Maximizing Happiness – Inquiring Nuns and the Social Good

I have told you this so that you might have peace in me. In the world you will have trouble, but take courage, I have conquered the world. – John 16:33

A Common theme throughout this semester’s portion of the Ramonat seminar is the various social programs and social goods that the Church provided to the American people. James Gilbert describes these social benefits in his article “Twin Cities/Two Chicagos: Religious Confrontation between 1880-1920” when he writes about the creation of the Guardian Angel Mission. The Mission was a settlement house created as a Catholic alternative to the more Protestant influenced organizations. I understand a “social good to be a boon given to the public or a member of the public that increases the quality of his or her life. I believe that the 1968 film Inquiring Nuns portrays Roman Catholic nuns providing a very different variety of social good; happiness.

The film centers on two nuns from the south side of Chicago traveling around the city asking people a very simple question: Are You Happy. The answers that the Nuns received were wide ranging. One man attempted to compartmentalize his happiness in that he was “happy” with his family and personal life, but unhappy in his career. Another man questioned the existence of happiness as a concept and opted to focus on “joy” which is much rarer in life. Another startling answer was from a woman in the Art Institute of Chicago who answered the question with tears in her eyes and sorrow in her heart.

I believe that the interview with the sad woman best encapsulates the “social good” the nuns were bringing. On the outset of the interview, the woman was visibly sad and shaken. As the nuns talked with her about her conceptions of happiness, I believe I saw the woman seem less distressed. It was as if by talking about the concept of happiness and what would make her hypothetically more happy created a space where the woman could actually be happy. By talking about happiness with people, the nuns were bringing “social good” of happiness to the people of 1968 Chicago.

Mentioned above, the Nun’s giving the social good of happiness to the people of Chicago is part of a long tradition of the Catholic Church working to bring hope to the destitute or downtrodden. Scholars of covered this topic extensively. For example, Elizabeth and Ken Fones-Wolf described the role that Catholics had in creating unions for the poorest immigrants. William Issel and Mary Anne Wold wrote a detailed account of the Catholic role in the racial justice campaign in San Francisco. Throughout the 20th century, the Roman  Catholic church worked to overcome barriers and to raise the destitute to a proper standard of living. kq-inqnun.jpg

Can we categorize the Nuns’ interviews in Inquiring Nuns into the same category as fighting racial injustice or unionizing workers? I believe you can because recognizing one’s happiness in life is essential to living a good life. Just as one can not live to their fullest when they are chained by racial bias or under wage slavery, one can not live fuller if they are miserable all the time. This is especially true in 1968 when the film was released. With the lost of traditional elements of society such as very strict gender roles, peoples’ worldviews were shaken. America was also facing a challenging political environment with demonstrations occurring regularly and an unpopular war being fought in Vietnam. In those hard times, I believe that nuns working to help people find their happiness can be categorized as a “good”

The Catholic Church has been a source of social goods  for the poor of America. The various readings throughout the Ramonat seminar has made that apparent. I sincerely believe that the work of the Nuns in Inquiring Nuns is a continuation of that proud American Catholic tradition.

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