Having just watched Gran Torino, I was surprised to find Eastwood taking another shot at the Catholic Church. The last one was Million Dollar Baby, which drew a lot of controversy over its message over euthanasia. In both films Eastwood plays a cantankerous old man who bullies a young, inexperienced priest. He always gets the better of the conversation, leaving the Priest slack-jawed.
If he means it as simply a ribbing, then the films would not have anti-Catholic animus I am suggesting. But in both movies he engages the priests in a serious conversation and at a crucial moment in the story. And both times Catholicism is depicted negatively.
In Million Dollar Baby Eastwood’s character, Frankie Dunn, has to decide whether he will euthanize a loved one (Hilary Swank’s character). He goes to the priest, Fr. Horvak, for advice. At this point the viewer might think the previous conversations were not to be taken seriously since Frankie sought Fr. Horvak and not the other way around. Moreover, he would expect Fr. Horvak, as a representative for Catholicism, to explain the Church’s teaching on euthanasia. Instead, he says, “Forget about God or heaven and hell. If you do this thing, you'll be lost. Somewhere so deep you'll never find yourself again.” A professed agnostic couldn’t have said it better himself. The implied standard is the autonomous individual and being “true to yourself.”
In light of this scene, I can see why Michael Medved argued that the film’s story is just a cover for a pro-euthanasia tract. The Catholic Church is the most visible and vocal opponent of euthanasia so putting a priest in such a conversation and then distorting the Church’s teaching is one way to get people to come around on the issue; A dishonest way, but a way nevertheless.
Gran Torino, Eastwood’s most recent film, deals with gang violence. He plays Walt Kowalski, an old man in a crime infested neighborhood who decides to do something about the violence. Having made fun of the priest, Father Janovich, the entire film, Walt wants to go to confession with him before he faces the local gang. Again, the viewer might think the earlier conversations between the two did not really reflect Walt’s intentions since he is willing to confess to Fr. Janovich now. But his confession turns out to be a big joke as his list of sins is so insignificant that Fr. Janovich becomes disgusted with him. During the entire film, Janovich has suspected Walt has been hiding something and he is right about that. Walt killed an unarmed man in the Korean War and received a medal for it. The guilt has plagued him ever since. Unfortunately, he confesses that to Thao, the boy he is mentoring, not Fr. Janovich. And the reason for that is obvious: he doesn’t take the “Padre” and his Church seriously. To add insult to injury, Eastwood puts these words in Fr. Janovich’s mouth at the end of the film: “Walt definitely had no problem calling it like he saw it. But he was right. I knew really nothing about life or death, until I got to know Walt... and boy, did I learn.” The young priest is taught how the world really works by the seasoned stoic. Humility is a virtue, but at the very least Eastwood could have depicted the Padre with some self-respect.