Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God / Going Clear: Scientoloy and the Prison of Belief

Oscar winning director Alex Gibney has made two documentaries about religion: Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God, which is about the Catholic Church, and Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief, which is about Scientology (as you might have been able to guess from it's title.) On the surface the two movies are very different, since Mea Maxima Culpa is focused on a very small number of individuals in a very large institution while Going Clear is a more generalized expose about the entire Church of Scientology from it's founding to its present. However, both documentaries are ultimately interested in the same issue - namely how organizations that were intended to help their communities grew corrupt and abusive - and when you look at them together you get a fairly thorough portrait of the many negative aspects of organized religion.

Let's look at Mea Maxima Culpa first. This documentary focuses on the Catholic Church's many sex scandals. It begins by focusing on a small group of deaf men from Wisconsin who were sent to Catholic schools when they were young because their parents thought that the Priests would be better prepared to teach their disabled children than the local public schools. However, many of the boys were sexually assaulted by one particular priest who specifically targeted the children who only spoke sign language because they had a harder time of reporting the abuse. Mea Maxima Culpa then broadens it's focus a bit to show how this was not an isolated incident and how this sort of reprehensible behavior was happening in cities across the globe. Then it expands a bit more to show how the higher ups in the Church were fully aware of what was going on in these various parishes. Then it concludes by showing how deeply complicit the Church was in covering up all of these crimes - how every step of the chain of command all the way up to the Pope was notified of these abuses, and how guilty priests were protected over and over again, and how no one was ever punished for their crimes.

In contrast, Going Clear starts off at Scientology's top by examining L. Ron Hubbard, the church's founder, and then working it's way down to the little people who have paid the price for his ambition. The film's first half makes it abundantly clear that Hubbard was not a credible religious prophet. For example, he claimed on multiple occasions that he wanted to start a religion because he thought it would be financially lucrative, a fact that should make anyone dubious of any of his spiritual claims. Also, Going Clear makes a compelling case that Hubbard was a pathological liar since it shows how he regularly boasted a history of personal accomplishments that were easily proven false. (For example: he claimed he mastered his own body to such a great degree that he had become immortal but then he died thirty years ago.)

Once Going Clear has established Scientology's unlikely and unlikeable roots, the movie then moves forward to the present day, where it has become a multi-billion dollar institution that still has the same paranoid mindset of a cult. The church's modern day abuses follow a pattern that will be familiar to anyone who knows anything about fringe religions - for example, the church demands that all church members refuse all contact with ex-church members (a decree which breaks families up) and it also demands that it's members work for such minimal wages and for such long hours that they might as well be slaves, two practices that are fairly common in cults. However, Going Clear establishes that the church's vast size and resources allows it to go above and beyond what a smaller group could do. Most cults can't hit the IRS with so many lawsuits that the government is forced to capitulate to their demands.

In a way, it's unfair to lump these two very different films together. After all, the films have such different approaches - the Catholic Church is so old that you could never cram all of it's history into one documentary, while Scientology is such a new church that you have to explain what it is and what it's about before you can make any sort of case against it. Furthermore, the cases against the churches are so different - Mea Maxima Culpa is trying to take a problem that most people probably know about in the abstract and then explain what really happened in concrete detail, while Going Clear is designed to shed light on dozens of crimes ranging from blackmail to domestic terrorism that Scientologists committed without receiving much public scrutiny. (By the way, I wasn't exaggerating when I accused them of "domestic terrorism": one of the Church's defining policies is "never retreat, always attack" policy, so when the FBI began investigating Scientology it's members began to break into the FBI's offices to steal anti-Scientology documents and to spy on the government.)

Also, the two films have vastly different tones - Mea Maxima Culpa is about such heinous crimes that it's devestatingly sad from start to finish, but there are several occasions where Going Clear takes a break from listing Scientology's various abuses to gossip about celebrities, since it wants to make a case that famous Hollywood stars like Tom Cruise and John Travolta are endorsing the church's abuses every time they publicly proselytize about their faith. In almost every way these two religions are different, and the films reflect that by approaching their stories in such different ways...

Which is why they are actually so complimentary to each other. If you were to look at one movie but not the other it would seem as if they were just focusing on a small problem, since Mea Maxima Culpa is basically about a handful of abusive priests and Going Clear is about a relatively small religion. (Going Clear claims that Scientology has about 50,000 members, which might seem like a lot, but it is a drop in the bucket compared to more established faith like Catholicism.) Taken together, however, you begin to see that they are documenting an endemic problem, since they are fundamentally addressing how absolute power corrupts absolutely and how too many people are willing to give their church absolute power.

The key to connecting the two movies comes from Lawrence Wright, the author of the book Going Clear, and his phrase "the prison of belief", which is how he describes people's tendency to misplace their faith in fallible institutions. Those parents that sent their deaf children to Catholic school had complete trust in their local priests, whom they assumed were servants drawn to a higher calling; it seems like they never stopped to think that the priests might not be good people, even after their children started trying to warn them. Similarly, there are a lot of people who are still in Scientology (especially high level figures like Tom Cruise) who should be appalled at all of the church's well documented crimes, but who can apparently excuse every scandal they hear about on the grounds that anyone who would dare profane Scientology is ignorant, bitter, or crazy. These two movies make it clear that such blind faith is not a good idea, because it blinds the faithful to harsh realities they need to be aware of.

Of course, if you actually wanted to create a complete portrait of religion you would need at least one extra movie that showed how spiritually can be a positive force, since that's definitely part of the religious experience, too. But while that hypothetical third documentary would help round out our understanding of what a church should do, it would not contradict the portrait that we get from Mea Maxima Culpa and Going Clear. Both films are ultimately not taking a stance on whether people should be interested in spiritual questions, nor are they attacking the very concept of faith, nor are they claiming that all religions are corrupt. They are, however, showing that blind faith in any organization is a dangerous thing, because we need to hold spiritual leaders accountable the same way we would hold any other human being accountable. At the end of the day, it doesn't matter what type of robe you're wearing, you shouldn't be allowed to get away with sexually abusing a child, or holding another human being in bondage.

Winner: No One Wins With This Shit (but I'm glad I saw both movies)

Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God on IMDB

Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief on IMDB