On February 2, 2014, my phone buzzed with a text from my mom asking if I was okay. Confused, I responded, “Yes, why?” She then told me that Philip Seymour Hoffman had died…
I could never fully explain why he was my favorite actor. Maybe it was his perfectly tortured depiction of Truman Capote (who happens to by my favorite author). Maybe it was his rebellious confidence as The Count in Pirate Radio. Regardless, I latched onto his characters, big or small. One of his greatest performances, however, has to be his role as Father Flynn in Doubt.
Doubt was the first real encounter I had with the controversy surrounding the Catholic Church. I was 15 years old. I heard stories growing up in a Protestant home, but only in bits and pieces. It wasn’t until I saw that movie that I truly got a taste for what was happening. And Mr. Hoffman knew exactly how to tell me that story – with bellows that shook the pulpit and silence that begged for compassion.
Backing up to 2002, The Boston Globe released a shocking story unveiling the truth about the scandal of child molestation and cover-up within the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston. 13 years later, the story was made into a major motion film. On November 20, 2015, Spotlight hit the big screen, grossing over $92 million at the box office worldwide. Spotlight received abundant praise at the 2016 Academy Awards; it was nominated for six Oscars, winning two for Best Writing for Original Screenplay and Best Picture.
Then, Netflix released The Keepers, a docu-series about the unsolved murder of a nun in Baltimore, Sister Catherine Cesnik. The investigation subsequently exposed a number of sexual abuse cases surrounding a suspected priest. The show received quite a bit of attention within days of its release.
What drew me to write about these films isn’t necessarily the scandal. The tragedy of sin is not limited to the Catholic Church – the institution just happens to be in the public eye as a whole, whereas Protestant churches can (for the most part) function independently, and therefore keep matters of sin handled internally. Instead, these films struck a deep chord of sorrow in me, for the victims of abuse of course, but also for the leaders held captive by sin. I was able to view them in a very human light, not as demonized monsters, but as people that carry the weight of conviction in one hand and the weight of sin in the other. I got a clearer picture of the constant evaluation from the global institution while pressure also builds from the congregation to live perfectly. The shocking depth and nature of my emotional reaction sparked my search for multi-denominational perspective. Luckily, my academic advisor and professor happens to be a wealth of knowledge in the Catholic faith and integrated apologetics…
I’ve had the privilege of learning from Dr. Holly Ordway throughout my MA classes at Houston Baptist University. She has been a teacher, a mentor, and a friend to me for the last two years. Dr. Ordway is an imaginative apologist, specializing in the truth of the Christian faith exposed through works of the imagination (literature, art, poetry, etc.). Her newest book, Apologetics and the Christian Imagination: An Integrated Approach to Defending the Faith, is available now from Emmaus Road Publishing. As I mentioned, she is also a practicing Catholic, and through her faith has provided me with a multi-faceted view of my own faith. I encourage everyone to seek out conversation across denominations and faith traditions – it’s a rewarding learning experience that I sadly only discovered recently. She was kind enough to offer her perspective and answer some of my questions regarding the Church and works of creativity.
When such sensitive topics are used in film or any other media, it’s easy to write off the entire belief system as corrupt. When we dismiss the validity of faith on these grounds, intentionally or not, we are engaging with a much bigger philosophical issue – the problem of evil. Many atheists use this argument in their reasoning for their disbelief. “If a good, all-powerful God exists, why does he allow suffering? Why is there evil in the world?” In this case, one could say, “If Catholicism truly held Christian values, then abuse wouldn’t happen,” or, “If leaders in the Catholic Church were truly serving God, they would have done something.” However, the issue of abuse and sin is not a reflection of God, it is a reflection of human nature.
With that said, I asked Dr. Ordway how she would respond to those who reject the Catholic tradition as a direct response to these films.
“I would say first that I agree that abuse is a terrible sin, scandal, and tragedy, that individual people did terrible things, and that the Church as a whole was too slow (at best) in recognizing and responding to the problem, and that at worst, priests and bishops acted very wrongly in covering things up in some cases or in delaying justice for the victims. That said, this is a problem of fallen humanity, exacerbated by the cultural pressures of our modern age; it is not a specifically Catholic problem.”
