A priest and nun trust in Christ by faith alone and come out of Catholicism

From Darkness to Light
By Frank and Joan Testa
Xulon Press, 2012, 173 pages

This book is the testimony of Frank and Joan Testa, a former Roman Catholic priest and nun.

Frank grew up in Newark, New Jersey as part of a Catholic family and states that he “came to know the Lord Jesus as (his) personal Savior” in his early teen years, but that he remained in Catholicism out of ignorance. He determined to become a priest and attended seminary in the U.S. and Europe and was ordained in 1964. He quickly became involved with Catholic social agencies and was drawn to urban activism in several New Jersey cities, often earning the disapproval of his more traditionally-minded superiors. But by reading the Bible and through contact with Christians in the communities he was serving, Frank came to understand that many of the doctrines and practices of Roman Catholicism are opposed to Scripture. He resigned from the priesthood and left Catholicism in 1977.

Joan grew up with her Catholic family in Newburgh, New York (sixty miles north of NYC) and entered a convent of the Dominican order in 1955, immediately following her high school graduation. She earned college degrees and subsequently taught in Catholic schools in the States and Puerto Rico. She was drawn to studying God’s word and also became involved in community activism in New Jersey, where she became acquainted with Frank on a strictly professional basis. Through the study of God’s Word and the witness of Christian friends, Joan accepted Jesus Christ as her Savior by faith alone in 1978 and left her religious order and the Catholic church.

Although they were both out of Catholicism, Frank and Joan were still involved in urban activism and their paths crossed regularly. A special friendship developed and the two were married in 1980. Together, the couple founded an urban mission church, ministered to addicts through the Teen Challenge program, and became involved in foreign missions. In 1999, they began their “Repent America” ministry, which involved guest-speaking at churches and street preaching all across the U.S.

While I enjoyed this book, I do have a few qualifications. Firstly, Frank says he entered into a “personal relationship” with Jesus Christ as a young teen while reading the book, “God Goes to Murderer’s Row” by “father” M. Raymond, a Trappist monk. I am curious how a person could trust in Jesus Christ by faith alone, and then go through eight years of Catholic seminary and thirteen years as a priest without ever comprehending that Catholicism’s legalistic calculus and ritualism have no connection with the genuine Gospel of salvation by God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ alone. Perhaps Frank had had a preliminary insight into salvation in Christ as I had as a child in 1967 (see here), although I would not actually accept Jesus as Savior until 1983. Despite the confusion, it appears from his writing that Frank eventually acquired a full understanding of the Gospel and genuinely accepted Christ as his Savior by faith alone.

Secondly, both Frank and Joan are outspoken Pentecostals. I’m a cessationist in regards to the apostolic gifts of the Spirit, so there are several passages in the book that I read with a good amount of skepticism. I generally avoid discussing the apostolic gifts in a general forum such as this because there’s nothing to be gained by debating this topic involving secondary beliefs with my Pentecostal and charismatic brethren, but I do need to point out that in this book, Frank refers to believers who are cessationists in a negative manner.

Despite the above qualifications, I enjoyed this book overall.

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Remember convents? Catholic girls were once attracted to the “discipline” of religious orders.

Novitiate
Written and directed by Maggie Betts and featuring Margaret Qualley, Melissa Leo, Julianne Nicholson, and Dianna Agron.
Sony Pictures Classics, 2017, 123 minutes

You have to be around sixty-years-old or older to remember pre-Vatican II, militant Catholicism. This film brought back memories.

Plot (spoiler alert!)

Young Cathleen experiences very little love in her broken home, but she is awarded a scholarship to a Catholic school for girls and is intrigued by the nuns who teach her. To the absolute chagrin of her “freespirited” mother (Nicholson), Cathleen (Qualley) decides to enter the convent of the Sisters of the Blessed Rose in 1964 at the age of seventeen. She is attracted by the nuns’ close-knit community, disciplined lifestyle, and intense “spirituality.” However, Cathleen’s fanciful conception of convent life meets cold reality like a hard slap across the face in the person of Reverend Mother (Leo), who rules the institution with an iron fist. Cathleen and the other novices must endure harsh and humiliating treatment and adhere to a thick catalog of rules and regulations for the opportunity of becoming a full-fledged nun. Many drop away or are deemed unsuitable and dismissed. The remaining young women have a sympathetic ally in one young nun, sister Mary Grace (Agron), who chafes under the boot of Reverend Mother, but the old war horse has her own problems.

The Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) is ushering in many reforms of church practices and rules governing religious orders and Reverend Mother is none too pleased with this threat to her fiefdom. She resists the changes as long as possible while venting her frustration on her charges. Cathleen struggles to endure her training and even starves herself into the infirmary in an attempt to master her spiritual failings. Under orders from the archbishop, Reverend Mother can no longer forestall the Vatican II reforms and reluctantly notifies the sisters of the changes. Horrified by the unsettling news, many nuns leave the convent and return to the secular world. Only a small handful of novices remain, and on the day they take their “final vows” to become full-fledged nuns, Cathleen decides to leave the convent.

Comments

Boy, did this film bring back memories. I attended Catholic parochial school from 1961 to 1970 and personally witnessed the last stages of militant, pre-Vatican II Catholicism and then the dramatic window-dressing changes of Vatican II. I can remember all the nuns who taught me quite vividly. Some were kind and some were very troubled souls who released their anger on us children. Those poor women were attempting to merit their way to Heaven by living ascetic lives according to the strict rules of their order, the Sisters of Mercy. We talk about religious cults, but was there anything more cultish than a group of women living together as the brides of Christ replete with wedding rings and dressed in 11th century garb? As the movie shows, these women had to endure great hardship and humiliation. Many forms of self-mortification were encouraged. This movie alludes to lesbian relationships inside the convent, what real-life nuns termed as “particular friendships.” This is a sensitive topic, but lesbianism was a very real issue in convents, where women, young and old, were deprived of natural affections. As an eighth-grade student, I witnessed signs of a “particular friendship” between my homeroom teacher and another nun.

This was a good film, but a painful one to watch because of the memories. As a child, I witnessed first-hand the type of vicious cruelty doled out by the film’s Reverend Mother. Being the target of a nun’s hissy fit was painful. Melissa Leo is excellent in the role of convent despot.

Additional comments from an ex-Catholic believer

Catholicism changed its window dressing with Vatican II, but it still preaches the same core doctrines and the same false gospel of salvation by sacramental grace and merit. All of these poor nuns attempted to earn their salvation through severe asceticism, but Catholics still try to merit their salvation as they are instructed by their church. At the end of the film, it states that, following the changes of Vatican II, “90,000 nuns renounced their vocations and left their convents.” My hope is that some of them eventually trusted in Jesus Christ as Savior by faith alone. There are relatively very few nuns in the U.S. today; the number dropped from 180,000 in 1965 to 50,000 in 2014 and the majority of those that remain are elderly.

For the testimonies of 20 former nuns who left Catholicism and accepted Jesus Christ as Savior, see here.

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In this scene, the novices meet with Reverend Mother and each confess their sins publicly as a weekly ritual . The other novices are asked to accuse each nun of any sins they have observed.

First “convent escape narrative” published in America

Six Months in a Convent
By Rebecca Theresa Reed
Book Verve E-Books, 2014 (originally published in 1835)

Several days ago, I posted a review of “Fire & Roses,” a history of the burning of the Mount Benedict convent and boarding school in Charlestown, Massachusetts in 1834. See here. Intimately entwined with that unfortunate event is the story of Rebecca Theresa Reed.

Reed was born in Charlestown in 1813 into an Episcopalian family. It was in 1826, in her walks past the newly-built convent, that the thirteen-year-old became mesmerized by the impressive building with its manicured grounds and gardens and by the nuns with their unusual garb and their separation from the world. Reed envisioned convent life as a blissful existence of prayer and dedication to God and began pleading with her parents to allow her to enter the convent, which they were not agreeable to. But after the death of her mother, Reed entered the convent as a postulant in 1831 at the age of eighteen. However, her romantic notions of convent life quickly came crashing to the ground. In this book, she describes the harsh living conditions imposed upon the nuns and the severeness of the mother superior, Mary Anne Moffatt aka Sister Mary Edmond St. George.

