An intriguing look at the debate between progress and tradition within an organized-religion community, the made-for-TV drama Catholics benefits from a terrific leading performance by Trevor Howard, excellent supporting work from Martin Sheen, and immersive location photography that gives a strong sense of place for a story set on a remote island off the Irish coast. Adapted by Brian Moore from his own novel, the story concerns a centuries-old abbey where monks under the leadership of the Abbot (Howard) make waves by reverting to old ways. They perform masses in Latin and, more controversially, embrace classical teachings of Christ as purely divine. Progressive priest Father Kinsella (Sheen) arrives from Rome with orders to pull the monks into the 20th century by adopting English-language masses and integrating the notion of Christ’s dual nature, neither purely divine nor purely mortal. Kinsella makes analogies to a similar resurgence of traditionalism in Lourdes, France, circa 1858, when Catholics claimed to behold visions of the Virgin Mary. Giving the story scope and urgency is the popularization of the abbey’s old-school practices, because Catholics devoted to the old ways make pilgrimages to the island, thereby setting off alarm bells in the Vatican.
Catholics is a simple story, and of course it will be of special interest to those who adhere to the faith named in the title. Even for secular viewers, however, the movie has dramatic heft and intellectual dynamism.
Howard, whose Irish brogue wavers periodically, delivers a characterization encompassing authority, defiance, doubt, and self-loathing. (Explaining how some of these qualities emerge would reveal the story’s most important turn.) His performance neatly embodies the narrative’s overall tension by presenting an individual caught in a theological crisis. Some of the actors playing monks under his command sketch distinct characterizations, as well, though they are brushstrokes in the painting for which Howard’s role provides the dominant color. Sheen, whose real-life devotion to Catholicism became widely known in the years following the initial broadcast of Catholics, is perfectly cast in many ways. Handsome and young, he’s a stark visual contrast to the craggy old men of the monastery, and his gift for making every line feel fresh and sincere ensures that his character never comes across as an automaton sent from Rome to squash rebellion. Accordingly, Catholics has neither a clear hero nor a clear villain, so the battle driving the story is a fair fight between men of differing perspectives, with the fate of one troubled soul in the balance. Later broadcast in the UK, under the alternate title Conflict, this picture is small—a title card on the American version humbly identifies the project as Catholics: A Fable—but it casts a large thematic shadow.