It's an unbelievable setup for a film seeking to capture an increasingly  unbelieving world: Sitting in the confession box, Father James (Brendan Gleason) learns he is to be murdered by the unidentified man sitting across the grille in exactly one week. Explaining that he was abused by a member of the church years ago, the man has selected Father James for a very particular kind of atonement — "I am going to kill you because you've done nothing wrong," he says. 

This may be the opening scene of John Michael McDonagh's new film Calvary, but the fate of this priest, and the Catholic church, appears all but sealed. Can the role of the good priest be resurrected? Garen Daly was a guest on BPR's Monday show to discuss Hollywood's portrayals of priests through the decades. 

If nothing else, Father James' crucifixion signals how far the holy may have fallen. As the old witticism goes, Hollywood in its Golden Age was once described as "a Jewish-owned business selling Catholic theology to a Protestant America." Looking through the decades, what's being sold today is very different from years past. 

If the silver screen depicted Catholicism in a more flattering light in cinema's earlier period, it was far from a coincidence, Daly said. In fact, the church directly collaborated with Hollywood's leaders in 1930 to form the Motion Picture Production Code to ensure that all passable Hollywood films took the moral high road. It also clearly outlined what topics were not too indecent to be shown, including crime, passion, childbirth, adultery, drug use and profanity of any kind. 

The code may have lasted only until 1954, but it clearly made its mark in films that were a product of the time where depictions of Catholic priests were concerned. Archetypical examples include Father Flanagan in Boys Town (1938) and Father Jerry in Angels With Dirty Faces (1938). Bing Crosby-as-Father Charles O'Malley's espousal of the joy of being alive in The Bells Of St. Mary's is a far cry from McDonagh's so-called "Glorified Suicide Trilogy" which Calvary is part of. So what changed?

"Priests, in films, are no longer depicted as the paragons of virtue but they are shown as human and subject to human foibles," Daly said. While Pew surveys find that the size of the Catholic population in the U.S.—  about one quarter —  has remained fairly steady, important demographic shifts have taken place, and the church has lost more members than it has gained from religious switching. Quite literally, Doubt (in the form of the 2008 film by the same name) has set in.

In an interview with Daly, Gleeson remarked that Calvary is a response to the evolving role of a priest in contemporary culture: "There was a point when a priest was so crucial in the parish in terms of being a confessor, a counselor, the person who pushed social agendas," Gleeson said. "Today, their role isn't as clearly defined."

To hear a clip from the interview, listen here:


In the interview, McDanagh points out the "baggage" that comes with the priesthood following recent high-profile abuse cases and a more general consensus that the Catholic church appears behind on issues such as gay rights and abortion that a large portion of the world population already support. 

Less of an activist than Father Barry in On The Waterfront (1954) and not quite as tortured as Father Karras in The Exorcist (1979), Father James represents the latest installment of the priest figure in popular culture as it is today. He might need a prayer now more than ever. 

To hear Daly's complete segment with Margery and Jim, listen here: