What Does a Catholic Look Like?

By Sanders, Theresa | National Catholic Reporter, December 24, 2010 | Go to article overview

What Does a Catholic Look Like?


Sanders, Theresa, National Catholic Reporter


In the 1944 movie "Going My Way," Fr. Chuck O'Malley (Bing Crosby) didn't look like a Catholic. Instead of a black cassock, he wore a St. Louis Browns sweatshirt. Instead of pacing sedately with his breviary, he hurdled bushes on his way to church. And instead of singing solemn hymns, he belted out catchy little tunes while playing ragtime on the piano.

But he did pray like a Catholic, or at least like a Catholic of the . 1940s. He knelt before a statue of St. Joseph and the child Jesus, crossed himself, and lit a candle, remembering to place a few coins in the collection box.

What did a Catholic look like? Anthony Burke Smith's new book, The Look of Catholics: Portrayals in Popular Culture from the Great Depression to the Cold War, is a fascinating and rich evaluation of how Catholics were depicted in movies, television programs, and magazines from the 1930s to the 1960s. Smith's central thesis is that, as he says, "popular representations of and by Catholics provided an important cultural arena for expressing competing understandings of Americanism between the New Deal and Cold War eras." In other words, looking at how Catholics were portrayed in popular culture can frequently tell us what issues Americans were struggling with both internally and in relation to the rest of the world.

For example, in movies of the 1930s, Catholic characters were used by filmmakers to embody society's call for social cooperation, interdependence and looking out for the little guy. Films like "Boys Town" and "Angels with Dirty Faces" (both released in 1938) featured Catholic priests working for and with the urban, ethnic poor. These clerical champions of forgotten youth and underdogs urged America to embrace a reformist narrative that meshed nicely with Roosevelt's New Deal.

Things changed in the 1940s as Crosby's suave, sophisticated Fr. O'Malley filled the screen. Smith writes, "At stake in 'Going My Way' was nothing less than a symbolic cleansing of the streets of urban America, ridding them of all the critical, reformist energies that Hollywood had recognized in the 1930s." Gone were the tenements and prisons of earlier films. Instead, the golf-playing O'Malley offered viewers "a familiar, reassuring world of respectability and propriety." In a world overrun by war, viewers found solace in a priest who preached traditional values with unthreatening and upbeat ditties.

By the 1950s, as communism posed an increasing threat to Christianity, Catholics appeared in popular culture as good Americans whose families and homes were bulwarks against godless tyranny. Archbishop Fulton Sheen's television program "Life Is Worth Living," for example, urged viewers to see the mundane world of marriage and children as, says Smith, "the context for the pilgrimage of the soul. …

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