CatholiCity 2001

M. Night Shyamalan’s Unbreakable Success

Deal W. Hudson
January 2, 2001

Shyamalan’s 1999 blockbuster, The Sixth Sense, took the movie-going public by surprise. His previous film, the brilliant but underappreciated Wide Awake (1998), had gone straight from lackluster reviews to video-store oblivion, so Shyamalan well-deserved the success and acclaim The Sixth Sense suddenly brought him. It made more than $250 million and has passed Raiders of the Lost Ark to become No. 15 on the list of top-grossing movies ever.

Shyamalan’s newest movie, Unbreakable, will be viewed with different eyes. Audiences will come expecting another supernatural blockbuster on the order of The Sixth Sense, another everyman’s journey into the netherworld. If the audience I sat with is typical, however, Unbreakable may be too much of a mental stretch for most people. This is a pity, because of Unbreakable, although not quite the equal of The Sixth Sense, offers a stark and powerful challenge to the pervasive moral vertigo of contemporary life.

Both on the surface and beneath it, Unbreakable and The Sixth Sense have much in common besides their star, Bruce Willis, who impresses me with his capacity for stillness in front of the camera. The setting once again in Philadelphia. David Dunn (Willis) is about to leave his wife, Audrey (Robin Wright Penn), and son, Joseph (Spencer Treat Clark), to take a job in New York City. In The Sixth Sense, mother and son struggled to overcome their sense of loss after being deserted by their husband/father. In Unbreakable, they struggle to keep him home. Their story ends happily only after they pass through a frightening encounter with the mystery of the unseen.

In The Sixth Sense, Willis’s character, the psychiatrist, Malcolm, was the agent of the unseen who helped the young boy, Cole, accept his encounters with the dead. In Unbreakable, which I am tempted to call a sequel to The Sixth Sense, the Willis character, haunted by family dissatisfaction and guilt because he is the sole survivor of a train disaster, is led through his hell of self-doubt by the very breakable Elijah Price (Samuel 1. Jackson). Price, who has suffered 54 bone fractures since childhood because of his extremely soft bone tissue, owns an upscale gallery of comic books and comic illustrations. Price’s ministrations, and his belief that his comic books portray an otherworldly reality lead Dunn to accept the fact that he has a very different kind of sixth sense – the ability to see crimes committed in the past and the strength to capture their perpetrators.

That Shyamalan chose comic book warriors to dramatize a spiritual battle confused some members of the audience I sat with who just couldn’t take it seriously. Nobody could know less or careless, about comic books than I, but Shyamalan persuaded me to play along with his conceit. Artists who use artifacts of pop culture to establish a point of contact with their audience can suffer from the very simplemindedness they are attempting to overturn – and this may be the principal flaw of Unbreakable. It led to misplaced laughter in several important scenes, including one in which young Joseph’s belief in his father’s heroism is finally confirmed.

Shyamalan asks his viewers to take seriously a character who believes that comic books are the successors of ancient hieroglyphic wall paintings and that the battles comic books depict are age-old cosmic struggles between good and evil. He obviously anticipated that this concept might be difficult for the audience to swallow, so he appended an apologia for comic books to the beginning of the film. Shyamalan rightly insinuates that subcultures exist (such as the one that Price inhabits) in which people receive their worldviews from comic books. He runs into trouble, however, trying to communicate with an audience whose imagination has been formed by comic books – and soap operas, gothic novels, video games, and talk shows, media that do not admit of subtlety or ironic distance from their subject matter. Shyamalan’s complex portrayal of the intersection of comic book reality and supernatural reality is likely to go over most people’s heads.

What will keep average viewers engaged with Unbreakable is their identification with Dunn and his home life? Dunn suffers from middle-aged depression: He gave up the football career he wanted to marry a woman to whom he felt a guilty obligation because she almost died in a car wreck while he was at the wheel. His subsequent drab life as a security guard at the stadium where he was once a football star neither matches in any way his youthful aspirations nor sets an impressive example for his son. The compromise with domesticity leaves him dreaming of liaisons with young women and fleeing his family for New York. Through his encounter with Price, which wakens him to his special gifts, he realizes his dream of starting anew in a genuine and meaningful way.

