and around the world and bridge divides to build a stronger progressive and feminist movement.

Those “feminist and faith-based social justice organizations” are laid out nicely on the Radical Grace website’s list of the film’s partners and donors. That list includes radical “reform” groups such as Call to Action, Women’s Ordination Conference and National Organization of Women. Another partner is the pro-abortion Center for American Progress that was founded in 2003 by John Podesta, the longtime ally of Bill and Hillary Clinton, as a think tank to promote a “progressive” agenda and to “change the country.”

These groups and many of the films’ other promoters have been working for years to pressure the Catholic Church to dilute its teachings on human sexuality and the sanctity of human life, marriage and the family, in order to bring the church’s moral doctrine into conformity with evolving practices in the secular culture.

The promotion for Radical Grace on the Reframed website declares that Catholic sisters’ “collective achievements demonstrate how the Catholic Church is changing from within, while propelling reform well beyond the convent walls.” And what better way to change the Church from within than to present a sympathetic portrayal of religious sisters who rebel against the teachings and authority of the Catholic Church under the guise of social justice?

Heavy on sensationalism, light on facts

How was this leftist political agenda woven into the film? Well, it isn’t exactly a smooth presentation.

The glue that is supposed to hold the whole thing together is a “censure” of U.S. sisters by the Vatican, which the film alleges occurred in the first few years of this decade. That glue does not stick, however, for there was no censure of U.S. sisters by the Vatican.

The film conflates and misrepresents two separate Vatican initiatives. The first was a 2009-2012 apostolic visitation to examine the quality of life of about 59,000 sisters in the 300-plus apostolic orders of women in the U.S. This visitation was authorized by the Vatican Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, which oversees religious orders.

The 59,000 U.S. sisters never were placed “under the supervision of conservative bishops” in 2012, as Radical Grace contends. In fact, teams of U.S. women religious themselves carried out the apostolic visitation of women’s orders and made a final report to the Vatican on their findings.

In 2014, the Vatican announced it had completed evaluation of the visitation report and praised U.S. sisters for their dedication and ministry, but also noted areas of “concerns” that would be followed up with individual orders. When Radical Grace shows footage of this announcement, the topic of problems or concerns is edited out, implying complete vindication for the sisters.

The second initiative was a doctrinal assessment of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), an organization of 1,400 sisters who were on leadership teams in their orders. That assessment was undertaken in 2008 by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) to address doctrinal errors the CDF had told the LCWR in 2001 to correct.

In 2012, the CDF concluded from the assessment that doctrinal reform was necessary for LCWR and appointed three U. S. bishops to oversee that reform, which was to be accomplished within five years: Archbishop J. Peter Sartain of Seattle; Bishop Leonard P. Blair, then of Toledo, now Archbishop of Hartford; and Bishop Thomas J. Paprocki of Springfield in Illinois.

That reform was mutually concluded in 2015 when the CDF accepted a joint final report from the three bishops and LCWR leaders outlining reform steps for the organization. The film characterizes this resolution as a lifting of the “censure.”

This imaginary “censure” of U.S. women religious, along with their oppression by the male hierarchy thus become the central themes of the film, which declares: “The Vatican will decide if the nuns are ‘faithful’ and could order them to abandon their modern work and lifestyle.” And the three sisters play the victim role to the hilt.

Sister acts

Radical Grace, which has been showing at various film festivals and small or private venues since its debut in 2015, features Sister of Social Service Simone Campbell, leader of the Nuns on the Bus and executive director of the lobby group Network; Sister of St. Joseph Christine Schenk of FutureChurch, a women’s ordination group; and the late Dominican Sister Jean Hughes, who worked with former prisoners to rebuild their lives.

In one close-up on her tour bus, an anguished Sister Simone sorrowfully reveals:

Somebody who knows Vatican stuff told me there was a highly-placed American prelate in Rome who is out after me. That makes me frightened that my friends in leadership would have to tell me I had to leave; Rome would say they’d have to dispense me from my vows.

