The News Times, June 24, 1995
By Father James K. Graham
A couple of months ago, the film "Priest" aroused the ire of many people (most of whom did not see it) for allegedly being anti-Catholic and degrading to priests. Around that time, I went to California for a college reunion and, seeing my clerical collar, people in restaurants, in airports and even at the reunion, asked me what I thought about the movie.
Since I hadn't seen in, I told them I couldn't comment on it, but I asked them about their impressions. Most of them praised it for dealing honestly with serious issues and didn't find it disrespectful either of Catholicism or of priests.
My curiosity aroused by such contradictory opinions, I went to see "Priest" so I could form my own opinion.
Now that the film is no longer being shown widely and the controversy has died down, writing about this film may seem pointless. But it seems to me that most of the film's critics messed the point by focusing only on the fact that the two main characters are an uptight young gay priest and a liberal old non-gay priest whose housekeeper is his mistress.
In fact, the movie really deals with questions of faith and right relationships and people's struggles to establish and sustain right relationships when faith and church rules conflict. It also calls for reflection on a couple of points that seem to have been overlooked in most of the public discussions of "Priest".
The first is what we might call the Catholic myth of priesthood. The second is the evidently widespread misunderstanding of human sexuality. What may not be immediately apparent is the connection between these two notions.
The Catholic myth of priesthood distorts the meaning of the priestly vocation by turning priests into some kind of perfect superhuman beings, admired and respected and even revered because they are supposedly unaffected by ordinary human emotions, needs and experiences- especially sexuality. (Compulsory priestly celibacy in the Roman Catholic Church contributes enormously to this myth.) One feels sometimes that, as a priest, one is not only expected to help make God present to people, but actually to be God.
This myth hurts priests by separating them from people, cocooning them in an artificial environment in which abstract moral principles may take on more reality than concrete human situations. It can also foster in priests unreasonable expectations of themselves and tremendous self-doubt or guilt when they cannot meet those expectations. The myth hurts lay people by encouraging them to believe the incredible and expect the impossible from priests, exposing them to severe disillusionment and even loss of faith when inevitably something occurs that reveals the priest as an ordinary fallible human being after all.
A central component in this myth of priesthood is a serious distortion of the Christian understanding of human sexuality. Instead of regarding sexuality as a gift from God, essential to the meaning of our creation in God's image as relational and creative beings, many people seem to regard sexuality as the basis of human fallen-ness and sinfulness. Certainly, like all of our gifts, sexuality can be misused, but surely the misuse of sexuality is not the cause but the symptom of sin- such as pride, misuse of power, lack of love, absence of justice. And we can find examples of all of these sins in the film.
The Catholic myth of priesthood and the misunderstanding of sexuality connect and reinforce each other in a way that can be (over)simplified as follows: sex is bad and priests are good, and priests are especially good (and better than lay-people) because they don't have sex and sex is even more certainly bad because priests who are good and better than the rest of us don't do it.
Clearly, then, any movie that challenges these two powerfully interconnected notions is going to disturb people who cherish them. And "Priest" does that. It shows that sexuality is part of the life of priests as well as of lay people. It depicts some of the possible destructive consequences that come from the myth of priesthood and the misunderstanding of sexuality. Fortunately, it also lets us see that faith and prayer and communion (both social and Eucharistic), can bring forth renewed life out of destruction through metanoia (change of heart - repentance, forgiveness, reconciliation).
Thus, far from degrading priesthood or maligning Catholicism, "Priest" pays both the compliment of taking them seriously. It confirms that Catholic faith and priestly vocations profoundly affect and shape people's lives. By demythologizing priesthood, the film contributes to a more realistic and effective understanding of the priest's role by both clergy and laity. It affirms the possibility of personal and community growth in faith and love through examination and paring away of non-essential ideas and laws that have taken on more importance than the central facts of Christian faith.
"Priest", a film containing may dramatic and powerful images, begins with priest carrying a large crucifix that he uses as a bettering ram to break into the bishop's palace - a forceful reminder that we all have to carry our crosses and bring Christ into people's lives. It ends with a confrontation at <ass between an outraged parishioner who screams Old Testament verses and Father Greg (the gay priest) who answers with the words of Jesus Christ - a telling reminder that Christians are not bound by Law of the Old Covenant but by the Law of Love, the New Covenant of salvation in our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ. (Matthew 22:36-40).
Father James K. Graham is pastor of St. Ann Melkite Catholic Church in Danbury.