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MovieGuide corrects distortions of Catholic theology (updated)

MovieGuide gets exorcism movie Rite, Catholic teaching wrong

Thursday, February 03, 2011 10:48 PM Comments (25)

Even savvy Catholics used to bizarre distortions of Catholic teaching by non-Catholics might be startled by the howler in a review of this weekend’s top movie, The Rite, at the Christian movie review site MovieGuide.org.

It should be noted that MovieGuide’s blunder seems not to reflect any kind of obvious anti-Catholic bias. On the contrary, to their credit MovieGuide typically treats Hollywood anti-Catholicism as anti-Christian, and positive images of Catholicism as pro-Christian.

You can see this in their review of The Rite, which their anonymous review credits with a “very strong Christian, moral worldview set in Roman Catholic world.” According to MovieGuide, The Rite “portrays a genuine Christian faith that ultimately is triumphant.” So MovieGuide appreciates the positive depiction of Catholicism in The Rite—and I appreciate that.

Even so, it’s pretty stunning to read the following:

Played out within the context of a Roman Catholic theology, elements of the story seems to be more Protestant, in contrast to a Catholic theology that believes an ordained priest cannot sin in his official position. Thus, the priest in this story is flawed, vulnerable and even falls prey to the enemy.

WHAT?!?

Catholic theology believes that “an ordained priest cannot sin in his official position”?! What does that even mean?

This goes way beyond the common Protestant confusion between impeccability, or sinlessness, and infallibility, or freedom from error, particularly as it applies to the Pope acting in his official capacity solemnly defining Catholic dogma. Catholics are used to answering that one: No, the pope is not impeccable—he sins just like everyone else, and goes to confession just like other Catholics (frequently, in fact).

But even after over a quarter century of involvement in Catholic–Protestant dialogue, I’ve never heard anyone raise the possibility that parish priests, or even bishops, might be thought to be infallible, let alone impeccable, whether acting “in their official position” or any other way. In the annals of non-Catholic confusion over Catholic teaching, this is a remarkable new addition.

That’s not MovieGuide’s only theological blunder. They also say that the movie depicts “a Christian … becoming demon possessed, which contradicts Christian and special Catholic doctrine.”

Not exactly. It is generally thought in Catholic belief that Christians in the state of grace are immune from full-blown demonic possession (though not necessarily from varying levels of demonic oppression). However, the idea that Christians are automatically immune from demonic possession is probably a corollary of the Protestant notion of “once saved, always saved” (which is not the historic Christian teaching).

Baptism does provide powerful protection from the devil; in fact, Catholic baptism includes prayers of exorcism. But the Church teaches the possibility of falling from grace, and while mortal sin by itself certainly doesn’t automatically make one vulnerable to demonic possession, other acts may, such as occult involvement. (In the case of the film character in question, perhaps ongoing involvement in direct spiritual warfare against demonic possession without sufficient protection from a strong faith could provide an opening for the devil.)

That’s small beer, though, compared to the notion of sinless priests. How does an error like that get published? Doesn’t MovieGuide have editors who know more about Catholic theology than that after all these years? Or at least a modicum of common sense, and the editorial standards to double-check such an extraordinary idea? Don’t they know any priests or Catholics they could call if they weren’t sure?

Hey MovieGuide, for future reference, if you have any Catholic teaching questions, feel free to run them past me. I’ll be happy to help if I can.

P.S. I’ve mentioned some of the pros and cons of MovieGuide before. Also, see my review of The Rite and my essay on The Rite in relation to earlier Hollywood exorcism movies.

Update: Several days after I alerted MovieGuide regarding their distortion of Catholic theology, I received the following email:

Thanks so much for the help, and we might take you up on that offer to help us on Catholic theology movies. I’ve sent your name on to the editorial staff. We’ve made the changes suggested, please let me know if there is anything else I can do to help.

Sure enough, the notion of sinless priests has been removed from the article. Having given MovieGuide their lumps for making the mistake in the first place, I’m happy to give them props for handling the correction in a courteous and classy manner.

Filed under exorcism, movies, the rite

About Steven D. Greydanus

SDG
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Steven D. Greydanus is film critic for the National Catholic Register and Decent Films, the online home for his film writing. He writes regularly for Christianity Today, Catholic World Report and other venues, and is a regular guest on several radio shows. Steven has contributed several entries to the New Catholic Encyclopedia, including “The Church and Film” and a number of filmmaker biographies. He has also written about film for the Encyclopedia of Catholic Social Thought, Social Science, and Social Policy. He has a BFA in Media Arts from the School of Visual Arts in New York, and an MA in Religious Studies from St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Overbrook, PA. He is pursuing diaconal studies in the Archdiocese of Newark. Steven and Suzanne have seven children.