Humanism on screen: FilmScene screens ‘Hesburgh’ and ‘Hail Satan’

Still from ‘Hesburgh’

Last Friday, FilmScene opened two movies focused on the space of humanism in American politics, prismed through questions of religion. Hesburgh runs through Thursday, May 23; Hail Satan? is extended through next week.

Hesburgh (dir. Patrick Creadon) focuses on the life of “Father Ted,” who was president of Notre Dame University from 1952-1987. As someone relatively unacquainted with Catholicism, I had never heard of Hesburgh prior to the movie. The documentary is primarily knitted together with archival footage that features Hesburgh’s handsome younger self (one suspects that George Clooney would be first on the list to call for a live action biopic) and Hesburgh’s recorded voice recounting his memories, interspersed with interviews from friends and former students.

The movie is worth watching, despite itself. It provides what appears to be a compelling (if a bit hagiographic) snapshot of a life lived with intelligence and integrity, although both the visuals and the story end up feeling a bit two-dimensional. The beginning of the movie favors featuring Hesburgh’s almost Forrest Gump-esque involvement at the center of U.S. politics and culture.

Highlighting his unquestionably important role as an advocate for civil rights in the ’60s, and touching briefly on the question of misogyny (Hesburgh was responsible for welcoming women to Notre Dame) and abortion (protests at Notre Dame when President Obama visited), the movie sidesteps spotlighting other social questions that have mired the church in controversy — its unofficial permissiveness of pedophilia in the church, its stance on homosexuality. Given the courage Hesburgh showed in both encouraging discourse and dialogue and in promoting justice, one wonders at the omission: less at the thought of a salacious scandal and more at the missed opportunity to show how not all powerful, prominent Catholics were complicit.

That said, the movie does disclose how Hesburgh played a distinctive role in American culture, serving as a visible public moral and intellectual leader — a conscience of a country that, during the racial unrest of the ’60s and ’70s, confused compassion with control, rationality with racism. Although our contemporary political landscape is omitted in the movie, the movie’s concluding call for someone to play a role like Hesburgh nonetheless resonates.

Despite its reliance on self-narration, the movie ends up framing what made Hesburgh a powerful voice in American culture. Although he befriended both Presidents and Popes, he apparently never desired power for its own sake. This freed him to understand that loyalty requires honest criticism, that a democracy demands dissent, that justice requires determination.

Still from ‘Hesburg’

At least in a few notable points during his life, Hesburgh proved his willingness to speak truth to power and to act in accordance with his own considered moral compass. He thus remained a loyal Catholic who would disobey a Pope and an avowed American who would disobey a President — despite friendships. The result is a portrait of moral courage.

The movie also rightly celebrates Hesburgh’s tenacity at wanting to make change happen, rather than simply theorizing or talking about it. His approach was always to find a space of commonality between apparently exclusive positions, based in a belief that humans can find accord through communication.

Whether negotiating with the Russians during the nuclear era or navigating the murky waters of the racialized politics of the ’60s, Hesburgh’s humanism allowed him to find contexts that could create a more considerate world. His personal integrity, which was both rooted in and distinct from his Christianity, made him more trustworthy than many “moral” leaders of today whose naked partisanship is both galling and telling.

Lucien Greaves (center) and other Satanists crash the unveiling ceremony of a new Ten Commandments monument in Little Rock, Arkansas. — still from ‘Hail Satan?’

My reaction to Hail Satan? (dir. Penny Lane) was almost directly opposed to my take on Hesburgh: in this case, I enjoyed the movie more than the subject of it. Hail Satan? provides an alternative to Hesburgh’s approach, a group that relishes a tongue-in-cheek kind of provocation that perhaps has become seen as necessary given the partisan polarization that plagues the country.

Although I found myself admiring the seven tenets of The Satanic Temple, which seem more aligned with Hesburgh’s humanism than with many statements by religious leaders today, I found the antics and showmanship of The Satanic Temple an unfortunate distraction. Although they do spotlight civil injustice and the need for religious diversity (as Hesburgh also did), the stakes of a statue of the Ten Commandments on public grounds seem smaller than, say, the imprisonment of migrant children on the border. Rather than working to find spaces of potential continuity that would unite parties that identify in opposition, The Satanic Temple delights in promoting division.

This succeeds in creating spectacle and in revealing the fear-based hypocrisy that characterizes many vocal proponents of what is called “Christianity.” It also makes for a more enjoyable movie than the more modest Hesburgh. Although smart, clever and quick to realize the political potential of the Foucault’s Pendulum-esque effect of their work, the leaders of The Satanic Temple seem to lack an overarching vision for human justice that characterized leaders like Hesburgh (or subject of a documentary from last year, Fred Rogers).

Set in different eras, Hesburgh and Hail Satan? highlight the hurt at the heart of American culture, and each in different ways suggests the tragic absence of moral leadership at the margins of the country. Ultimately, what the former movie highlights that the latter film lacks is an emphasis on the importance of genuine, earnest, personal kindness and ways that small moments of honesty and friendship can provide an effective path toward promoting social change.

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