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Scandal, Stereotype, 'Sin'

Do 'Mystic River' and 'The Sopranos' get it right? Four Catholics on whether they see themselves in today's pop culture.

In anticipation of the Boston premiere of the play "Sin: A Cardinal Deposed," arts reporter Louise Kennedy moderated a discussion of how popular culture portrays Catholics and the Catholic Church. Participating were local filmmaker Maureen Foley, director of "Home Before Dark" and the forthcoming "American Wake"; Jean Colgan Gould, author of the memoir "Forty Years Since My Last Confession"; the Rev. Robert VerEecke, S.J., director of the Boston Liturgical Dance Ensemble, Boston College artist-in-residence and lecturer in dance, and pastor of the Church of St. Ignatius of Loyola; and Ralph Whitehead Jr., journalism professor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Here's an edited transcript of the conversation.

Kennedy: So what does a Catholic look like in popular culture today?

Foley: It's hard to think of one! I can't think of the last Catholic character I saw.

VerEecke: Well, unfortunately it was canceled, but [the 1997 television series] "Nothing Sacred" was really the most realistic portrayal of contemporary Catholic life. It was a very dynamic parish; the issues of women's roles and concern for the poor and social justice were presented. Some of the liberal/conservative struggles between clergy were there. One show that never aired -- the writer, Bill Cain, who is a friend, showed it to me -- was when the more conservative Catholic priest by mistake burned down the church because he was playing with incense. It's just at Eastertime, and so the church burns down, and they have the Easter vigil, the lighting of the new fire, in the ashes of the old church.

But unfortunately I think "Nothing Sacred" was so Catholic -- it was too parochial to get a larger audience. And also a lot of conservative Catholics wanted it off the air and put a lot of pressure on advertisers.

Kennedy: And yet sometimes the more stereotypical portrayals don't draw much criticism. There's a comic nun and it's just played for laughs, and no one seems upset.

Gould: Well, that's not really so. A couple of months ago there was that Oliphant cartoon with the nun swooping down on Mel Gibson. I wrote a letter to the Globe, and a lot of people called and thanked me.

Foley: You think about the play "Nunsense," it's the same stereotypical . . .

VerEecke: And most people are not interested in seeing a contemporary religious woman. They want them dressed in a habit so they're identifiable.

Kennedy: The only time we see habits anymore is on TV or in a movie. And the only time you see a confessional is on "Law & Order." Because it's a great stage setting; it's a wonderful place to have a dramatic conversation.

Whitehead: I think that storytellers are unwilling to give up the confessional, even though it's gone the way of the horse-drawn ambulance.

Gould: It may be really hard in film and television to show images of Catholics that aren't caricatures. One is able to do it much better in writing, develop a fuller character, than with a picture.

Whitehead: I think when you're a kid virtually every adult is two-dimensional. And if the adult is wearing a religious habit, they become 1 1/2-dimensional.

Kennedy: But that childish perspective, which is very understandable, remains in the sensibility of a lot of filmmakers. I wonder why.

VerEecke: I just think the Catholic Church has created that mystique around its religious leaders. And then when it comes to having a sense of the humanity of priests and nuns, people are still unaware of that. And then especially in the present crisis it goes to one extreme. And that tends to blanket everybody.

Kennedy: Is the mystique what draws filmmakers, too? Mystery is interesting.

Foley: It's not only the church -- it's a larger thing, which is associated with your family and your upbringing. And historically Catholics -- you're trained up to a certain point when you make your confirmation, and for many people it kind of stops there. And the challenge is: How you move into adulthood, with an adult awareness of how complex life is, and continue to connect with the church on another level -- in an adult way as opposed to a childish way?

Whitehead: If you grew up in the postwar heyday of American Catholicism, the story that children were exposed to was a very romantic and rich and powerful and vivid story. And the Martin Scorseses make their own adaptation of it and put it on the screen, and we're drawn to it because it's familiar. But there is a childlike quality to it.

Kennedy: So do the Catholics onscreen look like the Catholics you know?

Whitehead: It is very easy to depict the church -- but not well. Because you have all the external trappings of the hierarchy and the ritual -- it says "Catholic." But I think it's very difficult for a contemporary artist to portray the Catholic sensibility of a real-life Catholic layperson, in part because it's so diverse. I think it's tough to get that onto the screen.

VerEecke: Why would it be tough?

Foley: For one thing it's an interior life. It's one of the hardest things to do, to capture an interior spiritual life.

VerEecke: It would be interesting to have this conversation after the film of "The Da Vinci Code" is made. There you have a book that gives absolutely no substance to character identity. So what you're going to have is the picture of Opus Dei as one of the most conservative Catholic groups, all of this will happen in Rome, you'll see lots of nuns and priests, everybody in clericals and habits, and then you have the subtext of all of this secrecy -- so I think that's going to come out as a very "Catholic" film.

Foley: Well, "Mystic River," look at that. So often I think what happens is that the story does not involve the church per se, but it's a Catholic -- it's Southie, it's Irish Catholic, they're going to a First Communion. All of that.

Kennedy: And maybe that's part of what happens; Catholic or not, people know what "Catholic" means. So they come in carrying all their own ideas.

Foley: Right. Which is why it's hard to be Catholic at this particular moment. Because people think they know.

