I am writing in response to your column "'Priest' deserves indulgence" (Tuesday, April 18, 1995).
Not having seen the movie myself, I shall recount here what I have read about it in Pittsburgh newspapers.
The Pittsburgh Catholic ran a CNS [Catholic News Service] story (Friday, April 3, page 3); here are the last two paragraphs:
[William A. Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights] said that comments by the director and writer have confirmed his view that "Priest" is propaganda expressing hostility to the Catholic Church.In The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Thursday, April 20, page D-2), Bill Steigerwald recounted Commonweal magazine's description of the clergymen portrayed in Priest:
Director Antonia Bird told The Los Angeles Times daily newspaper that the movie was "against a hierarchy adhering to old-fashioned rules without looking at the way the world's changed," Donohue reported.
One is sleeping with a man and hates himself for it; another is sleeping with a woman and has gotten over hating himself for it; a third, elderly, has been celibate all his life and therefore feels that his life has been wasted; another is a provincial Savanarola, full of self-righteously expressed bile; presiding over all is a bishop who is nothing but a smarmy bureaucrat.Mr. Steigerwald continued:
Despite this typically idiotic dramatic deck-stacking, Alleva [Commonweal's reviewer] is pretty forgiving of the filmmakers' sins, which include making it seem that no priest can be a real priest and still be happy or good.(I know that you may very well be acquainted with these quotations. But please bear with me, Ms. Uricchio: you won't be the only one seeing this, and I want to make sure that everybody is adequately informed.)
A recent mailing from the American Life League states the following:
In one scene, an actor portraying Greg, an active homosexual priest, is kneeling before a crucifix and ranting: "Do something--don't just hang there, you smug, idle b-----d [sic]." This is not even the most offensive part of the movie, Priest!At a seminar sponsored by the Catholic Action League (April 19), the League's president, William J. Donahue, said this:
But no matter the depravity, each priest is in his tortured state as a direct consequence of Church moral teachings.
The movie attacks not only the idea of the priesthood, but the teachings of the Catholic Church.At the same seminar, League director G. Toby Gaines made this statement, point blank:
This is an attack on our religious community.Now, however, I have your column staring me in the face, Ms. Uricchio:
Having seen the movie, I can say that it is shocking in parts, though not necessarily anti-Catholic.... In some ways, the movie is even a tribute to the priesthood....I shall begin with that one word, necessarily. May I inquire who inserted that little weasel-word? Did you? Or did the copy editor?
The bottom line is that if you think you'll be offended by "Priest," don't see it.... The arts have always served as a conduit for discourse. Freedom of expression and religious freedom are equally protected by the Bill of Rights.
For that is what it is, a weasel-word, used here to allow the column to almost say something, but to not quite say it: to forestall the accusation that the column says flat-out that the movie is not anti-Catholic.
Or is it, rather, a conciliatory word, Ms. Uricchio? Or, should I say, a condescending word?
Necessarily: a condescending word here, that allows (just barely, of course) the ridiculous possibility that some people--overly sensitive and presumably conservative Catholic people--might actually be able to interpret this movie as anti-Catholic.
Necessarily: a condescending word here, that allows that some people actually might not view this as a movie whose "message is one of tolerance and forgiveness"--you know, those hypersensitive, presumably conservative Catholic people, whose intellect and sophistication may not be quite what it would have to be to really appreciate the subtleties of a movie like Priest.
Ditto, for that weasel-phrase, that condescending phrase, In some ways.
But that phrase calls for a closer examination than did the word necessarily. Can that assertion--"In some ways, the movie is even [even: here, another weasel-word] a tribute to the priesthood"--be squared with the description of the characters, quoted above? Allow me to quote yet another description, also from the American Life League's mailing:
According to the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, Priest is a movie about five priests: One is having an affair with the housekeeper. The second is having sex with a male friend. The third is a drunk. The fourth is a lunatic. And the fifth (a bishop) is simply evil. [Emphasis in original.]To quote Dr. Donohue again, also from the Pittsburgh Catholic:
To have presented even one priest as a normal, well-adjusted individual living in accordance with the Church's requirements, Donohue said, would have contradicted the underlying theme that serving as a priest in the Catholic Church necessarily produces negative results. [Emphasis added.]When that is perceived as an underlying theme--when even the Post-Gazette's Mr. Steigerwald can say (mercifully, without weasel-words) that the filmmakers' sins "include making it seem that no priest can be a real priest and still be happy or good"--I say that the mincing words in your column betray a desire to make the movie appear less offensive than it really is. Or, that the columnist was, shall we say, somewhat uncomfortable with her own judgements.
