How fictional TV priests are portrayed

The Southern Cross
5 June 2011 | by Günther Simmermacher

Last month the Vatican hosted something quite new: the International Catholic Film Festival, which was held Rome from May 12-21. The festival placed a particular spotlight on the priesthood.

Liana Marabini, an Italian film director and president of the festival, said she wanted to focus on the priesthood because priests are often "overlooked" or portrayed in a negative light in films. "They need to be valued, loved and welcomed" by the laity and the wider community, she told reporters.

It’s an instinctive reaction to deplore the way the Catholic Church and her priests are presented in film. No doubt the Church and the priesthood, and Christian values in general, tend to get short shrift in the movies and on television. And sometimes scripts appoint Catholic clerics as the bad guys (though we see priests mostly presiding over graveside funerals).
A movie called Priest, released in the United States in May, takes the unfavourable view of the Catholic Church to a ludicrous extreme. It’s a futuristic action flick in which the Catholic Church has taken over the world after winning an apocalyptic war against vampires, as you do, with its priests as warriors. Now the victors have become totalitarian oppressors and to rebel against the Church’s authority is regarded an ethical necessity.

Perhaps the makers of the movie are trying to juggle metaphor, fantasy, analogy, vampires, propaganda and lots of gore to make a point about challenging the Catholic Church’s global power (surely an imprudent move if you believe the Vatican has the muscle to defeat vampires). More likely, the futuristic Catholic Church of the movie is a proxy for any random institution of global reach. It could have been the United Nations or Microsoft, if they had anything as cool as priests. But if watching a sci-fi bloodfest or the albino monk of The Da Vinci Code has the power to shake an individual’s confidence in the Catholic Church, then that individual must have had a dim view of the Church in the first place.

I don’t know if the Vatican festival president was thinking of such movies when she said priests are portrayed in a negative light on film. Perhaps there is an anti-clerical trend in European film I have missed, but I have not picked up on a systematic prejudice against priests in US productions. To be sure, there have been films that are not friendly, or even hostile, towards the Church, her priests and teachings, just as there are films that are not friendly towards, say, the US presidency. The incessant jokes about "paedophile priests" are tiresome. Portrayals of the Catholic Church are often poorly researched. And in some films priests are made to look foolish or unkind (but it just reflects the reality that some priests sometimes act foolishly or unkindly).

That doesn’t mean that Hollywood, to use a shorthand, is systematically anti-Catholic, even if it is not as pro-clerical as it used to be when Bing Crosby was going his way, Pat O’Brien or Spencer Tracy were donning the Roman collar, and Montgomery Clift would rather die than violate the seal of the confessional. Perhaps a better method of judging the entertainment industry’s attitudes towards priest is by studying television serials, with their scope for recurring roles and characterisations. In my experience, Catholicism and the priesthood tend to be portrayed respectfully, and in the best shows even positively.
Paul Schulze as Fr Phil Intintola in The Sopranos, a TV series that portrayed priests as holding a moral centre.

Paul Schulze as Fr Phil Intintola in The Sopranos, a TV series that portrayed priests as holding a moral centre.

Two superb, critically acclaimed TV shows treated Catholicism accurately and as a source for good. In The West Wing, Martin Sheen played a Catholic US president, educated at Notre Dame university, whose ethics were very much informed by his faith, even if sometimes he had to act against them. In one episode, a priest played the great Karl Malden (who also played an admirable priest in On The Waterfront) gives the president spiritual counsel on the question of capital punishment. It is a memorable scene with a memorable priest.

In the mafia series The Sopranos, the Catholic Church is central in the Italian-American community. Gangsters are buried with rosaries around their hands, mafia wives go to confession or do nappy drives for the parish, and priests offer spiritual guidance and friendship. Remarkably, not once are priests depicted as objectionable, even when there was opportunity to do so. The priest-principal of the Catholic high school is strict but understanding; the priest tempted to commit adultery remains firm in his fidelity to his promise of celibacy and the Church’s teaching; the new, young parish priest is wise to the hood’s manipulation of a Catholic feast.
When the priests dispense advice, it is doctrinally and pastorally sound. They are very much human (one priest likes to be invited to a good meal) and sometimes supercilious, but in a depraved world, they provide a moral centre.

And then there have been the affirming detective priest (in the early ’90s series Father Dowling Mysteries) and action hero cleric (in the current sci-fi series V). I struggle to come up with a TV show that portrays priests in a negative light — even the British sitcom Father Ted, which pokes fun at the priesthood, has many fans even among the clergy, who probably recognise more about absurdities in the lives of priests in that programmes than the average viewer would. One TV show about priests that was cancelled because of unaccountable Catholic lobbying was the short-lived Nothing Sacred — which presented the priesthood as a positive institution and desirable vocation.

There seems little evidence for some sustained agenda against the priesthood. But when there are representations of fictional priests we don’t approve of, we hold the power: the off-switch.