After Reed began resisting Moffat’s heavy-handed discipline, she overheard the mother superior and bishop discussing plans to forcibly transfer her to a convent in Quebec in order to break her spirit. The postulant nun escaped the convent and her story quickly spread throughout Charlestown and Boston. Protestants were already resentful of the Ursuline convent and boarding school because girls from wealthy Protestant families made up the majority of the student population. Tensions reached the tipping point after another nun escaped the convent (only to return) in addition to several other factors. An angry Protestant mob destroyed the convent on the evening of August 12, 1834.

Reed’s book was published the following year in 1835. Despite Catholic aspersions to the contrary, her 66-page account is actually non-sensationalistic and quite reasonable. In addition to her story, the original publisher included a 71-page “Preliminary Suggestions for Candid Readers” apologia section which seeks to exonerate Reed of any direct responsibility for the riot, to warn Protestant parents of the dangers of educating their children at Catholic institutions, and also to contend for the Gospel of salvation by God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ alone versus Rome’s false gospel of sacramental grace and merit. “Six Months in a Convent” sold 10,000 copies after its first week in print and more than 200,000 overall; amazing numbers for that era.

After leaving the convent and Catholicism, Rebecca Theresa Reed returned to her family’s Episcopalian church, Old North Church, in Boston. It was at Old North Church on April 18, 1775 that sexton Robert Newman placed two lanterns in the steeple to alert Paul Revere that British troops were advancing by boat across the Charles River into Cambridge. Reed died from tuberculosis in 1839 at the young age of 26. See here. It’s not explicitly clear from the text whether she ever placed her trust in Jesus Christ as her Savior.

Reed’s “Six Months in a Convent” was the first “convent escape narrative” to be published in the United States. Many more would follow throughout the rest of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Catholic critics were duty-bound to dismiss the accounts as sensationalistic and prurient fiction, but we know from recent research (and headlines) that Catholic convents, rectories, seminaries, and schools were hothouses of abuse and deviancy. See here for one example.

The editor of this 2014 Kindle ebook version thought it proper to include a five-page introduction that smears both Reed’s factual testimony and the publisher’s apologia as anti-Catholic “hate literature.” No surprise. The text of the book is a bit difficult to read, especially the apologia section, due to the flowery, 19th-century prose. This book is strictly for those readers interested in the circumstances involved with the burning of the Mount Benedict convent and/or convent escape narratives in general. Order from Amazon here. Several free PDF versions can also be found on the internet including this one.

Postscript: American Protestants eventually grew indifferent to the concept of Catholic convents, but actually few religious establishments are more cultish if you stop and consider it. In reading this book I couldn’t help but remember those women who lived together in a convent only two blocks from our house and taught us in our parochial school that salvation is merited by all those who are baptized (preferably into the Catholic church) and are “good;” sisters Imelda, Annunciata, Tarcisius, Lourdes, Gemma, Maryanne, Virginia, and Edwardine. They dedicated their lives to trying to merit Heaven and inculcating their young charges with the same.

Interesting quote: “The (Irish) Bishop remarked, ‘The Yankees celebrated independence day in honor of men, and appointed days of thanksgiving, instead of celebrating the birthday of the Redeemer, in honor of God.'” – Kindle position 581 of 2310

 

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An illustration of Rebecca Theresa Reed following her escape from the Mount Benedict convent

A convent in flames

Fire & Roses: The Burning of the Charlestown Convent, 1834
By Nancy Lusignan Schultz
The Free Press, 2000, 317 pages

Catholic and even non-Catholic journalists and commentators often like to cite examples of anti-Catholic bigotry in American history. One of the most notorious examples of anti-Catholic hatred was the burning of the Mount Benedict convent and boarding school in Charlestown, Massachusetts in 1834. I had always wanted to acquaint myself with the particulars of that event, so I borrowed this book from the library.

The first convent and Catholic school in Boston, Massachusetts was established in 1820. Nuns from the Ursuline order were enlisted from Quebec to staff the fledgling school. Due to inadequate space, the convent-school was moved to an impressive, newly-built structure on Ploughed Hill* (renamed Mount Benedict) in Charlestown in 1827-1828. Most of the student boarders were daughters of wealthy Protestants.

