In Search of a Moral Tale

Action Films and the Critique of American Society


Natura abhorret a vacuo. Nature abhors a vacuum.

This quotation, often attributed to Aristotle, is more of a summary of his argument in Physics than a quotation. While scientists still debate the merits of this observation, social commentators take it as a given: Housing left empty will be filled by squatters; in times of social chaos, demagogues and tyrants arise to fill the void, etc.

For years, there was a common morality accepted by most Americans. Rooted in the Judeo-Christian natural-law tradition, many traced its origins back to the early European settlers and their founding principles and documents: the Mayflower Compact, the Maryland Act of Toleration, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

These documents and the lives of the settlers reflected not only their classical European and biblical worldviews, but also a new way of political organization, an “experiment in ordered liberty.” Although there were glaring examples of cultural myopia and hypocrisy in the way African-Americans were enslaved, American Indians were mistreated and women were excluded, this common morality — and the “new secular order” it engendered — was “a shining city on a hill,” a lamp of liberty and opportunity for millions. One of its attractions was its ability to critique and correct itself from its own injustices.

However, one of the first casualties of the cultural revolution of the 1960s and ’70s was any sense of a common morality. Nowadays, any concept of natural law is seen as suspect, if not oppressive. Few social commentators or policy-makers today accept even the most basic moral concepts.

Foundational principles are readily rejected, including any appeal to a common human nature, any idea that persons have a natural (and supernatural) end, any noble purpose of it being better to suffer evil than to commit it, and certainly any insistence that some acts are intrinsically evil.

In rejecting such principles, the elite chattering class rejects more than they know. They reject Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil-rights movement. They reject Susan B. Anthony and the women’s suffrage movement. They reject Abraham Lincoln and the abolitionists. They even reject the main rationale for American independence itself. If there are no self-evident moral truths; if there are no “Laws of Nature and Nature’s God”; and if no one has been “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights,” then America was founded on a lie.

Instinctively, the common person knows better. There is a right and wrong. It is better to suffer evil than to be an evildoer. Some things are always wrong to do.

Even modern moviemakers sense this. Sexual ethics aside, morality sells. The heroes are those who oppose chaos and moral relativism or utilitarian thinking. They recognize and attempt to overcome those who claim that the “end justifies the means.” We see this irreplaceable truth in such blockbusters as Superman, Spider-Man, X-Men, Captain America, Divergent and The Hunger Games.

These movies are moral tales critiquing current  American policies and social conditions such as the massive use of surveillance, the existence of “kill lists” and the widespread use of drones, the growing gap between the super rich and everyone else and the modern tendency to divide us into competing groups. They are popular because they tell a story grounded in moral truth — the importance of privacy, the injustice of pre-emptive killing, the toxic nature of social inequality and the horror of killing the innocent. People want and need such morality plays.

Take for example the movie Captain America: The Winter Soldier. This action thriller is an obvious critique of three highly problematic governmental policies — pre-emptive war, the massive surveillance state and the use of drones to eliminate anyone placed on a so-called “kill list.” Here, Captain America and his friends are called upon to oppose many in high office who would attempt to eliminate any and all threats to “peace and security” in a massive pre-emptive strike. The movie also poses questions about expanding technological capabilities and the dangers of automation in the control of weapons.

Movies such as these are popular for many reasons — they bring graphic novels to life; they are slick and action-packed; they demonstrate new abilities in cinematic presentation, etc. But moviegoers, young and old, are also responding to the moral issues being presented. I often field questions from my students and radio listeners about these types of issues because they were plot lines in movies. Because of the paucity of authentic moral discourse in our public schools and political debates, in what other “social space” are these ethical questions really being addressed? At least these movies are attempting to present important ethical issues and taking a stand for moral truth.

And here is a wonderful opportunity for the New Evangelization.

Into the vacuum of postmodern relativism, Catholics have the opportunity and the duty to proclaim the good news of a better, more abundant way of life. In contrast to the uncaring harshness of modern utilitarianism, Catholics must embody and teach life based on moral truth, goodness and beauty. We have the chance to re-propose and retell the greatest love story ever — the most wonderful tales of heroism and self-sacrifice imaginable. And they are all “based on actual events,” as they say in the movies.

The story of salvation history, the lives of Christian saints and martyrs, the drama of sanctity overcoming every opposition are just waiting to be told anew.

As Catholic Christians, we are aided in understanding the natural law by the revelation of moral truth by our loving Father, who guides us in how to live and love. Our youth, especially, are seeking such guidance.

Our task, “if we chose to accept it” (Mission Impossible), is to retell “the old, old story of Jesus and his love,” as the Tell Me the Old, Old Story hymn goes. But as we know, this mission is not impossible, for “with God all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26).

Msgr. Stuart Swetland, a 1981 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy,

is president of Donnelly College in Kansas City, Kansas, 

where he is also professor of leadership and Christian ethics.