The 170% spike in Google searches for ‘Can priests get married?’ after Andrew Scott’s ‘hot priest’ in Fleabag is testimony to the reinvigorated presence of Catholicism in the public eye. But the peculiar allure of the cloth has a long and illustrious history, from the lecherous priests of the Decameron to screen incarnations like Brideshead Revisited and Father Ted. In an increasingly chaotic world where people are more likely to recount their sins on Instagram than in the confessional, the sense of tradition and taboo around Catholicism and its rituals conspire to make it more irresistible than ever.
Perhaps Catholicism is destined to fall prey to the cinematic imagination. The multi-sensory service is theatrical in itself, with its ‘smells and bells’ and rainbow of liturgical vestments; the endless lumbering between standing and kneeling positions can recall a game of Musical Chairs, played to the accompaniment of 16th century polyphony. Of course, the British haven’t always found these qualities so endearing. Centuries of persecution, whose effects are still felt in Ireland today, compounded the heady sense of guilt associated with a religion that emphasised the necessity of confession and the threat of hell.
Even in Waugh’s time, Catholics were political and cultural outsiders in England – it is not just the hedonism of Lord Sebastian Flyte that enchants Charles Ryder in Brideshead, but the family’s religion and the adulterous love of Flyte’s sister Julia. Yet Waugh, and the elegiac voiceovers from Jeremy Irons in the 1981 TV series, treat the faith with veneration, even as they revel in flaunting its rules. Ultimately, all roads lead to Rome: the alcoholic Sebastian joins a monastery; Lord Marchmain is reconciled with the Church on his deathbed; Julia chooses her faith over marriage to Charles. Catholicism, exclusionary and exotic, is bound up with nostalgia for an age of the English nobility, and much as Brideshead’s characters and their audiences may delight in transgression, their paths from sin to redemption reflect a respect for and belief in tradition as an antidote to modernity.
In 1995, on-screen Catholicism became more “Drink! Feck! Arse! Girls!”. Father Ted had neither the religious conscience nor the sex appeal of Brideshead, but the surrealism of a show populated by outlandish caricatures and priests behaving badly made it a hit across the world. Even more strikingly, although anti-Catholicism in England had abated greatly since World War II, partly due to an increase in secularism, this was an Irish series – made and set in a country where Catholicism was literally a matter of life or death from the 60s to the Good Friday Agreement and beyond.
The presence of the Church in Father Ted is not theological, as in the works of Waugh and Greene, but as an institution, whose rituals and decrees are shown to be comically incompatible with the morally lax modern attitudes embodied by Ted. Ted’s frantic attempts to escape from his provincial purgatory and back into the arms of vice are constantly frustrated; unable to commit properly to either sin or godliness, he flounders in shame of a different kind, a limbo of secular embarrassment that provides many of the laughs in the show.
For all its irreverence, this take on a divisive subject matter was ultimately humanising, using Catholicism to comment on the universally relatable theme of moral frailty. As one Dublin priest put it: “It captures an essential part of comedy, which is to offer a view of reality, which at times might not be complimentary, and yet it’s presented in a way that gets around people’s differences.”
And so to the kiss that electrified feminists. When Fleabag’s priest breathed “fuck you calling me Father like it doesn’t turn you on just to say it”, he neatly encapsulated the secularisation of Catholicism in popular TV: its transformation from faith to fetish. Mass attendance fell by 400,000 from 1993-2010; in 2018, 70% of young adults in the UK reported that they had no religious affiliation. To many of Fleabag’s viewers, the Church, with its Latin chants and ‘smoking handbags’, is exotic and unfamiliar; its once formidable reputation diminished by conservative social views and a slew of sex abuse scandals.
The appeal of the forbidden is nothing new – but this is Catholicism for the Brexit generation. Church, crown, and state command a sliver of the power they wielded in centuries past. In a ‘post-truth’ age where lies from politicians, corporations and influencers alike can spread without consequence, the Hot Priest represents not only a taboo, but nostalgia for a tradition with a sense of moral order. People may have behaved as terribly in the 1900s as they do now – but at least they pretended to feel bad about it.