I recently watched Come to the Stable, a 1949 Loretta Young movie about a couple of French nuns who get it in their heads to come to New England and build a hospital for sick kids in a town called Bethlehem.
I didn’t go to the movies much as a kid, and that’s probably why I still remember seeing this movie on the big screen. I have no idea why it was playing in a movie theater–I wasn’t around in 1949, so it had to have been a special showing of some kind. I couldn’t have been very old, because I can remember being confused by the location–could there really be two places called Bethlehem? That didn’t seem right. Anyway, the movie is in the tradition of 1940s Catholic movies like Going My Way and The Bells of Saint Mary’s. The nuns (Young and Celeste Holm) are holy innocents who get their way by being holier and more innocent than everyone they encounter, including the soft-hearted mobster who owns the land they need for the hospital and the practical bishop who has to approve their harebrained scheme.
Come to the Stable was nominated for a bunch of Oscars–most of them baffling. Back then, you were apparently guaranteed of a nomination if you appeared in a habit. (Elsa Lanchester, playing a local artist, also got a nomination for looking ditzy in a few scenes. Claire Boothe Luce, the conservative Catholic playwright/politician, got a nomination for the dopey story.) Seems to me that this sort of movie must have done a lot to pave the way for the country to elect a Catholic to the presidency. The Church wasn’t this secret foreign power intent on subverting American values–it built hospitals for sick kids!
The movie seems hopelessly quaint nowadays. I don’t think the story would work on the Hallmark channeI. I was particularly struck by the way the nuns genuflected and kissed the bishop’s ring every chance they got. Does anyone still do that? It was a given that the nuns owed the bishop absolute and unquestioned obedience. It was a given that nuns would be so unworldly they wouldn’t know what a parking ticket was, even though one of them had grown up in Chicago and the other had been a tennis champion.
So here is an American bishop nowadays:
The first American bishop criminally charged in the clergy sex abuse scandal was found guilty Thursday of a misdemeanor count of failing to report suspected child abuse, a conviction that extends the struggle of Roman Catholic leaders to restore trust in the church.
Bishop Robert Finn was acquitted on a second count. He received two years of probation, but that sentence was suspended and will be wiped from his record if he adheres to a set of conditions that include mandatory abuse reporting training, setting aside $10,000 in diocese money for abuse victim counseling, and instructing all diocesan agents to report suspected criminal activity involving minors.
And here is an American nun, Sister Simone Campbell, who recently spoke at the Democratic National Convention:
And at a convention that is revolving largely around an alleged GOP-led “war on women,” Campbell is a poignant feminist symbol. She has stood up to the Vatican’s criticisms of American nuns for what the church says is their fixation on progressive advocacy at the expense of promoting socially conservative positions.
“We’re certainly oriented toward the needs of women and responding to their needs,” she told Colbert in June, defending the nuns against the Vatican. “If that’s radical, I guess we are.”
It’s lot different from the post-war fantasy world of Come to the Stable. And I think that’s all to the good. We shouldn’t be afraid to arrest bishops who don’t protect the children in their diocese. And we should listen to nuns who have something important to say.