Published April 28, 2022
“I hated that movie.” So said a priest friend some years ago when I mentioned the film True Confessions. Looking back, I’m not surprised. Released in 1981 and based on the John Gregory Dunne crime novel of the same name, it’s not a happy portrait of the Church, her people, or her clergy. Yet, in the end, it always moves me. It’s one of my favorite – and I would argue, profoundly Catholic – films. Given the controversies these days over what is and is not a good Catholic film, let me explain why.
True Confessions begins and ends in the 1960s California desert. But the bulk of the story takes place in 1947 Los Angeles. It revolves around the Black Dahlia-like murder of a young woman, a failed actress turned prostitute. In real life, the Black Dahlia murder has never been solved. In True Confessions, the killer is finally identified, but he’s irrelevant to the story’s unintended consequences. The heart of both the novel – and the film – is the fractious relationship between two Catholic brothers: Des and Tom Spellacy.
Des, played in the film by Robert DeNiro, is a rising young monsignor, chancellor of the archdiocese, right hand to the cardinal, and on track to be a bishop. Tom (Robert Duvall, in one of his finest roles) is an LAPD detective; the “bad” son of their Irish Catholic family. Cynical toward life in general and the Church in particular, Tom Spellacy is the lens through which the story unfolds.
Tom is a complicated soul: resentful of his brother’s perceived goodness, calloused by the meanness of the streets, but also protective of his brother’s reputation. Des Spellacy is no less complex: smart, shrewd, ambitious and (when necessary) ruthless – and also keenly aware of his own sins of pride, masked by a veneer of priestly piety. Onto Tom’s police plate drops the case of the murdered young woman. Where it leads provides the rest of the drama.
John Gregory Dunne, the author, came from a Catholic family of six children. He knew the Church, and especially the Irish American version of her, from experience. His writing vividly captures the time and place, the language and culture, of the Church and a certain kind of Catholic life at the zenith of their social influence and political connections.
True Confessions takes place in the pious afterglow of the Second World War, 15 years before Vatican II and nearly four decades before the first hints of a clergy sex-abuse crisis. The story is very far from sacred in its tone. But those who spent their childhood in the 1950s will remember the esteem routinely accorded to the religion of the times; times quite different from our own.
Ironically, the film is tighter, simpler, and more powerful in its telling than the original novel, maybe because it was co-written by Joan Didion, Dunne’s wife and an equally gifted wordsmith. The point is: Once seen, the film can’t be forgotten. Or so it’s been for me.
So why all these words about a film from the ancient past?
Here’s why: True Confessions is an exercise, unintended, in true instruction. Dunne’s story is excessively harsh in its portrait of ecclesial life and its warts, but it’s not entirely wrong. Over 27 years in diocesan service, I met Des Spellacy, or versions thereof, more than once. I also met laymen like Tom Spellacy — and a lot more frequently than Des.
What True Confessions captures well is the human temptation to use the Church as fire insurance for the afterlife; or more tangibly, for personal advancement or profit. She can be a helpful tool and a very cleansing alibi for venal actions wrapped in the vocabulary of virtue. And the temptation can easily grow as the social influence and political standing of the Church increase.
Today this may sound absurd. The Church seems to be losing ground and numbers steadily in the United States. As many as a third of priests approached to serve as bishop decline the office because of its demands. But we have the Church of 2022, at least in part, because we once had the Church of 1947.
Early Christian writers like Origen, Hippolytus, Tertullian, and Tatian all spoke forcefully against the corrupting effects of entanglements with worldly authority. Tertullian warned against service in the military, and Tatian wrote that “I do not wish to rule; I do not wish to be rich; I reject military command.”
Church attitudes obviously changed after Constantine’s conversion. The vocation of laypeople, in particular, is to be leaven in secular culture. But history teaches that alongside the great good that can be achieved through Christian engagement in public leadership, great harm can be done to the Church and her mission when her people and her clergy confuse material success with service to the Gospel. A comfortable Church, a publicly esteemed Church, can very easily become a dead Church. And when faith is merely skin deep, it’s worth remembering that societies sooner or later shed their dead skin.
Simply put: Ambition, power, success, and public respect, like wealth, are not necessarily bad things. It’s how and why we use – or abuse – them that matters. Especially for Christians, this should be obvious. But it’s quite obviously not.
The reason I revisit True Confessions every few years is because it does, in fact, live up to its name. That’s the original religious sense of the words “confession” and “confess” – not merely to admit one’s personal faults, but to acknowledge and affirm what’s true. St. Augustine does precisely both things in his classic Confessions.
And what’s true is this: Life, for all its suffering, failures, disappointments, and messiness, is good. It’s good because love, forgiveness, and redemption are possible. And in the end, if the Spellacy brothers could find those things, then so can we.
Francis X. Maier is a senior fellow in Catholic studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and the 2020-22 senior research associate at the Notre Dame Center for Citizenship and Constitutional Government.