Note: This article originates from a quite nerdy conversation with Fr. Mike Schmitz; it is the fruit of his thought. I felt called to share it with a wider audience for the education of many and the salvation of souls.
From my earliest memories I was Batman. I grew up on the ‘90s Batman cartoons, having all the toys, and delegating my little brother to be Robin (and only Robin). It’s been a treat to grow up as the franchise has matured under Christopher Nolan’s film direction, and I believe that we are living in the “golden age” of comic book films. The heroes that captivated my childhood now dominate the summer movie scene and previously considered “second tier” heroes like Iron Man have been given new life.
The universes of superheroes—from DC to Marvel and beyond—certainly have their range in temperaments, foibles, and origins. Akin to the myths of ancient Greece, these stories of great heroes stir up the excitement and imagination of countless young men and women. Perhaps it’s not coincidence that just as our culture of scientism has devalued and lost its ability to value classical myths and the art of storytelling, do these heroes emerge to rekindle our awe and give flight to our imaginations.
As Christians, we can look deeper to what these heroes stand for and draw truths from their stories. Surely we can learn selflessness from the example of Superman, discipline and sacrifice from Batman, or even the value of anger-management from Wolverine (well…maybe not). It was Fr. Mike Schmitz, however, who pointed out to me the “Catholicity” of Captain America (a character I never really appreciated before the films) above all the other heroes. Fr. Mike’s three major points regarding the Captain followed as such: (1) integration of virtue, (2) lack of a double-identity, and (3) willingness to sacrifice his own life. After pouring over the facts and spending much time in prayer, I find myself compelled to agree that Captain America could be argued to be the “most Catholic” of all the superheroes.
Integration of Virtue
Steve Rogers was a scrawny student living during the Great Depression. When the Second World War broke out, Rogers attempted to enlist (several times) but was rejected due to his weak and fragile physique. Desperate to serve, he volunteered for “Operation: Rebirth,” a medical experiment attempting to create a new breed of superior soldiers from a “super serum.” Rogers transformed from a weakling to the burly biceped Captain America. After serving in Europe and fighting the Nazi forces, a sequence of events led to his fall into the Northern Atlantic and being frozen by the icy waters. He survived due to the effects of the super serum (it’s a comic book, people), and was uncovered and thawed out in the modern day. Hilarity and adventure ensues as Rogers attempts to cope with contemporary technology and leading the superhero team, the Avengers, in the 21st century.
In the seminary, our priests used to remind us over and over again that, “The seminarian you are today is the priest you’ll be tomorrow.” It could easily be interchanged with, “The boyfriend you are today is the husband you’ll be tomorrow.” Our everyday decisions are guiding the men or women we will become tomorrow. Grace builds upon nature, meaning that the Lord can only work with what we give Him. There’s no magical power that alters you on the day of your ordination or wedding—you’re still you and the reality of whatever habits, weaknesses you’ve acquired. If you’re not a morning person, you don’t magically become one; if you are a poor listener, you don’t become a master overnight. If you haven’t rooted out pornography or any other addiction before you’re married, it doesn’t magically go away once you make a vow. Human virtue is acquired “by education, by deliberate acts and by a perseverance ever-renewed in repeated efforts and are purified and elevated by divine grace” (CCC#1810).
The super-serum that transformed Rogers is akin to the ability of grace upon nature. While the application of the serum to Rogers’ body differs when you compare comic lore to the films, the basic premise is that the serum is amplifying the inner strength of the man. Rogers’ archenemy, Red Skull, is a German Nazi who is horribly disfigured when he injects himself with a similar strand of the serum. Red Skull’s lack of virtue corrupts him externally, whereas Rogers’ virtue forges him into a hero. “Good becomes great, but bad becomes worse,” Rogers is told before his procedure. Not that grace will ever corrupt one’s nature (like Red Skull), but it’s an effect quite becoming of sin. The task Rogers faces is to become, “Not a perfect soldier, but a good man.”
