Netflix’ Chilling Adventures of Sabrina Critiques Catholicism

cat photoIt’s been a while since I really sank my teeth into a fantasy series. I used to love them growing up – Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia, and Harry Potter (that last one took serious begging to be allowed to read when I was a kid) were some of my favorites. But lately, I’ve found fantasy a bit too tropey for me, preferring science fiction, especially dystopian fiction, when I wanted to venture into something speculative. But then Netflix released the Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, and mostly out of nostalgia for the sitcom from my childhood (another series I had to beg and beg my parents to let me watch), I decided to give it a go.

There are a lot of elements that feel super relevant and timely. Sabrina’s classmates and close friends feature a gender nonconforming character, as well as a movement to empower women and give students access to banned books. It touches on disability and disaster, family dynamics and growing up. I wouldn’t say it’s the most realistic story ever, but I’m able to check my disbelief at the door more often than not. What I find particularly fascinating though is the choice to build a world so unlike that of the sitcom, and more like the imagined witchcraft found in the Salem witch trials. Christian mythology is expanded upon to include magic power bestowed by the devil. Sabrina must choose whether or not to sign her name in the book of the beast, agreeing to do the devil’s bidding if called upon, in exchange for greater magical powers.

Once I realized this series would rely heavily on expanded Christian stories, I tried to see if I could pinpoint what branch of Christianity seemed prevalent in the writing. The answer came within a few episodes (stop reading here if you don’t want spoilers) when it’s revealed that Sabrina has been baptized a Catholic, indicating that perhaps her human mother was Catholic, and priming the audience to think about the ways Catholicism interacts with the series. In a later episode, Sabrina looks to rid a possessed character of a demon, and it’s a significant plot point that this is not something done by witches, only by Catholics priests, so how does she intend to do this when witches don’t seem to view demons as something needing to be removed?

The aspect of the show I found most difficult to suspend disbelief for is the idea that people could follow Satan as a benevolent character, when he’s attributed to some pretty f’d up sh*t within the show itself. Then again, is this where the critique on religion begins? The Abrahamic God is attributed to some downright awful things. The Exodus story (Moses leading his people away) is complicated not ultimately by Pharaoh, but by God himself, who keeps “hardening his heart” (or in 2018 speak, changing Pharaoh’s mind), making the plagues God unleashes on Egypt pretty unjustified. Or what about the flood in Noah’s Arc? That’s a pretty messed up genocide by most standards, isn’t it? The tower of Babel? The walls of Jericho?

Getting back to the point: this TV show makes a pretty strong point about the actual authority of religious leadership, and about how easily religion and tradition get out of hand, creating an unstoppable mob mentality.

There’s an episode about a Satanic, cannibalistic ritual, in which a witch is chosen to be eaten by the other witches. (I’m going to spoil the end, stop reading if you want to watch it first.) The episode centers around Sabrina trying to stop the ritual from being completed, to save the life of the chosen witch. When the Satanic leader presiding over the whole thing is eventually persuaded to say he’s had a revelation that this ritual should be discontinued, he fails to stop the devoted crowd. He saves the life of the chosen witch, but another witch springs forward, kills herself, and is devoured.

I find this scene absolutely brilliant in the context of present-day Catholicism, and discussions around the real or perceived authority of Pope Francis. The pope has said the church should focus more on helping the poor rather than condemning and punishing sinners within its ranks. He’s been far more forgiving (though I wouldn’t go so far as to say he’s been truly fair) to divorced people, for example. But whenever the Pope says something mildly less conservative than a previous Pope, Catholics will be quick to declare that in that moment he isn’t speaking with papal authority. Yet I guarantee, if he gives a speech against abortion, his words will be taken at face value.

In a community that insists on obedience to a rigid set of traditions and rules that are supposed to be perfect (coming from a higher power), challenging those traditions creates major cognitive dissonance, which needs to be explained. It’s easier for a devout believer who thinks their religion is perfect to believe a human made an error, than to think their God did.

Does this story of religious authority being dismissed strike a nerve in anyone else? Or is it just me? Are there parallels in other denominations or religions I’m not as familiar with? Feel free to leave a comment. All opinions are welcome, just be respectful and think things through before posting.

Happy thinking!

Nancy

 

 

A Message to Lukewarm Catholics

Hemant Mehta of the Friendly Atheist blog recently posted the video below to his YouTube channel, The Atheist Voice. In this video, he addresses the people I’ve often heard called lukewarm Catholics: people who identify as Catholic but don’t really practice the faith, and often reject one or more of the church’s major beliefs.

In short, he’s saying if you support LGBT rights and/or a woman’s right to choose, if you believe that women should be able to become priests, or if you don’t believe that the silly little cardboard-tasting wafer becomes Jesus at consecration–why do you stay in the church? Check it out here:

As an ex-Catholic, I couldn’t agree more with the message of this video.