Why would a sister think any prelate was “after” her? She explains in another part of the film that the U.S. bishops were wrong in opposing the 2010 Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (known as Obamacare) because they thought it contained abortion funding, while she asserts how right she was in insisting there was no abortion funding.

Through her Network lobby group, she ran a public campaign to promote the bill, and she claims on the film that the U.S. Bishops handed all of their healthcare policy issues over to their pro-life office, which, she charged, cares only about the bishops’ position on abortion. This is untrue, as the bishops have consistently supported the idea of universal health care, and several offices of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) have been and continue to be involved in health care policy.

The film follows Sister Simone gathering support for a Network letter that was sent to all members of Congress, falsely claiming that the 55 signatures she gathered represented all 59,000 women religious in the U.S.

Many Catholic Congressmen fell for this deception or thought the support of so many sisters gave them moral cover, and there was little-to-no media coverage of a memo from the USCCB debunking Network’s claim that the letter represented all Catholic sisters.

Radical Grace provides footage of Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) arguing for passage of Obamacare and telling Congress “you have 59,000 Catholic sisters from across the country endorsing this bill.” Thus, with Sister Simone’s help, Obamacare became a law that has proven the bishops right on all counts, including the abortion funding, the crushing of conscience rights and the mandate requiring employers to provide insurance coverage for sterilizations, contraceptives and abortifacients.

Consequently Sister Simone became a self-proclaimed “icon” and decided her new status could be used to launch the “Nuns on the Bus” in 2012 to defend Obamacare (which included heavy criticism of the Republican Party during an election year) and to call attention to the good works of Catholic sisters at a time that the Vatican was initiating the reform of the LCWR.

It was no coincidence that first 2012 bus tour occurred at exactly the same time as the Bishops’ Fortnight for Freedom initiative to promote religious freedom that was being eroded under Obamacare. Sister Simone made it quite clear in several media interviews that she was using the tour to show her disdain for church authorities.

Sister Simone explains in the film that she was miffed because the CDF mandate to reform the LCWR—which she calls a “censure”—“named” her lobby organization Network. Actually, the only reference to Network in the reform mandate was to note that Network is an affiliated organization to LCWR, and the links between LCWR and affiliates should be reviewed

“For Network to be named, to be named by the Vatican: this is politics,” Sister Simone declares in the film. “This is payback for healthcare reform. What the bishops were really angry about was that we did better politicking than they did. They want to, for political reasons, to keep our voice silent.”

Sister Simone is far from silent, and the film documents her Nuns on the Bus tours to showcase how sisters practice “social justice” all over the country. Always present is the false implication that social justice was embraced by the church only after Vatican II, and then only by activist sisters. Completely missing is the long and esteemed history of the Catholic Church’s care for the poor, sick, orphaned and disenfranchised by both men and women, lay and religious.

Dissent and spin

The Radical Grace viewer is taken along on the bus for way too many miles of looking out the bus window and admiring Sister Simone triumphantly addressing adoring crowds that start to look very much alike.

One interesting scene, however, shows Casey Shoeneberger, who is identified as the group’s “media relations manager and PR coach,” instructing the sisters how to respond at their next stop if anyone criticizes them for sharing a press conference platform with Planned Parenthood. The film does not reveal that Ms. Shoeneberger was at that time a media relations assistant for Faith in Public Life, an offspring of the Center for American Progress that was created to counter the so-called “religious right” that had helped re-elect George W. Bush in 2004.

Women’s ordination is also a major theme of the film, for allegedly women must be ordained in order to achieve full equality. The film follows Sister Christine Schenk, longtime leader of FutureChurch, as she tells a group of women’s ordination advocates that church leaders are wrong in their interpretation that Jesus intended for the priesthood to be reserved for men only. She claims that women, too, were leaders in the early church until the 12th century. No records for this theory exist, she says, because records of the early church were written mostly by men.

