Outside “Catholic”

I recently watched a strange movie recommended on InsideCatholic. Ushpizin, or The Holy Guests, is about a middle-aged Chasidic couple whose faith is tested by longstanding infertility. The plot is archetypally Jewish, a charming spin on the story of Abraham and Sarah. There’s nothing strange there. What’s really odd is that it turns out that despite all those yarmulkes and bearded rabbis and Succoth huts, the movie was not Jewish but Catholic.

Or so I read online. One viewer called it “one of the most Catholic movies” he’d ever seen, offering these words in all innocence as the highest praise. Another said it was the most Catholic movie since Babette’s Feast. The strangest thing of all was that I’ve heard and read this kind of remark so often that I almost breezed past it without noticing. Googling “most Catholic movie” turns up obvious candidates like The Passion of the Christ and I Confess (no arguments there), but also Babette’s Feast, The Spitfire Grill, El Cid, Spiderman 2, and Hardball. From recent personal conversations I can add Juno and The Royal Tenenbaums.

What do these people mean? Perhaps nine times out of ten all that’s meant is “true,” or “good,” without much thought. But however casually or seriously it is meant, it’s wiser and better to avoid this use of “Catholic.”

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For starters, it’s gratuitously offensive. I can only imagine how it sounds to a serious Jew, like the writer and star of Ushpizin. Could more condescending praise possibly be devised? To roughly translate: “Since your movie contains some truth about man’s relation to God, you may think it’s Jewish, but I recognize it as Catholic.”

Add to this that, in many cases, what is meant is more specifically: “This movie is anti-Protestant,” meaning by “Protestant” some indistinct jumble of Puritanism, Jansenism, dualism, voluntarism, bourgeois capitalism, and so on. At best, this is ignorant and provincial; if Babette’s Feast were meant as a serious critique of Protestantism, itwould be facile and dishonest. A real protestant — a Lutheran, say — would have every right to take offense.

Besides giving offense, we’re likely to make fools of ourselves when we talk this way, as when we preen ourselves on virtues we don’t possess. As commentators noted, one of the great beauties of Ushpizin is the immediacy, spontaneity, and zeal with which the characters pray. I couldn’t agree more. But is this “Catholic,” as some asserted? An evangelical or Pentecostal would laugh to hear it. Perhaps we Catholics ought to pray like that, but to claim that we typically do is nonsense.

Even if we decide these considerations don’t matter, or become discreet enough to keep the usage strictly in-house, there are other, deeper problems with using the word “Catholic” as a vague term of approbation. Diplomacy and courtesy aside, it’s wrong to make all truths sectarian, whether revealed truths or truths of reason. Truth can’t contradict truth, so if Catholicism is true, it will be in harmony with all other truths. It doesn’t follow that we should use the word “Catholic” when what we mean is “true.” To do so implies that the truths in question are narrowly Catholic when they’re not. Ironically, this narrowness can lead in turn to an opposite but equally wrongheaded broadness that uncritically accepts as Catholic things that are not.

For instance, Catholics often call art “Catholic” when they mean that it is incarnational or sacramental. True, Catholicism is sacramental. Sacraments make sense because the body is part of our human nature. We’re not Cartesian spirits trapped in alien bodies. But it does not follow that anyone who sees man as a unity of body and soul is Catholic. God chose to institute the means of grace most suited to our nature because He knows our nature through and through. Our nature is the prior truth here. If you know what people are like you can see why sacraments make sense; you don’t learn what people are like by learning about the sacraments.

Artists tend not to be Cartesian dualists. Dualism makes for bad art because it’s psychologically all wrong. Thus Isak Dinesen, for whom art is the highest human activity, dislikes the dualist Protestantism in which she was raised and finds Catholicism more congenial. That doesn’t make her Catholic. Babette’s Feast is a great movie; it makes conscious use of Catholic imagery and aptly criticizes a certain strain of Protestantism as inhuman and obtuse; but, no, it’s not “Catholic.” Dinesen’s appreciation of Catholicism is primarily aesthetic and amoral; it’s part of a kind of highbrow sensuality a Catholic should view with healthy suspicion. At least in this case, the narrow assumption that all truth must be Catholic has led to a broad inclusiveness that is also false.

Something similar happens when we say Ushpizin is Catholic. True, Catholics will appreciate the couple’s yearning for children; the Catholic Church stands against most of our world in affirming that procreation is good. But to call the couple’s yearning “Catholic” is at once too narrow and too broad. Fertility is a natural human good. Natural reason can see that a childless marriage lacks something; an appeal to revelation is not necessary. Chasidim don’t have to be Catholic to value children.

Conversely, simply valuing children doesn’t make them Catholic. In fact, one of the things I found most interesting about watching Ushpizin was the contrast between Chasidic marriage and Christian marriage in this respect. The wife tells her husband he must not have prayed hard enough for a child, since God didn’t give them one. A Catholic wife couldn’t say that. Nor would she offer to leave so her husband could remarry because she is barren. For a Catholic couple, the inability to have children would be a sadness; for the Chasidic couple (at least as depicted in this movie), it constitutes the failure of the marriage as a Jewish marriage. Leaping to call the movie “Catholic” blocks the discovery of this difference, one of the movie’s most interesting revelations. The label tends to prevent the viewer from learning anything from art but what he brings to it.

I have perhaps not done justice here to the motives of those who call movies like these Catholic. I suspect in many cases they are converts or recently catechized Catholics who are excited to discover the reasonableness of some part of Church teaching or practice, and to see it confirmed in art or popular culture. The problem is that, although speaking this way is intended to affirm the harmony of faith and reason, by blurring the distinction between them it tends to destroy both.

Art does what it does by being art, not by being “Catholic” art. To treat it as an encoding system for presenting truths of faith is to give up the particular form of truthfulness — and even infallibility — that art has as art. We don’t improve on truths of nature by mistaking them for truths of grace. To feel the need to do so betrays an underlying mistrust of human reason that is not, I’m tempted to say, very Catholic. As St. Thomas Aquinas insisted, and as the teaching Magisterium of the Church has repeatedly affirmed, grace does not destroy nature but builds on it. If we refuse to let nature be just nature, we’ll find ourselves without a foundation on which to build.


  • Anna Mathie

    Anna Mathie is a lecturer in philosophy at the Catholic University of America.

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