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Cabrini secularizes a saint

By Thomas V. Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Mar 04, 2024 | In Reviews

After I saw Cabrini, the new biopic of the great missionary saint who served the immigrant poor in New York, I perused some other Catholic reviews of the film, and something struck me as odd. The reviewers seemed to admit, tacitly or explicitly, what I observed in my own viewing: the film contains little about God, prayer, or the Catholic faith in general. Yet, strangely, many of these reviewers don’t conclude that this is a fatal flaw in a movie about a Catholic saint.

To be honest, despite the film’s executive producer and director being Catholic, I wasn’t really expecting the Mormon company Angel Studios to distribute an unreservedly Catholic film—one that would feature St. Frances’s deep devotion to the Sacred Heart, for instance. But while it admirably portrays Cabrini spending herself in service to the poor and winning the hearts of young ruffians (in impressive sets conveying old New York), the film is barely even generically Christian in its focus, stressing instead Cabrini’s personal drive (with a heavy feminist accent), social work, and the pervasiveness of anti-Italian discrimination in 19th-century New York (but nothing at all about the accompanying anti-Catholic bigotry).

The story’s trappings of priests, bishops, and habited nuns are, for the most part, mere trappings. Cabrini almost never mentions God even when trying to convince the clergy to support her work, and is virtually never seen praying, even when at a deathbed. At one point she tells her sisters that they can do “all things in Him Who strengthens us”, but far more emphasis is placed on her own strength as a woman.

Churches are a setting for conversation or confrontation rather than prayer. There is one scene that begins with the implication that Cabrini has been sitting in a chapel all night, and we can assume she has been praying, but even this is the starting point for a conversation that is totally focused on her own drive and determination, in which another character refers to Cabrini’s habit as a “suit of armor” which seems to refer more to her own womanly strength than to her consecration to God.

The film’s avoidance of religious content is particularly evident in two scenes. In the first, a former prostitute who has been helping the nuns comes to Cabrini after killing her pimp in self-defense. She weeps: “There’s not enough water in the world to make me clean.” Cabrini responds:

When I look at you, do you know what I see? I see a strong woman. I see courage. I see it glowing all around you. It takes a lot of courage to become who we’re meant to be. We have something in common....We are both survivors. We don’t get to choose how we come into the world, but God gave us the freedom to choose how we live in it.

There is a reference to God, but it is too little, too late after this clear opportunity for baptismal imagery has been whiffed in favor of the anachronistic language of survivorhood.

This is typical of the film’s humanistic slant on Cabrini’s social work: while we are told that Italian immigrants should be helped because they are human beings and indeed children of God, and even that at the hour of our death we will be asked what we did for the poor, there is very little about bringing them the Gospel.

Another particularly egregious moment occurs after the mayor has sent police to break up an Italian Heritage Festival put on by the nuns, and Cabrini has been arrested. (I leave it to historians to judge the accuracy of the film’s incidents; here I examine its spirit.) After her release she marches into City Hall and demands to see the mayor. One of his representatives barks, “Who the hell do you think you are?” In response, Cabrini screams, “I am a woman, and I am Italian, and I am done with little men like you!” She goes on to say something about how everyone is a human being and a child of God, but by then the force of her tirade is already dissipating, having been spent on the all-important zinger.

From the beginning, Cabrini’s relationship with the institutional Church is portrayed as adversarial; though it’s not that the film sets her up against the Church specifically so much as against male authority figures in general. At any rate, she plays the ecclesiastical bureaucracy against itself so she can get power to fulfill her charitable ambitions and prove herself as a woman. (At least the movie makes a point of her obedience to direct orders.)

To be sure, Cabrini is sometimes given reason to be combative; but often when she first meets someone she needs something from, there is a confrontational tension in her demeanor even before she has been offended. Particularly off-putting is her whole attitude during her first meeting with the archbishop of New York; she immediately attempts to play the Pope’s authority against his, and smirks when he correctly asserts that the Pope has given him the prerogative to make decisions for his own diocese.

