I saw the Hollywood vampire film Priest yesterday and was amused to see its depictions of apparently Christian clergy. In Priest these clergy, male and female, have a crucifix tattoed across their brows and wear hoods and long jackets. These are impressive, threatening characters, dark with memories of their bloody part in the war on vampires, shunned by nervous laypeople. In action they are skilled martial artists, ruthless killers of the undead.The Church to which these men and women belong dominates this post-war world, with crucifixes or sun crosses omnipresent throughout the city, along with constant reminders that: 'To go against the Church is to go against God'. This is fantasy that little resembles reality. But 'the Church' here is stylistically similar to the Catholic Church: hierarchal, celibate, and prone to wearing black.
Of course these bloodthirsty clerics have nothing in common with modern Catholics clergy, but Hollywood has a history of depicting the Catholic Church like this. A popular theme is the Church's role in dealing with occult dangers, with films like End of Days, The Exorcist and The Omen putting Catholic clergy into the front line of an eternal battle with demons. In End of Days we see Hollywood's love of a kick-ass, conspiratorial Church, as a group of Catholic zealots called the 'Vatican Knights' attempt to murder the woman destined to give birth to the Antichrist.
Catholic imagery features heavily in many vampire film, where crucifixes and holy water keep the beasts at bay. Catholicism's medieval heritage of grand gothic cathedrals and elaborate rituals serve modern fantasy-horror directors with spectacular backdrops for fighting vampires. In Van Helsing the demon-hunter is authorised to kill monsters by the Catholic Church and is accompanied by a Catholic friar-inventor, armed to the teeth with anti-occult weapons. In one scene Van Helsing dips his automatic crossbow into a font of holy water to successfully shoot down a vampire.
Hellboy features muscular Catholicism too, as Hellboy himself carries Catholic rosary (prayer) beads and his adopted father Broom is a Catholic. Even the 2009 Spanish horror film Rec2 imagines a Catholic conspiracy in which an attempt to create a vaccine against demonic possession instead causes the outbreak of a contagious zombie-like demonism.
Hollywood's attraction to Catholicism in these fantasy movies is understandable. This is an ancient, visually-impressive organisation, with mystery lingering about the inner workings of the Vatican: ripe for conspiracy theories and fantastical rumour. Folk traditions of some Catholic populations took seriously the dangers of fairies and witchcraft. Finally the Catholic Church still authorises exorcisms and supports the idea that real divine miracles can happen, intriguing concepts to these fantasy-horror film-makers.
Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code continues with the narrative of a Church struggling with internal corruption, conspiracy and fanaticism. The Church is shown as having massive political clout, even in secular France. Da Vinci Code features a mad, murderous albino monk who Church insiders use to kill enemies: that is, just having killer monks wasn't enough, they had to be albino! Often films like these talk vaguely about 'The Church' without specifying the Roman Catholic Church, skimming over the Reformation and earlier schisms that divorced a huge proportion of Christians from Rome. They also ignore the decisive shift towards secularism throughout the developed world, preferring to imagine an almighty Church still pulling strings behind the powers that be, even while church attendances continues to freefall.
All this bears no resemblence to the Catholicism I'm familiar with, which in modern Ireland is often bland and undramatic. People go to Mass, mumble the prayers they learned as a child, stand, sit, kneel, half-listen to elderly priests giving vague sermons about being good, and then go home. Most of the priests I've come across are pleasant enough, friendly and inoffensive. Far from the fist-shaking zealots of old, these guys tend to be lacking in confidence a bit, and generally advocate common sense approaches to morality: treat other people well, try to be a bit humble, forgive people who wrong you, consider your own flaws. Far from denouncing sexual activity as their predecessors apparently did, these priests tend to avoid mention of it altogether. Sex is awkward and to be ignored if possible!
Anyone, Catholic or not, can wander into a church and see what Catholic Mass looks like, for free, with no pressure or expectation to convert. The rituals that might seem odd to outsiders (like the question put to Catholic Mass-goers: 'do you reject Satan?' 'I do.' 'And all his works?' 'I do.') become unremarkable with repetition. I do hear occasional complaints of old-school priests still intolerant of other faiths and of modern hedonism, but the ones I've come across are usually polite and eager to please. No more witch-burning, Inquisitions or Crusades, and only an ever-weakening impact on public policy.
That cool image of Catholic clergy as all-powerful conspirators or the secret defence against Satan, dressed eternally in sleek black, faces an uncomfortable rival. This second depiction is less flattering, as it refers again and again to Catholic clergy as sexual predators, especially paedophiles.
In V for Vendetta Natalie Portman's character dresses as a child, all frills and pigtails, to seduce the Bishop Lilliman in order to kill him. The Bishop, corrupt to the bone, attempts to rape her before V intervenes and tortures him to death. The actual denomination of this Bishop is unclear though the Church seems to play a role similar to that in Priest, an all-powerful branch of government which, after all, has as a motto: 'Strength through unity, unity through faith'.
(Weirdly, the real Guy Fawkes was a radical Catholic who attempted to destroy Britain's Protestant parliament in favour of a Catholic monarch. This would have been a devestating act of terrorism and a blow in favour of the 17th century Catholic Church.) V for Vendatta repeats the familiar theme of a creepily powerful Christian, perhaps Catholic, Church, with the other theme of clerical perversion thrown in for good measure.
This year's Sucker Punch rather puzzlingly repeats this narrative. Sucker Punch is a mixture of events and the character's fantasies, and it's quite confusing to tell them apart. An orphan is sent by her barbaric stepfather into a lunatic asylum. At that point, however, the stepfather appears as a lecherous priest, the asylum transforms into a brothel. It is just a moment, long enough to stamp that old narrative of the abusive, hypocritical priest onto the film.
Sin City dabbles with the narrative, as the corrupt and murderous Cardinal Roark is connected by family to a corrupt senator and a murdering paedophile. The Cardinal keeps as a companion a serial killer and cannibal called Kevin, tying together the twin themes of Catholic conspiracy and child abuse.
Depictions of Catholic clergy being perverse and especially prone to raping children is understandable in films like Song For a Raggy Boy or Meryl Streep's impressive Doubt, when the drama around these crimes make up the films' central stories. There have been abusive priests in reality, and real internal Catholic conspiracies to cover the truth.
Yet fantasy-action films like Sin City need not tie Catholicism in with child abuse. The attraction for cinema probably comes from a mix of the visual aspect - Catholic clergy draped in robes and rings, signs of authority and opulence - and the pleasuable scandal of hypocrisy. Since priests are supposed to be men of God and celibate, their deviations into sexual perversion are more horrific and captivating than those of others.
All in all, depictions of Catholicism in American mainstream cinema are often weird and poor indicators of the true organisation. In some ways the cinema version is pretty cool - muscular Catholic clergy hacking heads off demons - while in others it is rather more disturbing.
It's mainly funny, though. I live in hope that one day 'priests' will look less like this:
And more like this!