Catholics, Nazis, and Rat-Eating Aliens: A Look at the TV Series "V"
It's rare for a TV series to make a Catholic priest one of its primary characters, but that's what the ABC show "V" did when it debuted in 2009. Not only was the character generally positive and even heroic, but as the show has evolved in Season 2, themes that hold special interest for Catholics have garnered a higher profile too.
In case you're not familiar with the basics: "V" is the story of a civilization of human-looking-aliens who come to earth under the guise of being friendly. Dubbed "the Visitors" (or Vs for short) and led by their queen Anna (Morena Baccarin) who promises "We are of peace, always," they provide humanity with healing centers to cure the incurable, clean energy that's free for the neediest, and promises of brotherhood and solidarity. To people whose needs are suddenly provided for, the Visitors are like gods.
That makes Catholic priest Father Jack Landry (Joel Gretsch) suspicious, since he's living out his devotion to the real God. Father Landry and FBI agent Erica Evans (Lost's Elizabeth Mitchell) eventually discover the Visitors are not as peaceful or as harmless as they appear to be; they begin a resistance movement.
Though "V" sounds like standard sci-fi fare, it manages to insert some genuine substance into its storytelling. For instance, one recent episode had Anna setting her sights on Father Jack—a threat because of his anti-Visitor sermons. Though the priest insists he is a man of peace, Anna captures video footage of him breaking up a fight; she edits it in a way that depicts him as advocating violence. When the video goes viral on the Internet, Anna believes she has discredited the priest's moral authority and weakened his opposition.
In the February 1 episode, we learn that religious figures from around the world have begun speaking out against the Vs, and that several of the Visitors' peace ambassadors have been killed. Anna blames Father Jack's rhetoric for this and heads to the Vatican to proclaim that a "priest shouldn't use his position to speak out in hate against any single group." She wants the Vatican to issue an unconditional condemnation of this kind of speech among its clergy and declare that anyone who engages in "intolerance will be dealt with swiftly and severely." Though the College of Cardinals rejects her proposal at first, Anna uses intimidation to change their minds.
The show's writers are portraying a historical truth in a fictional setting; attacking and constraining religion—Christianity in particular—is an early lesson in "Tyranny 101." One of the first steps any dictator takes upon assuming power is the co-opting of prevailing churches for his own purposes, and the destruction of those elements and people who challenge his authority.
As historian Richard Evans explains in his critically-acclaimed tome The Third Reich in Power, "In the twentieth century, secularist persecution of the Christian Church had reached a new intensity in Mexico and Russia, in the wake of the countries' respective revolutions. Crushing an international organization like the Church, which downgraded the state in its thinking, could form part of the process of building a new nation or a new political system."
Evans highlights the years leading up to World War Two in Germany as a prime example. Hitler and other prominent Nazis found an enemy in the Catholic Church because of "its ability to convince its members of the rightness of its creed." Thus, rendering the Church subservient to the secular authority became one of the Nazi party's top priorities.
The government seized the property of Catholic lay organizations and banned their activities; diocesan newspapers were no longer allowed to call themselves Catholic; the Gestapo began infiltrating Church services, looking for traitors; and the government conspired with secular newspapers to portray the Church as corrupt.
For a while, the Church and Germany's Catholic citizens fought back. Richard Evans explains, "Catholic priests were . . . publicly branding the swastika as ‘the Devil's cross,' refusing to use the Hitler greeting, expelling brownshirts from Church services and . . . including political attacks on the regime in their sermons."
But the Propaganda ministry and Nazi press stepped up their attacks on the Church, which they branded "a sore on the healthy racial body" of Germany. By 1939, the Church's power and influence were seriously dented and had largely been driven out of public life.
In "V" as in real life, a priest who challenges the oppressors is the victim of a smear campaign, and the Church as a whole is threatened. Compared to the Vatican, which did much good in resisting the Nazis (a documented fact that doesn't always penetrate the myth surrounding Pope Pius XII), the Cardinals in "V" folded a little quickly for my taste. On the other hand, the Cardinals weren't caricatured as sinister or oppressive as they frequently are in popular entertainment; they were human beings trying to do the right thing until fear got the better of them. Not ideal, but plausible. My hope is that this particular storyline may evolve over time so somebody from the Vatican may yet get to be a hero.
An interesting new theme involves Anna coming to the realization that human emotions like hope, love, and courage are the cause of rebellion; frighteningly, some of her fellow aliens have begun developing emotions and they are rebelling too. When Anna is told that the source of emotion is the soul, she orders medical experiments on humans meant to isolate and destroy the physical matter that makes up the soul. This once again reflects the historical habit among atheistic materialists, who—believing that human beings are simply highly-evolved animals—reduce all reality to physical matter or chemical reactions in the brain and reject whatever cannot be quantified by science.
But as Anna learns from a priest, the human soul is immortal and meant for eternal life. "Without them, we would be nothing more than animals," he explains. How Anna reacts to transcendent concepts like the soul and God remains to be seen, but the journey will likely be an interesting one.
The producers and writers of "V" deserve credit for exploring the role religion and clergy play in resisting evil, the moral quandaries faced by good people in difficult situations, and even daunting aspects of theology and philosophy. In an era when the Church and religion often get bashed, "V" is at least giving them a fair shake, all while telling a story that's mature, fast-moving, and entertaining. There's no reason to join a resistance movement against this show. It's a good hour of television that I hope keeps improving with age.
Tony Rossi is the host/producer of "Christopher Closeup," the radio show and podcast of The Christophers. The Christophers is a Catholic non-profit that uses media to encourage people of all faiths to live gospel values.