The twist in this movie is Price’s hidden – and finally revealed – motive for finding Dunn and convincing him that he is a real-life comic-book protagonist. Price describes himself as “at the opposite end of the spectrum” from Dunn; he was nicknamed “Mr. Glass” as a child because of all his broken bones. Dunn suddenly realizes that than one mishap besides the train wreck. It turns out that the differences between Price and Dunn run far deeper than the relative health and frailty of each.

Price’s years of hospitalization and isolation have turned him into a kind of evil genius, with an obsessive desire to find a hero – Dunn – to verify his role as a villain, in the way that Dunn’s robustness verifies his own fragile state. Price wants to order in his moral universe, and he also knows that the revelation of a moral order will include a revelation that his own crimes will be duly punished. Knowing evil for what it is, as the opposite of the good, even at the cost of seeing oneself as its embodiment, is the unsettling conclusion of this film. To a culture swaddled in moral and metaphysical denial, such a denouement may well be incomprehensible; it certainly seemed so to the snickering audience I sat with. That is all the more reason to congratulate Shyamalan for bringing his deeply countercultural vision to the screen. At age 30, he has plenty of time to recalibrate his use of pop idioms in future cinematic ventures.

But Unbreakable didn’t miss its mark by much. Perhaps among those who laughed, the seeds of future moral insight were sown. I’d like to think so.

Postmodern Buchanan

Deal W. Hudson

Two books read together can unexpectedly illuminate one another. That was my experience reading Pat Buchanan’s The Death of the West and a scholarly book written for public consumption-The Reckless Mind: Intellectuals in Politics, by Mark Lilla of the University of Chicago.

There’s much in the Buchanan book I agree with, especially the harrowing analysis of the impact of abortion and birth control on Western nations. But there was a bothersome undertone that I couldn’t quite figure out. Then I read Lilla’s chapter on the political philosopher Carl Schmitt. Schmitt (1888-1985) was one of the leading political and legal theorists of the Nazi Party in its early stages.

Rather than being treated like a leper for his Nazism, Schmitt and his books gained a following in the decades following World War II-including some ardent admirers among postmodern theorists.

Why would the most radically chic of leftwing thinkers, who pride themselves on obeying the canons of political correctness, admit to an appreciation for the “crown jurist” of the Nazi Party? It’s Schmitt’s understanding of politics that attracts them. His 1927 essay, “The Concept of the Political” states, “The specific political distinction to which political actions and motives can be reduced is that between friend and enemy.” In other words, politics is about power, pure and simple…getting and maintaining power over those you consider enemies.

Postmodern thinkers with their rejection of rationality and objectivity, with their reduction of value to class, gender, and ethnic interests, treat politics as just the kind of battlefield that Schmitt describes. Politics is not a fundamentally humanistic enterprise where men and women, in spite of their own interests and passions, submit themselves to a democratic process in hopes of reaching a common good.

Now I am NOT calling Pat Buchanan a Nazi. Everyone knows Buchanan is a good and decent man, and he has done this country a service over the years by his vigorous defense of unpopular causes. But in The Death of the West, Buchanan has started to sound much like the revolutionary theorists he calls his enemies.

“Tell me who your enemy is, and I will tell you who you are,” Schmitt writes. Buchanan would agree. His book is a rallying cry to take up arms against the enemies of the West by learning from the enemy’s tactics. As Buchanan says, “Once an ideology takes hold of a society, only a superior force or superior ideology can exorcise it.”

The trouble is that the Christian faith Buchanan touts as a remedy is neither an ideology nor a force. I suspect Buchanan’s dilemma is that he wants his faith to provide both.

Those who see the opposition as “enemy” will join Buchanan’s army of right-minded, God-fearing defenders of the faith and the Western tradition. Those who don’t, well, they’re the enemy too.

What keeps me from joining his army is the belief that politics is not just an irrational struggle between people of bad will. I have had too many experiences with people of profoundly different values who have taught me much. My three most influential teachers were men who embraced the political left and were, or would be, dumbfounded by my adult choice of the Catholic faith.

All the battles that Buchanan describes are real and potentially decisive for our culture. But I don’t believe that adopting the political assumptions and tactics of the other side is going to redeem the day.

