Sylvia Morales and Jean Victor's "Faith Even to the Fire" marks one of television's first in-depth explorations of the debates swirling inside the Catholic Church between an all-male hierarchy and a dissenting community of nuns--or sisters, as they prefer to be called.
The film centers on three sisters and how their different paths brought them into conflict with church authority. For Sister Judy Vaughan of Chicago, it was a public letter advocating abortion rights. For Sister Rosa Martha Zarate, it was resisting her dismissal from her post in the San Bernardino archdiocese. For Sister Marie de Porres Taylor of Oakland, it was her fight against what she felt was racism in the church establishment.
Their personal conflicts develop into a larger protest for "sharing power"--a direct challenge to open the Catholic priesthood to women. Los Angeles-based Morales (a lapsed Catholic) and Victor (a secular Jew of Lebanese heritage) talked with reporter Robert Koehler about the Catholic battle they term "a story of David vs. Goliath."
The conflict in your film recalls the schisms which led to Protestantism. Can't this debate lead to a complete break?
Victor: This is not a schism. These women are saying, "This church is our church. We may have fundamental differences, but the church is not an institution. The church is people. Theology does not come from the top and trickle down. Therefore, we stay in our church to change it." Sister Judy feels that it is the church (establishment) which is heretical, since they hold all these riches in the presence of so many poor. They couldn't possibly be representing Jesus.
Remember that the sisters aren't clergy. They're lay people within the church. It's easier for them to protest than the priests, who are part of the clerical church system.
Sister Judy seems to be constantly making links between her fight with the church to Jesus' fight with the Roman dictatorship. How far will she take this battle?
Morales: The title of the show, "Faith Even to the Fire," comes from Maxwell Anderson's play "Joan of Lorraine," where Joan says at the end, "I would follow my faith, even to the fire." Of course, she burned. These women today are not literally burning, but all of them have been "burned," one way or another. When I told Judy the background of the title, she said, "Oh, I don't feel that I'm doing enough." She's fearless, though she's not foolish. All three of these women are very convinced in what they are doing, which is to promote justice for poor, grass-roots people.
Theologian Marie Augusta Neal refers in the film to Adolf Eichmann's claim during the Nuremberg trials that he was following Hitler's orders, and how this was an ethical turning point for individual responsibility to authority. Isn't this a central issue of the film?
Morales: Absolutely. One of the program's themes is personal conscience in conflict with church authority.
Victor: We're also dealing here with a North American attitude, that no outside authority can tell you what to do. When the American bishops explained to the Vatican that there are various points of view among North American Catholics, the Vatican responded that the North Americans would have to adapt to the church.
The women constantly stress the need for a "dialogue around the table." Why isn't this happening?
Morales: The Vatican refuses such a dialogue. They say that there's nothing to talk about.
What has happened to the sisters since the film was completed?
Morales: Rosa Marta doesn't consider herself a sister any longer, though the church does. She now works with her San Bernardino community in the spirit of Liberation Theology: Theology of grass-roots self-sufficiency, self-determination. This is what the church opposed.
Victor: Sister Judy still heads the National Assembly of Religious Women, though she doesn't always want to be tied down to a desk. She also gives talks around the country about homeless mothers and children. Sister Marie (de Porres Taylor) is now working for Oakland Mayor Elihu Harris--the same man she was lobbying in the film. She's helping create a city program to coordinate all of the area's job-training facilities, as well as counseling adults and youth.
Vatican II called for more social activism, yet many sisters got in trouble for their social activism. How can this happen?
Morales: Many of the sisters took Vatican II seriously. As did many priests who have been silenced (by Rome). By trying to follow through on the call of Vatican II, many communities of nuns were changing their constitutions (to add social activism to a nun's duties, for example). In order to do that, they had to get permission from the hierarchy. But the hierarchy didn't give them permission. So they're caught in a bind.
Do you think your film will anger the Catholic establishment?
Morales: Not at all. (Members of the Los Angeles archdiocese who saw it have told us that they) thought it was very good, balanced, and that the women had deep faith. KCET was very nervous about it, since they aired it two weeks after "Stop the Church" was scheduled on "P.O.V." last year. We kept saying that there's nothing to be nervous about. We're not bringing up something new for Catholics.
Also, the sisters aren't rabble-rousers. They're very low-key, very passionate, but they're not frothing at the mouth. That's the kind of film it is. You have to stay with it for that reason.
\o7 "P.O.V.'s" "Faith Even to the Fire" airs Monday at 10 p.m. on KCET, KPBS.\f7