The Protestant majority of Boston and the surrounding towns already harbored feelings of fear and distrust toward Catholicism, but a number of circumstances and events led to the burning of the convent in 1834:

  • Working-class Protestants in Charlestown were resentful of the visibly prominent and grandiose convent-school building with its 24-acre manicured grounds and the foreign French Catholic nuns with their unusual outfits.
  • The influx of Irish Catholic immigrants into Boston and Charlestown increasingly forced working-class Protestants to compete for employment.
  • Protestants were angered that children of Protestants were being educated/indoctrinated by Catholic nuns.
  • In 1832, a young postulant, Rebecca Theresa Reed, left the convent and subsequently related stories of abuse within the institution. She would later publish her experiences as “Six Months in a Convent” in 1835.
  • In July of 1834, another nun, Elizabeth Harrison, left the convent under unusual circumstances, exacerbating the already agitated state of the Protestant population following Reed’s escape.
  • On Sunday, August 11, famous Presbyterian preacher and abolitionist, Lyman Beecher, spoke at several Boston churches on the errors of Romanism and the dangers of Protestant parents sending their children to Catholic schools. Did he cite Mount Benedict specifically?
  • On Monday, August 12, a town committee appointed to investigate circumstances at the convent in regards to Elizabeth Harrison was treated contemptuously by the Mother Superior and students. That evening, a crowd of around 2000 people gathered at the convent’s gates, and beginning at 11:00 p.m., around 50 men participated in burning down the convent. The ten nuns and fifty students escaped, but the convent-school was completely destroyed. Fire brigades stood idly by and favorably observed the destruction along with the cheering crowd.

In December, thirteen men were tried for the crime, however, all but one were acquitted. After an attempt to reestablish the convent and school in the nearby town of Roxbury, the nuns returned to Quebec in 1835. Another attempt in 1838 to revive the school was unsuccessful.

The violent destruction of the Mount Benedict convent was certainly regrettable. Followers of Jesus Christ do not condone sectarian violence. But we do a disservice to the truth if we lift these events out of their wider context. Protestant immigrants to America were painfully aware of the tyrannical nature of the Catholic church in Europe. In countries where Catholics were in the majority, Protestants were oppressed, oftentimes severely. Right up until the end of the 19th century, popes issued encyclicals condemning democratic forms of government and freedom of religion. Persecution of Protestants in Catholic-controlled countries continued well into the 20th century.

I certainly don’t approve of the mob violence in Charlestown in 1834 or any other examples of anti-Catholic violence in American history, but the fear of militant Catholicism had a factual basis in the Inquisition and the persecution of Protestants throughout Catholic Europe and Catholic Latin America.

The author of this book, Nancy Lusignan Schultz, is a Roman Catholic and her account is not without some bias, but I did enjoy learning more about this tragic event. Her less-than-flattering accounts of Mount Benedict’s haughty mother superior, Mary Anne Moffatt, are very interesting. Despite a certain degree of sectarian prejudice, this book is well-researched and informative.

*Although Ploughed Hill/Mount Benedict was eventually leveled and used as fill for the abandoned Middlesex Canal, a marker near the intersection of Broadway and Illinois Avenue in Somerville designates the approximate former location of the destroyed convent-school.

 

Mount B

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From a nun to a child of God!

Sister of Mercy: From Serving God to Knowing Him
By Wilma Sullivan
Emerald House Group, 1997, 80 pages

In this short book, former nun, Wilma Sullivan, testifies of her journey from being a Roman Catholic nun to salvation by God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ alone.

Sullivan was born into a Catholic family and educated by the Sisters of Mercy at St. Agnes Catholic Grammar School in Towanda, Pennsylvania up until the sixth grade. The dedication of the nuns made a huge impression on her. Being an athletic girl, she chose to attend public schools from seventh through twelfth grades because of their superior sports programs and facilities, but continued with her CCD (Confraternity of Christian Doctrine) religious classes for Catholic children attending public schools. Sullivan desired to become a nun following high school, but fulfilled her father’s wish that she first go to college.

