Why does a priest sin? Theological anthropology in TV series

Reformation-time theological struggles may feel distant and irrelevant in the world of today. However, some of the basic issues debated then still define many cultures even today. Let me demonstrate that through portraying the image of the sinner priests in two TV series, the Italian Miracle (Il miracolo) and the Danish Ride upon the Storm (Herrens veje, more literally translated as “the Lord’s ways”).

Saints and sinners on TV – SPOILER ALERT

The starting point of the Miracle is a statue of the Virgin who begins to shed tears of blood without any pause. One of the main characters is a Catholic Italian priest, Padre Marcello, a well-known philanthropist, and a deep theological thinker with a liberal twist. This former missionary to South Sudan (who has been helping the “poor Africans” in line of a thoroughly colonial imaginary) has, however, his dark side: gambling dependency, loose and violent sexual behaviour, and substance abuse. In the long run we get to know that he has an incurable disease for which he takes medicine that changes his character and behaviour. So, deep down­­, behind the veil of the disease and substance abuse, he is a proper saint.

Image: MV

Ride upon the Storm revolves around the Lutheran priest family of the Kroghs. The father, Johannes, is a vicar with wonderful talent of preaching, unwavering honesty, and a strong will to do the right thing. However, also he has his dark side: he is a recovering alcoholic, who lapses from time to time and disappears to his drinking bouts involving infidelity towards his wife. He is a tragic personality willing to do good without being able to do so. He portrays both irate dogmatism and mercifulness combined with warm love for the neighbour. One of his sons is soft and kind, and becomes a priest, too. This saintly young man goes to Iraq to serve as an army chaplain. There, when surrounded by the enemy with his soldier compatriots, the situation gets very serious and he ends up blessing their weapons (a great mistake in the not so warlike Danish church) and eventually grabbing one, killing a civilian. His guilt drives him crazy. The other brother is the trickster figure of the story, expelled from his studies in economy due to plagiarism. He finds himself through Buddhist spirituality in the Himalayas and starts a successful spirituality business in Denmark. Eventually, he undergoes a spiritual transformation and becomes a Lutheran priest, too. Thus, all three priests are broken and imperfect personalities. Despite this, or perhaps because of this, they are all depicted as servants of the church able to convey a message of God’s love.

Grace and the human condition

We usually perceive that the theological root cause for the Lutheran reformation is the question of salvation – that one is saved by grace alone. However, one could maintain that the driving force behind this extreme emphasis on grace is Luther’s pessimistic anthropology. A human being is always a sinner, and nothing changes that. Even the saintliest person is not really good in himself but all the sanctity in that person is alien righteousness – Christ working and being in the believer. Thus, Christian life is a constant uphill struggle, and never getting to the top of the mountain during this life. Church is a sanatory of incurably ill people. One sins and repents, falls, and stands up again, just like the priests in the Krogh family.

Catholic theology emphasises grace as well. However, the depravity of humanity is not painted in quite as sombre colours as in the Lutheran image of the human condition. Perhaps the most central difference, however, is how grace is perceived to function in the believer. The concept of habitual grace makes a great difference. A believer who lives a holy life exercises holiness, and the more holy you live, the holier you become. This is not a matter of a moral Münchhausen lifting himself up from the marsh of sin, but that God grants grace that helps the believer to persist in the process of sanctification.

Theological anthropologies are reflected in societies

While there is a clear difference in these ways of viewing the human condition, they both reflect deep psychological insights. It is no coincidence that the monastic wear is called habit – clothing in such a manner is a constant reminder of the need to struggle to stay on the way of sanctification. Humans are creatures of habit. What we do is what we become. At the same time, the painful and recurring experience of falling short of one’s ideals is all too familiar. For me, the Danish raw and frustrating Jacob’s wrestle with human weakness appears as more realistic but it may depend on my background and lack of saintly character.

What is clear, however, is that these theological differences between Catholicism and Lutheranism colour many European cultures and even the ways in which the societies are designed. In traditionally Lutheran countries, there tends to be less trust in individual abilities and the natural role of the kin and the nearby community and a stronger reliance on state structures and systems than in the Catholic societies. From a Catholic perspective, such approach appears as limiting human freedom and potential. Perhaps Carl Schmitt was correct in his view that European politics is just a continuum of theology.

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