Movie review: Catholicism

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Directed by Matt Leonard (A Word on Fire/Picture Show Films Production, 2011)

Father Robert Barron, a Chicago priest who has appeared often in the pages of this magazine, finally brought his years-in-the-making Catholicism Project to public TV this fall. Up to 70 percent of PBS stations aired or will air four episodes; the series of 10 DVDs is for sale at Wordonfire.org with a companion book and a study guide.

Barron’s is a confident Catholicism: At the Roman Colosseum—scene of torture and death for early Christians—he says he always thinks, “We won,” because the church’s great lesson is that love is always more powerful than hatred. Yet he also takes on the church’s dark side: the Crusades, the Inquisition, slavery. “Were a disturbing number of priests and bishops wrong and even sinful in their contribution to the sex abuse scandal?” he asks. “Yes.”

Although Barron can speak Greek with the best of them, one strength of the program is that he mostly steers clear of heady and pious language. In explaining papal infallibility, he compares the pope to a baseball umpire, the “living voice of authority” who keeps the game from dissolving into bickering. Jesus, he says, is a “dangerous, strange figure” who compels a choice, not an inspirational nice guy. Barron counters the claims of resurrection doubters who say the apostles merely celebrated Jesus’ memory: “C’mon! . . . Can you imagine Paul tearing into Corinth saying, ‘I want to proclaim a dead man who’s very inspiring?’ No one would have taken him seriously!”

Catholicism is nothing if not ambitious, and the product is stunning—visually beautiful and stirring, it was filmed at sites in Europe, North and South America, Africa, the Philippines, Turkey, India, and the Holy Land. Barron sets out to be far more than just a Ken Burns-type historian of the Catholic Church, though his series easily equals Burns’ productions in quality. Instead he seeks to tell the Catholic story for listeners in the 21st century, speaking to the head, the heart, and the soul. The very beauty of the film speaks volumes on its own.