Where have all the good TV Catholics gone?
The other day I was watching ABC’s The Drum where Peter Singer was talking about the importance of giving to charitable causes to help alleviate global poverty. Good stuff from Singer, but out of nowhere comes a reference to Catholic Archbishop of Sydney Cardinal George Pell from one of the panelists.
Apparently Pell, at some point, had said that there is no genuine altruism, people only do good because it makes them feel good (well duh, I’ve heard that before). Anyway, next thing I know the inference is being made that Pell would rather have us walk around flagellating ourselves than giving to charitable causes.
There I am, watching the show, and I’m just baffled as to how went from generous giving to medieval self-mutilation at the behest of George Pell. Then it finally dawns on me, “Of course, this is the The Drum, the final credits can’t roll without at least one Catholic being bashed.” I should have known better.
The Drum is not an isolated instance. I’ve noticed that nearly every time I see a Catholic priest on TV he is either a child molester or else a religious nut job who thinks that he’s in a personal wrestling match with the devil.
I swear that after watching three CSI episodes and a season of Q&A that all Catholics do is spend their time trying to lure children into their gingerbread houses. This explains why I have an unconscious impulse to burn down every Catholic Church that I walk passed.
I’m not Catholic. The chances of me converting to Catholicism are about the same as Green Senator Sarah Hanson-Young attending an ANZAC Day memorial service – buckley’s and none. However, I am concerned that a religious minority, any religious minority, can be portrayed with such resolute and unflinching prejudice in pop drama and news commentary.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not defending for a moment the evil things that have been done in Catholic institutions. Let the beast be named and shamed. The Catholic hierarchy’s efforts at reform, genuine as they are, are too late for many victims.
Still, I want to point out that the majority of priests are not paedophiles. Furthermore, the Catholic Church does not have some kind of monopoly on abuse. Any institution that has children, be it religious or secular, will attract predatory figures who use the institution to prey on the vulnerable.
May I point out that child abuse also transpires in Buddhist monasteries throughout the world. Yet I’ve never heard the Greens demanding a boycott of the Dalai Lama. I’ve never heard anyone calling for a citizen’s arrest of the Dalai Lama. I mean, seriously, what has the Dalai Lama done to stop the abuse of children in Buddhist monasteries in Tibet and beyond?
Still, the media and entertainment industry have an anti-Catholic fixation. A fixation fed by the last three decades that have spotlighted abuse and its cover-up. But is it fair that every Catholic priest on a crime show in a child molester? Is it fair that every Catholic family on a sitcom be portrayed as a bunch of fanatical whackos? I hope not, because if you did this against Muslims, immigrants, gays, or women, there would be outrage, and rightly so!
My problem is that I’ve read accounts of the persecution of Catholics in Ottoman Turkey, during the Spanish civil war, and in communist China. I do not fear that happening in twenty-first century Australia.
But I think we should fear any minority being depicted in stereotypical fashion in the media or entertainment industry for the purpose of gaining political currency by appealing to widespread prejudices.
If I appear to have more fruit-loops in my head than a Kellogs factory let me point out that I’m not alone in my observations. First, back in 2010, Paul Collins wrote an article in Eureka Street called “The Rise of Catholicophia” where he briefly documented the history of anti-Catholicism in the UK. Second, Philip Jenkins’s book The New Anti-Catholicism: The Last Acceptable Prejudice published in 2004 exposed anti-Catholic rhetoric in the movies, media, and academy in the USA. Both identified a concerted effort to portray the Catholic Church as the stereotyped public villain in public and political discourse.
I grew up watching the brightly Sally Field in The Flying Nun and was hypnotized by The Father Dowling Mysteries where I secretly wanted to marry Sister Stephanie! Where have all the good TV Catholics gone? They’ve been replaced with one dimensional stock characters, conducive to spreading the myth that Catholics are the greatest threat to a safe and inclusive society.
Yet there are many fine Catholic men and women of exemplary humanity, not despite their Catholicism, but precisely because of it. Intellectuals like Malcolm Muggeridge. Modern day saints like Oscar Romero. Catholic Priests like Father Kasimir Vilnis who helped many Jews escape the Holocaust. Does the name Mother Theresa ring any bells?
The Catholic Church has had the capacity to inspire people with hope and compassion. I’m reminded of the account of Alec Guinness’ conversion to Catholicism in his biography Blessings in Disguise.
While filming Father Brown in France, Guinness recollects how walking down the street one evening in his priestly costume, he was mistaken for a real priest by a small child. Guinness did not speak French, and the child did not notice that Guinness did not understand him, but the boy took his hand and chattered away as the two strolled down the street.
After a while the child waved and walked off. The confidence and affection that the clerical attire had upon that child left a deep impression on Guinness. For many, the Catholic Church is a light on the hill in a world that is cold, brutal, and dark.
Despising Catholics is the last acceptable bastion of prejudice in this country. You could not say things about any other group which get said about Catholics. Even worse, denigrating Catholics is a key item on the CV of any would-be journalist and talk-show host, like some kind of rite of passage.
I’m not calling for a moratorium on criticism of the Catholic Church. Rather, I’m calling for some self-critical reflection on the motivation, amount, and mode of criticism of Catholics in the media, less we be found guilty of calling Catholics for a speck of prejudice in their eye only to discover a plank of prejudice in our own eye.
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