Roger Ebert and the ‘Good Old Days’

Film critic and columnist Roger Ebert penned a column for his blog at the Chicago Sun-Times, My Vocation as a Priest. It’s a benevolent, slightly sentimental look at his Catholic upbringing. At one time, he considered the priestly vocation. But it turns out he was one of those, “whose mother had the vocation” — to use the words of an old priest I knew. Not only did Roger Ebert not become a priest, he lost his Catholic Faith outright. Certain aspects of his column — well written, as one would expect — show the glories of pre-Vatican II American Catholicism in all their splendor.  For instance, he pays tribute to the Church’s aesthetic aspect when he says:

In my childhood the Church arched high above everything. I was awed by its ceremonies. Years later I agreed completely with Pauline Kael when she said that the three greatest American directors of the 1970s–Scorsese, Altman and Coppola–had derived much of their artistic richness from having grown up in the pre-Vatican Two era of Latin, incense, mortal sins, indulgences, dire sufferings in hell, Gregorian chant, and so on. Protestants and even Jews were victims, I suppose, of sensory deprivation.

Other passages show that those “Good Old Days” of American Catholicism, supposedly such a high-water mark for the religion, were not all they were cracked up to be. The Dominican teaching Sister who was dogmatically permissive, the seminarian who uttered a glaringly stupid remark about hell and Dante as he dragged on a cigarette: these were signs that the iconic Catholicism of the era had splotches on it, bad ones.

True, things would get a whole lot worse, but the radical revolutionaries of the 1960’s and 70’s were only building on what their less radical antecedents had done, just as the French revolutionaries of one era were decapitated as reactionaries by their own ideological progeny in the next. Revolutions are that way.

I sometimes correspond with a Catholic gentleman who, it turns out, worked two desks away from Roger Ebert at the Sun-Times. He tells me that he always thought Ebert was Jewish. “No way did I think he was an RC. I think the whole newsroom thought he was Jewish. Certainly not Catholic.” At the time, of course, Ebert was not a Catholic, except in a merely “cultural” sense, which the critic rather uncritically defines as “believing in the Social Contract and the Corporal Works of Mercy.” Clever, but that’s not even good, merely cultural Catholicism. One would have to take away the Social Contract and add at least wine, cheese, and Antonio Vivaldi.

How did he lose his faith? As Ebert himself testifies, Hugh Heffner and Charles Darwin did their damage, though, of course, Ebert does not consider it “damage.” Impurity and a false anthropology will certainly pervert one’s will and darken his intellect. By Ebert’s own testimony, that would seem to be how he fell away. It’s nothing the grace of God cannot fix, but at least a modicum of good will is requisite.

My friend who worked at the Sun-Times paid tribute to Ebert’s skill as a writer in his quickly written email:

Possibly the best mind I have ever encountered. Certainly the most accurate and fastest writer I ever met. Probably the best under deadline.

It was 1968 or thereabouts and we were on typewriters, then, and I had the pleasure of “editing” his copy on occasion for the Sunday Magazine.

Never had to touch a word but I held my pencil high, always hoping. To net a gaffe by Ebert would have been a catch.

I recall not a typo–just wonderful rolling prose. He was a prodigy then and probably in spirit still is.

The old Sun-Times editor then expressed his hope that Ebert’s wife will call a priest for him on his deathbed. For apparently, Roger Ebert has cancer of the jaw, had his face rebuilt surgically, and is now expected to live only a very short time. When that time ends, let’s hope and pray that he’ll be ready for his most important review.