It’s time for Catholics to tell our own stories

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It’s no secret that virtually all of Hollywood is hostile to Catholicism—to the Church, the Faith, the priesthood, and especially the moral teachings that serious Catholics strive to live by.

Really, they do themselves no favors. From Ben Hur to I Confess to Going My Way to The Mission to The Passion of the Christ, some of the all-time greatest films ever made have arisen from the extraordinary drama of the Christian tradition.

Yet, despite the success of these films, industry bosses are making it abundantly clear: no matter the artistic merit, no matter the profit margins, they want nothing to do with these stories anymore.

Where are we to go for our entertainment, then?

 

The Hallmark Channel presents relatively chaste romantic entertainment, but it is geared towards women. And while it has a relatively decent production value, it’s still a step below more mainstream options.

Foxfaith is another possibility, but its programming is targeted at evangelicals. Worse, perhaps, is its heavy-handed delivery, which rises almost to the point of beating the viewer over the head with truths the viewer already accepts. There’s no subtly, no art, and no attempt to make the audience think. Furthermore, when one scratches the surface, it appears the Foxfaith studio was created as a naked attempt by Fox to profit off of Christians, since the main Fox Channel also brought us that most sympathetic of demons, the titular character in Lucifer.

In other words, Catholics must be satisfied with B-level entertainment or giving their money to corporations that mock and deride the Faith.

There’s only one alternative: to create explicitly Catholic entertainment.

This isn’t so far-fetched as it may sound. History is replete with Catholic entertainers and artists catering to Catholics, with the full moral and financial support of the Church’s leadership. In the past, our bishops understood the value of reaching millions of Catholics by means other than the pulpit.

First and foremost, a Catholic network or streaming app would allow the Church to take back control of its stories from those who despise the Faith but exploit our saints and heroes. For instance, Fox Searchlight Company (which is now owned by Disney) just put out a new film, A Hidden Life, recalling the life of Blessed Franz Jägerstätter, a lay Franciscan from Austria who was guillotined by the Germans for refusing to fight in the Nazi army. Then there’s the new biopic of J.R.R. Tolkien, which somehow managed to completely omit any mention of the author’s faith.

These inspiring lives are also, clearly, quite profitable. Why shouldn’t those profits be taken by Catholic filmmakers, who would do justice to their subjects and use their revenues to help spread the Gospel?

Even relatively obscure numbers made by faithful filmmakers have produced extraordinary drama. Read the reviews on Rotten Tomatoes for There Be Dragons or For Greater Glory. Those critics who don’t dismiss the films out of hand for being “too Catholic” (and there are plenty of them) praise the compelling stories and earnest character. They tell of the lives of real men and women—real saints. Many of them run entirely counter to modern, secular sensibilities. And yet even non-Catholics can’t help but be moved by their labor and sacrifice.

That goes for the actors, too. Sir Alec Guinness converted to Catholicism after starring in the 1954 film adaptation of G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown. Walking back to his hotel one day after filming, while still dressed in his clerical costume, a little boy sidled up alongside the “priest”, took his hand, and walked along with him. That incident affected Guinness. “Continuing my walk,” he recounted, “I reflected that a Church that could inspire such confidence in a child, making priests, even when unknown, so easily approachable, could not be as scheming or as creepy as so often made out. I began to shake off my long-taught, long-absorbed prejudices.”

The actors who played Judas and Barrabas in Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ also converted following their roles in the 2004 blockbuster. “Barrabas is like a ferocious dog,” recalled Pedro Sarrubi, “but at one moment he becomes a puppy: when he meets the Son of God and is saved. ‘I want your look to be that of somebody seeing Jesus for the first time’,” Gibson told him. “I did as he said, and when our eyes met I felt a sort of surge.  It was like I was really seeing Jesus. I had never experienced such a thing in all my years of acting.”

Indeed, a Catholic channel could be a real force in the creative world. If the faithful support and develop high-quality programming—whether drama or comedy—it should appeal to the masses. This means that the shows or movies created do not have to appeal to all viewers all the time. Such a channel would have a clear advantage in the market for period pieces or fantasy productions—like The Tudors or Game of Thrones, only without all the gratuitous nudity.

In many ways, Catholicism lends itself to entertaining through the visual senses. It is hard to imagine Scorsese or Coppola making the films they did without their Catholic upbringing. What would the baptism scene from The Godfather be if the Corleones were staid, sober Presbyterians?

All I’m asking is for Catholics to be imaginative—to dream something big into reality. We were able to do that at one time. You only need to look at all the art, architecture, and works of literature that we produced.

Regrettably, it seems we’ve allowed our creative genius to atrophy. While some are trying to fix and rebuild the ruin, most are happy to watch it crumble. Of course, this second spring of Catholic entertainment won’t solve Catholicism’s manifold problems. Only Christ can do that. But maybe it’s a step in the direction of Christ.

Jason Surmiller

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Jason Surmiller recently graduated from the University of Texas at Dallas with a Ph.D. in Humanities, History of Ideas. He is a faculty member of Ursuline Academy of Dallas and an adjunct instructor at Brookhaven College. His first book, European Fascism and the Catholic Church in America: Power and the Priesthood in World War, from IB Tauris, comes out in March 2020.

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