A few weeks ago there was an article up on the blog called “In the Spotlight” which talked about a movie (called, uh, Spotlight) that went on to win Best Picture at the Oscars – the post didn’t really engage with the film so much as with responses from various church representatives about the content. Which was a bit tricky, as the flick was about how reporters from the Boston Globe exposed the cover-up surrounding clerical sex abuse in their city – the series of articles they published formed a catalyst for investigations (and eventual legal proceedings) across dioceses all over the world. No small thing to tackle (and tackle fairly) in a movie, but it was done with tact, dignity and a restraint that really could’ve gone the other way rather fast.
This is all old news by now. Leading up to (and just after) the ceremony was some general re-hashing of (justified) outrage, but media attention has mostly come and gone – in the month since the Oscar grab, things have been returning to Life As Normal. Dishes to do. New superhero flicks to watch. Easter chocolate to demolish, if any is actually still lying around. But unfortunately, as the film ominously reflected, “this is only the tip of the iceberg.”
But what is that iceberg and what’s it mean for us moving forward? Well, even with stuff being exposed and reparations already long underway, the hurt still remains. Because this is an iceberg that’s always been there – it’s one that’s been consistently being formed for as many centuries as folks’ve been getting hurt by people claiming to serve the God who, we’re told, is love Itself.
One of God’s greatest ironies is that He uses irreparably broken people to carry out divine will, and there’s something both triumphant and terrifying in the thought. We have free will, but that freedom has left (among other things) a bloody trail of hearts, minds and souls as certain Christians have allowed for atrocities to happen, atrocities that’ve legitimately (and understandably) turned people away from the claims that Christianity makes about the world.
We don’t need to go into the damning amount of instances where harm was done in the name of God/the church – mainly because, well, I’m sure you can pick your own example without needing to ask the Google. As in: anyone can think of one. This is beyond devastating.
Why does it happen? Maybe spirituality got tied up with worldly power (the recent series on art, politics and martyrdom tried to engage meaningfully with that relationship), maybe good intentions led to horrible results, or maybe the desire to fight evil ended up dehumanizing and obliterating the dignity of another.
There are few things more gut-churning, when you think about it, than someone holding out, with one hand, the image of a God who dies out of crazy, consuming love for people while, with the other, wounding the vulnerable in places so deep that their ability to relate to that God is snapped like a bone.
Spotlight, as a movie, is a measured response to that horror. As mentioned in the previous post, it could have very easily veered into lurish sensationalism (a la The Monk*) but in the end it played out as a more detached reaction. This was helpful because, as Fr. Raymond de Souza mentions in this article, it isn’t just history – it’s historiography too.** A certain amount of detachment is not only welcome but rather expected in this case.
The same kind of detachment, though, isn’t as expected in other kinds of art – I’m meaning the type that comes across as vicious railing against the church and, specifically, Catholicism. I’m not talking about folks who have passionate and intellectual beef with Catholic thought (though that certainly exists); I’m talking more about art that’s obviously a response of pain coming from a deep well of hurt. As in, from the corners of a heart with blood on the walls and broken furniture under the stairs.
Certain kinds of abuse tend to happen more often in places where the church historically had a lot of social/political power over people: Ireland, the Philippines, Quebec, France, Mexico, and Italy are just a couple examples. And while many people’ve come forward with their stories over the past decade, artists, writers and musicians have long been turning similar (and sometimes their own) histories into painful expressions of a very historical reality.
There are fairly explicit retorts to sexual abuse like Tim Minchin’s profanity-riddled “The Pope Song,”*** but a lot of strong, anti-Catholic responses don’t necessarily focus just on abuse. Hozier, the mind behind recent mega-hit “Take Me to Church,” spoke to Rolling Stone about his reasons for writing the song: “Growing up, I always [saw] the hypocrisy of the Catholic church…The history speaks for itself and I grew incredibly frustrated and angry. I essentially just put that into my words.”