After graduating from a two-year college, Sullivan entered a Sisters of Mercy convent in 1967. Shortly afterwards, she was assigned to teach a second-grade class at a Catholic grammar school. The Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) brought many changes into the church including changes in religious orders. Nuns were given greater independence. Sullivan was disillusioned with what she saw as the disintegration of community life in her religious order and left the convent in 1971. But she remained faithful to the Catholic religion and volunteered for various assignments at two Catholic parishes.

During a hospital stay, Sullivan struck up a friendship with another patient, a born-again Christian. The two discussed spiritual matters often. Sullivan bought a Bible (her first) and attended weekly services at both the Catholic and the Baptist church of her friend. She eventually understood that salvation is by God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ alone and accepted Christ as her Savior. After several months, Sullivan found that she could no longer continue to attend the Catholic church services because so many of the beliefs and practices were contrary to God’s Word, including the false gospel of sacramental grace and merit.

For many years, Sullivan traveled across the country speaking to women’s groups about her journey from legalistic, institutional religion to a relationship with Jesus Christ.

I enjoyed this short book quite a bit and read through it in only a couple of sittings. I was also taught by the Sisters of Mercy in Catholic grammar school. I praise the Lord that Sullivan accepted Christ as Savior and came out of Catholic legalism. Faithful Catholics and ecumenical evangelical Judases don’t know what to do with a testimony like Wilma Sullivan’s. If she is right, they are wrong and that just won’t do according to their way of thinking.

Order the Kindle edition of “Sister of Mercy” here.

Read a shorter version of Sullivan’s testimony here.

Behind convent doors

My Life in the ConventMYL
By Margaret Lisle Shepherd
Book and Bible House, 1946, 258 pages

Protestant books examining alleged abuse in Roman Catholic convents proliferated in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Many of these books were written by ex-nuns. Catholic spokespersons naturally categorized these books as “Puritan pornography” and accused the authors of fraud.

An example of the genre is “My Life in the Convent” written by Margaret Lisle Shepherd (aka Sister Magdalene Adelaide), first published in 1892. As an English girl living in India, Shepherd learns from her dying mother that her deceased father was a Catholic priest. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree so years later, after she has returned to England, Shepherd herself succumbs to the advances of a determined priest. Father Egan abandons his vocation and the two enter into a common-law marriage, which produces a baby girl. Egan eventually regrets his decision and abandons his family to resume his religious calling. With no means of support, Shepherd turns to thievery. She is apprehended but it’s too late for the baby who dies from the effects of malnutrition. After a few detours, Shepherd ends up at the penitential Convent of St. Arno’s Court in Bristol, England. It’s already a difficult existence for the contrite nuns but Shepherd describes how priests ministering at the convent occasionally take advantage of their charges. After two years at the convent, Shepherd discovers a Protestant Bible and is shocked to discover the many differences between Scripture and Catholicism and decides to leave. She is given sanctuary by Salvation Army ministers and accepts Jesus Christ as her Savior. She journeys to Canada and the United States, giving her testimony on the Protestant lecture circuit and assisting Christian charitable organizations.

The book’s epilogue circumspectly alludes to the Loyal Women of American Liberty, which Shepherd founded in Boston in 1888. The LWAL was a semi-secret patriotic society which promoted nativism and Protestantism. An internet search of Shepherd and the LWAL revealed Chicago newspaper reports of the period alleging Shepherd’s “deceit and immorality” regarding her account of her previous years, leading to her resignation from the organization in 1891. She wrote this book as an answer to her growing number of Catholic critics. Shepherd continued on the lecture circuit but faced mounting opposition from Catholic groups. She was arrested in Columbus, Ohio in 1902 on charges of selling “lewd and obscene” books, disorderly conduct, and inciting to riot. All charges were dropped when she agreed to leave the city. Shepherd subsequently traveled to Australia where she continued her lectures on Romanism but soon found herself sick with cancer. Returning to the U.S., she died alone and penniless in a Detroit hospital in 1903 at the age of 43. I only hope she had genuinely accepted Christ as her Savior.

