While flipping through a magazine from 2017 a few months ago, I noticed a “staff pick” feature for a movie that was soon to be released. According to the feature this movie, entitled “Novitiate,” was about the effects of Vatican II through the eyes of a discerning novice.
This magazine feature, short as it was, made me guess that, were I to further investigate this movie, I wouldn’t like what I saw. I did choose to investigate, and my guess was absolutely correct. I don’t plan to see the movie, but here I present several of the inaccuracies that I found while reviewing plot summaries and synopses online, and my attempts to refute these errors.
The movie revolves around the life of a novice named Cathleen Harris. She is raised in a nonreligious home, but goes to a Catholic school. According to one synopsis, Cathleen, who has an experience of God’s love at age 12, and no earthly love of her own, likes the way that nuns describe themselves as being married to Christ, and thinks He will be her love too, but a different synopsis says the film implies that Cathleen enters as an escape from her mother’s abusive one-night stands.
Problems With the Mother Superior…
Whatever the reason is meant to be, Cathleen enters and doesn’t find what she expects. The Mother Superior is absolutely terrible, and inflicts awful punishment on her nuns, such as self-flagellation.
The Mother Superior’s foil appears to be Sister Mary Grace, a more “progressive” and nicer nun. When the Mother Superior gets notices about Vatican II, she wants to ignore them, and she and Sister Mary Grace clash over them. According to Wikipedia, the Mother Superior’s exact words are “The Church is perfect exactly the way it is.”
…That Reveals Deeper Problems With the Film
I see errors here. In the first place, how would a Mother Superior not know that the Church is feminine and should be referred to as “she?” You guessed it—any Mother Superior who had been adequately catechized, even the extremely cantankerous ones, would certainly know that.
However, this seemingly minor detail shows, again, that the filmmakers did not care about getting their facts accurate regarding the Church; they just wanted to create a movie according to their own perceptions of Her.
More problematically, this subplot shows that the Mother Superior is willing to disobey orders so that she might maintain her iron grip on the postulants. In one critical piece I read, the critic mentioned something about “pre-Vatican II, [religious life] was the only area of the Church where women had control.”
However, again, real Mother Superiors wouldn’t typically disobey orders so blatantly, as obedience is one of the vows they take. Second, as we Catholics know, the Church is not and was not before Vatican II an institution created to subjugate women with vague promises of Heaven and keep men ruling over everything.
As one of my fellow columnists wrote, women will never be Catholic priests because of what being a priest means, but while that’s true, there’s good reason for it. Catholic women are not second-class citizens; we just have different roles in the Church from men.
Furthermore, look at women like Mother Teresa or Mother Angelica. They were outwardly joyful, and they lived beautiful lives as nuns, and I would guess that a lot of their joy in life came from their focus on Christ and doing what He called them to do, rather than complaining that the Church did not have enough power outlets for women—or, for that matter, holding iron grips on postulants.
Sexual Issues, Too
As though those problems aren’t enough, “Novitiate” also has a sexual themes, as Sister Mary Grace (again, basically portrayed as the “good” nun”) “is seen tearfully masturbating alone in her cell” and Cathleen too has a “sexual awakening,” beginning with masturbation.
This first sin shakes Cathleen (which is actually realistic, as most observant Catholics would be shaken from committing grave sin) and her mother worries about her daughter’s health when she visits the convent. Wikipedia says that Cathleen is sent to the infirmary eventually, but only after she collapses.
Then, after her “sexual awakening,” Cathleen secretly tells another nun of her desire for “comfort” and the two of them have a sexual encounter. This could have been used as a good insertion of the slippery nature of sin. Instead of learning a valuable lesson, though, Cathleen becomes happier and her health starts to return. The Hollywood Reporter sums up the sexual aspect of the movie as “Some [nuns in the film] seemingly feel unable to conform to the strictures of the Church, especially the vows of chastity.”
