So, the headline here is that I’m dropping Junketsu no Maria and that I’m pretty bummed about doing so. I like, even adore, a lot of the peripheral elements of the show—Maria herself, her little posse of misfits, the character designs—but the show’s handling of Catholicism and the Catholic Church, which was more or less the focus of this episode, has left me both uncomfortable and a bit upset after watching the second episode. And, as much as I want to, I just can’t ignore those warning bells in my head.
The initial vibe I got from Junketsu no Maria‘s premiere was that it didn’t particularly like Catholicism. But there was enough other stuff going on that it was pretty easy for me to pass over it, and even agree with it in places. This episode, though, took things to a completely different level that all but radiated anti-Catholicism.
To start off, I think it’s necessary that I make explicit my awareness of the historic Catholic Church and its faults, failings, and sins. This is not going to be a post apologizing the rampant hypocrisy, corruption, and decadence of the medieval Church. I’m well aware of the more sordid elements of the Church’s past, as I expect most are (it seems a common topic for anti-Catholic arguments to gloat over—but sorry that’s just me complaining). This post will, however, be about Junketsu no Maria‘s portrayals of the Catholic Church and the various ways in which I find those portrayals to be incorrect. I mean to address the structural elements and attitudes of the show more than the actual historical details themselves.
Firstly, I think there’s an important distinction to make between Catholicism as an institution (in other words, the Catholic Church) and as a religion (as in, a set of religious beliefs). That may sound a bit disingenuous and, certainly, the two are conflated in the majority of cases, but I think it’s a fair distinction to make. As with any religion, there is an particular religious essence that is Catholicism, which exists in lived reality through the practical applications and motions of what, for lack of a better phrase, I think can be called the “spirit of the religion.”
As an example, let me use one of the most important teachings of Catholicism: the belief that bread and wine literally become the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ as Mass. Now, over the years, the liturgical functions that surround the actual event of transubstantiation (the moment at which bread becomes Body and wine becomes Blood) have varied. Before Vatican II, the priest faced away from the people; after, towards them. But the actual belief in the transformation never changed. That’s what I would call the “spirit of the religion,” while facing forwards or backwards is the practical motion. The direction the priest faces has no impact on whether or not the event occurs, but it’s the prescribed method established by the institutional Catholic Church.
This is obviously one very specific example related only to the liturgy, but the point I’m trying to make is that the ways in which the human Church enacts the divine teachings is not infallible and can change…or be wrong. The Church, including its leadership, is made up of fallible, sinful human beings. And so, to come back to Junketsu no Maria, it’s understandable (if very much wrong and awful) that the very people who preached messages of morality often failed to live out those messages themselves. But does that void the validity of the message? If a man who steals cars regularly teaches me that I ought not to steal, is the lesson itself false due to the teacher’s failings? I don’t think so. By the same token, though, it’s understandable (if quite sad) that the laity would become disillusioned with a Church whose leadership told them to do one thing, and then did another themselves.
With all this in mind, Junketsu no Maria reads to me like a one-sided curbstomp using the absolute worst of the Catholic Church’s institutional history—hypocrisy, corruption, lack of care for the common people—to invalidate the entirety of the religion without even a hint of an attempt to acknowledge the essence of true Catholicism. It has, as is so common, conflated the “spirit of the religion” with the practical application of it by flawed humans and condemned both.
The Catholic Church as an institution has certainly been responsible for a vast number of bad things that have happened, but it’s also a towering historical pillar of artistic and scientific merit and charitable works. To criticize the institution’s faults without presenting its triumphs, to me, seems unfair. But I could overlook that, because it’s not as if the Church really deserves to be praised for living out its mission—after all, that’s its purpose. Furthermore, it’s not as if the good the Catholic Church does somehow karmically erases the bad. Rather, my real issues come from the way Junketsu no Maria seems to be interested in systematically disassembling all aspects of Catholicism—including the “spirit of the religion”—without any sort of discrimination as to what it attacks.
Whereas the early parts of episode 2 were more focused on the critical failings and hypocrisy of the church’s leadership (a relevant and valid point of critique if actually used as critique, not mockery), I really felt like Maria turned its attacks in a different direction once Maria returned to her home village. Bandit mercenaries have gathered the common people together, and we see Anna, the little girl who has befriended Maria, praying for St. Margaret and St. Michael’s aid, but eventually crying out for Maria, who indeed appears. Now, I have no problem with Anna crying out for help from an individual who has proven in the past to be merciful and helpful to her. (There’s also a kind of neat element of Maria being named after the Virgin Mary at play there, too.)
What I do take issue with is that, coupled with Maria’s earlier comments, the non-response of the heavens and Maria’s subsequent appearance seems to specifically ridicule the source of the common people’s hope. Actually, perhaps ridicule is too strong a word—I don’t really think Junketsu no Maria is attacking the idea of having faith in another power, even if Maria explicitly states that “angels won’t protect you from bandits or wolves.” But what it is doing, intentionally or not, is setting up a shallow strawman of the Catholic view of God.
When Michael descends from the heavens to halt Maria’s kind-hearted and just actions in the name of the “church of the heavens,” the lines that are being drawn are too bold to ignore. The implication is, of course, that the Catholic God is only a god who watches from the heavens and seeks to maintain the status quo, without regard for or even at the expense of the people on earth. In fact, it’s not an implication at all. Michael tells Maria, “The church of the heavens keeps watch over the world. We stop those like yourself to maintain order.” Which, of course, is nonsense.
