It ranks up there with King Kong and Lord of the Rings as one of the really long movies, but I took the time to watch Scorsese’s The Irishman during my recent bout with the flu.
Joe Pesci was brilliant. Robert de Niro? I think he played this part a number of times before. The mafia hard guy who just shakes his head and frowns a lot. Whatever you think of Robert deNiro he still has that extraordinary quality that makes you want to watch him.
Like most of Scorses’s films, The Irishman is rich in theological themes and insights into human evil, religion, sin, free will and repentance (or lack of it.) DeNiro’s killer is chilling in his raw violence, but Pesci’s mafia boss is even more menacing in his understated, softly spoken ruthlessness.
The film makes you think again about religion and really bad Catholics, and one of the most common conversations I have as a Catholic priest is with people who have left the faith because of a bad example. Some of the stories are excuses for the person’s own hypocrisy, but other stories are genuine and the tales they tell of awful Catholics are heart-numbing.
Allowing for the fact that there are always two sides to every story, what Catholic hasn’t been shocked to the core hearing about the cases of child abuse and cover up? How can you not get upset when a man whose life and body has been wrecked by rampant gay sex tells you that when he was a teenager a Catholic priest in the confessional told the boy he was “born gay” and that it was okay, and then after befriending the kid, started molesting him? How can you not be sickened when this wounded man returns to the church only to find that a new generation of priests and bishops are promoting the same “you were born gay just find a nice boyfriend” version of pastoral care?
These are not nice, good people. They’re bad people and who can really blame a person whose faith was weak to start with for leaving the Catholic faith when they encounter such bad Catholics?
“How can you follow a faith” ordinary people wail, “which has suppressed minorities, tortured and raped little boys and killed millions of people?”
The apologist will answer, “The Catholic Church didn’t do those things. Bad Catholics did and besides the stories of the crusades and inquisition? They are all exaggerated. It was not so bad.” Maybe it’s true, but it doesn’t cut it for most people.
Every Catholic has to admit that there are bad Catholics. Really bad Catholics. Vile, evil, wicked and depraved people who are Catholics. Catholics like the murderer deNiro plays in The Irishman? There’s a scene, for example in the film, where a priest talks to the now aging assassin and asks the deNiro character, “Are you sorry for what you’ve done?” deNiro thinks for a moment and says, “No. There are some really bad people out there.
Yep. Bad Catholics. Not only really bad Catholics, but Catholics guilty of the most depraved, violent and wicked crimes who justify their actions, continue in their self righteousness and blame other people.
However, since when do we judge any group or nation or religion only by their worst examples and by only by their followers and not by their beliefs?
Let’s say we want to decide if America is a great country or not. Would it be fair to judge America by the corrupt politicians, the murderous gangsters, the greedy Wall Street bankers, the drug-addled movie stars, the serial killers and the inhabitants of our worst jails? I don’t think so.We’d have to take them into account, but we’d also have to consider the great and good Americans, the ordinary good folks, the noble, brave and best examples of American citizenry.
We’d also have to weigh America not only by the actions and decisions of her citizens, but by her founding principles, her documents of state—the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. One needs to weigh the whole thing objectively.
Likewise with Catholicism. We should look with shame and dismay on pedophile priests, fat-cat cardinals, bigoted bishops and lazy lay people. We should acknowledge the pompous popes, the ignorant nuns and monstrous monks.
But then, if one is going to be fair at all, on the other side of the scales you will need to put the saints in all their variety, energy, beauty and hilarious humanity. Along with the bad you’ve got to consider the good. You’ll have to consider the cultural achievements of Catholicism, the hospitals, schools, orphanages and hospices. You’ll have to consider the Gothic cathedrals, abbey churches and the art, music and literature that is Catholics.
Finally, in the face of the hypocrites, heretics, criminals and creeps who are Catholic you have to consider the multitude of ordinary, down to earth, week by week and day by day sitting in the pew Catholics. You have to consider the army of good, decent, funny, hard working, humble and holy lay people who serve God and others in their simplicity and by their lives prove the authenticity, beauty, truth and goodness of the Catholic faith.
I like them very much. They give me hope.
Satan wants to paint the Catholic Church as nothing but the bad. We know there are, in fact, far more of the good, the faithful, the down to earth and ordinary good people. Are they all saints? No. We’re all a work in progress. We stumble and fall. We get up again.
One of the most thought provoking details in The Irishman is that the Joe Pesci character and deNiro end up in jail as old men. There’s a scene where Pesci takes himself off to church just before he dies–presumably to get right with God. The deNiro character, when he gets the chance, declines the offer of forgiveness.
Scorsese showing that these criminals have an element of religion and faith in their life gives the movie depth and it’s a reminder that we’re all refugees in this leaky old barque of Peter together, and we’re there until we reach the final shore. Then we will disembark and there will be a customs house at which we will be sorted out–some to enter the promised land and others not.
We can’t sort out the saints and sinners until then, so we go on knowing there will not only be a final judgment–but that on that day there will be a lot of surprises.