Reprints of “My Life in the Convent” were made available for many years. My 1946 edition was published by Book and Bible House owned by L. J. King, a passionate Protestant nativist. This book may have been slightly scandalous, “adults only,” reading in 1892 but it’s certainly quite tame by 2016 standards.

With the number of Catholic nuns rapidly declining since the 1960s, convents are becoming increasingly few and far between. But were some nuns scandalously abused and mistreated over the centuries as this book and many others claimed? There’s no doubt. The church’s mandatory celibacy discipline for its priests and nuns couldn’t erase their sexuality. Refer to the excellent “The Nuns of Sant’Ambrogio: The True Story of a Convent in Scandal” by prize-winning, German historian, Hubert Wolf. Wolf used documentation from the vaults of the Vatican’s very own Office of the Holy Inquisition (the name was changed to the much more PR-friendly “Supreme Sacred Congregation of the Holy Office”) for his research. See here for my review. For other verifiable examples of clerical turpitude one need only recall the headlines over the last thirty years dealing with predatory pedophile priests and the subsequent cover-up by the church hierarchy.

At my Catholic grammar school, I was taught by members of the Sisters of Mercy who lived in a convent adjacent to the school. I was very curious about those women who wore stiff, uncomfortable medieval habits and lived together in a strict community with hardly any connection to family. They wore wedding rings as a sign that they were virginal brides of Christ. People point to peculiarities of extreme religious sects, but is there anything more cultish than a convent full of nuns? These women were attempting to merit their salvation through great personal sacrifice and pious religious devotion. But in nine years of schooling, the sisters never once mentioned to us the Gospel of salvation by God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ alone as taught in God’s Word. Instead, they taught us the Catholic formula of salvation through the sacraments administered by the priests followed by obedience to the Ten Commandments (impossible!) and church rules. It was all about ritual, formalism, and religious legalism.

The nuns were not happy women. We students saw a side of them that our parents and adult parishioners were not privy to. There is no peace in religious striving. No one can possibly obey the Ten Commandments. The Law only condemns us as the sinners we are. Accept Jesus Christ as your Savior. He paid the penalty for your sins and He’s waiting for you to receive Him as Savior.

“Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me.” – Revelation 3:20

Mother Angelica, Catholic icon, dies at 92

Catholic apologists love to point to the wide diversity within Protestantism with itsMA large number of denominations and a growing number of non-denominational churches. But while evangelical Christians might disagree on many secondary doctrinal issues, we are united in our belief in the Gospel of salvation by God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ alone. Unfortunately, several of the mainline Protestant denominations slipped into apostasy and unbelief long ago.

Catholicism likes to present itself as the “one true church,” united in faith behind the pope but the reality is quite different. Catholic belief ranges the full spectrum from the super-liberal to the  ultra-traditionalist. The vast majority of Catholics (76%) do not attend mandatory weekly mass or yearly confession (88%).

Speaking of Catholic traditionalists, I see that Mother Mary Angelica (aka Rita Rizzo) passed away yesterday, Easter Sunday, at the age of 92. She was the driving force in the creation of the EWTN (Eternal Word Television Network) Catholic media conglomerate. Her pithy, no-nonsense commentary attracted a devoted following among conservative Catholics. There is little doubt that her admirers will soon be petitioning the church hierarchy to begin the process to elevate Mother Angelica to sainthood.

Many uninformed evangelical Christians might take a quick look at the life of Mother Angelica and conclude, “Of course this woman was a devoted Christian. Despite her quirky and unbiblical Catholic distinctives, she obviously loved the Lord and devoted her entire life to Him.”

Unfortunately, the “gospel” taught by Mother Angelica was not the Good News of salvation by God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ alone. She believed, like all traditional Catholics do, that salvation is by baptism and by participating in the church’s other sacraments and by obeying the Ten Commandments and church rules. She had an especially strong devotion to Mary and believed that Mary’s intercession was vital to salvation. Most people will remember her for leading the praying of the rosary to Mary on EWTN broadcasts. However, Mother Angelica also supported her church’s position that people of all religious faiths could be saved if they “followed the light they were given” and “lived good upright lives.”

