Without explanation, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has retracted on its website a positive review of The Golden Compass that appeared in Catholic newspapers last week. The review had appeared to counterbalance claims by the Catholic League, the nation’s largest Catholic lay group, that it served as an introduction to atheism expounded in the trilogy of books on which the movie is based. The League had urged a boycott of the film. In an interview with the Baltimore Sun, Jim Lackey general news editor of the Catholic News Service, run by the bishops’ conference, acknowledged that he was told to remove the review from the CNS website. “It’s hard for me to categorize whether or not it was a surprise,” he told the newspaper. Meanwhile, the church’s Raleigh, NC diocese on Tuesday warned pastors in a letter about the possible ramifications of the film. “The concern is that once a child gets ‘hooked’ on the film or the books, then the next film could resort to the true atheistic nature of the books,” the letter said.
And we all know how bad it would be for business if children around the country had an epiphany from reading the books that there’s no invisible magic man in the sky and the church is simply a self-perpetuating authoritarian money machine. Plus, if the kids turn atheist and stop coming to mass and catechism and all the other little rituals we have for them, there won’t be so many of them around to molest! Gasp! Martin! You mean mean man! What a cheap shot! Yeah, well, it wouldn’t be so easy if they hadn’t done it.
Now I know I didn’t care for the movie much, but it also happens to be true that the grounds on which the Catholic League (has the odious Bill Donohue even seen it?) is condemning it are wholly bogus, and part of me wishes people would go see it just to realize that all the hysteria in the press is much ado about nothing. Then perhaps folks will be less likely in future to say “How high?” whenever Donohue says “Jump!” But what I find most amusingly ironic about this whole Catholic war on the movie is that they’re basically walking right into it and validating the themes of Pullman’s original books: that the Church is repressive and even punitive towards ideas which challenge their long-held dogmas, and that humanity’s real growth lies not in those dogmas but in embracing free thought and fighting authoritarian rulers and institutions that keep people cowed and submissive. I’ve heard Pullman’s religious critics attack his humanism as somehow “elitist.” But what could be more elitist than a bunch of men in expensive robes and pointy hats claiming to be the emissaries of a deity and telling everyone what to think and how to live thereby?
Anyway, it appears the movie is doing better business in Europe (where theistic demagogues generally hold less sway than here), adding an additional $51 million to its lackluster $26 million domestic take. In Pullman’s home of England alone, the movie had a per-screen average of $29,129, compared to $7,308 in the U.S. New Line foolishly overspent on the movie, as studios are wont to do with “event” pictures, but the overseas gross could help put the movie in the black.