This is arguably the biggest problem with the film. As we all know — whether it be sins of the flesh, profanity, or anything else — Catholics do not have immunity from mortal sin automatically, though we should always pray for the strength to avoid it. The difference is, if we do commit such sins, we should then make the greatest effort possible to rise above our sin with the aid of His grace. If any Catholic had a problem with the sorts of sins to which Cathleen succumbs, I would suggest he go to a trusted spiritual advisor, or even a good friend, and say, “I have a problem and want to overcome it. What should I do?”
Conversely, a Catholic who makes no effort to repent and conquer his sin then allows it to take him over. Not that repentance isn’t still possible until the very last moment of our earthly lives, but this sort of permissive attitude toward sin and then persisting in it is not only harmful to the soul, but relatively unlikely from anyone who takes his or her faith seriously, especially an aspiring nun. Now, Cathleen herself could be used as an example of one who was unready to commit herself so fully, revealing the danger of making life choices rashly, but the film makes no point of illustrating that.
The Church’s Teaching is Not Sexually Repressive
Regardless, I think most nuns (and priests) are not, in fact, suffering from a great sexual repression because they freely chose a life of celibacy for the greater glory of God. Even in those who have not vowed celibacy, the unmarried must abstain from sex and the married must remain faithful to their spouses.
If the logic behind “Novitiate” were actually correct, it would stand to reason that all observant Catholics, and those people of other faiths who keep the marriage covenant sacred, are sexually repressed in some way. I speak for us all: we are not “sexually repressed” when we follow Church teaching, but are using sexuality as God intended it. No one is ever “unable to conform to the strictures of the Church” with the help of God.
If someone chooses to refrain from asking for His help, then that’s the whole problem. And, if the person does not believe that the Catholic Church is His Church, so her teachings on sexuality are wrong, then why become a nun? One Vatican II document, the Decree on the Adaptation and Renewal of Religious Life, even says this about chastity:
Religious, therefore, who are striving faithfully to observe the chastity they have professed must have faith in the words of the Lord, and trusting in God’s help not overestimate their own strength but practice mortification and custody of the senses. Neither should they neglect the natural means which promote health of mind and body. As a result they will not be influenced by those false doctrines which scorn perfect continence as being impossible or harmful to human development and they will repudiate by a certain spiritual instinct everything which endangers chastity.
Too bad the filmmakers did not realize the Church pre-empted their incorrect proposition, in the selfsame council they used to promote their own thinking.
Love of God is Not Misplaced Eroticism
The Reporter also says, regarding the sexual scenes, that “[Religious writings used in the film] suggest the border between religious ecstasy and sexual longing has been porous for quite some time.” While I have little doubt this is what the movie implies, this whole idea is wrong.
The ecstasy of loving God will appear to be a misplaced earthly pleasure if He is assumed not to exist, as “Novitiate” basically does. But, observant Catholics believe that He created sex, but only for sacred purposes within the marriage covenant. Thus, used the way He intended it, sex is good, but used any other way, sexual acts become evil.
I can guess where the writer made this mistake, though—apart from simply not being Catholic. Erotic longing is strong and dangerous. The longing for God is also those things (albeit dangerous in a different way), thus it seems at first glance like the equivocation of the two is more or less accurate. The first mistake here is ignoring that God created sex for grave and blessed purposes. Beyond that, though, it must be taken into account that God is greater than all of His creation, including eroticism. Thus, logically, if man’s respective desires are organized in accordance with their objects, then since God is the greater object, man desires Him much more than sex.
Finally, if God asks us to love Him enough to give up our lesser desires for His sake, sex included, then we will want to do it out of loving Him more than ourselves. If a nun, or any Catholic, starts mixing up her love of God with erotic desires, or vice versa, I would again say she is in need of serious help.
Would a Real Nun Agree With This?
The Reporter further explains “[the] screenplay [was] inspired by the extensive reading of many nuns’ and former nuns’ memoirs.” But why would actual nuns not write accurately, such as referring to the Church as feminine? That leaves two possibilities for these memoir writers; either they did know these things and the filmmakers utterly ignored them, or the writers were poorly catechized and did not know all they should have of the Church. Personally, I think either way the screenwriter chose the wrong areas of the memoirs to use as her focus.
