Catholics in America – A Catholic director’s festive and traditional art


Like John Ford, Alfred Hitchcock, Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola, another of our nation’s most famous directors, Frank Capra, was a decidedly Catholic figure. And while the glitz of Hollywood is not always viewed as the seedbed of sanctity, it is important to recognize that such a highly influential contemporary medium as film cannot be divorced from the human person’s deepest religious longings or search for ultimate meaning and value.

It is precisely in their epic, cathartic, or horizon-expanding dimensions that movies continue to touch and mold the contemporary person. They are “literature” for the (post-) modern individual in much the same vein as stained glass windows and frescoes were catechisms for the illiterate in past centuries.

Capra’s classics continue to inspire, and so I will reflect on his work through the lens of his American catholicity. The word “catholic” comes from the Greek kath’holou traditionally translated as “universal.” However, it is perhaps better understood as “pertaining to or oriented toward the whole,” as theologian Rick Gaillardetz points out. “Whereas ‘universal’ suggests ‘the same everywhere,’ true catholicity is more about a unity-in-difference.”

To return to the stained glass analogy, in their presence the single beam of the sun’s light gets refracted into innumerable shapes, patterns and hues. So too, the one revelation of God can be received and appropriated in innumerable contexts. This does not detract from its splendor, but rather adds to our appreciation of it. And while Capra was in fact part of “our” branch of Christianity, his work can also obviously be seen in this way as authentically “catholic” as well.

Is there a more festive and — in the best sense of the word — traditional film than “It’s a Wonderful Life?” While “Stagecoach” and “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” are viewed by many as his artistic masterpieces, it’s the iconic Jimmy Stewart Christmas tale that has become Capra’s most lasting monument to goodness and conversion, one immutably ensconced in so many people’s ritualized celebrations during the “happiest time of the year.”

Capra’s vision of George Bailey, criticized as cloyingly saccharine by some, wrestles with the specters of doubt, spiritual desolation and self-pity that haunt every human heart, before finally exorcising them in a validation of a life devoted to something larger than the atomistic self. Its timeless appeal that “pertains to the whole” of humanity makes the film a truly “catholic” imaginative creation, in Gaillardetz’s sense of the term.

As he tells it, Capra was in his own life a poor immigrant whose father said to him about a particular lady with a torch when approaching Ellis Island: “Cicco [short for Francesco], look! Look at that! That’s the greatest light since the star of Bethlehem! That’s the light of freedom! Remember that. Freedom.”

As Cicco became Frank he came to appreciate and value the freedom and social mobility America offered, even voluntarily enlisting in the war efforts to defend them a number of times in his life.

Capra may not have been the perfect Catholic in his personal life. (Luckily for most of us, that is not a litmus test for church membership.) He did, however, embody principles and develop storylines which reflected generosity over greed, ethics over indifference, and good over evil.

Today, depictions of kitschy angels are everywhere, Victoria’s Secret lingerie models are referred to as angels, and “Charlie’s Angels” keep showing up on movie and television screens. And yet, the words of Capra’s angel, Clarence Odbody, still ring in our ears: “Every time you hear a bell ring, it means that some angel’s just got his wings.” That alone warrants Capra’s inclusion in this series.

Michael M. Canaris of Collingswood is an administrator at Fairfield University’s Center for Faith and Public Life and is on the faculty for the Department of Philosophy, Theology, and Religious Studies at Sacred Heart University.