Christianity is CATHOLIC!

That’s not triumphalism. That’s simply a fact about how TV shows typically portray Christianity.

Now and then, Evangelicals and Fundamentalists get a nod (even though the country is overwhelmingly Protestant). But Catholics have all the cool visuals and tchotchkes, so it’s always a priest you call for an exorcism. Also, by the way, all priests on TV call people “My child”.

Curiously, one gets the impression that, apart from the visuals, much of the dialogue is written by people who are flying blind as to how Christians actually talk and act. So, for instance, there was that recent movie in which Kathleen Turner was some righteous Church Lady in some Stalinist power struggle for some petty prize or other. Okay. I can buy that. But part of the comedy involved her (or somebody) giving out communion, accidently spilling hosts on the floor AND THEN KICKING THEM UNDER THE ALTAR TO CLEAN UP THE MESS.

Catholics were outraged and regarded this as deliberate desecration. I think it’s very clearly an artifact of a screenwriter dashing off a script without taking the slightest effort to tell the difference between Catholics and some sort of crackers and grape juice Evangelicals. My guess is the screenwriter is a complete and total outsider to the Christian tradition. Somebody who is looking in or at Christianity and sees some of the visuals, but who has no feel whatever for the interior life of the Catholic or the Christian tradition. It seems, not so much malicious, as merely clueless.

You run into this a lot in the media–the strange tendency to confuse Catholics with generic Protestantism. Crazy mystic nuns, for instance, who used to be homeless druggies but were “rescued” by the sisters and instantly admitted to the veil show up. It’s like becoming a nun is more or less the same as “making a decision for Jesus” like an Evangelical. Only instead of being given a Bible and told to find a “Bible-believing Church” as you would at a Billy Graham Crusade, you become a consecrated virgin, start piously prefacing your words with “as the Good Book says” and, ocassionally, have ecstatic trances.

Also, there is the tone deafness of the priest or Catholic who goes around barking passages of Scripture and citing chapter and verse before condemning somebody or something. Why? Because an Evangelical audio track has been overlaid on a Catholic visual. It’s the mistake that, again, only somebody standing outside the tradition would make.

Not that there aren’t good portrayals of Christians (good in the sense of “accurate”). One of the finest, best written, and best acted movies ever made is “The Apostle”. I don’t know how Robert Duvall did it–and I suspect he has to have some sort of personal experience with that subculture–but it is, hands down, the best portrayal of the subculture of American non-denom pentacostalism ever committed to film.

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  • It always drove me crazy in the book, Carrie, by Stephen King how Carrie’s mother spoke like the most radical fundamentalist you could meet but knelt in front of a huge crucifix in her cabin.

    • Rachel K

      Yeah, King does that kind of thing all the time. I don’t know if he’s ever actually met a Christian.

      • Rosemarie


        Ever seen the movie Leap of Faith, starring Steve Martin as a phony Evangelical faith healer? When he holds a revival the stage (altar?) is dominated by a HUGE crucifix! That was definitely a facepalm moment for me.

  • I was watching Rescue Me on Netflix the other day and finally had to shout, “Where are these shows finding these amazing Catholic parishes? They always seem to find the one parish in America with frescoes, statues, high altars, and kneelers instead of the St. John of Start Trek churches I’m used to!” But really, where do these shows and movies find such amazing churches?

    • Ted Seeber

      You get St. John of Star Trek style parishes? I get Lake Wobegone parishes. I like wood as an artistic building material the same as the next person, but I’m glad the Hispanics are moving in with Our Lady of Guadalupe to add some color!

      • beccolina

        When I lived in Texas, it actually wasn’t unusual to find a Hispanic family who attended a protestant church, but still had rosaries and Our Lady of Guadalupe displayed in the home.

        • Ted Seeber

          I blame that entirely on the utter failure of my own order to succeed in assimilating Hispanic Catholics into the country. One of the charisms of the Knights of Columbus is supposed to be assimilation of the immigrant *without* making them give up their religion.

  • The Lisa

    Reminds me of an old George Carlin joke: if vampires were smart, they’d go after Jews.

    Lets face it, regardless of your denomination, if your daughter were demon-posessed, you’d never run to summon “Paster Kent.” Can you imagine him putting down his decaf, climbing into his Chrystler Town and Country minivan in his pastel shirt, grey Sans-a-belt pants and white shoes? What demon would be afraid of that? No way. I want the man in black, especially if he’s handsome and has a slight accent!

    JM&J, Paster Kent lives in a suburban rambler with his pastel wife and poodle.

    • Sal

      Again, this is why you can’t have the Final Confrontation between Good and Evil take place in a beige auditorium with potted ficus trees.

  • I strongly suspect that the problem is that much of the Great American Public simply does not know the difference between “cross” and “crucifix”. E.g., I see online references to “burning crucifixes” in Scottish celebrations, when surely the “starrie cross” rallying token is meant.

