A new movie about two priests -- one homosexual and the other heterosexual -- who break their vows of celibacy has touched off strong, emotional and conflicting reactions within the Roman Catholic Church.
The issues raised by British director Antonia Bird in "Priest" go well beyond the long-simmering, intramural debates over the church's clergy requirements and its doctrinal stands on sexual morality.
Recent efforts in some church quarters to prevent the movie from being seen came under predictable attack. While to some of the film's detractors it is one more example of "Catholic-bashing," many Catholics believe the writer, director and actors succeeded in giving a sensitive and compelling account of real-life problems in their church, and they are embarrassed by the efforts to suppress it.
Controversy has followed "Priest" since its distributor, Miramax, announced plans to release it on Good Friday. Reacting to pressure from William A. Donohue, president of the New York-based Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, Miramax delayed the opening five days in most of the country's markets. It was released here on Friday.
Said Dr. Donohue, "The movie invites the audience to see the Catholic Church as the causative agent of priestly despair and is a cruel caricature of Roman Catholic priests."
Prompted by such assessments, purple-faced outrage has exploded on radio and television and in letters columns. The movie may be greeted by pickets. Boycotts of Disney products and enterprises have been threatened, as Disney is Miramax's parent company.
"Priest" comes after years of complaints of anti-religious bias in the movie industry. Especially targeted were priests and nuns of the Roman Catholic Church, according to Michael Medved, the film critic who wrote "Hollywood vs. America: Popular Culture and the War on Traditional Values."
During Hollywood's "Golden Era," clergymen were portrayed in a sympathetic light, Mr. Medved recalled in his 1992 book.
"Movie legends such as Bing Crosby ('Going My Way,' 'Bells of St. Mary's,' 'Say One for Me'), Pat O'Brien ('Angels with Dirty Faces,' 'The Fighting 69th'), and Spencer Tracy, ('Boys Town,' 'Men of Boys Town') won public adoration and critical applause by playing earthy, compassionate men of the cloth. . . . In the last fifteen years, Hollywood has swung to the other extreme -- presenting a view of the clergy that is every bit as one-sided in its cynicism and hostility as the old treatment may have been idealized and saccharine," the author writes.
Mr. Medved lists 10 films released from 1979 to 1991 which he says depict clergy or nuns in an unfavorable light.
Whether "Priest" does this depends on the viewer. Even some critics who lavished praise on the film -- and many have -- found faults of various kinds and degrees.
Catholic News Service, while finding its exploration of "the struggle between religious ideals and human frailties" both provocative and flawed, said of "Priest" that "any movie which treats the Catholic faith as seriously as this one does can hardly be said to be anti-Catholic, let alone irreligious."
Whatever "Priest" may or may not be, it's thought-provoking. Nothing has made this clearer than a free-wheeling discussion that followed a preview screening of the film in a Lutherville movie house March 28.
An invited audience of about 130, including men and women who identified themselves as strong Catholics, weak Catholics and ex-Catholics, as well as several Protestant ministers and at least one former Catholic priest, gave vent to every shade of opinion about segments of the movie. But when a spokeswoman for the distributor asked for a show of hands from those who thought it was a "good film," nearly every hand went up.
tTC "I came to this preview very reluctantly because I saw clips from this movie about two or three weeks ago," a man in the audience volunteered. "The way the movie was being advertised was as a very seamy view of the Catholic Church. One clip showed the alcoholic priest struggling for a drink. It showed furtive glances in the bar. It showed the pastor ogling his housekeeper."
After seeing "Priest" to the end, this viewer concluded, "It wasn't a movie about the seamy side of anything. It was a movie about learning to love. And I think it should be marketed as the compassionate and tender movie that it is rather than as a seamy movie."
His comment elicited a quick response from a woman on the other side of the theater: "I think a lot of times in the marketing of films they go for the shock value," she said. "What's going to bring in the audience? Sex and violence. . . . Unfortunately, that's the way the world is."
The way the world is vs. the way it should be was at the bottom of nearly every view of the film.
A man who identified himself as a "believing Catholic" said: "The thing I liked best about the movie was the way it reflected the incredible, impossible contradictions of our church. The lives of the priests -- the two central characters -- are in many respects a total challenge to the governing powers in the church. . . . And yet what makes these two priests good, makes them special, is surely rooted in their Catholicism. It is an impossible, frustrating situation that we all live with."
Another man said: "I thought it was very human and realistic about how it portrayed the church. I'm a Catholic -- maybe not as good a Catholic as I should be -- but I didn't feel offended. . . . I think it was very people-oriented. It prods and pokes the church a little bit. The church needs this, God knows."
A woman asked, "Did it bother anybody that the movie did not depict a single priest who was happy with his vocation, happy with his celibacy?"
A man was quick with a reply: "Movies over the years have romanticized the priesthood -- from 'The Bells of St. Mary's' to 'Going My Way' and 'Boys Town.' There's been so much of that that I think it's about time that we see more realism. And I think realism is what this movie gave us."
The Rev. Phyllis L. Hubbell, co-minister of Baltimore's First Unitarian Church, "really loved the movie," which she said was about imperfections in people struggling to be good and about imperfections in an institutional church that was "wonderful" in some respects.
But Ms. Hubbell believed the movie's heavy-handed depiction of a Catholic bishop as "totally bad" -- though presented humorously -- was too unrealistic.
A scene in which the tormented homosexual priest and a man he meets in a gay bar make love -- a scene that Catholic News Service warned would offend many people -- did not seem to have that effect on either men or women in the preview audience. Several praised it for its "honesty." But one man said, "It's interesting that they had to show the men making love, rather than the man and the woman making love. I just found that curious. Not bad or good, just curious."
An older woman responded, "The more we're aware that people love regardless of which sex, the more we are aware of the human race."
A young woman, who said she was a survivor of sexual abuse, was particularly distressed by the inability of one of the priests in the movie to break the confidentiality of confession when a girl tells him her father is molesting her. The child refuses to tell her mother as the priest urges, and will not permit the priest to tell.
The preview audience's discussion of this issue became heated.
"I'm glad the subject came up, but I'm also glad the priest did not violate that promise," offered the Rev. Robert Mordhorst of Emmanuel Lutheran Church in Catonsville. "I understand that life changes and situations change, but what happens if we live in a world where no commitments, no promises, no covenants are inviolate, are all open to change, open to compromise? I don't think I want to live in such a world."
Catholic News Service said a flaw in "Priest" is "its failure to reflect on the concept of sin and the consolation of confession."
An even more basic flaw would seem to be its failure to present the concept of celibacy in any kind of historical or theological context. Whether one believes it is a natural or an unnatural demand, the fact is that celibacy is a sacrifice which a priest agrees to with his eyes open.
In a new book, "The Moral Imagination: Confronting the Ethical Issues of Our Day," Edward Tivnan writes, "Since the early Church of the Roman era, Christians have viewed celibacy as a higher calling and tried to 'live like angels.' In the Roman world, the clearest manifestation of Christian asceticism -- and the most incomprehensible to contemporary Romans -- was the Christian community's insistence on sexual abstinence."
Doubtless, it is as incomprehensible to many of today's moviegoers. But mere acknowledgment of the history, and a respectful bow to the priests who find serenity in faithfulness to their vows, would have strengthened "Priest," the movie.
Frank P. L. Somerville covers religion for the Baltimore Sun.