The new horror series streaming on Netflix could have been nothing more than an anti-Catholic screed, but instead it takes religious questions seriously.
Director and writer Mike Flanagan has a familiar story. He grew up Catholic, struggled with alcoholism and addiction, and eventually turned to religion for answers but found it lacking, especially when compared with what he discovered in science. Given that trajectory, the story of religious fanaticism in his new Netflix series Midnight Mass could have been nothing more than an anti-Catholic screed, but instead it takes religious questions seriously, devoting long stretches of dialog to allowing religious characters to speak.
Many modern critiques of religion tend to flatten it out, as if there is only one way of being religious. As Midnight Mass weaves together a dark tale of evil bubbling up in a small town on an island, it presents us with characters who represent a diversity of approaches to faith. Some are clearly destructive, such as that of the town busybody Bev Keane whose religiosity is built on insider knowledge and status. Bev knows her Bible better than anyone, but she wields her knowledge to gain her own advantage, splitting the world between those who are on her side and those who are against her. Bev’s faith is reminiscent of Gnosticism, an ancient heresy in which only those with secret knowledge could assume a position of authority.
Near to Bev but more well intentioned is Fr. Paul, the town priest. Miracles and horrors surround Fr. Paul throughout the series. At times, he argues beautifully for trust in the goodness of God, yet as the series goes on, it becomes clear that he is haunted by the idea of death, struggling with how to avoid it. Not content with the promises of eternal life, Fr. Paul wants to find miraculous solutions to every problem. He is willing to lie and manipulate if he has to in order to bring about what he believes to be God’s vision of a world without suffering.
There are more noble depictions of Catholic faith too, though. Erin Greene, who becomes one of the story’s great heroes, finds in faith a solace after the storm of an abusive marriage. For her, the whole purpose of faith is to love. Erin finds grace and forgiveness in the Church, which gives her the strength to oppose those characters for whom faith is about rejecting others. It also gives her a willingness to embrace sacrifice for the sake of others, regardless of whether or not they deserve it.
The most sympathetic example of Catholic faith is Leeza Scarborough, a teenager who was made a paraplegic as a young girl when the town drunk, Joe Collie, accidentally shot her. In one of the series’ most powerful scenes, Leeza confronts Joe and tells him how much she has hated him for what he did to her and how she wishes she could hurt him for it. But then she says, “I forgive you. I see you, and I’m still angry with you, but I forgive you … If God can forgive you, and he says he can, all over the place he says it, then I can forgive you.” That action leads to an arc of redemption for both Leeza and Joe.
The show’s most compelling non-religious character is Riley Flynn. Riley is an atheist, but he is respectful of religious people. He sees the importance of the questions that form faith: Why are we here? Why do we have to die? Why is there suffering? It is ultimately the problem of theodicy that shatters Riley’s faith. “There is so much suffering in the world,” he says to Fr. Paul, “and then there’s this higher power who could erase all that pain, just wave his hand and make it all go away, but doesn’t? No. No thank you.”
Riley’s questions about suffering are not theoretical. They are the questions of every human heart. Fr. Paul’s glib, sentimental response is entirely unsatisfactory. “I believe God can take our works, even our awful works, and turn them into something else,” he says. “I know he can find the good in them, find the love in them, whether we see it or not.” It is a true statement as far as it goes, but it does not account for why or how this could be so. In this whole poignant conversation about suffering, the name of Jesus is not once mentioned.
This is the unfortunate flaw in the depiction of Catholicism in Midnight Mass. It is a compelling story with characters who resonate with authenticity, especially when they talk about religion, but Jesus is conspicuously absent. The only time he is mentioned seriously at all is by Sheriff Hasan, a Muslim, who points out that Islam venerates Jesus as a prophet. But missing is any exploration of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, even if just to refute it.
The Catholic faith is predicated upon this mystery. Everything the Church teaches about the value of suffering finds its root there. If Jesus did not rise from the dead, nothing else the Church has to say about anything matters much, because at that point, as St. Paul says, we Christians “are of all men most to be pitied” (1 Corinthians 15:19). But if he did rise from the dead, not just in some metaphorical way but truly, that has deep ramifications for everything in this world.
The crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ are not concepts but events in history. The good news of the Christian faith is not that all of us can make something of ourselves if we try hard enough to please God, though many modern Christians are confused on this point, including it would seem Fr. Paul in this story. The good news is that Jesus has already conquered sin and defeated death. The suffering of this world is terrible and often seemingly random, but God is not absent from it. On the cross, God steps right into the middle of it and endures it with us and for us.
In the sacramental life of the Church, as we find ourselves united with Jesus, our own sufferings find their meaning and purpose in union with His, not because these things suddenly become good but because He is in them. That is what allows us to have the forgiveness and compassion of a Leeza Scarborough, despite the hardships we endure. Midnight Mass is more hopeful than many modern horror series, and I do think Flanagan was trying to be fair to Catholicism in his portrayal, but the ultimate hope for this story is found in what is not said and in the victim who is never mentioned but who stands in the background of everything, pouring out his blood for the sake of the world.