November 5th is Guy Fawkes Night, which commemorates the failure of the Gunpowder Plot. Now I’m a fan of celebrations and fireworks in general (though not so much of standing around in the cold for hours), but there’s definitely some uncomfortable anti-Catholic sentiment potentially surrounding the festivities.
So I thought I’d discuss some of my favourite Catholic characters so I’d feel less weird about enjoying the pretty sparkly things in the sky (preferably from inside somewhere that’s warm and dry and free of children).
President Bartlet (The West Wing)
I always thought that Bartlet’s Catholicism was significant given that there’s only been one Catholic US president in reality.
While it may have been to tie him to JFK’s politics and legacy, I think it also gave the show the scope to explore questions of morality without aligning characters with the Christian right. The show’s treatment of religion in general certainly respected it, and demonstrated that although the separation of church and state is necessary, it also isn’t all that easy to achieve.
Bartlet’s engagement with his faith makes for some compelling television, and his rant (in English and Latin) while trying to reconcile his religious beliefs with life’s cruelties in ‘Two Cathedrals’ is particularly moving.
Seeley Booth (Bones)
I enjoy the fact that Bones is all about anthropology. Although the main character (Temperance Brennan) is primarily a forensic anthropologist, she clearly demonstrates the training of a cultural anthropologist too with her questioning of/inability to understand things which other people take for granted, including social institutions such as religion and marriage. This is sharply contrasted with Booth’s Catholicism. She doesn’t understand it, and sometimes manages to, unwittingly, upset and offend him by painting him as illogical and superstitious.
I like the fact that they didn’t let their differences intrude and prevent them from having a meaningful working partnership, and genuine friendship- and hope that the new season’s exploration of their romantic relationship and the impending birth of their child won’t water down either of their viewpoints.
Father Dougal McGuire (Father Ted)
Although there’s plenty of contenders to choose from in this show about Catholic priests on a remote Irish island (including one played by Graham Norton!), Dougal was especially entertaining. He’s just so adorably gormless!
Father Brian Kilkenney Finn (Keeping the Faith)
Keeping the Faith is a fun film starring Ed Norton and Jenna Elfman (who are awesome and pretty) and Ben Stiller (who is generally awful, but didn’t make me want to throttle him in this, for once). It’s about a rabbi and a Catholic priest who’ve been best friends since childhood, and who fall for the same girl. I know this sounds like the set-up to a bad joke, but it does a good job of depicting a harmonious multi-faith community while demonstrating the struggles of deeply religious individuals in a contemporary setting.
Also you get to see Ed Norton playing a drunk priest. What more do you need to know?
Dr Robert Chase (House)
Chase is one of the few members of House’s revolving series of team members that I actually like. Since he isn’t one of the completely interchangeable mass (and thankfully isn’t simply awful, like his ex-wife Cameron) I’ve bothered to pay attention to his storyline. He was raised Catholic, and actually attended a seminary before deciding to become a doctor instead. His religious upbringing might explain why he had such a problem with murdering a dictator in season six, so I’ll cut him some slack for all the whining.
Apparently there’s quite a lot of Catholics in Australia too, it’s nice to know a character’s religion makes demographic sense.
Father Ray Mukada (Oz)
The Catholic chaplain of the Oswald State Penitentiary was sweet and idealistic, despite the fact that he’d been sent there by the Cardinal to essentially ruin his career. It wasn’t an easy job- he was injured more than once, maliciously accused of sexual abuse and generally caught up in a violent, retributive world.
Still, he managed to find time to sing Tori Amos, so it can’t have been all bad.
Abraham Van Helsing (Dracula)
Van Helsing is a badass Dutch doctor, and devout Catholic,who’s capable of diagnosing vampire bites and of organising a team of people to bring down Count Dracula. There have been many portrayals of the character since the publication of Bram Stoker’s Dracula in 1897, and some have tried to beef him up into an experienced vampire hunter, but I think that detracts from what makes the book compelling. It’s precisely the group’s lack of expertise or superhuman skill which makes them seem like they’re not capable of fighting the Count, and it’s their reasoning skills and sharing of information which are their real secret weapons.
I did actually quite enjoy Anthony Hopkins’ portrayal of Van Helsing in the 1992 film version of Dracula, which is weird because I normally can’t stand his muttering self.
Dana Scully (The X-Files)
Scully was from a Catholic family and her faith was an important part of her character, signified by the small cross she wore. Her religion perhaps clashed with her hyper-rationalism and scientific viewpoint, however. In the episode ‘Revelations’, which revolved around a young boy (played by a pre-Transamerica Kevin Zegers) apparently exhibiting stigmata, Scully was theorizing based on things she’d learnt in catechism- which even Mulder scoffed at. And her Catholicism became more important to her as she struggled with the cancer she developed after removing the freaky microchip that had been implanted in the back of her neck.
I’m not really surprised that she seemed to become more religious as the show developed, listening to your partner waffling on about belief constantly (even if it was about aliens rather than God) would wear anyone down I’m sure.
Carmela Soprano (The Sopranos)
Carmela was an observant Catholic, and indeed quite traditional in a lot of ways, which sat uncomfortably with her husband’s involvement with the mafia, her unacknowledged awareness of what he did, and the fancy lifestyle that it provided for her family. It also probably made her even angrier about her husband’s infidelity too, because she didn’t just see it as hurtful, but also as categorically immoral. After all, while she might have enjoyed getting drunk with her priest friend, she never actually made a real move on him. Now that’s class.
A lot of Sopranos fans don’t seem to like Carmela much, but I thought she was a complex character, and ultimately a sympathetic one. And I think I’d find it an effort to really dislike any character that Edie Falco was playing.
Jorge de Burgos (The Name of the Rose)
I haven’t actually seen the film (having only recently discovered from some Italians that it exists) but I enjoyed Umberto Eco’s novel a lot. Since it’s a murder mystery set in a Benedictine abbey in Northern Italy in the year 1327 there’s plenty of Catholics to pick from. I decided to plump for Jorge, because I particularly enjoyed the fact that his blindness, name and librarian status referenced the Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges.
Not only am I fan of libraries, I also love me some intertextuality- and this book has it in spades.
Tell us about your favourite Catholic characters in the comments!