Government Cannot Love

Deal W. Hudson

In the midst of Valentine’s Day sentiment, it’s refreshing to hear someone who speaks plainly about love. At a White House briefing on February 6, Jim Towey, the new Director of the White House Office of Faith-Based & Community Initiatives, said something that ought to be heard–“government cannot love.”

Towey, who is Catholic, knows something about the institutions that do works of love and compassion. He led Florida’s health and social service agency, with 40,000 employees, later leaving to found an organization called Aging with Dignity. But perhaps his most self-sacrificial work came as a full-time volunteer in Mother Teresa’s Washington, D.C. AIDS hospice.

They first met on August 20, 1985. Towey was touring refugee camps in Southeast Asia for Sen. Mark Hatfield when he decided to return through Calcutta to meet Mother Teresa. “I didn’t want to be around poor people, but I wanted to meet Mother Teresa, so I promised myself a five-day trip to Hawaii for the effort.”

He never got to Hawaii. Instead, he says he “met Jesus Christ in bed forty-six” when one of the sisters asked Towey to clean a man with scabies. Having planned to “give the sister a twenty dollar bill and leave,” Towey ended up working for the Sisters of Charity as legal counsel for the next twelve years, including during his year-long stint in Washington, D.C.

Towey’s view of the faith-based initiative is animated by the example of Mother Teresa’s integration of love for the Eucharist and service to the poor. Thus, he doesn’t view his job as a simple matter of administering civil rights. “The whole issue revolves around relieving the misery of the poor and recognizing the God-given human dignity of the poor.”

Towey knows well that people love people. However, an abstraction like government, albeit made up of laws and those administer who them, cannot love. President Bush, himself, has made this observation on a number of occasions, yet I’ve never seen anyone comments on it. That’s a shame since the view is clearly influenced by the Catholic principle of subsidiarity.

Subsidiarity means that social problems should be treated at the most local level possible. In other words, the most effective way of fighting poverty begins with the people living in the same community–where the people who help and the people in need can look each other in the face.

A government can’t love but a government can encourage the corporal works of mercy of those people who can. Fortunately, the program of the faith-based initiative answers the question, “What’s the government going to do about it?” by providing resources to people motivated by the earnestness of faith.

As President Bush said at the annual prayer breakfast on Thursday, January 31, “Faith shows us the way to self-giving, to love our neighbor, as we would want to love ourselves. In service to others, we find deep human fulfillment. And as acts of service are multiplied, our nation becomes a more welcoming place for the weak, and a better place for those who suffer and grieve.”

This is the lesson Jim Towey learned from the man in bed forty-six.

It’s Not About Celibacy

Deal W. Hudson

The recent pedophile problems in various U.S. Catholic dioceses, especially Boston, have led – predictably – to a new wave of questions about priestly celibacy. Let us be clear: There is no relation between the vow of priestly celibacy and the incidence of pedophilia among Catholic priests.

How do I know this? There is less likelihood that a Catholic priest will be a pedophile (0.3 %) than a married man.

This statistic comes from the best and most current study of this issue, Pedophiles, and Priests by Philip Jenkins (Oxford University Press, 1996). Jenkins shows that true pedophilia, that is, sexual contact between an adult and pre-pubescent child is very rare in the Catholic priesthood.

Jenkins also explains how the media artificially exaggerates these numbers in their reporting. One U.S. Cardinal told me recently that many of the reported incidents of “child abuse” are actually complaints going back many years about the forms of corporal punishments administered by clergy in days-gone-by. Data about actual sexual contact and routine spanking or paddling are being thrown together.

The whole argument against a celibate, male clergy based on the pedophilia problem is, at best, impressionistic and, at worse, totally disingenuous.

Catholic dissidents who advocate married clergy and women priests are trying to take full advantage of this present situation. Never once do they mention that if a priest is faithful to his vows sexual relations of any kind will simply never occur. Just how allowing clergy to marry, presumably members of the opposite sex, will reduce pedophilia, is never explained.

The media is scrutinizing the Catholic Church on this issue in a way they have never looked at other institutional leaders, such as public elementary schools teachers, for example. The mere fact that the statistical incidence of pedophilia is the less than married men with children should give the media pause, but it does not and will not.

I can’t think of a single mainstream media outlet, with the possible exception of Fox News, that does not demonstrate a consistent bias against the Catholic Church. This is not to point a finger at every reporter and editor, but to underline the constant tone and drift of their reporting.

