The Media’s Open Season on Catholicism Continues

This Time, a Mexican Film Stokes the Fires

LONDON, NOV. 2, 2002 ( Some media outlets seem to be making a year-round sport of attacking the Catholic Church.

Take the case of the latest scandal film, “The Crime of Father Amaro.” The movie, due to open Nov. 15 in the United States, has been a box office hit in its native Mexico, the New York Times reported Oct. 21. U.S. media coverage has focused on the aspects of the film dealing with forbidden passions and abuse of power in the Church.

Protests against the film by the Church were countered by familiar appeals to the right of freedom of expression. “It is very healthy that the Church understands that it no longer has so much power, that its power is not absolute,” said the film’s director, Carlos Carrera, according to the Times. “It must now be very clear to the Church that at least in terms of censorship, it has no influence.”

Mexico’s bishops explained in a statement Aug. 12 that there is more at stake than a question of censorship. The film, they said, “constitutes an offense against the religious beliefs of Catholics and mocks the most sacred symbols of the Catholic community.” Freedom of expression, they contended, does not mean the right to denigrate persons or institutions.

As Archbishop Alberto Suárez Inda of Morelia told a local news service, El Observador de la Actualidad, in its Aug. 25 bulletin, the film’s gravest offense is not the attempt to run down the image of priests. Rather, it is its sacrilegious treatment of the Virgin Mary and the sacraments, including the Eucharist, he said. In one scene of the movie, for example, a woman takes a host out of her mouth and gives it to a cat.

Another recent example is “The Magdalene Sisters,” winner of the Golden Lion award at this year’s Venice Film Festival. The film tells the story of three wayward girls sent to live in a home run by nuns in 1960s Ireland. The film, promoted as a true story, shows how the three were abused, mentally and physically.

The film comes from Miramax, well known for hostility to the Church. The company’s 1995 film “Priest” led to a boycott of Disney, Miramax’s owner, by some churches. In 1999 Miramax was poised to release “Dogma,” but then dropped the plan when protests erupted over its blasphemous content.

Just how reliable is the content of “The Magdalene Sisters”? Italian Catholic writer Vittorio Messori analyzed the picture in a Sept. 14 article in the Milan newspaper Corriere della Sera.

For starters, he noted that the Irish reform schools were run under strict government supervision. Moreover, almost all the girls sent there had been sentenced for crimes by juvenile tribunals. The film, instead, portrays the three girls as being sent to the nuns at their parents’ request.

Messori also noted that the Catholic reformatories of the age were no worse than others — whether run by the state or of by religious denominations — which means the film unfairly singled out Church-related facilities. He further pointed out that corporal punishment was common even in costly private boarding schools of the time. Moreover, in real life the girls could have been released from the institutions at their parents’ request, unlike the practice depicted in the film.

Reality ignored

When not attacking religious belief, the film industry often simply ignores it. In a commentary Aug. 2 in the Washington Post, Donna Britt wrote about the movie “Signs” and admitted she was “stunned to hear a film character speak to the Deity at all.”

“In movie after movie,” Britt observed, “TV show after TV show, people face every manner of terror, crime, illness and betrayal without ever turning to, or even acknowledging, a higher power.”

Only rarely is religion portrayed “as anything most people want to be a part of,” said Britt, quoting filmmaker Sushama Austin-Connor. By censoring out such an important part of people’s lives, the characters depicted in the media just aren’t real, said Austin-Connor.

Media critic Michael Medved noted in his essay “That’s Entertainment: Hollywood’s Contribution to Anti-Americanism Abroad,” in last summer’s edition of The National Interest, that surveys suggest about 40% of Americans attend religious services on a weekly basis — four times the percentage of moviegoers. “Church or synagogue attendance, however, hardly ever appears in Hollywood or television portrayals of contemporary American society,” Medved observed.

Radio too has its problems with religion. In England, BBC Radio 4’s long-standing “Thought for the Day” has been a place where people from a range of religious backgrounds contribute a brief reflection for listeners. Recently, the National Secular Society, the British Humanist Association and other groups asked for a part of this radio time to contribute their non-religious thoughts.

BBC’s refusal to grant this request occasioned criticism by Polly Toynbee in the Guardian on Sept. 6. Reserving the daily 2-minute, 45-second slot for a spiritual commentary was, in her view, a dangerous decision at a time when religious fundamentalism “threatens global Armageddon.”

According to Toynbee, Christian fundamentalism has turned “every” U.S. politician into a “crusader” — and each is on a par with Islamic radicals. She also lumped the Pope into this category because he “kills millions through his reckless spreading of AIDS.” For Toynbee, “religion is not nice, it kills: it is toxic in the places where people really believe it.”

And how would she like to see “Thought for the Day” used? “Militant secularism is what should be spread with, yes, missionary zeal,” Toynbee wrote. “Religion belongs in the personal, never in the public sphere.”

A fashion accessory?

John Paul II’s recent decision to suggest another set of mysteries to the rosary met with a generally favorable reaction. But not in the British newspaper Independent.

In an Oct. 20 article, Catherine Pepinster lamented that the Pope’s changes meant she wasted her money earlier this year when she bought a rosary for a friend. The proposed mysteries, Pepinster said, are just part of a sinister Church plan to “bring extra money flowing into the Vatican’s coffers as the devout dump their old beads” and have to buy new ones.

She also considers the rosary to be largely ignored by the faithful today. As a remedy, she recommends that the Church seek the advice of experts in order to market the rosary — much in the same way she says the crucifix has succeeded as a fashion accessory.

As the Second Vatican Council’s decree on the means of social communications, “Inter Mirifica,” observed that the media, “if properly utilized, can be of great service to mankind.” Yet, the Church also grieves “at the harm all too often done to society by their evil use.” That decree seems as relevant today as the day it appeared in 1963.

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