By Matt Boulter
In Joseph Pieper’s excellent Guide to Thomas Aquinas, he vividly summarizes the origins of the mendicant order of monks started by St. Dominic, the official name of which is the Order of Preachers (O.P.), better known as the Dominicans. It was this new form of community, minted only a few years before Thomas’ birth, that attracted the future Angelic Doctor by its compelling mixture of erudition and material simplicity.
As Pieper tells the story, the young Dominic was travelling from his native Osma (in present day Spain) through the south of France en route to Rome for church business. On this journey, he likely became more aware than he already had been of the tumultuous situation wreaking havoc in the local church of the region. He encountered first-hand the intensity of the Albigensian movement (a populist crusade in opposition to the institution of — and the institutionalism of — the Catholic Church). Dominic regarded the Albigensians as heretical, deficient in their embrace of only a “half-truth,” as opposed to the full scope of the Catholic faith.
What was worse, from Dominic’s point of view, was the subsequent reaction to this heretical movement on the part of Rome. Writes Pieper:
… the Pope’s legates descended upon the rebellious heretics. They came as judges rather than missionaries. They excommunicated, interdicted, and condemned. But that was not the worst of it. They also stripped themselves from the start of any moral advantage by appearing clothed in immoderate worldly pomp.
Reacting to both the shallowness of the heresies and the inept hypocrisy of the institutional Church, Dominic and his men decide to incarnate the Gospel of Jesus Christ in a different way, opting instead to engage with the “heretics” on their own terms. In fact, in his efforts not just to affirm the “grains of truth” in the Albigensian position, but actually to live them out, Dominic was modeling for St. Thomas and for us a new way to engage with the world. It was a way of affirming truth wherever it may be found while at the same time taking seriously people who hold other views, so that their dignity is affirmed.
In all of this Dominic was doing battle not primarily against the heretics, but with the newly minted office of the Inquisition of the Catholic Church. Hence one can see the political stakes involved. Political sacrifice (or at least risk) was required for Dominic not only to oppose the hierarchical authority of the Church, but also to side with the Albigensians, whose controversial heresy included the “evangelical” ideal of Christ-like poverty as a necessary condition for spiritual sanctification.
As twenty first-century Westerners we inhabit a cultural milieu strikingly different from that of St. Dominic. And yet certain gospel principles, certain planks of missionary wisdom, still apply. As our culture apparently continues to drift further from its Judeo-Christian roots, how should we then live? Surely St. Dominic provides one compelling model.
Consider, for example, the filmography of director Sean Baker, in particular his 2017 film The Florida Project. It tells the story of the “hidden homeless” community — especially from the point of view of children — in and around Orlando’s Disney World theme park in Central Florida.
Teetering on the drama side of a “dramamentary,” the film chronicles the life and times of a single mother in her early twenties, Halley, and her six year old daughter, Moonie, who live for the most part in a (very) low budget motel managed by Bobbie, played by Willem Dafoe.
Throughout the film we observe Halley and Moonie — who act like sisters as much as mother and daughter — living on the edge of homelessness and struggling to get by. And yet neither mother nor daughter seem stressed. About anything, actually. As Moonie runs riot through the streets of the impoverished neighborhood with her similarly unrestrained friends, Halley can be found watching TV, smoking pot, taking “bikini selfies” on her iPhone, and only occasionally applying for work.
When things get really desperate she finally resorts to putting herself out there online in order to attract men willing to pay for sexual favors, making sure Moonie is entertained with a bubble bath in the bathtub for the duration of her illicit services.
There are so many aspects and dimensions to the film which are worth noting: the marijuana use, the lack of parental supervision, the lies that people habitually tell. One could interpret the film through the lens of a theological discussion of the human condition: sin, vice, love, beauty, desire, and more. The good, the bad, and the ugly.
And while it would be easy for the viewer, especially traditionally minded Anglo Christians, to chafe at the portrait of the hidden homeless — to be overcome by a kind of “gag reflex” in response to some of the most heinous acts of perceived irresponsibility — I do not think that this is how Christ or St. Dominic would respond. This is true not only for Baker’s The Florida Project, but also for his more “docustyle” film Tangerine, narrating the lives of trans sex workers living on the streets of Los Angeles.
Indeed, these are gut-wrenchingly difficult communities to consider. And yet their characters, or at least their real-world counterparts, are my neighbors, whom I am called to love and to serve. St. Dominic would have me ask, “What about them is good, true and beautiful?”
What can we learn from such films?
In the climactic scene we witness the painful result of Halley’s “parenting style”: the forced removal of her child by Child Protective Services. The authorities have footage of several men entering the apartment at night over the previous few weeks, it turns out, and the law maintains that such an environment is not suitable for child-rearing.
In a tear-jerker of a finale, we witness Moonie, who has now slipped through the detainment of the authorities and escaped to the “home” (really, just another low-end budget motel room, inhabited by a single mom and multiple children) of her “best friend” Jancey. Moonie says goodbye to Halley through the tears of her suffering six-year-old visage, voice cracking and all. It is a strikingly honest performance by this young actress (Brooklyn Prince), and I can’t imagine any viewer not needing a box of tissues to get through it.
What to make of this tragic development? I am reminded of the 2004 discussion between future pope Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger and Marxist philosopher Jürgen Habermas, focusing on the future of religion in a Europe that would become increasingly secular. In this situation what common ground, if any, could be found between Christianity and European secularism? Ratzinger’s primary claim is that “[the human person’s] being bears within itself values and norms that must be discovered — but not invented.”
Is that not something we witness in The Florida Project? Even in the culture of the hidden homeless, moms need to take care of their kids. Sean Baker seems to be saying that justice will prevail and that irresponsibility has consequences. Even there, one’s sins will find one out.
But this leads me to perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the film for me: the way Baker tells the story and makes the point. He does so without a shred of pretension or sanctimonious judgment, and for this he deserves applause. Surely this was a challenge for him: in our current cultural milieu there is pressure to avoid at all costs even the appearance of shaming an underprivileged class.
Shaming, Baker does not do. Truth-telling, he does.
And for this reason, along with Baker’s ability to tell the stories of marginalized communities in their own idiom, The Florida Project amounts to a compelling case study – a story of a family struggling to get by in a culture which is foreign to me. Foreign to me, and hence worthy of my interest and attention.
Surely St. Dominic would agree.
Fr. Matt Boulter is the associate rector at Christ Church in Tyler, Texas, and a PhD candidate in medieval philosophy at Maynooth University, Ireland.