As far as we know, Hozier wasn’t himself a victim of abuse – but that still doesn’t stop him from crying out against what he considers to be the lies of Catholicism. His words, as you can see, are quite strong:
I’ve heard some people react to the song as an act of blasphemy, but I wonder if we might sometimes be a tad trigger-happy with the b-word. Most (though not all) people I know (or have read) who regularly talk about the blasphemous nature of this or that book (or Lady Gaga/Madonna video) often almost immediately suggest running a direct beeline to the next b-word on the list: boycott. As in, there’s a knee-jerk reaction out there that goes like this: hearing a different opinion on something we care an awful ton about may be reason enough to stop hearing about it at all.
This may be a huge mistake – if only for the fact that there’s a huge opportunity being lost. What if, for a moment, we ignore the panicky voice inside us that may want to label something as blasphemy/libel/sign-of-the-end-times (and therefore a sinful patch of culture that should be ignored/dismissed completely for the legit sake of spiritual safety) and try engaging with it for what it, more often than not, really is: a cry of pain, an expression of profound confusion, a guttural attempt to search for truth.
Yes, he is decrying the church – but only inasmuch as we, as Catholics, have not proven ourselves to be worthy of trust when we claim something about the God who, so we say, is love. He distances himself from the church in the name of reaching for something real. He rejoices in sex in a way that sounds sacramental, ritualistic, and he does it because he’s trying to find something healthy and real after being exposed to a perverted, half-hearted misrepresentation of Catholic thought. And the kicker, obviously, is that it’s not some kind of enemy of Catholicism that’s misrepresented the church – it was the combined action of Catholics themselves.
And instead of trying to engage with the fact that this is a guy looking for truth, there are people who would boycott it in the name of defending the honour of Truth itself. This might be uber le screwed up.
Continuing with the Irish theme, I’ve heard similar sentiments in response to the 2003 flick The Magdalene Sisters…****
…or to Sinead O’Connor’s infamous SNL bombshell:
All these examples express the same thing: associating the church with evils done within her doors. The very things that they’re crying out against (abuse of trust, deathly silence, hypocrisy) are all subtlely maintained by Christians when we turn a blind eye and fail to engage a) with the art itself and b) with some of the systemic causes of hurt. It’s great (like, ridiculously great) that people have been so generous in reacting to Spotlight, but there are so many situations where a similar generosity wasn’t applied. This isn’t to say that no one is engaging with these things, but as a community we’re still a far cry from where we should be.
The examples looked at so far all hail from the Emerald Isle, but I’d like to spend the rest of this series focusing particularly in on one band from across the water. It’s members have a history of criticising how Christianity’s been expressed in the modern world, and even though it’s a painful/touchy topic there’s a lot here that can be explored which’d be quite meaningful for believers.
More to come in Part II.
*An example of bizarrely over-the-top Gothic anxieties about monasteries and cloisters, Matthew Lewis’ The Monk pretty much consists entirely of abusive priests, dungeon nuns, ridiculous coincidences and high levels of incest. Probably one of the major low points of my Brit-lit class back in undergrad.
**History is (often) a more straightforwardish writing-up of something that happened in the past, but historiography is more interested in telling the story of how we tell our stories. So in addition to the movie being about sex-abuse cover-ups, it is a look into how that story was told – this kind of thing requires a bit more detachment.
***As in, I have never heard more f-bombs dropped in a song with a running time coming in just slightly over two minutes. He makes the point, though, that if someone is more disturbed by rough language than by potential papal involvement with covering-up abuse, then there is probably something more than a little bit off. Which is legit, even though he makes some skyrocketing assumptions about the whole affair. Click here if you still want to see it, but consider yourself warned.
****This is not to say that there is no controversy over whether The Magdalene Sisters overdramatized and misrepresented the Irish laundries. But it is true that Catholic responses to the film, as compared to the responses to Spotlight, sidestepped the abuses that really existed in order to say “well, at least it wasn’t as bad as it could have been.” Smooth. The Catholic League (even though they had some good points) wrote a piece of very specific hysteria.
Josh Nadeau lives in Russia and, when not writing or teaching, may be found winter cycling, hitchhiking or engaged in general shenanigans. He hopes, when he’s older, to maintain a sense of awe.