Barbara Rick, collaborating with Albert Maysles behind the camera, has crafted an absorbing docu, “In Good Conscience,” about a nun torn between her vows of obedience and her public advocacy for the acceptance of gays in the Catholic church. The unassuming Sister Jeannine Gramick may be the most engaging spokesperson for the Catholic faith in recent memory, but, in the best tradition of religious crusaders, she has been threatened with expulsion and commanded to keep silent. Pic’s dual focus and the enormous charm of its subject should fuel demand in gay and non-traditional religious venues.
Defining herself as a builder of bridges, Sister Gramick in 1977 co-founded the New Ways Ministry, a “compassionate ministry” for gays and lesbians that offered workshops, conferences and pilgrimages to Rome. Helmer Rick eavesdrops on a conference in Louisville, Ky., where parents of gay children praise the inclusive supportiveness that allows them to embrace both their offspring and their faith.
In 1999, Sister Gramick co-authored a book entitled “Building Bridges: Gay and Lesbian Reality and the Catholic Church” that drew the attention of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. This arm of the church, Sister Gramick admits with a delicate shrug, used to be called The Inquisition.
Also in ’99, a letter signed by Cardinal Ratzinger and approved by the Pope accused Sister Gramick of causing confusion by not highlighting teachings that hold homosexual acts to be “intrinsically evil” and prohibited her from any pastoral work involving “homosexual persons.”
A later missive from her own Order enjoined her to silence on the whole subject of gayness. (Pic’s sole wrong notes are the melodramatic voiceover readings of these edicts.) After much soul-searching, Sister Gramick calmly sidestepped both orders, asserting, “I choose not to collaborate in my own oppression.”
In speaking engagements and interviews with media, Sister Gramick’s extremely articulate arguments are respectful but non-doctrinaire, even humorous: She points out that the church’s stance toward many activities proscribed in Leviticus has changed (the law against eating shellfish and the ban on ordaining hunchbacks, among others), while practices (like slavery) condoned by scripture have since been condemned.
She laments in private musings that the church chose to model itself on the Holy Roman Empire, adapting an imperial hierarchy, while she adheres to the “best kept secret” of the Catholic faith — the primacy of conscience.
Pic follows her around Rome, where her book has just appeared in a retitled, sexier-packaged Italian translation, as she tries to give a copy to Cardinal Ratzinger and speaks at book signings and gay organizations where the “rebel nun,” as the Italian press dubs her, is warmly welcomed.
Pic emphasizes the down-to-earth ordinariness of this woman in plain secular garb, catching her exercising or having her hair done, picking up pizzas or sharing a coffee with her aging father at a local Dunkin Donuts, looking more like a favorite aunt than a freedom fighter.
Tech credits are excellent, Maysles’ camera particularly adept at stressing contrasts between the pillared majesty of Saint Peter’s and the lone dumpy figure valiantly overcoming obstacles. Music by John Califra artfully covers a wide range of tones, but, like pic’s Sister subject, without fanfare or stridency.