The 1960s were a time of cultural upheaval for society in general, but also within the Roman Catholic Church.
The Vatican II Council, which ran from 1962-1965, enacted liberalizing reforms intended to connect the church much more closely with the contemporary world the faithful were living in. The sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary order in Los Angeles took that message and ran with it—a story told in the Discovery+ documentary Rebel Hearts.
Some IHM nuns participated in anti-Vietnam War and civil rights demonstrations. One sister, Corita Kent, became a renowned artist who depicted elements of the faith in novel ways. The order, which was made up of highly educated women, also questioned whether in the 1960s it was still necessary to wear a nun’s habit more appropriate to the Middle Ages.
“I think, to them, they were following their true calling. They were following the edicts of the Second Vatican Council,” director Pedro Kos explained during a panel discussion for Deadline’s Contenders Film: Documentary awards-season event. “They were being obedient to their faith and to their calling and what their faith was calling them to do, which was to be a part of the world.”
But as the film explores, the progressive attitude of the IHM nuns did not sit well with powerful Cardinal McIntyre, then head of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. He engaged in a battle to bring the IHM sisters to heel.
“He came from the most conservative parts of the church,” producer Judy Korin said. “He loved the power structure, and he was a businessman. And he saw this trouble with the sisters as going against his plan for the expansion of the Church and going against his ultimate control. … He didn’t want Corita depicting the Holy Family in her artwork because it offended the members of the diocese. And he was furious about them experimenting with wearing secular clothes.”
The conflict came down to independent-minded women running up against a patriarchal institution.
“When we were making the film,” said producer Kira Carstensen, “and looking at all this amazing archival that we found from the times that these women were marching in civil rights movements, protests, et cetera, we actually saw very similar footage from the 2017 Women’s March in Washington, with similar [protest] signs. And, so, it’s interesting. We seem to have come a long way, but then we really haven’t. There’s not a lot that’s changed in the last five decades vis-a-vis what these women were fighting for.”
Check out the panel video above.