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When Will Catholic TV Characters Embrace Tradition?

Because their ranks are filled with men and women of at least nominal Catholic backgrounds, the police and mob worlds that have supplied Hollywood with so much fodder for its cultural products have also given the industry cause for depicting its characters’ faith lives. Where older films and shows are concerned, these depictions can cause tradition-leaning Catholics to appreciate the beauty and reverence of the Catholic culture portrayed…and to wonder how they would look if they’d been animated by another spirit – say, the spirit of Vatican II.

Take, for example, the scene in The Godfather where Michael Corleone is having his infant son baptized. While all viewers might not have understood the clear way the old baptismal rite addresses the existence of evil and our combat against it, the scene captures the rite’s mystery, with its exsufflation and majestic Latin.

Every time I watch the scene, I can’t help wondering how it would have looked if Michael and his relatives had held hands through a vernacular Our Father, or if the Rite had concluded with a Boomer cantor strumming through “This Is the Day.”

TV shows and films made more recently give their viewers depictions of what young Corleone’s baptism might have looked like if it had been set in more recent decades. In HBO’s The Sopranos, for instance, we catch glimpses of freestanding brutalist altars, ugly theater in the round-style churches, and clergy wearing shabby-looking vestments. Watching portrayals like this at the end of 2018, as the fruits of the moral confusion that resulted from the Council and its liturgical destruction have become manifest, I can’t help wondering: when are these characters going to realize that something was lost and must be recovered?

One character I wonder about is Frank Reagan from CBS’s Blue Bloods. When it first aired, having already been exposed to at least a decade of HBO series, I found the show’s often trite dialogue and single-episode plotlines difficult to watch. But the show has an endearing quaintness to it, and it grew on me, as a police officer and former New York City cop myself.

Blue Bloods follows the lives and careers of the Reagan family, who constitute a sort of law enforcement aristocracy and are presided over by their patriarch, police commissioner Frank Reagan. Initially, Christian media outlets noted enthusiastically that the family is often shown praying at weekly Sunday dinners. Frank himself is often seen lighting candles in church, going to confession, and hobnobbing with members of the New York Archdiocese’s hierarchy. While we don’t often see the Reagans at Mass, we see the Catholic culture they inhabit.

In Season One, Episode 4, we observe Frank’s NYPD devastated by the murder of a female officer during a jewelry heist. Though the funeral is held in a beautiful church (as New York City residents, the Reagans wouldn’t be subjected to the architectural atrocities foisted upon suburban Catholics), Frank delivers a Protestant-style eulogy during which he presumes the salvation of the deceased. The clergy shown behind him wear white vestments, in contrast to the mournful black ones worn for the traditional requiem.

In Season 5, some of the Catholic outlets that had expressed excitement over the show’s depictions of the family at prayer (including Bill Donahue’s Catholic League) threw a fit when its writers had Frank do what basically every Boomer Catholic in history has done: express dissent over the Church’s teachings on sexuality. In the episode, entitled “Building Bridges” (episode 5, season 3) (strangely anticipating homosexual activist Fr. James Martin’s similarly titled 2018 book), Frank’s son, Detective Danny Reagan, investigates a hate crime murder of a gay man outside a club frequented by homosexuals. Early in the episode, when the cardinal-archbishop asks Frank to chair the annual Trinity Society dinner and accept its Person of the Year award, the latter shows signs of subscribing to the heresy of Americanism. Frank tells the cardinal he’ll chair the dinner but won’t accept the award.

“Separation of church and state. That again?” His Eminence asks with obvious frustration.

“Now and always,” Frank responds.

Frank needs to brush up on his Leo XIII. As police commissioner, Frank appears to believe that his job consists of maintaining order only in temporal affairs. But having presided over eight seasons of urban carnage, now might be a good time for him to revisit the Church’s traditional teaching on the Social Reign of Christ the King and consider the wisdom of a state ordered toward its citizens’ eternal destination. American Catholics who know their faith know that such a state is unlikely in secularized Protestant America, but it’s something we – and Frank – can pray for.

Later in the episode, at a press conference devoted to the gay man’s murder, a snotty reporter asks Frank how he can subscribe to his “anti-gay” faith and be in charge of a diverse institution like the NYPD. Frank responds, “Well, I do believe the Church is a little behind the times on this, but, then, I still miss the Latin Mass.”

Frank is soon given a private dressing down by the cardinal over his faux pas, and the two begin arguing over the Church’s moral teachings.

“I do believe the Church is backwards on this,” Frank insists. “And of all the stands to hold on to – in the midst of the scandals of the last decade!”

Lex orandi, lex credendi, Frank. This character, in a short period, refers to the Church’s nearly lost liturgical traditions and to the moral corruption of its leaders. At the end of 2018, the top cop in New York City, and a former detective himself, should be about ready to start connecting some dots. The attorney general of his state has just opened an investigation into his own diocese. Frank might want to start reflecting on how an impoverished liturgical culture contributed to the moral confusion that brought us to our present crises.

Finally, Frank is a Catholic in New York City. He ought to stop talking about how much he misses the Latin Mass and attend one. He’s got plenty of options.