As I mentioned in my previous blog post, A Balanced Perspective: 13 Reasons Why, it is crucial to view any form of media responsibly. Watching any of the films I’ve mentioned with predetermined hostility (or any attitude besides a desire to understand humanity as a whole) is dangerous to the Church, Catholics and Protestants alike. As a Protestant, I am affected by what happens in the Catholic Church because its members are my brothers and sisters in Christ. What I perceive about the Catholic Church has an impact on my heart, and consequently, my Protestant faith. Therefore, it's important to understand that demonizing a denomination only hurts the Church as a whole.
However, if viewed responsibly (and from a place of agape love), these stories could evoke unity rather than division between Catholics and Protestants. The eternal value of creation (in this case, creation of film) is to unify, harmonize, and draw man back to God. Especially in a fallen world, it’s important to recognize the value of this discussion. “We need to explore the most difficult issues and face up to what people can do to each other, even while claiming to be following Christ. If nothing else, this should give us compassion for non-Christians who have difficulty with the idea of faith because of painful experiences in their own lives,” Ordway suggests. “We should be careful, though, to avoid voyeurism (morbidly wallowing in the horror), one-sidedness (having Catholics only depicted in these contexts, and not recognizing the vast majority of genuinely good and holy priests), and anti-Catholicism (unfortunately, always an issue.).” We all have something to learn from one another if we set aside our pride (even religious pride) and open ourselves up to the truth beneath the policies. And the truth in these films is clear: While man is sinful, God is glorious.
Doubt displays an enormous amount of courage by way of Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep), who says, “I will step outside the church if that's what needs to be done, 'til the door should shut behind me! I will do what needs to be done, though I'm damned to Hell! You should understand that, or you will mistake me.” The goodness of God is represented by those who uphold his righteousness. Fortunately, that courage overwhelms the sinful act of one man. To me, these films amplify God’s perfection because even in a picture of doubt, viewers are unified by moral goodness and holy compassion.
Likewise, Spotlight uncovers a unique perspective on the psychological trauma that is not only inflicted on abuse victims, but also on generations of priests caught in a vicious cycle of sin. Even the protagonist characters are held accountable for their mistakes, mainly for being silent. Boston Globe editor Marty Baron (Live Schreiber) says, “Sometimes it's easy to forget that we spend most of our time stumbling around the dark. Suddenly, a light gets turned on and there's a fair share of blame to go around. I can't speak to what happened before I arrived, but all of you have done some very good reporting here. Reporting that I believe is going to have an immediate and considerable impact on our readers. For me, this kind of story is why we do this.” The takeaway from Spotlight is – No one is faultless in the fall. Our individual sins have a larger impact on the big picture more than we’d like to admit. But once again, the story ends with people bound together by a common understanding of goodness. Even if a film doesn’t credit the moral victory to God, his fingerprint is all over it.
Finally, I asked Dr. Ordway what she believes Catholics and Protestants could do in support of one another when faced with difficult issues. She suggests, “We should recognize that we all love the Lord Jesus, and we should pray for each other, and we should always seek to do good to each other - which includes making efforts to be charitable in thought and word. It is always wise to pray first, listen second, speak last!...And, in apologetics terms, we should always strive for charitable dialogue. We can support each other by genuinely seeking to understand the other (often there are as many misunderstandings as there are real differences!) and, as I noted above, to remember that we all love Jesus and are brothers and sisters in Christ, even though we are (sadly) not in full union with each other in the present moment.”
My hope with this post is to shed light on goodness and truth, and present a (possibly) new viewpoint to those who engage with media that addresses difficult issues. It is far too easy to demand that our own opinions dominate the truth. But as Christians, we have to surrender our human bias to THE truth, not our own traditions. My hope is also that the conversation between Catholics and Protestants remains open, with respect and a common goal of bringing glory and praise to God.
Holly Ordway is Professor of English and faculty member the Master of Arts in Apologetics at Houston Baptist University. Her Ph.D. is in English, from the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She also holds an MA in English from the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, an MA in Christian Apologetics from Biola University, and a BA in English from the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
I would also like to personally recommend her memoir, Not God’s Type (Ignatius 2014) for more insight on a journey to the faith from an intellectual and personal perspective. You can also learn more about her work on her website, www.hollyordway.com.
Photo by Nicole Elizabeth Photography