A poll about “Proudly Catholic” movies is creating a buzz. Many are voting for their top five, while many are suggesting movies not listed on the list. But it is forcing us all to ask a very important question: what makes a movie Catholic?
Among the amazing discourses of Cardinal Newman’s The Idea of a University, there is nothing about film. Understandable for a work before motion pictures. But he does speak about literature. Perhaps we can extrapolate.
Newman states: “By ‘Catholic Literature’ is not to be understood a literature which treats exclusively or primarily of catholic matters, of catholic doctrine, controversy, history, persons or politics; but it includes all subjects of literature whatsoever, treated as a catholic would treat them, and as he only can treat them.”
So a Catholic theme or subject doesn’t make a Catholic movie. There are plenty of movies about the Church or with priests as prominent characters that are not Catholic movies. I would put “The Da Vinci Code” in this category.
But what does it meant to have a subject “treated as a Catholic would treat them, and as he only can treat them”? To answer that would require a PhD thesis, but I’ll try to give three broad stokes as an initial sketch of an answer.
- A Catholic movie portrays the truth of human nature. When I was teaching in Spain, the movie critic for a Catholic press agency (Aceprensa) and I shared a bottle of wine while he spoke to me about a return to seriousness in American theatre, signaled by the then recent release “Ground Hog Day” with Bill Murray. I thought the wine was talking at first, but he went on to speak eloquently about how, in his opinion, the best films were by Catholic directors, even if they are fallen-away. (He was a huge John Ford fan, and also loved Academy Award winning Spanish director José Luis Garci.) The reason he gave was that they, even if they presently hated the Church, saw human nature within the drama of creation, fall and redemption. It was integral to their world-view and was the key to the depth of their characters. (For my part, I told him I liked Springsteen songs for the same reason.)
- A Catholic movie takes the supernatural in stride. Archbishop Fulton Sheen was interviewed toward the end of his life. The journalist got very solemn and asked him, “Bishop Sheen, have you ever experienced any mystical phenomena?” Sheen nonchalantly quipped: “None that I can remember.” A Catholic has an incarnational and sacramental view of reality and history. God’s intervention in human history is a fact, and not sci-fi eeriness. God’s action doesn’t happen in a parallel dream-sequence world. It is entirely natural for God to act supernaturally. “The Ten Commandments” make us marvel at God’s power, but not at the fact that He is acting on Israel’s behalf in the first place. (And the reality of THAT is what is truly wondrous!)
- A Catholic movie sees the Church, warts and all, as a force for good and an instrument of grace. When it does touch on the Church, a Catholic film is not blind to her defects, but sees the Church nevertheless as a sacrament of salvation, a force for good. To see the Church as a front, or a sham disqualifies a movie as Catholic. One can portray a weak priest, like novelist Graham Greene did, who ultimately is an instrument of grace.
This last point, in a way, ties the first two points together. The Church is an extension of the incarnation, with a divine origin, but containing us, fallen sinners, as members. A Catholic sees the world as, in Hopkins phrase “charged with the grandeur of God.” That grandeur can appear in simplicity and silence or in fire and brimstone.
In either case, God is drawing mankind toward Himself. For a God who is love is the hidden protagonist of any film that is Catholic. He may act directly and miraculously, or He may act in the simple truths of simple lives of simple people. Like the truly great directors, He seems to prefer playing in these simple houses.