Through her media empire, Mother Angelica has led many away from the genuine Gospel of grace through faith to a gospel of sacramental grace and merit earned by “good” works. Catholics are being misled from following the narrow way of Jesus Christ as the only hope of salvation and have, instead, been given a wide-is-the-way religion which mentions God, Jesus, faith, and grace but is actually one of the false, works-righteousness religions going back to Cain.

 

Doubt

Doubt (2008)doubt

Directed by John Patrick Shanley and starring Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, and Viola Davis.

Sister Aloysius (Streep) is the no-nonsense principal of a Catholic grammar school in the Bronx in 1964. The stern, ice-blooded nun exacts swift discipline on the children without a drop of charity. Young Sister James (Adams), a sweet-hearted, new teacher at the school, has yet to become hardened and embittered by her circumstances.

A new priest, Father Flynn (Hoffman), arrives at the parish and Sister Aloysius takes an immediate dislike to his liberal ways. When Sister James confides to Sister Aloysius that she suspects Flynn is sexually abusing a twelve-year-old male student, the principal sets a determined course to have the priest removed from the parish.

This is a riveting film from start  to finish. Streep, Hoffman, Adams, and Davis all give outstanding, Oscar-nominated performances. Shanley’s fine script also received an Oscar nomination. Did Flynn actually molest the boy? The audience is left guessing. What about the priest’s pride in his long fingernails? Absolutely twisted! Actually, the notions of celibate nuns in convents and celibate priests in rectories are beyond creepy. Christians point to the Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses as being cults but is there a religious practice more cultish than a convent full of virgin women? Only social conditioning prevents such a practice from being seen as the outrageously aberrant arrangement that it is. And we’ve all been made aware of the damage done by “celibate” pedophile priests and the cover-up by the church hierarchy.

I was baptized as an infant into the Catholic church and attended parochial grammar and high school. I can personally attest to the frustration and unhappiness of the nuns, priests, and brothers who were supposed to be our guides and examples. Many of us who came in frequent contact with the Catholic clergy back in those days knew they were troubled souls. As I watched this film my heart broke for the victims of predatory clerics.

As a young adult I began reading the Bible and eventually abandoned the works-based religion of men and accepted Jesus Christ as my Savior. Catholicism gives lip service to grace and faith but ultimately it’s a works-based church which teaches justification before God comes through its sacraments and by obeying the Ten Commandments (impossible!).

I’m so grateful for the free gift of salvation by the grace of God through faith in Jesus Christ alone as taught by the Bible and Bible-believing, evangelical churches. This film brought to mind all the poor souls blinded by the legalism and empty ritualism of Catholicism. When Sister Aloysius cries out at the end of the movie that she doubts her  religion she voices the uncertainty and joylessness of everyone who attempts to merit their own salvation. Convents are now largely a thing of the past but Catholics are still attempting to earn their way to Heaven.

We all waste a lot of our time with mindless television shows and films. “Doubt” is a must-see. You can stream “Doubt” from Amazon for the price of a Starbucks coffee or order the DVD for the price of two cups.

180 Years Ago, Everyone Knew Her Name

Murder, Rape, and Torture in a Catholic Nunnery: Maria Monk’s Awful DisclosuresMRN Proven True
By Edward Hendrie
Great Mountain Publishing, 2015, 254 pages

I attended a Catholic parochial school for nine years where I was taught by the Sisters of Mercy. Every day I walked by the convent connected to the school and wondered about the mysterious building and the nuns who lived inside. What was their routine? How did they co-exist with their fellow sisters. In the school building we students were sometimes privy to unpleasant exchanges between the sisters.

Nuns and convents were such an integral part of Catholic parish culture back in those days that we didn’t even think twice about them. But is there anything more cultish than a large group of unmarried virgins living together as “brides of Christ” replete with wedding rings?