(This tendency to immediately and unnecessarily jump to hostility rather than diplomacy and collaboration is not only a way of manufacturing drama, but is often part of the pop culture “strong woman” archetype—see also Galadriel’s bull-in-a-china-shop entrance into the Numenorean court in Amazon’s The Rings of Power. Or on second thought, don’t see it.)

Cabrini’s greatest struggles in the film are not of a spiritual nature, but bureaucratic, either in the Church or the state. Her final victory is gained not by her prayer or holiness, but by political machinations, promising votes, and threats. In the film’s final dialogue, as the music swells to the emotional climax of this victory, she looks almost at the camera and says, “Men could never do what we do.”

Now, some of the film’s Catholic reviewers have not pretended Cabrini is more religious than it really is. And I don’t begrudge any individual critic his honest opinion: for some, the film’s portrayal of a Catholic historical figure doing good deeds may be enough to recommend it. Perhaps, too, some Catholics have developed a taste for this kind of feminist messaging, or perhaps we have become desensitized to it by comparison with the downright hair-raising stuff that surrounds us today. Regardless of any individual critic’s reasons, surveying the critical response, I can’t help but think that we are asking too little of our religious films.

I’m not even talking about low artistic expectations. The lack of quality Catholic filmmaking has long been a truism, and few movie reviewers for mainstream Catholic publications are dedicated film lovers. What surprises me here is the low level of scrutiny directed at the religious and spiritual elements of a film such as Cabrini. My impression is that in our excitement that our little subculture is finally getting “real” movies (that is, Hollywood-level production quality), we are too willing to overlook the lack of a truly religious spirit.

When Catholics secularize a saint

It’s not only the critics, but the filmmakers whose sights seem to be set too low. I mentioned Angel Studios’ Mormon leadership above, but in truth, Cabrini’s Catholic deficits can’t be blamed on non-Catholic executives, since the film was not conceived with Angel in mind as a distributor. Instead, we must face the reality that this film was made by a Catholic team.

Cabrini is the brainchild of executive producer J. Eustace Wolfington, a Catholic businessman who was approached by a sister of Cabrini’s order with the request that he make a film about St. Frances. According to an article about the film’s genesis, “Wolfington finally relented in 2018, but under two conditions: first, that he be allowed to make a movie about an extraordinary woman who just happened to be a nun, and second, that the film be a charity.”

If this were a faith-imbued movie, we might be able to interpret “just happened to be a nun” to mean that Wolfington wished to draw viewers’ attention to the universal call to holiness which St. Frances followed within her particular state in life. But given the humanist and secularizing result, it’s pretty clear that this project was from the outset conceived so that its protagonist’s religious identity would be pretty much incidental. But this is to fail before one has begun. It is quite obviously not how St. Frances Xavier Cabrini would have understood herself.

Lead producer Jonathan Sanger said that as he initially thought this would be movie about a saint, he was reluctant to make it because it would not be relatable. But Wolfington immediately disabused him: “No, this is a movie that is a woman empowerment story, in spite of the fact that she became a saint later.” Cabrini is a project conceived by a Catholic determined to avoid what was most important in the life of his subject.

Wolfington found a director for his project in Alejandro Monteverde, the Catholic director of Bella and Sound of Freedom, and a screenwriter in Rod Barr, whose religion is unknown to me. Monteverde too defends the choice to downplay specifically Catholic spiritual elements as a way to make the film accessible to a non-Catholic audience.

We can be sympathetic to the predicament of Catholic filmmakers. On both an evangelical and an artistic level, many artists do not want to preach to the choir. On a commercial level, making a movie is very expensive; one must convince producers and distributors that there is an audience for the project.

But there is only so far you can “adapt” to reach an audience before you end up falsifying your subject. To what end do you try to reach a broader audience, if not to say something that only you, a Catholic director, and only this, the story of a Catholic saint, could communicate? To make a movie about a saint that does not convey sanctity, that replaces spiritual motives with worldly ones, hardly seems worthwhile. It’s like making a movie about Jesus from Thomas Jefferson’s edit of the New Testament.