    Father Brown, in ‘The Vampire of the Village”, illuminates a related angle by pointing out that the English know nothing about the Church of England.

    For other instances: I was bemused by LOST, where (except for the token Moslem) everybody whose religion is known is Catholic. No Protestants on the plane?

    (By the way… are the baptisms administered on the island by the phony priest Eko valid?)

    And then, on CARNIVALE,, we had a squick-inducing sequence involving “Brother Justin” administering communion on the mouth. Now, Justin is surely some sort of Protestant evangelist (even though, to complicate further, he is obviously modeled on Father Coughlin.) And would an Okie boy know what a confessional WAS, even when it, so to speak, punched him in the face?

    In DAREDEVIL, on the other hand, it is justified, as Frank Miller established Battling Murdock’s son as Catholic.

    • Rachel K

      I’d imagine the baptisms are valid, since lay people can do baptisms. I’m more squicked by the fact he lived as a priest in Africa for however long and presumably presided over Masses and heard confessions.

      • Ted Seeber

        After reading John Allen’s _The Future Church_, I’m not surprised at all by that. The African Church, thanks to the Moslem influence, is very “young frontier Christianity”. For instance, instead of abortion and homosexuality, the primary problems in Kenya are vigilante justice against witches and what to do with the polygamous man who converts in a society with no social safety net where the *standard* way of taking care of the old is to take on extra wives.

    • o.h.

      Actually, I was pleasantly surprised by the accuracy in Carnivale of Brothrt Justin’s Depression-era Methodist preacher.

  • trespinos

    The greatest facepalm moment for me came while viewing Spielberg’s Amistad, a movie which I enjoyed quite a bit. Any Catholic viewing it must be mightily confused by the dour early Nineteenth Century New Englanders standing around audibly telling their beads while in every other respect seeming to be prototypical Prots on their own turf. Poor Spielberg hadn’t a clue evidently.

  • RevDC

    Think of how us Lutherans feel. With the exception of Garrison Keillor, we hardly get a mention. When we do, we too are turned into a strange mix of new age and fundamentalist.
    Years ago there was an episode of Law and Order that depicted a Lutheran pastor acting as a vigilante. In justification for his crime, he said God told him to do it. His “bishop” (not all Lutherans have bishops) was called to the stand and asked about the “God told me to do it” defense. The Bishop hemmed and hawed but didn’t answer.
    Meanwhile, Lutheran theology would condemn the pastor for his violence and for his claim to have a personal revelation. Lutherans recognize the right of those who hold a certain office such as judge, prosecutor, and officer of the law to use “the sword” but not those who would take that role on themselves. Secondly, we typically condemn those who claim to have “swallowed the Holy Spirit, feathers and all.”
    To top it off, the pastor was supposedly to have attended a Lutheran seminary in Alabama.

    • beccolina

      Every time L&O has a religious fanatic use that line, I just want to scream. Justice is a CARDINAL VIRTUE for pete’s sake! I can’t think of any priest, pastor, minister, or Christian I know who would support someone “killing for God’s sake” or because God told them to.

    • Rade Hagedorn

      Lutheranism doesn’t exist? Lutheranism is positively thriving in Hollywood in comparison to Orthodox Christianity. To make matters worse, I was reading a Pew Research poll yesterday which broke the results down to Roman Catholics, Mormons, and Protestants to cover Christianity.

    • deiseach

      RevDC, that probably explains it. You know the kinds of shenanigans those crazy Alabama Lutherans get up to, every Reformation Sunday Carnivale 😉

  • The Lisa

    and while we’re at it, why do all the Hollywood nuns look like Covergirl models, from Bergman to Hepbur. I recently watched Two Mules for Sister Sara with Clint Eastwood and Shirley McClain. (spoiler alert) After 90 minutes of sexual tension, Clint finally suduces Shirley, after she admits to actually being a prostitue and not a nun, as if that would have changed the morality of the scene.

  • Ed the Roman

    Or Angie, in which the title character’s baby is baptized, followed by the continuing conflict arising from her *not having named him yet*.

  • Tominellay

    I also thought “The Apostle” was superb, and watched it more than once…Duvall is really sharp.

  • Sandra Miesel

    LOST was actually pretty good handling its Catholic elements because one of the producers, Carleton Cuse, is a practicing Catholic. Yes, Eko’s baptisms would be valid since he was intending to administer the proper sacrament. Rose, the most virtuous character on the show, was a devout Protestant but her husband Bernard was agnostic and probably Jewish. Sawyer was raised Protestant. The Koreans were presumably Buddhist.

    The current cop show BLUE BLOODS revolves around an Irish Catholic family. The episodes I’ve watched get stuff right but (alas) the show winks at fornication.