Why, for example, would MSNBC spend an evening inviting people to call in and vote on whether Catholic priests should be allowed to marry? Would MSNBC do a poll on whether Jews should be allowed to eat pork on their holy days?

As Bill Donohue of the Catholic League has shown for years, the media has no fear of offending Catholics because Catholics evidently don’t care if their faith is put up for a vote.

A statistical defense of the Catholic clergy, however, is not enough to address the present crisis. There must be serious rethinking of how to identify potential pedophiles before they enter the priesthood, and how to deal with them once an incident occurs. It is clear such a priest can never again to be assigned to duties that put children at risk.

The Church will get its house in order without the help of those who want to knock it down and start again.

Harvard’s Catholic Voice

Deal W. Hudson

I thought I knew something about Catholicism in Ivy League schools such as the venerable Harvard University. For example, if you wanted a Harvard professor outspoken about the Catholic faith you called Dr. Mary Ann Glendon of the Harvard Law School, or for the social justice perspective, Fr. J. Bryan Hehir, now the national head of Catholic Charities.

But it turns out I was wrong.

Harvard, it seems, has at least ten other professors who want to be heard “as Catholics”–at least where the future of Cardinal Law is concerned.

In its March 2 edition, England’s leading Catholic magazine, The Tablet, reported that “ten prominent Catholics on the faculty of Harvard University have called upon the Archbishop of Boston, Cardinal Bernard Law, to resign over his handling of a child abuse scandal…”

Did you know that there were ten “prominent Catholic” professors at Harvard? I didn’t. But I guess if you are a professor at Harvard you’re “prominent” by definition.

Over the last twenty years, there have been quite a few public controversies of particular concern to American Catholics, but strangely, this band of committed Catholic professors was not heard. For example, I don’t recall hearing from them when former President Clinton vetoed the partial-birth abortion amendment–twice.

One of the “prominent professors,” a lecturer in English literature, Professor Robert Kiely, said they “feel scandalized and betrayed” by the archdiocese’s failure to protect children over the past 20 years. “Some of us have become accustomed to being embarrassed by the actions and words of the hierarchy,” the professor says.

Let me provide a translation: We Harvard faculty, who have long dissented from the Church’s teachings on much issues-including abortion, birth control, the male priesthood-have been offended, and now it’s pay-back time.

The biggest irony of all is that these “faithful” Harvard Catholics accuse the cardinal of giving comfort “to those who despise the Church and see it as a fossilized institution of repression, secrecy, and hypocrisy.” This is, of course, what Catholic dissenters do all the time, whether they do it at Harvard or at a Call to Action chapter meeting.

I spoke to a Catholic undergraduate at Harvard University who said it was interesting that these “Catholic professors” are “coming out of the woodwork all of the sudden – professors who’ve had no interest in the health of the Catholic church for the past 20 years. This is simply a wonderful opportunity for dissenters to advance their own agenda.”

He also told me that Catholic bashing has now become a popular sport at Harvard, where regular meetings are being held to discuss Cardinal Law and the pedophile scandal.

Regardless of what anyone thinks about what should be done in the Archdiocese of Boston, or what should have been done, it’s abundantly clear that those who want to attack Church teaching are taking full advantage of this scandal.

But let’s look on the bright side. Now there are ten Harvard professors we can call on for support when the partial-birth abortion ban starts moving through Congress later this year.

Public Lynching of the Priesthood

Deal W. Hudson

Let me ask you a question: Do you really think that the media, and The Boston Globe, in particular, are really interested in strengthening the Church? I think we all know the answer to that.

It should be very clear from the coverage of this scandal that the real object of the media feeding frenzy is the priesthood itself-the “unnatural” state of unmarried men living in a celibate state.

I’ll give you an example. Last week, I was asked to participate in a live cable TV news show on the recent scandal where I responded to comments like, “If there were married priests, they’d have a better gene pool!” and “If married men were allowed to enter the seminary they’d have better character to start with.”

As for “media objectivity,” the first twenty minutes of the hour-long show was given over to a barrage of comments against the unmarried, male priesthood. This included man-on-the-street interviews (all but one of which advocated a married priesthood and included insightful comments like, “If priests were married, they’d stop molesting children”); subtitles running across the bottom of the screen (with helpful notes like, “The celibate priesthood is a manmade institution); and an ongoing TV poll asking viewers whether or not priests should be allowed to marry (“You don’t have to be Catholic to participate!”).