A comparison of Cabrini with Terrence Malick’s A Hidden Life gives the lie to the supposed necessity of downplaying the Faith so that one’s art will be relatable or authentic. Malick is an Episcopalian, and his portrayal of the Catholic martyr Blessed Franz Jaggerstater, like Monteverde’s Cabrini, left out many specifically Catholic elements, such as Bl. Franz’s practice of the First Fridays and his sacramental life more generally. Like Cabrini, A Hidden Life portrayed the saint interacting with unhelpful clergy (which was not false but incomplete), so that the emphasis was more on Bl. Franz’s personal spirituality and conscience. Yet while Malick can be accused of reducing his hero to a generic Christian, Bl. Franz’s sanctity is still unmistakable and the film is steeped in prayer. In the end, A Hidden Life, made by a Protestant for a secular arthouse audience, is a far more Christian film than Cabrini, made by a Catholic team and distributed by a studio that caters to the conservative Christian subculture.

At risk of hammering the point in, we might also ask: Would Cabrini have been much different had it been made by a non-Christian who admired Cabrini’s social work but didn’t care for her faith? Perhaps it would have been more offensive, but I think in general, such a production would have hit the same points as this one. There would be a few mentions of God, but the emphasis would have been on social do-gooding, racism against immigrants, and Cabrini as a pioneering woman. To emphasize this last point, the screenplay would have multiple men telling Cabrini to “stay where you belong”, just as we hear in Cabrini.

What we have in Cabrini, then, is not so much the failure to portray a saint well, as the choice barely to attempt to portray a saint at all. That this choice was made by a Catholic team, for reasons that will sound very familiar to any Catholic artist (because he has either heard or considered them himself), offers much food for reflection outside the scope of this article.

One’s judgment of this particular film aside, those concerned with this general question of making religious art that reaches a public will find wisdom in Henri de Lubac’s book Paradoxes of Faith, specifically the chapters on “Witness” and “Adaptation”. In the latter he writes:

The first question is not “how to present” but “how to see” and “how to think.” …Setting out deliberately to popularize, to adapt, to reach the greatest number is not illegitimate or always useless. But it infallibly condemns you to mediocre, banal, insignificant, popular work. This law no more admits exception than the law of contradiction itself.

For the Catholic artist, our Lord’s warning about the salt losing its savor resonates at a double pitch.

Thomas V. Mirus is Director of Podcasts for CatholicCulture.org, hosts The Catholic Culture Podcast, and co-hosts Criteria: The Catholic Film Podcast. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: padre3536 - Mar. 07, 2024 7:22 PM ET USA

    Thank you for the Divine Charity of truth....blessings of Lent

  • Posted by: Thomas V. Mirus - Mar. 06, 2024 5:04 PM ET USA

    Thanks, Mary - actually, I meant that Malick can indeed be accused of reducing his subject to a generic Christian, but that his film is still far more spiritual and Christian than Cabrini.

  • Posted by: mary_conces3421 - Mar. 05, 2024 8:46 PM ET USA

    Excellent, lucid discussion. I heard some quotes from the movie and was afraid that the “strong little woman overcoming big, bad men” theme was going to be portrayed yet again. Guess so, sigh. BTW, I think you mean “Malick can NOT be accused…)

  • Posted by: tmschroeder2790 - Mar. 05, 2024 8:29 PM ET USA

    Thank you for your thoughts on this film. My heart aches for the lossed opportunity, the apparent sin of omission, if you will, in not expressing in full throated manner, what a saintly person such as Frances Cabrini might do or think or say.

  • Posted by: dkmayernj8551 - Mar. 05, 2024 8:10 AM ET USA

    A thoughtful discussion illustrating the regrettable depth to which our American public life today is secular, and the elusiveness of a viable means to present true faith in the public square beyond the "art house" product mentioned. Of course there was Mel Gibson's Passion -- query what lessons, if any, might be learned from that now.