    • I am advised that in the last census, half of Koreans responded “no religion”, with the remainder about equally divided between Christians and Buddhists. So it is NOT a safe assumption.

    • Mark S. (not for Shea)

      LOST was pretty good, but they did one bit that really irked me. When the whole bit about Locke not having a father came up, his mom said he was “immaculately conceived,” which is probably THE most misunderstood term among non-Catholics. They think it means “Virgin Birth,” which it does not.

      • But I grinned when Emily shouted “His name is John!”

  • Jared B.

    Yeah I’ve noticed that too; depictions of Christianity in American entertainment tends to have *just enough* of the look & feel of Roman Catholicism to be aesthetic, but the content (dialog, characters’ personalities) is definitely based on a vague Protestantism. Christianity-as-Catholicism shows up just as much if not more in Japanese anime, and it’s interesting to contrast. Japanese culture of course has a different set of stereotypes, and imports a vague Shintoism / Buddhism instead of half-remembered Sunday school lessons, so different parts of Catholicism get emphasized and when they get it wrong (writers only put so much effort into research, after all) it’s in very different ways. Depictions of doctrine are almost nonexistent instead of being borrowed from Protestantism, and the sacramentals and supernatural are played up (which American scripts only do if it’s a horror) so all the [sort of] “Catholic looking stuff” is the whole point instead of something slapped on. So priests’ and nuns’ primary job seems to be and saying blessings that are more like spells, blowing demons’ heads off with crosses & relics that shoot lasers, and being sent on missions from the General of the Vatican and/or an apparition of Mary Magdalene.

    • Pat D.

      That’s at least better than Japanese video games, which usually have the Church as a conspiracy run by demons and/or evil aliens.

      • Jared

        Final Fantasy 10…BLEH!

        Bugs me everytime I see someone praising it for its story.

    • Ted Seeber

      Speaking of relics that shoot lasers, one of my favorite episodes of the old 1980s/1990s MacGyver was the one in which MacGyver used a relic of St. Ambrose that turned out to be a Laser. Complete fiction, but I could see a smart monk in the middle ages building a solar powered laser. Probably wouldn’t be a rubidium one though, and it certainly would NOT have been powerful enough to ionize air like that.

      The disappointing part of that episode was the Dan Brown Esque Ending of Ambrose having hidden a museum of female fertility goddesses behind a fake rock wall laced with gunpowder. What a letdown, and feeding right back into the whole “The Catholic Church is Misogynist” myth.

  • This is one of my pet peeves – that ignorant screenwriters take the stuff from every Christian tradition they’ve ever come across, shove it into a blender, and think that actual Christian people will recognize and relate to the resulting puree of symbols. Maddening.

    I’m part of a scriptwriting workshop here in Portland, and I’ve had the chance to read the work of some local aspiring writers. One script submitted recently made such a mess of its Christian references that I wrote a paragraphs-long screed back to the group facilitator: the writer had included scenes with “church ladies” polishing an altar crucifix and obsessing on the – um, package of the figure of Christ, and then two pages on, had a character connected with this church (with “Bishop” in his title) making a gratuitous anti-Catholic slam. Bizarre. This doesn’t exist in any real-world scenario, I told my boss.

    I also told him this: I think it’s similar to the phenomenon you find amongst, say, white people who can’t tell black people apart from each other – “they all look alike”. They’re not used to looking closely at the features of these individual people, like they’re a version of ‘us’. All they see is the dark skin (or the almond-shaped eyes of an Asian, or what have you), and so they’re quickly and easily mentally classified as a group of ‘them’, with no further need for examination of individual characteristics.

    Cultural non-Christians act this way toward us because they can’t tell us apart from one another. It would take more energy than they’re willing to spend to get to know us and our varied traditions.

    And, I agree with Mark completely about The Apostle. Fantastic movie.

    • Ted Seeber

      Lundquist…Kathy Lundquist. Why do I know that name? Now it’s going to eat at me the rest of the day.

      Do you have relatives in Silverton? Or that go to St. Clare’s?

      • No – Lundquist is my married name, and my husband’s family is all in Alabama. But I’m told there are Catholic Lundquists in and around the city somewhere.

        It’s possible I’ve cantored at a wedding or funeral or Sunday Mass you’ve attended – I’m sort of ‘cantor at large’ around Portland these days. 🙂


  • Dan C

    “Romero” the movie dealt with all things Catholic quite well. It has an American-appearing soldier desecrating the Eucharist and Romero picking up the Eucharist at risk to his own life.

    It really is Catholicism well-demonstrated.

    • I agree – saw that one in college and was impressed (as a Protestant at the time).

  • Kirt Higdon

    I thought the movie Doubt (based on a play I believe) had the Catholic flavor of the era down just about right. I was attending a Catholic school back tin that era; the characters seemed very realistic.