Convent escape narratives were quite popular in 19th and early 20th century Protestant literature. Ex-nuns reported blushingly-veiled accounts of abuse, torture, murder, unnatural affections, predatory nuns, predatory priests, and infanticide. Catholic spokespersons called the books “Puritan porn,” dismissing them completely as anti-Catholic fantasy. But given human nature and the mandatory celibacy of religious orders it’s certainly not surprising that abuses took place. Catholic apologists had no response to the 2015 non-fiction bestseller, “The Nuns of Sant’Ambrogio: The True Story of a Convent in Scandal,” by distinguished German historian, Hubert Wolf, which documents murder and large-scale mischief in just one Italian convent in the 1850s. See my review here. Also, we’re all aware of the scandalous news reports of pedophile priests over the last twenty years. A number of Catholic dioceses and organizations have been bankrupted by payouts to victims.

One of the earliest and the most famous of the convent escape narratives was “The Awful Disclosure of Maria Monk: The Hidden Secrets of a Nun’s Life in a Convent Exposed,” published in 1836 and having the distinction of being the most-read book in America (besides the Bible) before Uncle Tom’s Cabin, selling a record 300,000 copies prior to 1860. The general public was outraged by Monk’s allegations of abuse, debauchery, murder, and infanticide within the walls of the Hotel-Dieu (a hospital) convent in Montreal. Catholic officials responded by mounting a determined attack on Monk’s testimony and character while Protestants defended her with equal tenacity. What was the truth?

In this book, attorney Edward Hendrie examines the published “evidence” from both sides of the controversy and concludes Monk’s story was factual. Obviously, after 180 years, there is no evidence remaining of Monk’s account other than the published testimonies of long-dead individuals who claimed they knew her. Hendrie draws some very reasonable conclusions based on the available facts. There is no doubt where his sympathies lie from the very first page but at least the book represents a balance to the widely accepted Catholic accounts of Monk in Wikipedia and elsewhere.

I occasionally wonder what happened to the nuns who taught at my school so many years ago. They entered the convent believing such an austere life would bring them closer to God. But the only way to God is by accepting Jesus Christ as Savior by faith. The institutionalized church borrowed the idea of unmarried virgins dedicated to deity and living together in convents from pagan Rome. See here.

A note to the reader: Mr. Hendrie has also written several books which advocate a conspiratorial view of Jews and the nation of Israel. Such material may be found in both Protestant hyper-fundamentalist and Catholic hyper-fundamentalist circles. I do not endorse or recommend those books.

20 Former Nuns Who Left Catholicism and Accepted Jesus Christ

The Truth Set Us Free: Twenty Former Nuns Tell Their Stories of God’s Amazing Gracedownload

By Richard Bennett

Solid Ground Christian Books, 2010, 237 pages

Richard Bennett, ex-Catholic priest and director of the Berean Beacon ministry, presents the testimonies of twenty former nuns who left behind the legalism and ritualism of Roman Catholicism and accepted Jesus Christ as their Savior by faith. The personal accounts average only about eleven pages each so there’s not a lot of detail about Catholic theology but each testimony is a blessing.

When Christians refer to “cults” they usually have Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses in mind but can there be a practice more “cultish” than a convent full of virgin women who believe they are married to Jesus Christ, replete with wedding rings? The inspiration for the Catholic convent was the convent of the vestal virgins of pagan Rome.

All of the twenty nuns joined their religious “orders” with high expectations, believing they were pleasing God by earning their salvation through self-denial and ritualism but they found no joy or contentment in the convent. All were introduced to the Word of God and were saved by the grace of God through faith in Jesus Christ alone. These women gave up the only life they knew to follow Christ but what Christian can look back with regret at the corrupt things of this world when the glory of our Savior is before us?

“But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith.” – Philippians 3:7-9

I attended a Catholic grammar school back in the 1960s and was taught by nuns belonging to the Sisters of Mercy order. Our parents assumed the nuns were shining examples of love and contentment but we students witnessed those women as they really were; troubled souls who sometimes vented their frustration, anger, and cruelty on their charges. Sisters Imelda, Annunciata, Tarcisius, Gemma, Mary Ann, and Virgina, whatever became of you? Were you somehow able to cut through through the legalism and ritualism you taught to us and find the Savior?

Convents are few and far between these days. The great majority of Catholics can’t even bother to attend mass on Sunday let alone take up a religious vocation. In 1965 there were 180,000 nuns in the United States but by 2006 there were only 67,000. By 2014 the number had dropped to 50,000.