Whitehead: The child's version of Catholicism is pre-psychological. So Tim Robbins [in "Mystic River"] -- if he were going to go anywhere for advice, he would go to a priest. But for obvious reasons in his case he's not going to go to a priest. The offstage premise of "The Sopranos" is that Tony didn't go to a priest; he's going to a psychiatrist. He's crossing the boundary from the pre-psychological world of the Catholic working class into the psychological world of the contemporary secular middle class. More and more of us have been assimilated into the post-psychological culture, but the drama of crossing that barrier is still an appealing one. So we have to find the holdouts. And the holdouts tend to be both ethnic and Catholic, a combination which conveys quickly, "This is a pre-psychological character." Someone who does not have a psychologized sense of self.

Kennedy: Someone who's never seen "Oprah."

Whitehead: Has seen it but not really bought it. Someone who thinks, for better or worse, that they have a soul rather than a superego.

Kennedy: You brought up something that I want to get back to. Is it possible to talk about Catholicism without talking about ethnicity in this country? And do we end up seeing mostly Irish Catholic or mostly Italian Catholic images?

VerEecke: Australian Catholic, with "The Thorn Birds!" And Mel Gibson, of course, with "The Passion."

Kennedy: Do we have to talk about "The Passion"?

VerEecke: I just did a dance piece called "Melodrama." I dance it with another dancer, who's Jesus, and I'm a priest. And the first part is my commentary on going to the Gibson "Passion" and looking away most of the time, and trying to figure out why. Then I segue into other images of Jesus we need to see, for example a comic Jesus. Jesus and I go into a duet to "Make 'Em Laugh" from "Singin' in the Rain," doing all this kind of Three Stooges movement, slipping on banana peels, walking into walls. I bring this up because someone who is Catholic and who heard about the piece was very upset, even hearing that I would do something that could possibly be offensive to Catholic sensibilities, whatever that means.

Foley: Do you think it came from a place of "Oh, will that be another thing that will offend even more people who are trying to stay with the church in a difficult time?"

VerEecke: I think that's a good question. But again my brand of Catholicism is so influenced by Jesuit spirituality, which is finding God in all things. So you're open to the possibility of every moment in creation being a sacramental moment. And I think the appeal of Catholicism is its sacramentality. And that's why I think you're talking about this today. Because Catholicism is such a visual faith expression, and it always has been. And that's the crazy thing. Catholicism is without a doubt the most sensual of faith expressions, but people don't think that way.

Kennedy: Do you all feel an obligation now to create work that responds to the crisis in the church?

Foley: Yeah, I do. I find it harder and harder to explain why I am still a Catholic, frankly. And if there's a responsibility I feel it is to try to represent the kind of Catholicism that I was taught, about charity and kindness and having a conscience, having an interior life. The first challenge is personal, to represent what is best about Catholicism and be that person. And then I suppose it will find some kind of expression in the work that I end up doing.

Kennedy: Father Bob, do you feel a particular burden as a priest to represent a particular ideal or to challenge people's ideas?

VerEecke: Yeah, well, I think I try to do that as a pastor from the pulpit. Clearly as a Jesuit choreographer/dancer, that doesn't fit any stereotypes.

Kennedy: Yeah, I haven't seen the TV series.

Whitehead: I like it, though.

Kennedy: This is actually the pitch meeting for that series.

VerEecke: So my very being belies what people think. I like the fact that it's jarring for people, because it allows you to enter into a conversation about "What is this Catholic experience and expression?" And particularly something like dance, which is so physical, so embodied. Usually -- I've thought how would I, for example, as a choreographer, try to deal with some of the issues that come up within the Catholic context: lack of trust, and the dismantling of so many relationships within the church. But I haven't gotten to that place. It's a hard one.

Whitehead: Just to comment on what you said: Martin Scorsese said that years ago he asked his parish priest what he thought of one of Scorsese's early movies, and the priest said, "Marty, too much Good Friday, not enough Easter Sunday." "The Passion" was Good Friday; we could use a few more Easter Sundays.

Ver Eecke: It's a shame that people identify Catholicism so much with a set of beliefs, that that's the only access into this experience. When I think that the mystical and the sacramental --

Foley: Well, the Holy Spirit. You know, the Holy Spirit is so close to what you experience if you are trying to write or choreograph or film or anything. When I am having trouble sort of figuring out how can I be a Catholic and be who I am, I always remember that I was taught that there's another path into this, which is thinking of the Holy Spirit. And that seems very close to the world that you're trying to work in and live in when you're writing or painting or whatever it is.

VerEecke: That's where all my work comes from.

Foley: And that's the thing that I think is so rich about the right kind of Catholic experience. God knows -- we know -- how many people were damaged by their experience being educated as children in the Catholic Church, but I wasn't one of those people. For me it created an alternative universe, which was about a spiritual life.

Kennedy: It strikes me that a lot of this is about power. And when I was thinking about images of the church, I thought a lot of the images are using a priest or a nun or the church as a metaphor, a visual metaphor for power.

Whitehead: During this whole crisis there was some stock footage of Cardinal Law that you would see on TV over and over again, of him with other priests in full regalia saying Mass. My wife saw this for about the 10th time, and she turned to me and said, "You know, those really are funny-looking hats." And the crosier, and all these symbols of medieval -- I think laypeople want a certain kind of liturgical richness and artistry and depth, but some of the symbols of mere power do seem arbitrary.

Kennedy: And un-American, right? I mean, we don't give the president a scepter.

Whitehead: Just the Strategic Air Command.

Foley: It occurred to me, in [the 1982 film] "The Verdict," the church was presented as one of the sources of power in Boston. There's this old law firm, and then there's WGBH, and then there's the church. And they're all presented as institutions of great and corrupt power.

Gould: It seems to me that one of the things that's required is an appreciation for process that Catholics are not used to. That we're not going to settle all these things overnight, that this is a whole process of change. And it takes time.

Louise Kennedy can be reached at

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