  • I always think it would be funny to have a story (comedy, or horror, or comedy horror) about an ultra-liberal, tea-and-biscuits, in-a-manner-of-speaking Church of England vicar who apalls himself by discovering a talent for exorcism.

    • Rade Hagedorn

      There is a film called THE LAST EXORCISM that has a plot similar to this — though the pastor is a disillusioned evangelical.

  • The typical movie/TV Catholic priest is 1) Irascible or at least gruff, 2) a paragon of heroic virtue and unostentatious faith underneath, 3) Down-to-earth and cool-headed in a crisis 4) alcoholic or at least fond of the bottle, 5) Irish.

    • Veronica

      “The typical movie/TV Catholic priest is 1) Irascible or at least gruff, 2) a paragon of heroic virtue and unostentatious faith underneath, 3) Down-to-earth and cool-headed in a crisis 4) alcoholic or at least fond of the bottle, 5) Irish.”

      Unfortunately, that was the Hollywood priest stereotype a couple of decades ago. Now the typical priest, as portrayed in movies and TV shows like “Law & Order” is: a) a pedophile, b) a closet gay, c) at odds with the Church on sexual matters, d) a religious fanatic.

      Oh, how far we have fallen…

      • Ted Seeber

        {Political correctness off}In the original, why are 4) and 5) separate categories?

        • HA!! You beat me to it Teddo!!

        • HA!! You beat me to it Teddo!

        • well played sir.

          more seriously, I have yet to meet a priest who wasn’t a scotch drinker regardless of their ethnic origin – perhaps it’s a seminary course?

  • If Tyler Perry’s *Medea* character became Catholic for a couple of films, the world would be a better place.

  • The Lisa

    And then there’s the Dan Brown albino Opus Dei priest. Imagine him as pastel Paster Kent with Sans-a-belts and white shoes.
    And a cilice around the Hagars?
    Actually, that would be pretty scary.

    • Ted Seeber

      I’d think that would glow in the dark!

  • Connie

    One of the best shows on TV these days is also one of the very best at portraying Catholics. I’m talking about “Blue Bloods”. (Can I get an “Amen”?!?) Saying grace and making the sign of the Cross at family dinners, trying and often failing to live out their Catholic faith, priests and bishops portrayed as real people instead of cartoon characters or demonic predators. It’s a great police drama, but the positive portrayal of the Catholic faith is a big, BIG plus. We never miss an episode!

  • The Apostle was an excellent movie. It treated the subject like reality, as if there were actual people involved. That’s certainly not always the case. Same with fundamentalists. Going to Hollywood for any information about the Faith in any form should be done with caution.

  • Chris

    I can’t handle Hollywood’s portrayals of Catholicism. The entertainment industry is hostile to the point of absurdity, and an uncatechized, spiritually dead generation is raising the next generation of children to hate us.

    The last halfway decent portrayal I saw was in “The Exorcism of Emily Rose”. I’m not expecting Bing Crosby and Ingrid Bergman, just due respect for a 2000 yr old institution…

  • Sal

    Oddly enough, I was impressed with the treatment of Catholicism in “Mad Men”. In the second season, there was a priest played by Colin Hanks, who did not- what a shocker- fall into a sexual relationship with Peggy Olson, who he met through her devout Catholic family. He was smart, human, and concerned for her fallen-awayness. He had two scenes that impressed me very much: one where he and Peggy were talking together during the Cuban Missile Crisis and he was encouraging her to return to the Church and another with her sister in the confessional. It actually was like a real confession and he gave her excellent, and touching, counsel. Can’t remember his character’s name- we called him “Trendy Priest” b/c he plays the guitar. (In his room, not the church- but you can see it coming : ) )
    Whoever wrote those did their research well.

  • Sal

    And not to take away from Duvall, but the late June Carter Cash was fantastic in “The Apostle”, as his mother.

    • “That’s my son, that is. I’ll tell ya: ever since he was an itty bitty boy, sometimes he talks to the lord and sometimes he yells at the lord. Tonight, he just happens to be yellin’ at him. ”

      favorite line from the movie which actually helped my faith.

  • Sandra Miesel

    Duvall’s TENDER MERCIES is also a beautiful film that takes Christianity (in this case the Protestant kind)seriously

  • Bob

    The wedding scenes are an interesting illustration of confusion in relation to Christianity, with the now obligatory “You may kiss the bride.” This is one case of influencing Television which constructs an alternative reality…

  • Michael Medved’s Hollywood vs. America, one of my favouritest books in the world, has two chapters about movie and media portrayal of religion and clerics– “Forgetting the Faithful” and “Comic Book Clerics.” It was written in the early nineties, though.

  • K Gerard

    Actually one of the screenwriters of The Perfect Family is Claire V. Reilly, who is one of those great successful Catholic school alums. So she knew Jesus was being kicked under a pew. And laughed, I guess.