L’Osservatore Romano, the official newspaper of the Vatican, has struck another blow for sanity within the Church. Last week, it featured an article that assessed the first 100 days of the Obama presidency with balance and with no sense of alarm. This week, it did the same with the soon to be released movie "Angels and Demons."
The movie is a follow-up, not exactly a sequel, to "The DaVinci Code" and also features Tom Hanks. As L’Osservatore wrote, the plot is simplistic, and the "good guys are always the progressives in favor of sex and science, whether they are heretics or popes, and the bad guys are those who oppose them in the name of faith and tradition, who are always committing crimes." The newspaper said the movie "certainly doesn't deserve the seal of good culture; it's more of a gigantic, clever commercial operation." And so it is.
None of this would be remarkable if the movie had not become the focus of American neo-Jansenists intent on finding perdition everywhere and reducing religion to ethics. The Catholic League for Civil Rights, our contemporary answer to Port-Royal, has been issuing press releases and even a booklet - "Angels and Demons: More Demonic Than Angelic" – to call attention to the "lies" in the movie. Bill Donohue, whom I actually have a fondness for except when he is ranting, has been appearing on television to denounce the movie’s characterization of Catholicism.
Of course, the Catholic Church has a long and curious history with Hollywood. We joined with the industry to oppose government censorship and instead, Hollywood set up a review board that was to enforce the "Cardinal’s Code," a list of restrictions on the moral content of motion pictures. Bad guys had to be punished. Good guys got the pretty girl at the end. Difficult subjects like abortion were best avoided. Sometimes, the negotiations between producers and the board became comic. Howard Hughes once brought a mathematician to show that in his movie "The Outlaw" Jane Russell did not expose more of her bosom than other starlets had in previous productions. In 1937, the board insisted that producers advertising "You Can’t Have Everything" could not use their star’s stage name, Gypsy Rose Lee, only her given name, Louise Hovick.
The key point is that Hollywood is in the business of making fantasy and people do not go to the movies expecting historical accuracy. Yes, I am sure that "Angels and Demons" will portray events that never happened. But, I also don’t know any nuns who look like Ingrid Bergman and I don’t remember any protests about the "Bells of St. Mary’s" coming from the truth-enforcement brigade.
Mr. Donohue is correct to point out that in this litigious society of ours, all sorts of companies are required to alter their products or issue disclaimers because of pressure from consumer advocates. Hollywood blushes about artistic integrity but Hollywood is an industry not an art studio. The problem with Donohue’s protests is that it plays into the hands of the producers: Controversy sells. The investors in the movie would love nothing more than to see the Vatican condemn it.
So, go to the movie or don’t go to the movie. Your soul, and the soul of our culture, is not at stake here.