The Catholic God (or the church of heaven or whatever you want to call it) would never intervene with a person on earth doing good for others for the sake of some abstract reason like “maintaining order.” But Maria is actively helping people, where it appears that heaven does not. I’ve heard this critique against the Catholic God enough to know exactly what Maria is driving at—the classic question of theodicy, the problem of evil. “If God were truly a loving god,” the argument goes, “He would stop all the evil in this world.” Now, I know plenty of theological-philosophical answers to this argument, but I don’t want to bring those out right now. That’s an entirely different debate. I just ask that you trust me in this case: considering the real Catholic teaching, this is a radical misunderstanding of how divine intervention works. The relevant point is that Junketsu no Maria has taken the premise, “evil exists” and spun out the logic to the practical conclusion: “God not only does not stop evil from occurring, but he actively maintains the balance of a world where evil does exist.”
In case the logic isn’t clear, I’m essentially arguing that Junketsu no Maria has established a facade of the Catholic understanding and conception of God (and the ways he interacts with earth) and then used that strawman to construct the God of the anime’s Catholic Church.
“But, iblessall, this is fiction! Stop treating it like it’s real life!” I hear you saying. Well, kind of yes and kind of no. With something like Rage of Bahamut: Genesis’ setting, it’s easy enough to divorce the names (St. Michael, Joan of Arc, etc.) from the associations I have with them as Catholic figures, because they have been relocated from their real world positions into an obviously fantastical world, but Junketsu no Maria is very specifically and intentionally placed in an actual historical time period—one where the church on earth was perhaps at its very worst. The unity of specific, authentic details about the distasteful realities of the church and the setting in the time when those realities occurred seems to me to indicate our understanding of Maria‘s setting to be: this is the real world, this is the real church, and creative liberties have been taken to insert the witch faction into the real history of the world (seemingly, for the purpose of attacking the real life church and its beliefs). In other words, a fallacious presentation of the Catholic God’s nature has been associated, through actual historical details, with the real Catholic Church. This isn’t a fictionalizing of history; it’s an appropriation of it coupled with a distortion of a Catholic belief.
It’s not so much that I resent disagreement with Catholic doctrine (heck, even devout Catholics struggle with various teachings of the Church) or disdain critique of the Church, but this is just ignorant and false constructs being portrayed as the truth. I can’t accept that, even if it’s unintentional. To attack something, you need to understand what it is you’re actually attacking; otherwise, you’re just swatting at shadows, as Junketsu no Maria is doing.
Maria is the axis around which the whole set-up exists. Given the same name as the Virgin Mary (a potentially beautiful parallel I somewhat suspect is intended as a sort vicious irony), she has been branded a heretic for being a witch, despite the fact that she stops violence and acts in the interests of peace. She also is literally the perfect viewpoint character through which Junketsu no Maria can mount its twin attacks on Catholicism. Maria, and rightly so given the situation that’s been created for her, disdains both the church on earth and the church of the heavens. One seeks to burn her out of some absurd sense of religious zealotry, while the other demands she desist with her peacekeeping activities in the name of a status quo based on nothing but arrogance and preservation of power..
Maria, after all, is a pacifist who specifically goes out of her way to avoid actually harming anyone. She is unequivocally placed in the position of righteousness, with one super strange exception: our first encounter with Michael comes as a spear soars out of the sky as a warning to Maria as she’s about to scorch the town. It’s a just thing to do, for the heavens to protect the innocent in the town from Maria’s rash, childish actions. But when Michael returns, there’s no ambiguity as to who we’re supposed to see as being in the right. It’s Maria. Why Michael was introduced with a heavy-handed, albeit somewhat justified, entrance, only to be later propped up as the strawman portrayal of divine intervention already discussed? I don’t know. Perhaps it was to show that Maria still is capable of foolishness. Whatever the reason, it’s just a blip in the otherwise consistent dynamics of justice consistently siding against Catholicism shown in the rest of the episode.
Maybe Maria will move away from these attitudes in future episodes. Maybe it will decide it wants to focus on hit-or-miss sex jokes (if you ask me, it’s not all that funny to throw a character looking like a young boy unwilling into a sexual encounter, no matter if he’s an incubus or not) (if you also ask me, Artemis’ quip about the serpent after Maria explodes out of the house made me laugh). But, frankly, I can’t muster up the energy to try and sit through another episode after the exhausting experience that this one was. Watching Junketsu no Maria this week was an exercise in constantly trying to gloss over the anti-Catholicism and ignorance so I could enjoy the rest of the show. I can’t do that for 11 more weeks.
Warning: You May Not Like What I Have to Say Here
To everyone I’ve seen snickering at the modern Catholic Church behind their hands with Maria screencaps like, “Females are filth” and “The Catholic Church is full of people who hate women,” you probably don’t care what I think. Meme away, by all means—I’m well aware that the Catholic Church is an easy and popular target; however, I feel compelled to decry your smug “critique” of an institution you probably know little about and probably have made little effort to truly understand. At the risk of sounding overly moralistic or pretentious (a risk I’m willing to take in this instance), I do not do what you’re doing to atheists, Muslims, Jews, or any other group of people with their own set of beliefs. I hope you’d afford my faith the same respect—of leveling true critiques in your own words, with the intent to reform or improve rather than mock, and based on well-intentioned understanding—rather than hiding behind a screenshot. I think what you’re doing now is cowardly. And that is all I will say on that matter.