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Why are Catholics so set on dogging "Dogma"?

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By Stephanie Zacharek

Nov. 9, 1999 | "We've come a long, long way together. Through the hard times and the good. I have to celebrate you, baby, I have to praise you like I should."

-- Fatboy Slim, "Praise You"

In Kevin Smith's "Dogma," an immortal creature (played by Salma Hayek) says in frustration to a group of humans, "You people don't celebrate your faith; you mourn it."

The line may very well be the fulcrum of the movie -- a picture that Smith, who says he is a practicing Catholic, has called a "trifle." But "Dogma" is more than a trifle, and Smith knows it. It's a fable about the mysterious nature of God, and it wrangles with some intense spiritual questions -- particularly the issue of what it means to want to be a "good" Catholic and yet to feel at odds with some of the church's doctrines. The conclusion that "Dogma" reaches -- that God exists, and that she is a loving God (as well as one with both a sense of humor and a penchant for Christian Lacroix bustiers) -- is startlingly heartfelt. "Dogma" is hardly a movie made by a hateful man.

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But in order to come to that conclusion, or any conclusion, you'd have to actually see it first -- something that most of the Catholics who've already targeted it as blasphemous (or, at the very least, as a grievous instance of Catholic-bashing) seem to have no intention of doing.

"It's one of those Howard Stern insult toilet-humor attacks, where you see a woman who is purportedly a descendant of Jesus who just happens to work in an abortion clinic," says William Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, which began protesting the movie earlier this year, after the script became publicly available over the Internet.

Though Donohue claims he's at least willing to see the movie, he admits that his mind is pretty much made up. "Let's put it this way," Donohue says. "I will go to see it when it comes out Nov. 12. My life doesn't turn on seeing 'Dogma.' I think I probably could see it in my sleep, having read enough about it and written about it for well over a year."

Apparently, the reviews alone provided the Catholic League with enough fodder to pull together and distribute an anti-"Dogma" booklet last spring, consisting of brief quotes about the movie (most of them from critics' Cannes round-ups) and selections from interviews Smith has given. In his introduction to the booklet, Donohue makes the point that most critics weren't bothered by the "anti-Catholicism" of "Dogma," and their indifference is a large part of the problem: "When demonstrating the reality of anti-Catholicism (or any form of bigotry), there's no better evidence than to cite chapter and verse what the offenders, and their sympathizers, have said." The Catholic League's booklet doesn't overtly advise Catholics to stay away from the movie (it was compiled long before the movie's release date), but it certainly amounts to an implicit call for a boycott, if not an overt one.

If reading about a movie can be equated with seeing it, then why should any of us ever leave the house? How much credence should artists of any stripe -- painters, filmmakers, writers -- give to the views of people who simply can't be bothered to evaluate their work based on direct experience? But the bigger question is, if we're fixated on running every movie, every painting, every book through our own personal-affrontery filters (that is, assuming we actually bother to see or read what's in front of us), how are we ever going to be able to evaluate art intelligently and openly?

Many religious groups speak up now and then when faced with a work they find offensive -- the Ayatollah Khomeini's fatwah against Salman Rushdie being the most famous (and most extreme) example. The cultural watchdogs of the Catholic faith, particularly the Catholic League (which is not an official church organization, though its offices are in the same building as Cardinal John O'Connor's office, on First Avenue in New York), have been especially busy these days, leading the crusade not just against "Dogma" but also against Chris Ofili's painting "The Holy Virgin Mary." Ofili's work is part of the "Sensation" exhibit at the Brooklyn Art Museum, a rendering of the Virgin that incorporates elephant dung and images of anuses and vaginas clipped from porn magazines.

The Catholic League has deemed the painting deeply offensive to the Catholic faith, and it typifies what Donohue claims is a virulent strain of anti-Catholicism in contemporary art. "I don't know of any segment of the population which is more arrogant than the artistic community," Donohue says. "They seem to think that they have a carte blanche right to the public's purse and yet want to be held to no standards whatsoever of public accountability."

Clearly, neither Ofili nor Smith has held himself to any standard of public accountability -- and to anyone who believes in the First Amendment and the unassailable necessity for the separation of church and state in this country, that's a sure sign that there is a God after all. But even if you look at the long line of officially accepted Catholic art -- much of it commissioned by the church itself -- you're bound to find a work here and there that isn't easily explained as a flat symbol of devotion. When you assume that all "good" Catholic art is toothless, devoid of electricity, you run the risk of actually diminishing its greatness.

Next page | "The Ecstasy of St. Teresa": Not your garden-variety sexual encounter

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