The Vatican’s official newspaper has declared The Blues Brothers a “Catholic classic.”
The Blues Brothers was the featured film for Mannion Family Movie Night a couple weeks back and when Oliver Mannion heard this news he asked, “Has the Pope seen the movie?”
Recently confirmed a Soldier of Christ, a marker in his spiritual development he does not take as seriously as his mother and grandmothers had hoped, Oliver feels he has a pretty good idea of what Catholicism teaches and it does not include endorsements of exchanges like this:
Good Catholics don’t swear that casually and they aren’t afraid of getting pulled over by the cops because they’ve got over a hundred outstanding warrants on them.
Once upon a time, good Catholics would have been told they shouldn’t enjoy movies with scenes like that in it.
Oliver would like to point out that on those grounds he is not a good Catholic.
“How can this be a Catholic classic?” Oliver wanted to know.
“Well,” I said, actually just as baffled, “It is a story of redemption, sort of.”
Jake and Elwood are criminals at the beginning of the movie and by the end of the movie they’re…still criminals. Only with longer rap sheets.
But they are on a mission from God, a joke we’re meant to take seriously in that they are out to do a good deed. They succeed too, and along the way they rescue their friends from various small, private Purgatories and defeat the forces of evil in the form of Illinois Nazis---Jake: “I hate Illinois Nazis.” Makes you wonder what he thinks of Iowa Nazis.
They also commit a whole bunch of felonies.
Which they pay for.
They are arrested and go to jail in the end.
This makes The Blues Brothers very different from the other great nihilistic, anti-authoritarian John Belushi comedy of its time. The gang from Animal House not only get away with the destruction they cause, they are in various ways rewarded for it. Their only punishment is getting expelled but it’s been made plain that Faber College isn’t much of a school and being denied a diploma from there isn’t a real loss.
Plus, their antagonist, Dean Wormer, while objectively in the right---Delta House is a disgrace and its members are not gentlemen and scholars---is motivated by spite, ego, anger, and a personal desire for vengeance. “Fat, drunk, and stupid” is no way to go through life, but it may be better than going through life angry, vindictive, and mean.
And Dean Wormer, who should be a symbol of liberal authority because he’s defending the cause of education (“Knowledge Is Good.”) has allied himself with the blatantly Nixonian forces of the bullies and hypocrites of Omega Theta Pi.
Otter, Boone, Bluto, Pinto, Flounder and the rest are allowed to do just about whatever they want because they are rebelling against the types of people who brought us Vietnam and Watergate.
Jake and Elwood are pursued by characters who like Wormer are motivated by anger and a desire for personal revenge, the two state troopers, Jake’s jilted fiancee, the country-western band the Blues Brothers stole the gig from at Bob’s Country Bunker, the Illinois Nazis. But their pursuers also include John Candy’s character, the cheerful, good-natured, unflappable, and unenrageable cop from the state board of corrections.
Burton Mercer’s job is to put Jake and Elwood in stir, and he’s quite comfortable with the idea that that’s where they belong. They’ve broken the law. Jake’s violated his parole in numerous ways. Mercer’s going to arrest them and it won’t bother him to do it. But he doesn’t take it personally. He isn’t offended by Jake and Elwood’s law breaking. He takes what I believe the nuns taught me is a very Catholic attitude, which is not simply to hate the crime but love the sinner; it’s to not love the crime but understand it and forgive it while not excusing it.
Mercer likes the Blues Brothers. He gets a kick out of them. It’s not clear whether or not he knows they’re on a mission from God, but he certainly doesn’t believe he’s on one himself. Vengeance, anger, and self-righteousness are not in his job description. It’s not a good idea to let people stick up gas stations and drive their cars through crowded shopping malls but Mercer sees how it could happen.
I know I’m pushing it but Mercer isn’t in the movie just to give John Candy something to do. He’s in there so he can be played by John Candy.
