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Beautiful Catholic liturgy attracts, and Hollywood knows it

Traditional Catholic aesthetics sell movie tickets, drive up ratings, and bring people to museums, so why do we so often exchange beauty for banality?

(Left) Singer Rihanna at the 2018 Met Gala; (center) Jude Law in a scene from the HBO series "The Young Pope"; (right) Jonathan Pryce in a scene from Netflix's film "The Two Popes." (Images: CNS photo; Netflix)

Netflix has just released a trailer for the original film The Two Popes, starring Anthony Hopkins as Pope Benedict XVI and Jonathan Pryce as Pope Francis. I plan to watch despite the predictable sermons on the Church’s need to embrace modernity, as majestic scenes from Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel are used as an ironic backdrop. But Hopkins is a master, so I am curious about his portrayal of Benedict XVI.

The Two Popes promises to be the latest example of how the entertainment industry routinely bets on the trappings of traditional Catholicism to sell movie tickets and bolster television ratings. This speaks volumes about the power of traditional aesthetics and the inadequacy of modern church aesthetics.

The 2018 Met Gala, with the theme “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination,” was another prime example of this. While it was puzzling to hear a defense of Jared Leto imitating a priest in beautiful vestments on the red carpet from some of the very people who decry clericalism whenever real priests wear traditional vestments, it was clear that pre-conciliar aesthetics can draw people to museums and sell fashion magazines, and that even stylish celebrities might want to “engage” with it.

The Catholic Church, through the lens of Hollywood anyway, is still in 1566. Nuns wear habits, altars are bedecked in gold, and the air is perfumed by incense and chant. Simply put, traditional Catholicism provides a more attractive setting than modern Catholic churches, starkly decorated and doused in taupe (and everyone knows it).

HBO has no interest in our modern church aesthetics either. Its 2016 series The Young Pope starred Jude Law as Pope Pius XIII, a staunch traditionalist whose knowing wink in the opening credits was the face that launched a thousand traditionalist memes. Donning a papal tiara, fanned with ostrich flabella, and bestriding the sedia gestatoria, Law’s character felt strangely like an inside joke between secular media and young traditionalists, who shared a whispered giggle about the pending decline of Baby Boomer hegemony.

Liberals and traditionalists essentially agreed that The Young Pope was a visual delight, but also that it was just plain weird. It felt as if somebody whipped up a program about papal intrigue, solely as a vehicle to display the stunning iconography of traditional Catholicism. I expect the next installment, The New Pope, which adds John Malkovich and will include a cameo by Marilyn Manson, will involve another bizarre storyline, randomly peppered with obscurant sequences, and abundantly punctuated by sacred eye-candy.

In good conscience, I cannot recommend anyone sit down with their families and watch these programs. But we should take note that what seems like Hollywood mockery often betrays an odd, inverted reverence for traditional aesthetics, and a subtle bow to the compelling beauty of Catholicism.

Regardless of whether you are liturgically liberal or traditional, secular fascination with traditionalism raises important questions. Why is it that our sacred music belongs in concert halls, but not at Sunday Mass? And why should our patrimony of sacred objects be admired in museums, film, and television, but neither worn by our priests nor brought forth to adorn our altars?

Why are traditional aesthetics appreciated more by secular media than in our own churches? Truthfully, when I walk into a modern church, punished by folk music, battered by felt banners, crestfallen at the sight of a prosaic altar table buried under potted plants that might have been swiped from my dentist’s waiting room, it is hard to blame Hollywood for trivializing Catholicism. We seem to be doing a bang-up job on our own.

Despite how Catholicism is portrayed, most practicing Catholics are too young to remember any sacred music that predates John Michael Talbot. Then again, there was that album, Chant, from the mid-1990s, which sold millions and launched plainsong to the top of the charts. A few years later I was a teenager going through a confirmation program. On a weekend retreat, the youth ministry band scourged us with “Ice, Ice, Baby,” replacing “ice” with “Christ.” This was well after Vanilla Ice had become a cultural punchline, a fact somehow lost on the “youth ministers.” But I suppose the fact that nobody listens to folk hymns anymore has likewise evaded a couple generations of parish music directors.

