Holy Hell: A Look At Catholicism in Pop Culture

Danielle Ryan

Martyrs. Crucifixes. Confession. Transubstantiation. Catholicism is a common faith wrapped in a shroud of mysticism. Creative minds frequently return to the well of the Catholic faith for their art, depicting Catholic concepts in films, television shows, comic books, and video games. The latest big-name project steeped in Catholicism is HBO’s The Young Pope, which debuts Sunday night. The Young Pope depicts Jude Law as a fictional Pope Pius XIII, the first American pope ever chosen. The series has already aired in Italy and is confirmed for a second season.

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What is it, then, that makes Catholics in storytelling so fascinating? Is it the seriousness? The mysticism? The stereotypes about alcoholism and child molestation? Or some combination thereof, something just beyond explanation? Let’s take a look at Catholicism in pop culture and see if we can unravel the mystery…

Catholic Crimefighters

There aren’t many gray areas in the Catholic doctrine. The concepts of good and evil are starkly defined, without much room for interpretation. Sure, there are loopholes here and there to have sins forgiven, but all sins are wrong in the eyes of God. Catholicism is a faith where one is constantly being watched and judged by the Almighty. Devout Catholics are rigorous in their practice, attending church every Sunday, saying the prayers of the rosary every night, and practicing confession and repentance.

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This guilt and need for repentance is what makes the idea of Catholic vigilantes so interesting. There are tons of them in pop culture, from Matt Murdock in Netflix’s Daredevil to the MacManus brothers in the 1999 film The Boondock Saints. There is a huge roster of Catholic characters in Marvel’s lineup, and it’s easy to see why. A character’s strong Catholic faith leaves them vulnerable to the associated guilt. To take life, even if it feels justified, is never acceptable within the tenants of the faith. Each Catholic crimefighter deals with that guilt differently, making the character more dynamic.

While Nightcrawler and Daredevil adhere to their faith as a code of conduct, the MacManus brothers use their faith as an excuse for their vigilantism. The duo becomes fed up with seeing “good men do nothing” in the face of evil. They take it upon themselves to clean up the streets of Boston, with bloody, action-packed results. The brothers even say a Latin prayer for their victims before dispatching them straight to hell. Like any religion, Catholicism is open to interpretation, and these characters all see the same faith from different viewpoints.

Eye-popping Iconography

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Robert DeNiro as the violent criminal Max Cady in Cape Fear.

To understand the visual power of Catholic iconography, look no further than the work of Martin Scorsese. A Catholic himself, the director uses religious iconography in nearly all of his films. Many of his films feature Catholic characters who battle with their inner demons in explosive ways. Scorsese attended seminary for a year and once planned on being a priest before he became a filmmaker. His second feature film, Mean Streets, shares his religious views with a voice-over, performed by the director himself: “You don’t make up for your sins in church. You do it on the streets. You do it at home.”

Most of Scorsese’s protagonists become wound up in sin. He depicts each fall from grace with classic imagery, including crosses, crucifixions, portraits of Christ, and loads of blood. Blood is especially important in Catholicism, as followers believe they drink Christ’s blood every Sunday. Wine is poured into the chalice, but it then becomes transubstantiated and turns into the blood of Jesus. This concept is one of the core beliefs that separates Catholicism from Protestant faiths, and as such, blood plays a powerful role in stories about Catholics.

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Liam Neeson about the lay the holy smackdown in Gangs of New York.

Blood and crosses are everywhere in Scorsese’s work. His controversial The Last Temptation of Christ is an examination of the emotional suffering of Jesus before he died. Religious iconography and its influence is displayed in Mean StreetsRaging Bull, and Gangs of New York. Scorsese’s latest film, Silence, is his most religious yet and is already the subject of Oscar buzz.

Virgins, Saints, and Martyrs

Another unique trait of the Catholic faith is the inclusion of saints. Saints are the superheroes of faith, individuals (or angels, in some cases) who did something extraordinary in the name of God. Many of these saints are male, but a great number are women as well, giving female believers something to relate to. Of course, many saints are also martyrs, so many of these incredible women died horrible, bloody deaths. Besides Jesus’ mother, the Virgin Mary, the most famous female saint was the virginal, martyred Joan of Arc.

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Milla Jovovich in The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc

Joan of Arc was a young woman who had visions of the Archangel Michael and two female saints, Saint Margaret, and Saint Catherine of Alexandria. Joan believed she had to help the French dauphin ascend to the throne, and began fighting in the Hundred Years War as a teenager. She turned the war into a religious one, and was used as a symbol of righteousness by the French. Unfortunately, Joan was burned at the stake when she was only 19, condemned for charges of heresy and crossdressing. (She often dressed in men’s armor and clothing in order to ride on the battlefield undetected.)

There have been dozens of films depicting the Maid of Orleans, with the first produced in France in 1898. The most famous adaptation is The Passion of Joan of Arc, considered one of the greatest silent films ever made. The film details Joan’s trial and execution by the English. Another popular Joan of Arc film, The Messenger, takes liberties with historical accuracy but portrays a warrior version of Joan. Both films make heavy use of religious iconography and Joan’s intense faith.

Even God’s Got a Sense of Humor

Not every story about Catholicism is all blood, fire, and brimstone, however. Comedies have looked to the usually sombre religion many times over the years. British comedy troupe Monty Python make fun of Catholicism repeatedly, both on their show Monty Python’s Flying Circus and in films like Monty Python and the Holy Grail and The Life of Brian.

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No one expected me to use this gif!

Another comedy that draws heavily on Catholicism is Kevin Smith’s DogmaDogma tells the tale of Bethany, a descendant of Christ who is tapped to stop two angels from accidentally starting the apocalypse. Smith was raised Catholic and the film was a kind of catharsis for him, though many churches protested the movie. Dogma pokes fun at Catholicism without making fun of those who have faith, which is no small feat.

Catholic comedy isn’t limited to film. Shows like Jane the Virgin riff on Catholicism and the concept of the virgin birth. There are plenty of Catholic comedians too. Stephen Colbert uses his faith in a hyperbolic manner when he’s in character as an ultra-conservative pundit. Stand-up comedian Jim Gaffigan has spoken about his faith onstage and off and even has a great bit about making people uncomfortable when bringing up Jesus in conversation.

Faith is a huge part of any culture. Catholicism is a complex religion with a bloody and oftentimes sordid history. There’s loads of guilt, pride, strength, and sin. No wonder there are so many depictions of Catholicism in pop culture – it’s absolutely fascinating.

Danielle Ryan
A cinephile before she could walk, Danielle comes to Fandom by way of CNN, CHUD.com, and Paste Magazine. She loves controversial cinema (especially horror) and good cinematography; her dislikes include romantic comedies and people's knees.
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