For many on the left, Paul Ryan is a menace, the very embodiment of cold, indifferent Republicanism, and for many on the right, he is a knight in shining armor, a God-fearing advocate of a principled conservatism. Mitt Romney’s choice of Ryan as running mate has already triggered the worst kind of exaggerated hoo-hah on both sides of the political debate. What is most interesting, from my perspective, is that Ryan, a devout Catholic, has claimed the social doctrine of the Church as the principal inspiration for his policies. Whether you stand with “First Things” and affirm that such a claim is coherent or with “Commonweal” and affirm that it is absurd, Ryan’s assertion prompts a healthy thinking-through of Catholic social teaching in the present economic and political context.
Who would have thought that Woody Allen, who twenty years ago was separating from his longtime girlfriend to notoriously marry her adopted daughter, would emerge as a defender of what can only be called traditional morality? And yet, I find that conclusion unavoidable after viewing the writer-director’s most recent offering, “To Rome With Love.” This film is the latest in a series of Woody Allen movies—“Match Point,” Vicky Christina Barcelona,” “Midnight in Paris”—celebrating great European cities, and it shares with the last of those three a certain whimsical surrealism.
In one way or another, all religions deal with the problem of evil, both how to explain it and how to solve it. Buddhism, for example, teaches that all life is suffering and that the only way out is through the extinction of egotistic desire, that “blowing out of the candle,” designated by the Sanskrit word nirvana. All of Buddhist practice, theory and doctrine are devoted to the attainment of this blissful state. Manichaeism and Gnosticism—ancient theories still very much alive today—teach that evil is a powerful force that does battle with good down through the ages. Usually, but not always, Gnostics tend to identify the good principle with the spiritual and the evil principle with matter. A variant on the Manichaean philosophy is represented in the “Star Wars” films, which feature an ongoing struggle between the dark and light sides of the “Force.” Judaism understands evil as the result of a departure from God’s command and tends to see the solution, therefore, as a more faithful following of the divine law.
In the sixth chapter of St. Mark’s Gospel, we find the account of Jesus sending out the Twelve, two by two, on mission. The first thing he gave them, Mark tells us, was “authority over unclean spirits.” And the first pastoral act that they performed was to “drive out many demons.” When I was coming of age in the ‘60s and ‘70s, it was common, even in seminaries, to dismiss such talk as primitive superstition—or perhaps to modernize it and make it a literary device, using symbolic language evocative of the struggle with evil in the abstract. But the problem with that approach is that it just does not do justice to the Bible. The biblical authors knew all about “evil” in both its personal and institutional expressions, but they also knew about a level of spiritual dysfunction that lies underneath both of those more ordinary dimensions. They knew about the world of fallen or morally compromised spirits. Jesus indeed battled sin in individual hearts as well as the sin that dwelt in institutional structures, but he also struggled with a dark power more fundamental and more dangerous than those.
This past decade has seen a plethora of movies dealing with superheroes: the “Batman” films, “The Green Lantern,” “Iron Man,” “The Incredible Hulk,” “Thor,” etc. But the most popular—at least judging by box office receipts—has been the Spider-Man franchise. Since 2002, there have been four major movie adaptations of the Marvel Comics story of a kid who gets bitten by a spider, undergoes a stunning metamorphosis, and then “catches thieves just like flies.”