One of my favorite parts of the video is when he addresses people who may want to change the church from within. As an ex-Catholic who was pretty devout and knows a thing or two about church hierarchy, I’d like to expand on this point.

As a lay person (a non-clergy church member) you may think you can change the church from the inside, and that’s extremely admirable, but at the moment, there is simply no way for you to do that at the scale you would need to in order to really make an impact. Even if you were a priest, you couldn’t do much. The only people inside the church hierarchy with any power to change the way the church approaches a political or spiritual issue are the cardinals and the pope. Worse, even if you were in one of those positions, the church is generally not supposed to change its position on things. Don’t believe me? Just look how long it took for the church to apologize for its treatment of Galileo, and acknowledge that the earth revolved around the sun. Your eyes aren’t fooling you. The above New York Times article saying the pope was making it official was published in 1992. The pope who did it was John Paul II, who was pope during my lifetime. (In case you’re wondering, Galileo lived from 1564-1642). That’s how long it took for one individual to change the Catholic teaching on something as basic and scientifically obvious as heliocentrism. Pope Francis, the current pope, has been facing harsh criticism since he called together a giant meeting of Bishops and encouraged them to have an intelligent discussion on issues like treatment of divorced Catholics and (gasp) gay people. The church is so resistant to change that its high-up members literally can’t handle even a discussion of the idea that some of its habits concerning certain groups of people need to be evaluated objectively.

On a different note, as an ex-Catholic I have some points of my own, specifically directed at lukewarm Catholics pushing their children though Catholic religious education and sacraments. I’ve heard some family members explain why they push their children through the Catholic initiation rites of baptism, Eucharist, and confirmation even though they aren’t Catholic themselves, and the reason is absolutely ridiculous:  “It’ll make it easier for you if you marry someone who’s Catholic if you’ve been through all these things.”

This is a crazy argument. I don’t hear anyone saying the same thing about literally any other religion, including protestant Christianity. No one has ever told me, “You should participate in Jewish/Hindu/Muslim initiation rites in case you marry a Jew/Hindu/Muslim.” The advice also doesn’t make any sense within the context of Catholicism, because newsflash, the Catholic church does not specifically forbid Catholics from marrying non-Catholics.

I’ve heard several adults tell friends of mine (and my little brother) that even if you don’t consider yourself Catholic, receiving confirmation specifically (which in case you don’t know is like a Catholic bar mitzvah, a coming of age ritual)  will make it easier for you down the road if you marry a Catholic, since there are so many Catholics around. Since I like to fact check these things, I looked it up: the only sacrament that makes it easier to marry a Catholic isn’t confirmation; it’s baptism. The church believes that it’s important that both parties be Christian, and will accept a Christian baptism as a real baptism.

Does this mean a Catholic and a Buddhist can’t get married? No. If you check the link in the paragraph above, you’ll see that although it’s frowned upon, a mixed-faith couple can get permission from a bishop to marry. This does mean it’ll take more time, but so does taking the classes necessary to prepare for confirmation. My mother, who is a church musician, has attended multiple weddings between a Catholic and a person of a different faith–even an Eastern one like Hinduism. Furthermore, with the current rate at which young people are leaving the Catholic church, often replacing it with no religion at all, and considering how easy it is to just have a non-Catholic wedding with a non denominational officiant or even a humanist one, it is extremely unlikely that putting yourself through extra Catholic religious education and rituals will reap any benefits for you aside from making your conservative parents happy.

(Besides, Catholic weddings require MORE ritual. There’s a mandatory 6 month waiting period, and you have to go through special meetings with the priest called “Pre-Cana.” For crying out loud, marry in a non-denominational church, or outside, or in a fancy hotel. Catholic weddings are way overrated.)

The bad news is, since most of the big Catholic sacraments (baptism, Eucharist, confession, confirmation) typically happen to minors, you may not have much say in the matter if this is currently the position you’re in. The good news is, if you do have some say in it, you now have some useful arguing points.

This post was all over the place, but ultimately my message to lukewarm Catholics is, you already suspect that this religion isn’t for you; if you didn’t, you’d be more dedicated to it. Maybe you’re really some sort of Christian. Maybe you’re atheist, or maybe you just don’t know. That’s all OK. But stop pushing your kids through rituals you don’t even believe in. Stop calling yourself Catholic in polls, giving the church more power by making it seem way bigger than it really is. There may be a religion out there that you’ll believe in wholeheartedly, or maybe there won’t be. Maybe you don’t care enough to search for the answer to the question of God, and that’s OK too. Just admit to yourself that that’s where you are. Trust me, letting go of Catholicism isn’t the pile of guilt Catholics like to say it will be. It’s a breath of fresh air.

Happy thinking!

-Nancy

As usual, feel free to leave a comment! All opinions are welcome. Just be respectful and think things through before posting.