That’s Not the Priest From Rome, Surely?
Have you ever started watching a movie and thought “Man, I wish Ross Douthat were here to watch this with me?” Don’t scoff—it just happened to your Communicant. The thoughts-of-Ross-inspiring movie in question is the 1973 epic film Catholics (or “The Catholic” as Amazon has labeled it? Shame on you, Amazon, this movie deserves better), based on the novel by Brian Moore.
In this color-and-visual-quality-impaired film (it has that authentic old-timey analog look so sought after these days) the liberal Catholic icon Martin Sheen plays a young American priest, James Kinsella. Kinsella has been dispatched by Rome to shut down some unauthorized shenanigans at a cold 12th century abbey on an island off the coast of Ireland. It’s so remote that Kinsella’s chopper is the “first flying machine” to ever land there. Kinsella comes from an apparent post-Vatican IV dystopia where the Real Presence no longer exists and the world’s religions convene for ecumenical conferences. Kinsella, outfitted in black turtleneck and groovy taupe jacket, is the epitome of the Catholic Modernist. And, let’s face it, a total fox.
Why has the Father General dispatched Kinsella to such a small and seemingly insignificant outpost? The monks have been celebrating the Latin Mass and have begun to attract an international following, which is causing Rome more than a few problems. The monks say that they started using the new Mass after Pope John, but that people (men) stopped coming so they went back to the old ways.
Kinsella has to face off with the Father Abbot, played by Trevor Howard, and various wild-eyed monks. Conversations about social justice vs. saving souls, conscience vs. obedience, monks and missionaries and “guitar playing, singing and turning around and touching your neighbor” vs. the Latin Mass, which is the “same wherever you go” and the church’s possible role in revolutions ensue.
However, Catholics is about more than the conflict between the old ways and the new. The Father Abbott’s internal struggles provide a sharp undercurrent to the seemingly superficial issues at hand. His essential conflict touches upon something that affects most, if not all, of the faithful—guitars or the post V-4’s ban on “distasteful” private confessions aside. If you like rugged scenery, Martin Sheen’s resplendent hair and sideburns and inquiries into the nature of faith, Catholics is for you. Heck, it’s for everyone. Especially you and me, Ross.
Mary Valle lives in Baltimore and is the author of Cancer Doesn't Give a Shit About Your Stupid Attitude: Reflections on Cancer and Catholicism. She blogs on KtB as The Communicant. For more Mary, check out her blog or follow her on Twitter.