Why is anti Catholicism back in fashion? Some might argue that it's never gone away, but the release of three films (Stigmata, The Omega Code and Dogma) with these biases within the past two months indicates that this subject may be part of a new cultural trend.
Dogma is an inept, save-the-world fantasy about a pair of banished angels who are willing to risk humanity's destruction to get back into heaven. If you're willing to endure its two hours of sick jokes, crude plotting, unpleasant caricatures and sophomoric musings, clues can be found as to why the Church appears so threatening to contemporary consumer culture.
Loki (Matt Damon) was one of the avenging angels in the Old Testament. He and his buddy Bartleby (Ben Affleck) were exiled to Wisconsin thousands of years ago for disobeying God. By now, they've become fed up with life on earth, grumbling that humans have it better.
Back in New Jersey, Cardinal Glick (George Carlin) announces that all those who enter a particular church on its rededication day will be granted plenary indulgences. According to the movie's muddled logic, this means that if the banished angels show up there, their sins will be forgiven, and through this so-called loophole in Catholic dogma, they can sneak back into heaven.
The cardinal is too engrossed in his recently launched “Catholicism, Wow!” campaign to be aware of the possible consequences of his action. In a heavy-handed piece of satire, he's depicted as replacing all crucifixes with statues of a grinning Jesus in a thumbs-up gesture — the “Buddy Christ.” Determined to make the Church appear user-friendly, the prelate declares to his flock: “Christ didn't come to earth to give us the willies.”
Up in heaven, they smell danger. If the banished angels are granted those indulgences, this will prove God wrong and fallible. Reality will be undone, and earth and all its inhabitants will cease to exist.
None of this makes any sense, but it's enough to kick off what writer-director Kevin Smith (Clerks and Chasing Amy) thinks is suspenseful action. The Voice of God from the Old Testament, the seraphim Metatron (Alan Rickman), appears to abortion-clinic worker Bethany (Linda Fiorentino), who's supposedly a direct descendant of Mary and Joseph and thus a blood relative of Jesus. The young woman is asked to help save humanity by preventing the angels from entering the rededicated church.
The filmmaker intends her to be the movie's moral center. She still attends Mass regularly even though she's lost her faith. “I'd give anything to feel that way again,” she laments.
The reason she no longer believes is revealing. After she suffered through some serious health problems and a divorce, her mother tried to console her by declaring: “God has a plan.” This statement made Bethany angry. She had her own plans, and God was interfering with them by putting misfortune in her way.
With an attitude that reflects the movie's point of view, she wants a religion that offers psychological certainty but makes no demands. It's a spiritual narcissism that goes down well with our me-first consumer culture, and the filmmaker understands that Catholicism and its teachings are the most eloquent opponents of this way of thinking.
As Smith has been raised in the Church, he knows exactly which buttons to push to enrage ardent defenders of the faith.
The movie shows an angel persuading a nun to discard her religion and use profane language. Loki and Bartleby then smoke marijuana with a pair of slacker-type prophets (Jason Mewes and Smith himself) whom Metatron has sent to help
Bethany. But beneath the filmmaker's foul-mouthed, alternative-rock, comic-strip sensibility is his own set of politically correct, left/liberal dogmas: God is a woman (Alanis Morrisette); the Bible is described as “gender-biased”; and there's a 13th disciple (Chris Rock) who was left out of the Gospels because the early Church was racist.
Ideas Over Beliefs
The movie's understanding of God's relation to the universe is derived from the Book of Genesis, despite the presence of some New Testament characters. God is distant and unknowable most of the time, and Jesus and the Holy Spirit are off-screen characters.
The filmmaker is fascinated by the biblical expressions of God's wrath, and Loki is portrayed as longing to revert to his former role as its instrument. The angel boasts he can always spot “a commandment breaker.” In an ultraviolent sendup of capitalism, he guns down most of the top management of a big business whose logo is a golden calf.
The movie also riffs on the relationship between faith and reason, coming down firmly on the side of reason. The filmmaker's mouthpiece, Bethany, argues for the primacy of ideas over “systems of belief” because “ideas can be changed.” She wants to accept God's existence without the bother of adhering to a transcendent moral code. The center of her universe should be her concerns — not God's. It's a comfortable way of “doing religion” which the film-maker knows orthodox Catholicism will never accept.
Dogma is his lame attempt to advance the Hollywood-friendly cause of discrediting Catholicism.
Arts & Culture correspondent John Prizer writes from Los Angeles.