“Novitiate” Misrepresents Vatican II
This sounds like enough errors for one movie, right? Not quite. Wikipedia sums up the changes wrought by Vatican II (besides the extreme penances, which were already condemned) as shown in the movie: “Priests will say the Mass in English, and face the congregation. Catholics must embrace religious tolerance. Nuns are no longer required to wear habits and can wear whatever they wish as their status is now reduced and equal to any lay Catholic.” The Hollywood Reporter agrees that “Vatican II [diminished] the authority of nuns everywhere.”
That is technically correct about the Mass, though the Extraordinary Form is still said, and priests can face either way when celebrating the Ordinary Form. As for “embracing religious tolerance,” I was always taught that the Catholic Faith is the one true faith, but people of any and all faiths can reach Heaven if they love God. Though I was not alive back then, I was never under the impression that the Magisterium taught any differently in that area before Vatican II. The truth is still the truth, even if fewer Catholics understood it at that time. Perhaps this particular truth was only laid out clearly at Vatican II, but, having no other source to reference right now, I am not inclined to trust “Novitiate.”
Nuns are not required to wear habits by the Church, though from what I’ve seen the orders that choose to require them themselves seem to attract more vocations. The Church has definitively defined that celibacy is a higher state than marriage, though that does not mean that celibate persons themselves are greater than married, only their state in life.
Rejecting God Is Not Greater Than Accepting Him
Finally, at Cathleen’s final vow ceremony, she is asked, “What do you seek?” Instead of saying she wants to take her vows, she answers, “I seek something more.”
Now, if Cathleen were an observant Catholic who was called to married or single life instead of a religious order, she would certainly have discerned out by her final vow day. She would not actually go through the ceremony and assert that her calling was “more” than religious life, but, instead, leave beforehand knowing that God was asking something different of her.
If Catholics believed that religious life were lesser than the other callings, no one would enter religious life at all. If, however, the aspirant nun in question chose to the reject the Church entirely, as Cathleen apparently demonstrates, then of course innumerable worldly substitutes would seem greater than the religious calling of marrying Christ. From the perspective of a Catholic, though, what could be greater than living out God’s chosen plan for our lives? His plan will always be the greatest, as we find through obedience to Him.
The Common Thread
I think there is a basic common thread running through all of “Novitiate’s” errors. Though it may have been billed as “a story of the effect of Vatican II on the Catholic Church,” that is not primarily what I see in it. The one legitimate point it makes is that Vatican II or people causing “reforms” in the name of Vatican II did causes crises of faith among both religious and lay faithful, which led to many leaving religious life.
However, the movie does not use these crises of faith to illustrate the consequences of evil and error in the Church—such a movie would be made by a faithful Catholic. Nor is “Novitiate” a movie about the more secular-friendly themes of the human condition and the pains of life, particularly loss of faith. Whether or not the observer would agree with the faith that was lost, it is generally agreed that loss of belief is nonetheless painful.
Instead, the point of “Novitiate” seems to be that the pre-Vatican II Church oppressed good, “normal” women and was a haven only for ruling tyrannical women. The movie might even imply that today’s Church is still lacking, since Vatican II certainly didn’t change her teachings on sexuality, or discourage entering religious life.
Whatever the director may have intended to imply, in the end “Novitiate” amounts to a poor attempt to explain love and devotion to the supernatural in purely natural terms. Propositions such as “People enter religious life to escape a bad situation,” and “Catholic nuns can stand to be celibate only because they repress themselves” have one strong refutation. Catholic and other Christians practice countercultural acts, such as abstaining from sex until marriage, not because we are mindless slaves to whatever rules are fed to us, but out of service and love to One Whom we believe is greater than ourselves. Take Him out of the equation, as “Novitiate” does almost entirely, and nothing makes any sense.
Thus, no one, particularly those lacking knowledge of the Church, should rely on “Novitiate” as an explanation of Catholicism or religious life, whether before or after Vatican II.