Thursday, May 28, 2020

How "Joker" can call us to live out Catholic Social Teaching

"Don't expect a happy ending," the librarian warned me. I reassured him that I was in no way expecting anything happy in the movie I had just checked out, then I cheerfully walked home, a copy of  Joker (Warner Bros. 2019) tucked in my bag. When this movie first came out, I was unsure if I wanted to see it. It was highly controversial and extremely dark, I knew. I wasn't sure if I'd be able to handle it. After hearing about the movie from some friends, I decided that I'd watch it....when it came out on DVD. Finally, after all these months, it was time. 

I hunkered down in front of the screen as the movie began, and soon was overwhelmed by a feeling of sadness. I had expected a dark movie, but I had not been expecting a movie that would grip my heart. As I watched the tragedy of aspiring comedian Arthur Fleck (spectacularly portrayed by Phoenix Joaquin), I was struck by how human he was. Other renditions of the Clown Prince of Crime portray him as the physical manifestation of sheer evil and insanity, or as some kind of caricature. However, as Arthur struggles to work, devotedly care for his mother, and simply live in the face of poverty, mental illness, and discrimination, he becomes someone we can recognize. Someone that, perhaps, we've passed on the street or seen in the library. 

As the credits began rolling at the conclusion of this film, I found myself thinking about how this movie doesn't have a "happy ending"--so we, the viewers, should work to bring about a happy ending in our communities. A fiction movie, Joker follows the decline of the man who becomes an infamous villain. Yet, this movie tells a true story, one that plays out in countless cities across America. 

If we live in good neighborhoods, have stable jobs and health insurance, reliable support networks, and a circle of people who care for us, it's easy to turn our eyes from the Arthur Flecks of the world. We become like Thomas Wayne and see disadvantaged people as "other," as vastly different from ourselves. If we occasionally feel like it, we'll drop some money in a collection for "those people" or debate social issues while only looking through the lens of privilege. However, as the movie so clearly shows, this approach is flawed. It breeds elitism, division, and discontent, and it can create a climate of violence and destruction. Watching the chaos and destruction flare up in Joker, a thought kept coming back to me: Arthur Fleck--and all of Gotham--needs individuals who bravely live out Catholic Social Teaching. 

We may give only a passing thought to the social teaching of the Church. We might even just focus on one key theme, or even one aspect of that theme, and give nary a glance to the other elements of this extensive set of teachings. Or, we may label some people as "social justice warriors" and expect them to take full responsibility for living out the Church's social teachings. However, the more I reflect on the world of Joker, and the more I look into our own world, I wonder if we can do better than this. Catholic Social Teaching is not just a nice exercise in charity for some people, it's a treasury of wisdom and a call to action--for all of us. 

We all are called to uphold the life and dignity of the human person. 
We all are called to seek the common good in society and support marriage and family life. 
We all are called to protect the rights of others as we behave according to our responsibilities. 
We all are called to build up and emphasize a preferential option for the poor and vulnerable. 
We all are called to recognize the dignity of work and the rights of workers. 
We all are called to join together in solidarity as we seek peace and justice. 
We all are called to care for God's beautiful creation. 

I honestly can't say that I enjoyed watching Joker, because it's a very uncomfortable movie to watch. Seeing the darkness and violence that swirled around Gotham, witnessing the way that Arthur was abused and had any support system ripped away from him, and watching the violent riots spring up felt all too real. Yet, I feel a sense of joy. No dove into the mess of Gotham to help Arthur--but we can, in our world.

We may be frightened by the thought of actually living out Catholic Social Teaching. "I'm no Dorothy Day or Catherine Doherty" you may say. However, God doesn't need you to be another Dorothy Day or Catherine Doherty, as wonderful as those women were. He needs you. In his encyclical Pacem in Terris, Pope St. John XXIII writes: 
"There are indeed some people who, in their generosity of spirit, burn with a desire to institute wholesale reforms whenever they come across situations which show scant regard for justice or are wholly out of keeping with its claims. They tackle the problem with such impetuosity that one would think they were embarking on some political revolution. We would remind such people that it is the law of nature that all things must be of gradual growth. If there is to be any improvement in human institutions, the work must be done slowly and deliberately from within. 
Together, let's focus on that "gradual growth" and slow, deliberate work. In whatever little ways we can, let us all strive for greater peace, justice, and love in our families, our communities, our country, and our world.


  1. I didn't enjoy the movie Joker at all either. Not just because it didn't have a happy ending but because it was so SLOW and dragged on and made me even more depressed. But you take a different outcome from the movie, thanks for sharing.

    1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on the movie, Kathleen! You bring up a great point that it moves slowly-much more slowly than many movies which hit theaters now, it seems! I happened to like that feature, as it helped me to more thoughtfully process and become engrossed in the decline of Arthur, but I can certainly see how that wouldn't be appealing to everyone!