We look around at the emptying pews and blame the abuse scandals, clerical hypocrisy, or so-called doctrinal rigidity. Yet the Church has been plagued by scandalous, hypocritical, and deviant clerics since Judas. We have had doctrinal debates explode into religious wars. But Mass attendance, baptisms, weddings, vocations, and all other signs of regular practice have never collapsed as they have since the 1960s. Is it very surprising? Far more inexplicable than most of my cohort never again setting foot inside a Catholic church after hearing “Christ, Christ, Baby,” is my own decision to remain in a Church that insists on rejecting her own vibrant beauty and tradition.

While traditional aesthetics suggest the unity of truth and beauty, modern church aesthetics make it nearly impossible to spot the connection. How many from my generation were simply repelled by banality?

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About Rob Coleman 2 Articles
Rob Coleman is a lawyer who lives in Los Angeles, California.


  1. From a scriptural angle, what your article describes (the decline of the Catholic Church) is explained by St. Paul. When looking to the future of the Church, St. Paul spoke of a future “apostasy” (i.e., loss of faith, apostasia in the original Greek) and the revelation of the “lawless one” (2 Thess 2: 2-8). St. Paul even gives the reason that this would take place: “they have not accepted the love of truth so that they may be saved” (2 Thess 2: 10). This diabolical dimension explains the fury and Pharisaical self-righteousness of the secularists in their desire to eliminate anything religious. They are under the spell of the Father of Lies who hides behind expressions like “mercy killing” to eclipse the truth about the evil involved. Like Peter in the courtyard, too many of our ecclesiastics today are in effect denying Christ because of their fear of the (earthly) consequences. Nevertheless, St. Paul in the same passage also predicts the victory of goodness through the “breath” (Holy Spirit) of Jesus which in some mysterious way will reverse the situation. At Fatima, Mary basically repeats what St. Paul said with his prediction, saying that after the chaos she warned us of, “My Immaculate Heart will triumph and a time of peace will be granted to the world.” She asked especially for the prayer of the rosary and reparation for sin as our indispensable contribution to hastening the day of the triumph that does require human cooperation with heaven’s merciful designs.

  2. I am in my mid-60s.

    I have witnessed the iconoclasm and utter ugliness of “the spirit of the great deform” from the moment I saw my first ugly “folk mass,” whenever the first “performance” was “staged” (was it 1968-69, or 1970?).

    Our so-called “Roman” Catholic Church, in the US (and around the world) is controlled by Bishops, priests and self-styled “trained liturgists” who obviously have CONTEMPT for Roman Catholic tradition and culture (they have the same contempt as Msgr. Bugnini, their psychological master of Iconoclasm).

    The Church I was born into is the Church of 2000 years of cultural endowment. They stole that from me and my family and children, and substituted their “folk-cult” fabricated in the 1970s, by now “ex-Jesuit” priests who lived double lives, and similar non-catholic and in-Catholic “artists.”

    Junk cult.

    It is the Church of McCarrick and his “McCarrick Establishment:” an ugly counterfeit.

    • My experience has been the same. As a very young altar boy, I was enthralled by the beauty of the Holy Mass and its mystery, reverence and language and music. It was all taken away by the likes of Bugnini. It is suppressed til this day by the likes of Bugnini.
      For what it’s worth, time and demographics are not on the side of Francis/Marx/Tobin. The EF remains small but beautiful and growing. The OF remains ugly and almost empty. The enemy is inside the gates and has been for a long time.

      • Who is Bugnini? What does EF stand for? What does OF stand for? to reach people, please don’t use so much insider jargon and speak plainly for those of us who would like to learn and consider your point of view.

