Vox Nova at the Movies: Catholics

Vox Nova at the Movies: Catholics March 15, 2008

I wasn’t there, but from everything I’ve heard, the years after the Second Vatican Council were, for many in the West, a time of confusion and chaos. Changes from the Council (such as the abandonment of the Latin mass and the prohibition on eating meat on Friday) were seen as marking a decisive break with the past. Everything was up for grabs. Priests abandoned their cassocks and occasionally their orders, mass became a time for spiritual experimentation (much of it silly, given the nature of the age), and a small group of activists and academics began to cite the “spirit of Vatican II” as justification for making even more radical changes to Church doctrine and belief.

Catholics, a.k.a.The Conflict, posits a world in which these radicals won. The film is set in what was then the near future but is now would be the recent past. Rome is now part of an ecumenical organization a la the World Council of Churches. Distinctive Catholic practices like private confession and Lourdes have been suppressed, and the Church hierarchy seems more interested in Buddhist dialogue and fomenting revolution in the Third World than with the salvation of souls.

There is only one problem. On a small island in rural Ireland, an order of monks have returned to saying the Latin mass. When a television crew films the monks in action, people begin to speculate about a traditionalist counter-revolution, and the Vatican quickly dispatches a priest, played by Martin Sheen, to get matters under control.

The film is based on the novel Catholics by Brian Moore, but has the feel of something adapted from a stageplay. There is very little action; most of the film consists of a series of interchanges between Martin Sheen, Trevor Howard (the Abbott at the monastery), and the other monks. Discussion centers on the pros and cons of the Latin mass, the nature of obedience, the traditionalist versus the modernist outlook on religion, and other related matters. In short, it is easy to understand why the film wasn’t a blockbuster.

Nevertheless I found the movie fascinating and also quite moving. It is in its way one of the most tragic movies I have ever seen, as it presupposes a world in which the Church has failed, and God’s words to Peter in Matthew 16 have proven in vain. If the very description of the film’s plot doesn’t bore you to tears then I would highly recommend it (the film is available through Netflix).

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