In the midst of the clerical sex abuse scandals that have broken around the world, Spiderman has a timely message; with authority and power come responsibility. From those to whom much has been given, it is written, much will be expected — and not just by anguished laity, outraged media and determined attorneys general. Handcuffs are far less confining than millstones.
Yet there is another message in the movie that is equally relevant.
The opening lines of the movie Spiderman explain that the story is about a boy’s love for a girl. Peter Parker, the science nerd, is infatuated with Mary Jane, the girl next door. Through a series of tumbles and twists in the plot, Mary Jane gradually recognizes his feelings for her, and finally falls in love with him. This she discloses to Parker in the final scene; a delighted audience looks on warmly, as he begins to stutter his response. He promises that he will always be there for her, that he will always look out for her, and that he will always be a friend to her.
This is not the answer expected by Mary Jane.
“That’s all I have to give,” Parker says gently, before walking away.
What’s going on here?
A Spiderman fan will argue that the movie must end this way to be consistent with the comic book series. A cynic, on the other hand, will conclude that the ending was designed to get the audience back for Spiderman II. Both may be right. Yet it may also be that in seeing they do not see, and in hearing they do not hear. Spiderman is a work of fiction, not fact, but it can still communicate goodness and truth. The closing scene of the movie expresses, in the idiom of cinematic culture, a pivotal truth about man. “Man can fully discover his true self,” wrote the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council, “only in a sincere giving of himself.1
Parker’s experience through the course of the movie had made it clear to him that he would endanger Mary Jane if he pursues a deeper relationship with her. With the words of his beloved uncle echoing in his memory, he recognizes that he is called to a way of life that requires him to give up a beautiful relationship with the woman he loves. Equally important, he understands that the good he chooses to serve by pursuing his vocation as Spiderman is also truly good for her.
Parker sacrifices what is most dear to him to do the good that he sees needs to be done for others, including Mary Jane. His is an unselfish act of love, the very antithesis of the corrupting slogan, “If it feels good, do it.”
This is an unexpected gift in a most unlikely wrapping. In the darkest days of clerical scandal and malfeasance, the essential reason for priestly and religious celibacy is illuminated by a box office hit.
Of course, Spiderman can convey only the essential notion. Peter Parker gives up a relationship to pursue a greater good, and the audience recognizes his choice as a noble one. But celibacy in the Catholic tradition, while it involves the same kind of sacrifice, is primarily about forming a new relationship rather than giving one up. A vow of celibacy is a means by which one enters into or deepens a personal relationship with Jesus Christ by imitating Him more closely.2 For priests, who are configured to Christ through the sacrament of Order, the imitative personal relationship is of particular significance.3
This aspect of celibacy is fundamental because one cannot expect mere altruism to sustain a life of self-sacrificing service. One must also draw closer to the Lord in prayer, in contemplation, in the sacraments, and in docility to His teaching preserved and interpreted by the magisterium. Apart from cases that might be explained by some underlying pathology, look to a failure to maintain a relationship with Jesus Christ and His spouse, the Church, to explain the conduct of priests who have perverted their relationships with others.
These considerations are obviously beyond the reach of Spiderman, which is not, after all, a cinematic encyclical. But, for anyone seeking an accessible explanation for the discipline of priestly celibacy, the closing scene of the movie is worth the price of admission.
3. Vatican Council II, Presbyterorum Ordinis (1965) 12, 16; Optatam Totius (1965) 10; Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1581; John Paul II, “Homily of 1 February, 1985 in Metropolitan Cathedral, Lima, Peru,” 2, in The Joy of Fidelity. Boston: Daughters of St. Paul, 1987, P. 41-42; John Paul II, “Address to the ecclesial community of Luxemborg, 16 May, 1985,” in The Joy of Fidelity. Boston: Daughters of St. Paul, 1987, P. 114
(Originally published June 20, 2002).