The Academy Awards ceremony coincided with the final day of last week’s Vatican summit on sexual abuse, which prompted me to look for insights about church reform that are epitomized by four of the nominees for best picture. A common thread among these films is their attention to racial or ethnic marginalization, which is not unlike the experience of many laity in today’s church.
First, Roma symbolizes that reform must try to close the gaps of the laity’s disengagement. Alfonso Cuarón’s film follows a year in the life of Cleo, a maid to a wealthy family in Mexico City in the early 1970s. Cleo is loved by the family and, at times, incorporated in their activities, but she is always aware of where the power lies. As a working class maid, an indigenous Mixtec and a woman, she is multiply marginalized in this society. Like Cleo, lay Catholics often feel like observers in swirl of ecclesial events, and not all their gifts are recognized. As Paul Lakeland writes in Liberation of the Laity, “the Catholic tradition currently squanders lay experience.”
Next, Green Book suggests that reform is built on listening. The movie dramatizes a 1962 road trip through the American South by Dr. Don Shirley, a black classical pianist, and his white driver, Tony Vellelonga. The movie follows the beats of the typical road picture, in which both men go on a journey of self-discovery and build a friendship. Green Book’s creators have been criticized for oversimplifying issues and indulging in the “white savior” trope. Nonetheless, this feel-good film does model something important about change in any culture: listening to others about their experience paves the way to personal transformations. The church has made significant efforts to listen to survivors of clerical sexual abuse; such wounded Catholics participated in the Vatican summit, for instance.
However, listening is not enough. Like racism, the lack of accountability in the Church is not simply the fault of bad individuals, and it will not be cured through interpersonal relationships alone. So a third film’s message is needed. Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman shows that reform is about facing structural and historical sins. This film powerfully contextualizes its story of a black and a Jewish policer officer who infiltrated the KKK with an extended portrait of white supremacist culture. Drawing a line from the terrors of the lynching era to 2017’s Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Lee drives home that resistance to racism must be organized, insistent and prepared to face harsh backlash.
Calls for accountability in the church might well need the same qualities to be effective. As in 2002, lay movements are on the rise. In the Washington, D.C., metro area, in the wake of the revelations about Theodore McCarrick, lay Catholics are posting “Five Theses” in parishes: full transparency, venues for survivors’ voices, simple living by bishops, women’s leadership in the church and prayer for reform. Whether church leaders will listen to the to Five Theses movement any more than they did to Voice of the Faithful, and whether they will even allow space for reform-minded laity to talk to each other, remains to be seen. Past experience gives a reason to be jaded.
Yet, a fourth film proposes that reform is about nurturing hope. Black Panther struck a chord with black Americans and with people of color around the world for its imagining of what Africa might be like if it hadn’t been colonized and millions of its people taken into slavery. The film is partly set in Wakanda, whose King T’Chaka becomes the film’s titular superhero. Here, a society of Africans from diverse tribes live in partial secrecy from the rest of the world, enjoying superior technology and a peaceful, vibrant culture. In Yes! Magazine, artist Ingrid LaFleur expressed why this imagery resonates with black audiences: “In Wakanda, we all belong… This is how the revolution begins, a slow expansion of the future vision that emerges… We reject the future that has been designed for us. Our inner superhero has been ignited.”
Lay Catholics should dare to hope for a future church were we all belong, in a full and meaningful way. The laity’s passion and activism for such a future are necessary ingredients. This lens is utopian, to be sure. But Christians exercising the virtue of hope can engage in planning for utopias, aware that we don’t bring the Kingdom, but we help build it by responding to Jesus’ call to discipleship. That’s a script worth writing.
Brian Stiltner is an ethicist and a professor of theology and religious studies at Sacred Heart University.