The Blues Brothers is the beginning of Candy’s too short career of playing genuinely happy and big-hearted men, men who are happy because they have such big hearts. Burton Mercer is not Del Griffith and The Blues Brothers is definitely not a John Hughes movie, but there’s a connection.
All through Planes, Trains, and Automobiles Steve Martin’s character pities himself for having to put up with Del and the first big change in him for the better is when he begins to not mind having to put up with Del. But at that point he’s congratulating himself for being such a swell and magnanimous guy.
The real change comes when he realizes what a difficult time Del has had putting up with him and that Del has actually been the more tolerant and forgiving one.
This is a thread that runs through Candy’s better movies. Del, Uncle Buck, and Danny Muldoon are men willing to forgive you before you’ve done them any wrong. They are flawed men, in need of forgiveness themselves, but that’s the point. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Treat others as you would be treated. Love your neighbor as you love yourself. “Love one another as I have loved you.”
I’m probably reading this backwards into his role in The Blues Brother, and he doesn’t have any lines that support it, but Candy’s Burton Mercer seems to me a person who understands the difference between penance and punishment.
Penance is what sinners do to make up for their sins and part of that is accepting their just punishment.
But Catholicism has a Sacrament of Penance. It doesn’t have a Sacrament of Punishment.
Catholics aren’t taught to see themselves as sinners in the hands of an angry God.
They are taught that a sign that theirs is a loving God is his willingness to forgive them their sins.
Jake and Elwood are punished in the end, but they are also forgiven.
And they are rewarded.
There’s another important aspect of Candy’s character. He’s the only one of Jake and Elwood’s antagonists who appreciates their music.
At the end of the movie Jake and Elwood are still criminals who have to pay for their crimes. But they are also something they weren’t at the beginning of the movie.
At the beginning of the movie the band hasn’t played together for three years, not since Jake went to prison. They need to reassemble the band to save the orphanage, but their reward for saving the orphanage is putting the band back together.
Yeah, they sing at Bob’s Country Bunker, but they don’t sing their music and they can’t call themselves the Blues Brothers. They’re the Good Ol’ Blues Brothers Boys Band.
The rest of the time they are part of the audience or the chorus or backup singers for other acts.
I know. I’m making more of the movie than it deserves or would deserve if it hadn’t been declared a Catholic classic. The plot is pretty much an excuse to string together car crashes and music videos by James Brown, Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, and Cab Calloway. But the excuse is a good one. The music is important.
And part of the music’s importance is its ability to bring people together and get them singing and dancing.
The music is shared joy.
Catholicism is not an apocalyptic religion. The early Church was. Jesus’ return was expected any day now.
Any month now…
Any year now…
By the early middle ages Church teaching was responding to what had become pretty clear. The end of the world and the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven were probably a long way off. Which meant there had to be something we’re meant to do with the time we have here on earth. But what?
The answer I was taught was enjoy it.
And help others enjoy it.
Life is not one big party. Life is pain and suffering most of the time. We’re meant to take up our cross and follow him. But we’re meant to do it cheerfully.
And we’re meant to help each other carry the load. Simon of Cyrene isn’t a saint for nothing.
Catholicism, so I was taught, is a religion of shared pain.
It’s also a religion of shared joy.
When Calvinism took hold in England, its first order of business was to strip the joy out of the service and out of the church calendar. No more music. No more color and pageantry. No more Christmas.
There’s a Puritanical streak in the Catholic Church and one of the maddening things about the Church’s perversity about sex is that this enforcement of joylessness is a case of the Church at odds with itself.
And of course the molestation scandal is about some men robbing children of joy and the Church hierarchs being fine with that.
This gets us into the question of who is the Church. Is it us or is it the priests? Is it Peter’s church or Paul’s? St Francis’ or St Augustine’s? Does it belong to the bishops who tried to sink health care reform or the nuns who tried to save it?
The Vatican newspaper doesn’t answer that. All it says is that whoever else’s church it is, it’s also Jake and Elwood’s.
I hope that means that from here on out this will be included in the hymnals.