Enough of this wearisome analysis of diction. On to larger issues.
To begin, allow me to transmogrify the last quotation from the American Life League; let's pretend they're talking about a different movie:
According to the Jewish Anti-Defamation League, Rabbi is a movie about five rabbis: One is having an affair with the housekeeper. The second is having sex with a male friend. The third is a drunk. The fourth is a lunatic. And the fifth (a chief rabbi) is simply evil. [Emphasis in original.]Let's pretend, for a moment, that Mr. Steigerwald had expressed this opinion about the movie Rabbi: the filmmakers' sins "include making it seem that no rabbi can be a real rabbi and still be happy or good."
And, let's pretend that Mr. Gaines' point-blank statement about Rabbi had been uttered at a local meeting of B'nai B'rith:
This is an attack on our religious community.Tell me, Ms. Uricchio, do you think that you (or the copy editor) would ever have reached the point of having to decide whether to use weasel-words and condescending phrases?
Wouldn't your dilemma, instead, have been whether to ignore a movie of such vile bigotry (and hope it would just go away), or to muster the strongest possible language to condemn it (and hope that that wouldn't make more people go to see it)?
And, instead of your platitudinous "The arts have always served as a conduit for discourse," wouldn't you have written something like "How can we stomach such bigotry disguised as art?"
Indeed, isn't that the real question here?
How can we stomach such bigotry disguised as art?
Or, rather, How can you defend such bigotry disguised as art?
Don't you think it's bigotry we're dealing with in the movie Priest, Ms. Uricchio? Can you tell me that you would deny it was bigotry if Jewish clergy were defamed and Jewish teachings attacked?
Kindly do not patronize me with advice that I should lighten up, that I should learn to be less sensitive--I and the thousands of other Catholics who are outraged that a movie like Priest would have even been produced, let alone released, let alone defended.
As quoted above, the president of the Catholic League has seen fit to call this movie "propaganda expressing hostility to the Catholic Church." Had the Jewish ADL seen fit to call a movie like Rabbi "propaganda expressing hostility to the Jewish religion," would you have dared to tell them to learn to be less sensitive? Why don't Catholic sensibilities deserve as much respect?
And kindly do not bother reminding me that I haven't seen Priest--that I might be less outraged if I actually saw its sensitive portrayal of the human condition, its excellent dialogue, its superb character development, its wonderful photography, its fine wardrobe.
If that is the tack you would like to take, let's try another transmogrification. Let's pretend, again, that we're talking about a different movie:
According to the NAACP, Minister is a movie about five African-American preachers: One is having an affair with the housekeeper. The second is having sex with a male friend. The third is a drunk. The fourth is a lunatic. And the fifth (a senior pastor) is simply evil. [Emphasis in original.]Let's pretend, again, that Mr. Steigerwald had expressed this opinion about the movie Minister: the filmmakers' sins "include making it seem that no black preacher can be a real preacher and still be happy or good."
And, let's pretend that Mr. Gaines' point-blank statement about Minister had been uttered at a meeting of a Baptist congregation:
This is an attack on our religious community.Would you have written that "the film's message is one of tolerance and forgiveness, which is fundamental to Christianity"? Would you not, instead, have tried to see how many times you could put the words racist and bigot, and their cognates, into one paragraph?
My point, Ms. Uricchio: would you dare to issue a challenge to "see it first before you condemn it" if the movie defamed black Baptist ministers?
And would you dare to tell the African-American community, The bottom line is that if you think you'll be offended by "Minister," don't see it?
(Indeed, you would put us in a Catch-22, wouldn't you? You advise us not to see the movie, if we would be offended; yet, you would tell us we have no right to an opinion if we haven't seen it. A vain attempt to make your own position less assailable.)
What's more: would you not have identified as a racist anybody who dared to defend such a movie, even with weasel-words and condescending phrases and platitudes about "discourse" in "the arts"?
And how swift would your appeal have been, Ms. Uricchio, to First Amendment "freedom of expression" if black preachers, or rabbis, had been portrayed in a movie as invariably wicked?
And isn't that the real kicker? When was the last time you heard of an appeal to the First Amendment's guarantee of freedom of expression, unless the expression was execrable?
I have at hand the Catholic League's 1994 Report on Anti-Catholicism.
I shall be nominating your April 18, 1995, column for inclusion in next year's report, on Anti-Catholic bigotry in the media.
Lane Core Jr.