Breaking the habit – Catholic Herald

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Mainstream understanding of wayward nuns is often drawn from The Sound of Music (1965). Maria von Trapp’s inability to stick to the script while keeping her wimple on opens the time-old dilemma between selfhood and sanctity in the life of a bride of Christ. Pedro Kos’s Rebel Hearts (2021), which premiered at this year’s Sundance Festival, takes up the same theme, although the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary go much further in their transgressions than singing on hillsides and falling in love with handsome widowers. Threading the story of the Los Angeles sisterhood against the backdrop of the social and political upheaval of the 1960s and ’70s, the documentary attempts to locate the roaring advances of feminism, post-conciliar renewal, pacifism and pop-art, all within the cloistered world of the Hollywood faithful. Given the hydra-headed nature of its subject, the result is only partially successful. 

But first, the backdrop. A haven of holiness in amongst the secular hillsides of Hollywood, the order of the Immaculate Heart of Mary formed part of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, led with an iron fist between 1948 and 1970 by the authoritarian and business-minded Cardinal James McIntyre (a Wall Street runner before he joined the Church). As part of his spirit of enterprise and showmanship, Cardinal McIntyre set up an astonishing number of Catholic schools across the Los Angeles area, staffing them (for free) with young and ill-prepared nuns from the sisterhood. No strangers to education, these sisters concurrently ran a liberal arts college in Los Feliz outside of the realm of McIntyre’s control. From this progressive wellspring burst forth redoubtable figures such as Anita Caspary, Mother General of the sisterhood, and Corita Kent, probably the world’s first pop-artist-cum-nun. 

Inevitably, conflict followed. McIntyre, incensed by what he saw as the blasphemous nature of Kent’s paintings and the intellectually rebellious programme of study at the college, put his foot down. His objections fell upon deaf ears. Caspary and her fellow nuns attached themselves to the changes wrought by Vatican II and the rolling stone of civil rights unrest – domestically (in the civil rights movement at Selma) and abroad (in Vietnam). Spurred on by the modernising wave within the Catholic Church, the sisters voted for the removal of the habit and the freedom to be released from structured prayer times and the vow of silence. Unable to work with both the Archdiocese and the Vatican, a large faction of the sisters disbanded in 1970 to form their own “ecumenical Christian community without walls”, named the Immaculate Heart Community, which still exists to this day. 

Recounted through a series of talking-head interviews with the sisters, many of whom are now dead, Rebel Hearts draws on a dizzying breadth of unseen footage. Add to this the upbeat pop soundtrack, with credits from Rufus Wainwright and Sharon Van Etten, and cartoon interludes that gesture towards Kent’s pop-art aesthetic, and you will feel swept along on a wave of feel-good “sisters doing it for themselves” sentiment. Stop to reflect, however, and it will become clear that Pedro Kos (whose credits include 2017’s Bending the Arc, about rebellion within the global health movement) does not have much time for the Catholic Church pre-Vatican II or for the strictures of the Archdiocese in general. In a series of repentant interviews, the Cardinal’s henchmen insist somewhat guiltily that McIntyre could have negotiated with Caspary. The cartoon interludes are designed to do the conceptual heavy-lifting for the audience – portraying McIntyre as a Satanic figure – who is prohibited from making up its own mind about the challenges the Church faced with the juggernaut of modernity. 

Next year will mark 60 years since the formal opening of the Vatican II council by Pope John XIII. As we move towards marking this milestone, documentaries such as Rebel Hearts remind us of the ambitious and profound changes that the Church underwent in order that the doctrine “be studied afresh and reformulated in contemporary terms”. Undoubtedly, the story of the Immaculate Heart of Mary is one that needs to be told and understood in this context. 

Unfortunately, Kos does not let the story speak for itself but rather provides it in cartoon form, obliterating the nuance and specificity of many of the women involved. I was moved most not by the stories of emancipation from patriarchy but by the brief interviews where some of the sisters described the pain and agony of leaving the Church as they knew it, describing themselves as “vulnerable divorcées”. 

Maria von Trapp let us make up our own minds about the Church she was leaving for matrimony. It’s a shame these heroines haven’t been allowed to sing the high notes as well as the low ones.   

Rebel Hearts is available to stream on Discovery+. Arabella Byrne writes for the Spectator and the Critic

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