By Matthew P. Cavedon
The night following my systematic theology final exam, I watched Luis Buñuel’s 1969 film, The Milky Way (La Voie lactee). In this film, viewers observe two wanderers heading from Paris to Santiago de Compostela following the Way of St. James – a medieval pilgrimage route. While on this route, they encounter a boy with the stigmata. They also meet a band of heretics who damn matter as evil at a secret liturgy in the woods before having an orgy. The film ends with the pilgrims going to impregnate a prostitute who says that she will name the resulting children “You Are Not My People” and “Mercy No More.”
Despite its biblical and religious symbolism, The Milky Way is not an easy film for people of faith to watch. Sure, the many heresies encountered by the pilgrims are displayed as lunacy. But Buñuel, who had left the Church many decades before the film, scourges theology as an absurdity equal to the evils it attacks. A headwaiter gives impassioned explanations of transubstantiation but refuses to give the pilgrims crumbs of bread. An assembly of little Catholic schoolgirls simply declares all heretics anathema.
In The Milky Way, heresy is baffling, and orthodoxy glib and terrifying.
That spring morning, I wrote essays on Christian dogmas. In the evening, I viewed a film lampooning heresies and orthodoxies alike. I learned theology before noon, and saw it flayed after dusk.
An important question arose: How is it possible to be truly faithful in institutions? Buñuel presents a circus of heretics, clerics, and others who are presumptuous, rash, and harsh. But he also sees a real heart to faith, especially when he convincingly portrays Jesus as a real human being who laughs and whimsies.
In studying systematic theology, I saw that doctrines help bind institutions to ideals. Even if they confuse and are easily abused, they are necessary for saving truths from corrupting heresies. Academic theological questions can sometimes be far from the bread non-seminarians seek. One might also say, they are farther still from the man Jesus who captivates so many of us. But for beliefs to spread and develop, they have to take some sort of institutional form.
Theology is not my only academic discipline; so, The Milky Way has me thinking about law, too. People expect common sense and decent justice from the law. Justice Scalia wrote of how he once saw King Louis IX, sitting beneath a tree and dispensing justice, as the best (mere mortal, one presumes) judge. Scalia ultimately concluded, however, that rules, tests, procedures, doctrines, precedents—all the stuff that accumulates from those basic principles—are necessary for fairness in society.
How can the ideal and the necessary be reconciled, in theology and in law? Conversation must move beyond accusations of hypocrisy and the shrill dismissal of objections. Ross Douthat, for example, recently admitted that he finds some Catholic teachings difficult to adhere to, but nonetheless defended the Church’s insistence on them. People need to accept cognitive dissonance, he said, acknowledging that God may judge institutions and individual consciences by different standards. Besides, the friction between individual consciences and the dogmatic institution can spark more goodness than either collapsing its integrity for the sake of the other.
I do not know that Douthat’s solution will be helpful on our pilgrimage toward heaven and justice, much less that Douthat-ism will be orthodoxy and not just another heresy for some future Buñuel to tease. But the Curia loved The Milky Way; as did I, for raising a difficult question.
= = = = = = = = = = = = =
Matthew is a second year MTS student who is also enrolled in Candler’s dual-degree program with the College of Law (J.D.).