What’s a hero without his secret identity? Everyone knows Superman disguises himself with an all-powerful pair of glasses to become journalist Clark Kent, and Batman de-cowls to become businessman Bruce Wayne. Heck, even Tony Stark holds onto a degree of anonymity as a “genius, billionaire, playboy philanthropist” when he’s not flying around as Iron Man. But not Steve Rogers. Everyone knows that Steve Rogers is Captain Steve Rogers. “Captain America” is his uniform, not a Jekyll to his Hyde. This has consequences for Rogers’ day-to-day living.
Rogers seeks to be a man of integrity at all times. He doesn’t get to disrobe and be a brooding billionaire or a boyish womanizer. He is who he is. He doesn’t get a double-life. Even Rogers’ transformation is quite Catholic in that he doesn’t achieve his strength through super-secret training and iron discipline like Batman (a Gnostic approach), or through a “covering” of strength that only “coats” his exterior and leaves his interior unchanged like Iron Man (or Martin Luther’s theology). Rogers is truly transformed from the inside out, a good man through-and-through. For the Catholic person seeking holiness, he or she is sustained by sanctifying grace that truly transforms the soul, not merely covering it like a gold titanium alloy.
Tony Stark insults Captain America at one point in the Avengers film, calling him a “lab experiment” and that everything special about him “came out of a bottle.” I think a level-headed Steve Rogers would have simply replied, “Yeah, you’re right.” It would be similar to insulting Mother Teresa and saying everything special about her “came from the Holy Spirit.” She, and so many other saints, would likely respond, “Yeah, you’re right.” Having the humility to admit our dependence upon God our strength is the first step to integration and holiness. “Therefore, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and constraints, for the sake of Christ; for when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor. 12:10).
As a Christian, how many of us live with our “masks” of faith or have a “Christian double identity,” being overt disciples only at youth groups, summer camps, or when it’s convenient to do so? We can all fall into this laxity and it’s dangerous. You can only wear a mask so long before you become the mask itself.
One of my favorite scenes from all the Marvel films is near the beginning of Captain America: The First Avenger when the platoon is at basic training and Rogers’ superiors are speculating that he doesn’t have what it takes to be a soldier. His colonel lobs out a dummy grenade into the platoon and everyone scatters—everyone but Rogers. He alone throws himself—without hesitation—onto the grenade, not realizing it’s a dud. Everyone is speechless. I watch that scene and it challenges me—would I have the same courageous response? Before he ever had super strength, Rogers already lived the call to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.
*YE BE SPOILERS AHEAD* The finale of The Winter Soldier builds to a climactic fight upon an airship between Rogers and his old friend, Bucky Barnes, who had been similarly frozen and thawed, but genetically engineered to become an assassin by the Soviets. Rogers refuses to fight back against Bucky in hopes of breaking through the mind control Bucky is under. Bucky’s confusion mounts as his old friend refuses to exchange blows. When I watched the film in the theater, my brain immediately associated the docility of Steve Rogers to Christ being scourged at the pillar and his death on the Cross. Rogers would allow himself to be beaten to a pulp if it offered the slightest chance for the redemption of his friend. For we Christians who believe in the eternal Word, Who dwells outside of a earthly time and space, nothing could be more “old-fashioned” than giving one’s life up freely out of love.
“Old-fashioned.” It’s a phrase that seems to follow Captain America around. Perhaps the modern world, so quick to throw away our Christian roots and moral foundations, could use a greater dose of old-fashioned. Steve Rogers doesn’t merely fight for a sense of “justice”that lives in an abstract bubble; Steve Rogers fights because he is a good man, an integrated man of virtue who knows that he only finds himself through a sincere gift of self. “The price of freedom is high, and it’s a price I’m willing to pay.”
I wore my Captain America shirt on a recent trip Jackie and I made to Toronto over the 4th of July weekend. Obviously I had to support the good ‘ole U.S. of A., but also because I’m now a believer. We all have something to learn from these great heroes and heroines and their stories, stories that point us back to God, the first narrator from where all these stories of sacrifice and virtue flow. Captain America, I salute you!