Why We’re Called the Catholic Church

G. K. Chesterton once remarked that Catholics agree about everything; it is only everything else they disagree about. That is to say, Catholics (and by this he meant “Catholics who know and believe their Faith”) agree on a few cosmic truths summarized in the creeds, prayers, sacraments, and common life of the church. However, when it comes to the rest of human existence they not only disagree with one another, but take a rather gleeful pleasure in doing so.

I was reminded of this quite vigorously last year when I wrote a review of the action flick The Matrix. I argued — and still believe — that this incredibly violent science-fiction film was, in fact, remarkably well-informed about the basic outline of the paschal mystery and that, in its own quirky way, it aimed to present its cyberpunk hero, Neo, as nothing less than a Christ figure. I further argued that the filmmakers did an inventive, interesting, and deeply thought-provoking piece of work in their appointed task. I still recommend the film to anybody who’s trying to fathom how to Christian story of Incarnation, death, resurrection, destruction of hell, and ascension might be imaged to a postmodern culture more at home with films than with the written word. I do not believe it’s a “Christian” film in that it is not made to evangelize. But I do believe that Christian imagery suffuses almost every frame of it.

That review ran in Our Sunday Visitor a year ago. Unbeknownst to me, at the same time my review ran the NCCB film review people also did a quick review of The Matrix. Their review categorized the film has “O — morally objectionable” (because of the enormous levels of violence and bloodshed in the film, violence often committed by the Christ figure Neo). Naturally then, I received several letters from confused readers asking, “Who should I trust? Which review is right? Are you dissenting from the Church?”

The quick answer to these questions is, “Both. Both. No.”

The slower answer is that there is no such thing as the Official Catholic Doctrine About Whether The Matrix is a Good Movie or Not. The judgements of the film critic for the NCCB are not doctrines of the Church, but are instead reflections on a particular piece of art, articulated in light of the Church’s Tradition and offered to the faithful as a tool for helping them to form their consciences and actions in light of that Tradition. So was my review. And as such, it is possible for two faithful Catholics to see very different aspects of a work of art without necessarily contradicting one another. As it happens, I also noted in my review that, morally speaking, there was a great deal that was enormously objectionable about The Matrix. The moral behavior of the characters is often in violent contrast to the moral behavior and commands of our Lord. Indeed, one of the most haunting and disturbing things about the movie (released shortly before Columbine) is that the principal character guns down numerous bad guys while dressed in a black trench coat. I made no excuses for this violence and noted that my endorsement of the film and my mention of Neo as a “Christ figure” was not to be taken as an assertion that Neo embodies Christian morality. Rather, I noted that Neo, like Joshua in the Old Testament is figure or shadow of Christ, not the reality. Both Scripture and Tradition has long seen in the bloodthirsty Joshua and his massacre of the inhabitants of Canaan an image of Jesus and the conquest of sin and death without making the mistake of fancying that his behavior is “Christian.” We must distinguish between shadow and reality.

All of which means that both reviews are perfectly legitimate evaluations of the film from a Catholic perspective and perfectly reconcilable with the Faith (and ultimately with one another, if we are clear about what part of the Catholic Tradition we are attending to as we watch the film).

The reason I mention this is because there is a temptation both inside and outside the Church to think that members of the Catholic communion are (or should be) part of a sort of Borg Collective or monolithic groupthink. I perpetually run into people, both inside and outside the Catholic communion, who seem to think that there is or ought to be a single “Catholic position” on everything from spelling reform to the collected works of Spike Jones. Thus, I meet anti-Catholics who will rail against the infallibility of the Church when I inform them there is no official favorite Catholic color: “What? The Church has no official doctrine on such a minor matter? Then how can you trust the Church when it speaks about Big Issues like salvation?” This “myth of the monolith” is perhaps to be expected of those who have no real familiarity with the Church, but what astonishes me is when Catholics, who ought to know better, also say there should be no schools of opinion, no variety, no arguments among “true Catholics” about much of anything. In reality, on 99 questions out of a hundred, there is no fixed one-size-fits-all “Catholic position”. Dogmatism in the Faith has it’s place-when we are speaking of dogma. But for the rest, it is well to remember that the Church is not just One. It is Catholic too. So the old saying is true: in essential things, unity; in doubtful things, liberty; in all things, charity.

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