        • It is not “jargon” to know what EF and OF mean…it is simple Catholic knowledge. And it is not a mystery who Bugnini is. These are just elementary items that older Catholic people all know just by living through the last 60+ years.

          Perhaps though you are younger, and have not heard of the existence of a different Eucharistic Prayer and liturgy of The Mass that existed before the 1970s. This ancient prayer, centered around The Roman Canon, the oldest existing Eucharistic Prayer in use in Christianity, has been titled “The Extraordinary Form or EF. The new Rite” fabricated in the 1970s, under the supervision of Msgr. Bugnini, was tilted “The Novus Ordo or NO (i.e., The New Order of The Mass) when it was published by Pope Paul VI.

          It was the same Msgr. Bugnini who was in charge of “reforming” the prayers of The Mass who asserted in the 1970s in the Catholic journal l’Osservato Romano that Catholic liturgy should be “stripped of its Catholic theology” to be made acceptable to “our non-Catholic brethren.” The same Msgr. Bugnini who was recently revealed in the memoirs of Fr. Louis Bouyer to have deceitfully manipulated the collaborators assigned to “reform” the liturgy of The Mass, and who is described by Fr. Bouyer as “a man as bereft of basic honesty as he was of Catholic culture.”

          I hope that this puts some light on the topic.

          • And please don’t be so condescending…if you want people who are younger to understand and come to the knowlwdge of the truth explain yourself. Not all are so aware of the secret code of traditi onalism.

        • They are SSPX most likely. According to them, Bugnini and his “co-conspirators” are…something close to wicked because of their reforms of the Mass that Pope-Saint Paul VI allowed during V2.

        • Well, since you seem to know how to use a computer-why don’t you google the terms and find out? EF=Extraordinary Form, OF=Ordinary Form of the Roman Rite. But, then again you probably just fell into this site.

          • And if they did just fall into the site? What of it? Those of us who believe in God know there are no accidents. People are searching for information on their Faith and may indeed find it by “falling into ” a site. I agree with the poster that I often find the unnecessary letter abbreviations annoying. Some of us CAN read English, and in fact prefer it for purposes of clarity.

    • Chris, I couldn’t have said it better. I was confirmed into the “True Church” as a convert at 18. I am now 85. I was moved by the beauty of the Catholic Church and that was what drew me to Her. Also, my mother also was drawn to the Church, but she passed away before she could become Catholic, but as she died she was given a Priest who came after she passed away but still gave her Holy prayers and laying on his hands, and anointing her to bless her. He said he would do that because of her desire to be Catholic. She had already passed away when He did this but It gave me tremendous comfort. She had a catholic funeral in the Church and it was beautiful. I have become so sad over the way our Church has been Pillaried by these evil men. And also the Pope. I pray many rosaries for our Church and especially for our HOLY Priests who are driving this ship , trying to keep it from sinking. Pray many rosaries everyone, even if you don’t have time to , at least say a Hail Mary and ask her intercession. Bea

  3. “Far more inexplicable than most of my cohort never again setting foot inside a Catholic church after hearing “Christ, Christ, Baby,” is my own decision to remain in a Church that insists on rejecting her own vibrant beauty and tradition.”

    Oh, well, then, isn’t the Church blessed to have you.

  4. This is undoubtedly a sign of what is to come at Netflix under the Obamas. I shudder to think of what the great actor Hopkins might do to Pope Benedict XVI.

    • Netflix destroys youth a catholic news agency someone needs to stand up for us. Parents grandparents fighting a battle which we feel we are losing latest netflix glorifying suicide. Aimed at young teens

  5. “Truthfully, when I walk into a modern church, punished by folk music, battered by felt banners, crestfallen at the sight of a prosaic altar table buried under potted plants that might have been swiped from my dentist’s waiting room, it is hard to blame Hollywood for trivializing Catholicism. We seem to be doing a bang-up job on our own.”