The first guest was your typical Catholic-school-educated angry journalist who kept waving his arms furiously while squealing, “It’s unnatural! It’s unnatural!”

When I pointed out that “humans are not just animals, and it’s natural for human beings to guide their actions by intelligent choices,” he replied that “we are just animals.” I’m sure the nuns didn’t teach him that.

The other guests were equally as helpful…a former priest who left to marry, and a psychologist who treats pedophile priests. My only ally on the panel was an evangelical Christian who kept pointing out that pedophilia is not a celibacy issue. While I’m not sure why he was there, I’m certainly glad he was.

The show’s moderator, Lynn Doyle, told me that she had a difficult time getting anyone on the show to defend priestly celibacy. I said that celibacy should be rather easy to defend, especially in a culture where sexual behavior has damaged so many people.

The fact that you have 46,000 men in the U.S. and 100,000 men around the world who have dedicated themselves totally to the service of Catholics is a powerful witness to a generation addicted to genital satisfaction.

There’s certainly no way for the Church to excuse what happened to the many victims of priestly pedophilia. But the Church can defend herself against the charge that the priesthood is somehow to blame. Let’s make sure, in the midst of all the shrill reporting, that the truth doesn’t fall victim to the media’s agenda.

By the way, despite the best efforts of the guests and the show’s producers, at the end of the program, the TV poll showed that 80% of the viewers agreed that priests should remain celibate.

A Time for Caution

Deal W. Hudson

Passions are running high in response to the daily revelations of sexual misconduct by Catholic priests. I purposely avoid the word “pedophilia” because-in the rush to judgment-most of the instances of “sexual abuse” are being reported incorrectly as pedophilia.

Pedophilia is sexual contact with a child who has not yet reached puberty, say before age thirteen. Sexual relations with older adolescents past puberty is accurately termed “hebephilia” or “ephebophilia.”

Why is the distinction important?

The presence of pedophiles in the priesthood describes a group of psychologically disordered men who can be found among any group. Married men with children, for example, have more than a 3% likelihood of being pedophiles.

However, one group of men has a markedly higher percentage of pedophiles-homosexual men.

Homosexual males are more likely than heterosexuals to engage in sex with minors. One study shows that homosexuals are three times more likely than straight men to engage in adult-child sexual relations. Other studies demonstrate that 35% of all pedophiles are homosexual (see http://www.narth.com/docs/pedophNEW.html).

Most of the reported instances of priests having sexual contact are with teenage boys, and points in an obvious direction: There are a lot of homosexuals in the priesthood. And some of these homosexual priests are responsible for the alarming numbers of sexual misconduct among the clergy.

The secular media will avoid this conclusion. Its editorial bias will keep any fingers from being pointed in the direction of homosexuality. The “problem of pedophilia” will be the ongoing refrain with the solution somehow being found in a married or female clergy. All the while, a major facet of the problem will be ignored.

Others have already said that the encouragement of sexual activity among married priests is the strangest of all remedies for pedophilia – as if married sex will drive out pedophiliac desires!

But there’s a caution in this. In addressing the significant homosexual subculture in the Catholic clergy, we need to avoid at all costs a witch-hunt for homosexual priests.

Clearly, homosexuality does not necessarily lead to pedophilia or hebephilia. There are many instances, I believe, of homosexually disposed persons living chaste lives of heroic self-command. They may well be living among our priests.

To address the situation squarely the Church will have to submit itself to a rigorous investigation of homosexuality and the priesthood. This process should be undertaken in a measured and methodical way, with laypeople with genuine expertise in the areas of personnel management and sexual disorders.

Some in the Vatican have already gone on record saying that homosexuals shouldn’t be ordained at all. What happens if the Church reaches this as an official conclusion? Will it mean that all priests with homosexual inclinations are invalidly ordained? Will some Catholics actively demand they “out” themselves and “resign” their priesthood?

I raise these questions as a note of caution. Catholics are feeling scandalized. We’re looking for answers and explanations. We also want solutions and reforms. I recommend all of us look down the road a distance before we allow our present passions to make the damage worse than it already is.