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SYFY WIRE Religion in Genre

Dogma, Catholicism (Wow!) and the power of an idea

By Courtney Enlow

In 1999, Kevin Smith released Dogma into theaters. To the Catholic Church, it was blasphemy. To me, it was a revelation.

"You can change an idea. Changing a belief is trickier."

I was born and raised Catholic. I attended Catholic school from kindergarten through high school — years of plaid starchy jumpers and skirts, the whole deal. We attended Mass as a school every week, I sang in the choir, I prayed along with my classmates at the start of every single day of the school week, I sat and did Stations of the Cross each and every year while praying the rosary and listening to the story of a man being tortured to death. 

And when I think back to what I felt while doing all of that, what I physically and emotionally felt towards this huge thing I'd been steeped in since I was a small child, it's simply this: nothing. 

To me, my Catholicism was a blind, bored recitation of words I knew were supposed to have meaning but held absolutely none to me. My disconnect to every single spiritual and religious element of my education and life started early. Even as a child, I had none of the wide-eyed wonder or sheer terror one might think a little kid would feel at the story of God, Jesus, all of it. Instead, every story from the Bible or lesson in my Catholic education might as well have been any writing prompt used to diagram sentences or a math word problem. They carried the same weight in terms of emotional impact.

I felt nothing. Even when I would read about sin, or how God would punish people for what the Church deemed bad behaviors, I felt nothing. Because I didn't buy it. I don't know why, exactly. It's not like I was a particularly jaded child, wearing sunglasses and smoking some long thin black cigarette, pontificating on the futility of Hell in a world without consequence. I just... didn't believe. 

But in a world where I was going to experience 13 full years of Catholic education, I needed to find some way to connect to this world I'd been born into and couldn't truly reconcile. 

So instead, I created my own headcanon of what I thought any god or God that existed would be. The creation of my own religious outline was essentially my first fanfic, I suppose making God the IP at its core.

My version of God would be a somewhat absentee cheerleader, like a cool aunt who showed up every once in a while, who didn't care if you were queer or doing badly in school or if you snuck a beer out of the fridge. And if Jesus existed at all, he was probably pretty chill about everything except actual evil and the oppression and pain of others (read: he would NOT be cool with anything being done in his name or the actions of the Catholic Church). In my head, sin and morality as a concept was entirely subjective, a construct of a society designed to keep its inhabitants in line in some way, that could be entirely stripped of all rules and regulations except this: don't be an asshole. Be kind. At your best, try and make the world a better place than you entered it, but mostly just don't make it worse for anyone if you can help it.

That became my religion. My disconnect from actual Catholicism and Christianity and any other kind of spirituality was a plus here — I didn't need to relearn anything. I didn't need to unload my Catholic guilt, or retrain myself. In essence, because I never gave a sh*t, I could just keep not giving a sh*t about anything but these tenets I developed for myself, the bits of what I'd learned that were palatable and easily eschewing everything else.

So imagine my joy when I saw Dogma for the first time. Dogma was essentially my self-created religion in film form, told through characters I loved and looked to with more reverence than any priest or nun (praise Their Holiness, Jay and Silent Bob, amen). It was pro-choice, pro-agency, pro-not being an asshole. It was everything that mattered to me and also there was a sh*tmonster. God was Alanis Morrissette and she loved skeeball and wore shiny coats. Everyone swears and fights for what matters. The bad guy isn't merely vanquished but is ultimately his own undoing, and right and wrong aren't cut and dry. Like life, they are nebulous and subjective, until the exact point they harm someone else.

This movie was a revelation, a validation. So I was not surprised that the Catholic Church fought against it so, so hard.

It was in the outrage and backlash in Dogma's wake, timed with the stories of ingrained and long-hidden abuses in the Church, that I realized there was to be no creation of my own pocket universe of Catholicism. That this was a Church fighting a sh*tmonster movie harder than they were for justice, for the children whose lives had been so horrifically impacted by the actions of their priests and a Church who let the bad guys get away with everything, no consequence. Who believed that punishment was more justified for Kevin Smith, not to mention any "sinner," than these abusers and rapists in its ranks. And their steadfast belief that they were absolutely right and just in this, it wouldn't change.

"Changing a belief is trickier."

There would be no religion for me after that. But there would be an idea: the idea that the things that mattered to me, my own moral code, that version of Catholicism that I'd created for myself to understand this part of my life that I couldn't connect with, were enough. 

I definitely don't believe in the Church. And I don't know that I believe in God. But I believe in Dogma, Kevin Smith, and not being an asshole. And I have an idea that this is everything I need to live my life.