    Yup. My thoughts, too.
    But weirdly, I know lovely, older Catholics who actually enjoy the dreadful folk hymns at Mass & completely ignore the ugly church décor. I guess they’ve lived with it for so long that it feels like home. They must be holier than me because I get completely distracted.

    • Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
      Our parish has the best liturgy around. How do I know? We are an Eastern Rite parish in the midst of the banal Novus Ordo. I think we do a great job. No David Haas or Dan Schutte or Oregon Press.
      Alas, our new priest is somewhat frustrated with our lack-luster chanting and off key singing.
      I mentioned this to a friend who attends a non-denominational “worship band” church. Her comment was that our priest really didn’t get what “worship” is all about. She is very proud of the services at her church and loves the various Hillsong Worship, Elevation Worship, et al.
      I admit I initially found her church’s “worship band” music about as enjoyable as our new priest finds our chanting/singing. Having listened to the local Christian radio station for a few months now, it’s grown on me, but I’m pretty sure Bugini himself would faint.

  6. Everyone in the world is against the Catholic Apostolic Church which Jesus speaks of to his apostles. seems most everyone is against love, peace and respect for each other. the Holy Spirit speaks to each one of us as to what to believe but we have the freedom of mind, a gift from God, that we use the human mind to think for each of us. It seems the word of Jesus is not always welcome. We seem to forget that the gift of freedom of the mind, is to be use to live the word of God in our lives. O pray that we return to the Word and live the life that God intended for us to live in love, peace and respect for one another Amen.

  7. I won’t argue with Mr. Coleman because his analysis is probably correct. However, it’s also true that the media and Hollywood can never quite get away from it’s shallow stereotypes. In their mind, what they depict is what they actually think is true.

  8. Excellent article that fully accords with my own history and aesthetics. Traditional liturgy and its associated paraments and accoutrements has the overwhelming appeal it and they do because they reflect, embody, and express Catholic Truth which is of course not an abstraction but Jesus Christ. The Novus Ordo with its felt banners, clay chalices, and illiterate and often heretical ditties reflect, embody, and express “Christ, Christ,Baby” which is, as one may realize, in fact the secular, profane, and, yes, even the demonic.

  9. “Why is it that our sacred music belongs in concert halls, but not at Sunday Mass? And why should our patrimony of sacred objects be admired in museums, film, and television, but neither worn by our priests nor brought forth to adorn our altars?”
    Wow, this is so very true. While I occasionally enjoy some of the modern music, as it is very “singable” and easier to participate in, I am amazed at this accurate quote which I had never thought of before. Why indeed can we not recognize our own traditional beauty.

  10. Hollywood has the money to present a display few RC churches could ever afford. As well the vast majority of small parishes, paricularly rural ones in the “old days” did not have the sophistication to even know how to have a liturgy that inspired. Believe me, I was there. I am 75 yrs old. Cardinal Manning in speaking of the reasons against the reconversion of England; said the first one was an “uncivilized clergy.” And that was in the middle of the 19th C. Good article and very perceptive.

  11. If you can buy de Nero as a priest, and if you can overlook the appearance of the opening credits to some major motion picture or other, you might find a short YouTube video called “Solemn Latin Mass in the Movies” illuminating. Here is the link:

    I remember those Masses, and the filmmakers got this pretty much right. That said, I had to smile at De Nero’s portrayal of a priest celebrating a traditional Latin Mass; although he does everything correctly, his need to concentrate intently on his gestures and postures during the “Mass” is obvious, and makes him appear somewhat stiff and unsure of himself. This is not how real priests appear when they’ve attended and celebrated the traditional Latin Mass many times already. (Think of the difference between the way a 16-year-old backs the family car out of the driveway, versus the way Dad, a former Navy pilot, backs out of the driveway. The 16-year-old makes a solid, successful, and workmanlike job of it, but has much confidence to build; Dad handles himself and the car with the élan of a master.)

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