To prove her point, she leads a “pilgrimage” to view the “evidence” in archeological sites in Rome. Two of the “pilgrims” happen to be Erin Saiz Hanna and Kate McElwee, co-executive directors of the Women’s Ordination Conference. (These two women show up later in the film as leaders of the Nun Justice Coalition, for many of these dissident groups share memberships and rename themselves for various purposes: The Nun Justice Coalition was made up of 16 dissident groups, most of whom were partners or donors for Radical Grace.)

The “pilgrims” with Sister Christine visit the catacombs and the 9th century Church of St. Praxedis. Inside that ancient church, Sister Christine directs attention to the mosaic of Theodora, the mother of Pope Paschal I, who built the church. The title for Theodora on the mosaic is “episcopa,” Latin for bishop, but with a female ending. This title, proclaimed Sister Christine, is proof women were bishops in the early church.

This scene was one of many in the film that would have benefitted from a consultant who is knowledgeable about the Catholic Church and its history. Such an expert could have told them that in the early church, mothers and wives of bishops sometimes were given the honorary title of “episcopa,” similar to today’s practice in some Eastern Christian Churches of giving the title “presbytera” to wives of married priests. Additionally, an art historian could have told them that if Theodora had been a bishop, she would have been depicted in bishop’s vestments, not the lay clothing she is wearing in the mosaic.

However, facts do not support the agenda of Radical Grace, whose supporters want to create their own reality.

The third sister featured, Sister Jean Hughes, also had differences with the hierarchy, but she seemed conflicted about her alienation from the church and did not fit the same activist mold as Sisters Simone and Christine in their public challenge to church authorities. Rather than spending her time riding around the country on a luxury bus or setting off pink smoke at the Vatican, she struggled through chronic illness to serve the people at St. Vincent’s Ministries in Chicago, and this viewer hoped that she had reconciled with the church before she died.

However, the film’s extensive coverage of Sister Jean’s illness and death, including overly long footage of her memorial service at the end of the film, seemed to be a vehicle to gather sympathy and soften the militant image of the other two featured sisters.

Misuse of footage?

Another person featured in the film was Bishop Thomas Paprocki, who appeared in five short clips in the role as spokesman for the hierarchy. He was one of the bishops who worked with the LCWR on its reform, and when I first viewed the film, I gave some credit to the filmmakers for including him, even though his comments appeared to be heavily edited and shoe-horned into the film.

Then I discovered why the footage seemed forced: Bishop Paprocki had not been interviewed for the film. Rather, the footage of him that was used had been obtained from another filmmaker who had interviewed the bishop for another purpose.

Now, it is standard practice in the film industry to purchase archived footage from other sources, but the people being filmed must sign a release if their footage is going to be sold for other purposes.

A media spokesperson for Radical Grace would not provide the name of the entity that filmed the original Paprocki footage, or the circumstances in which that footage was shot. Nor would she say whether the Radical Grace team asked his permission to use the footage, or even informed Bishop Paprocki that he would appear in the film.

She did say that the filmmakers had asked the USCCB to provide a spokesperson for the film but received no reply. She added: “The footage from Bishop Paprocki’s interview appears in the film in accordance with the rights provided in his signed release [for the other documentary].”

When I asked Bishop Paprocki’s media contact if he had given his permission or been informed about his role, she said that he had never even heard of the film before my inquiry.

Even if the bishop had given permission to the original filmmaker to allow the footage to be sold for other purposes, including him in this controversial film without his knowledge or permission—or even a disclaimer in the film—seems unethical, especially when the USCCB declined to provide a spokesperson for the film. Apparently these folks believe that all’s fair when one is engaged in a “holy war.”

Normally I would discourage people from viewing a propaganda film with so many flaws, but I urge Catholics to view Radical Grace, to read the links on its website, and to visit the websites of its partners and donors to see firsthand the agenda of church critics and the manipulation of so-called Catholics to promote leftist political causes.

It is quite a tangled web they weave—a far more accurate title for this film would be Radicals’ Disgrace.

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About Ann Carey 17 Articles
Ann Carey is the author of Sisters in Crisis: Revisited—From Unraveling to Reform and Renewal (Ignatius Press, 2013).

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