While Blue Bloods gives us glimpses of the Catholic culture of New York’s Irish-dominated police force, The Sopranos shows us the vestiges of Catholicity that run through the city’s criminal counterparts in suburban New Jersey. Though the show ended in June 2007, with Tony Soprano presumably killed, I can’t help hoping that the show might enjoy a reboot – especially with a film prequel reported to be in the works.

Aesthetically speaking, The Sopranos gives us glimpses of mainly ugly Catholic suburbia. The deculturizing effect of the suburbs is one of the themes of the show, and this cultural leveling impacts how many Italian families’ faith is lived. We are shown the physical surroundings of Soprano family priest Fr. Phil Intintola – a clunky mega-church-looking place with brick and cement walls and ghastly modern stained glass. Father Phil himself is a perfect example of a certain type of fatuous post-conciliar priest: sexually confused, full of feel-good diversity jargon, constantly making strained attempts to be hip.

Carmela Soprano, his parishioner, wants to be a better Catholic but is encumbered by the material comforts she has become accustomed to as a mob wife. In a Season One episode entitled “College” (episode 5), Fr. Phil shows up unexpectedly at the Soprano residence while Carmela is home alone. They engage in a heated discussion of some of Our Lord’s teachings over Chianti and Carmela’s baked ziti.

“The sun rises on the just and the unjust alike – why?” Carmela indignantly asks. “And…whores will go to heaven before a lot of the righteous?! What does that mean?!”

“It means,” Fr. Phil responds hesitatingly, “hopefully, someday…we will learn to tolerate, accept, and forgive…those who are different. Change through love.” His eyes shift nervously, and he pauses, as if waiting to see if Carmela has swallowed this rubbish.

Fr. Intintola is a typical priest of Vatican II: all mercy and no justice. It’s no wonder that Carmela can’t commit to amending her life – nor that her children appear to show little interest in their faith.

While the bulk of The Sopranos takes place in suburban New Jersey, in the pilot episode, Tony accompanies his daughter Meadow to a volleyball match at a rival school in a city nearby. Upon completion of the match, he gazes up at the beautiful gothic revival cathedral adjacent to the school. He escorts Meadow inside, and the camera pans to the traditional painted stained glass, the intricate high altar, and the delicately carved plaster relief of the Last Supper. Tony and his daughter have seemingly stepped back in time.

“It’s been years since I’ve been here,” Tony says in a hushed voice, as he and Meadow sit in a pew. “Your great grandfather, and his brother Frank, they built this place. Stone and marble workers, they came over here from Italy, and they built this place.” He continues, “They didn’t design it, but they knew how to build it. Go out now and find me two guys who put down decent granite in your bathtub.”

In the scene, the church represents America and the Italian immigrants who helped build it, but the architecture is decidedly Old World. Tony is an unrepentant gangster who shows little interest in his salvation, but his sense of something lost is accurate. During the scene, Meadow has little patience for her father’s family history lesson. But as the series proceeds, Meadow shows some signs of being less shallow, even volunteering at the South Bronx Law Center. Throughout the series, though bratty and selfish in a teenage way, Meadow seems to have a better moral instinct than her parents.

Meadow exemplifies the Boomer offspring repelled by the excesses of her parents – who happen to be a mobster and his enabling wife instead of old hippies. If Meadow were to cast off the shallow ethnic faith of her family and fully embrace tradition, she would join a not insignificant number of generational cohorts who did the same. Plus, this development would provide the perfect frame for the church scene she shares with Tony in the pilot episode. Beauty, she might discover, conveys Truth. In North Jersey, she would have a plethora of TLMs to choose from, including an FSSP parish.

Might a rebooted Meadow, who once thirsted for justice in the south Bronx, thirst later for Truth and beauty? Might she discover that, despite her father’s low opinion of modern contractors, she can find men who still work with granite and marble and build not just bathtubs, but new high altars; craft new reliefs; and recover her people’s lost patrimony? And might this development provide fodder for more of the intra-family drama that was a hallmark of the original series – especially as the show ended with her brother AJ having made no such progress and still surrounded by criminal acquaintances? One can only imagine – and hope for an eventual Sopranos resurrection.

One thing I can’t imagine is many of Tony Soprano’s or Frank Reagan’s descendants practicing their faith in the liturgical culture their progenitors inhabit. TV shows and films that portray institutions infused with ethnic Catholicism – be they big-city police departments, the Italian-American mafia, or the Polish American stevedores of HBO’s The Wire – are, by 2018, depicting a Catholicity that exists only in the faintest vestiges. If producers of popular media are to retain a shred of authenticity in their portrayals, they will need to cease depicting these characters’ faith lives altogether. Or they can start taking a more accurate pulse of Catholicism in 2018 and have at least a couple of those characters assisting at the Latin Mass.

Images of traditional Catholicism simply play better than do depictions of the post-conciliar Church and its many works. A return to tradition is something Catholics – and the film industry – should root for.

Image: Blue Bloods screen grab via YouTube.

1 thought on “When Will Catholic TV Characters Embrace Tradition?”

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