A good priest is threatened to be killed by someone who has suffered abuse from priests when he was a child. Father James (Brendan Gleeson) sees through the shit of people with irony and the occasional confrontation; yet he is humble and compassionate. He is made to expiate for the sins of the Church.
Amidst the suspicion, derision, and hatred for the Church, Father James maintains his integrity. He is made into the symbol of the abuse and judged accordingly with no possibility of defence. The atheist doctor (Aidan Gillen) tells the story of a doctor who made a mistake that ruined the patient’s life as a parable for what the Church has done. The pain and anger of the country is not just for the abuses suffered, but for the cover up, for the forgiveness priests got from their superiors and the justice denied.
Calvary captures all this in just a few witty and bitter lines. The ‘secular’ reporting of the abuses of the Church often miss this rather important aspect of the religious framework of the Church. It is not my intention to minimise the institutional cover up, but to add another aspect that explains why that went on. Cover up was legitimised because many in the Church thought that priests are subject to divine judgement and that the Church is outside secular jurisdiction. It is a very flawed notion that fails to see that the Church is in the world (and often reflects very worldly structures of power); it is the notion many high prelates have nonetheless. For the rest of us it is a double standard, hypocrisy, and licence for abuse.
Father James at one point in the film laments that forgiveness is lacking these days. It is, but sometimes forgiveness seems to clash with justice. In philosophy of morality, there is a classical dichotomy between rules of justice (Kant) and compassion. Adam Smith, as I mentioned in my analysis of Inside Out, considered rules of justice essential for society to exist while thought of virtues as pertaining to the attitude of the person. Rules are for society and reflect the social consensus on justice. This implies that rules change to an extent, but (following Kant) they are ‘intelligible’, they can be arrived at through reason. In other words, rules are shared because we all arrive at more or less the same rules (I’m aware I’m butchering Kant so read this on Kantian moral philosophy).
Virtues (Aristotle) are attitudes that the person develops through practices and reflection upon them. We mould ourselves instead of following rules. So the person becomes more compassionate, grateful, patient. This is something that I found in my own fieldwork in Christian communities. My research participants are all nice people, so there is no clash between breaking the law and being compassionate. However, there are certainly cases where being forgiving can mean self-denial and allow an abuser to keep on abusing. Christian forgiveness comes from the recognition that we are all ‘broken’ and the ideal exemplified by Jesus.
The Church has often used ‘love’ to oppress. Women have often been told to cherish self-sacrifice and to love the abuser. It is godly to forgive because forgiveness redeems; it redeems the victim too. Forgiving is humbling and allows the person to sublimate the pain and turn it into something positive. It should not come out of self-denial. Forgiveness alone, with no sincere repentance, brings no reconciliation.
Sometimes people need to be confronted and punished to get them to recognise the pain they have inflicted on others and that what they did was wrong. Our ‘secular’ justice system is perhaps too concern with punishment (because the rationale and structure of our criminal justice institutions are based on it) and too little with restitution and reconciliation. Victim and perpetrator never meet. They never get a chance to learn from each other.
The abused man threatening Father James doesn’t get justice and doesn’t forgive, Father James takes the sins of the Church upon himself, but there is no justice or reconciliation.