The Reproach of a Box of Treasure – Lifeboat and the Treasures of the Church

From the crisis of today the Church of tomorrow will emerge—a Church that has lost much. She will become small and will have to start afresh … It will be hard going for the Church, for the process … will make her poor.

-Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, 1969

It is the reproach of a box of treasure, that once overboard it must drown.

-Herman Melville




Ever since God flooded the world and used a salvific watercraft to protect the few survivors, the application of nautical analogies to the Church has seemed perfectly natural. Sometimes the formula works in reverse, too—one can analyze stories with a nautical motif through a Catholic lens and derive cogent meaning therefrom.

Alfred Hitchcock’s Lifeboat is one example. Set during World War II, the film opens with a battle between a Merchant Marine freighter and a Nazi U-boat. Both vessels are sunk. Eight passengers from the freighter manage to find their way onto a battered lifeboat; one German winds up aboard with them.

The film follows this group until the brink of their rescue. Over the course of the time they are adrift at sea, they battle storms, disease, hunger, thirst, and one another. The entirety of the film’s action occurs upon the tiny boat.

But the film is not action-driven; rather, the drama transpires in the cramped spaces between the inadvertent vagabonds. Therein, life stories are swapped, survival staples are shared, punches are thrown, and words are bandied about—which occasionally catalyze the transformation of the interpersonal into the internecine. Read as a quasi-allegory for the Church, this film yields countless meaningful nuggets. But I shall focus on one thread, that of Lifeboat as a cautionary tale about the dangers of abandoning time-tested treasures.

*             *             *

Freelance journalist and writer Connie Porter is the first passenger aboard the lifeboat. With the help of Joe “Charcoal” Spencer—the ship’s steward, and a deeply spiritual man—she has salvaged several valuables from the shipwreck, including a camera, a typewriter, a fur coat, a suitcase, and a diamond bracelet—“the bare necessities,” according to her.

Next to arrive is John Kovac. The pair begins to disagree immediately.




“Lady, you certainly don’t look like somebody that’s just been shipwrecked,” pants the out-of-breath Kovac.

“Man, I certainly feel like it.” Connie responds.

“I thought this lifeboat was abandoned,” says Kovac.

“Not by me, it wasn’t,” says Connie. “It looked pretty good to me.”

Thus is the stage set for the great love/hate saga of the picture.

Kovac is full of passion, conviction, and fiery opinions, many of which betray Communist sympathies—as Connie is quick to note—and each of which he is fully convinced is completely correct. The acting upon these convictions leads directly—whether intentionally or not—to the tossing overboard of Connie’s possessions, one after another.

*             *             *

Interpretation of this film as a Catholic allegory requires the acceptance of a few fundamental premises, all of which are beautifully stated in the quote from Cardinal Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI) cited at the outset. Firstly, one must agree that the Church was in crisis at the time that statement was made. One must also agree that we are currently a Church that has lost much.

Building upon these foundational theses, one can interpret the Merchant Marine freighter as the Church in better times—when its Sunday pews were full, its socio-political influence was strong, its laity was well-catechized, and its teachings were more consistently and clearly disseminated by its priests and bishops. The torpedoes represent the forces of secularism, modernism, relativism, and other such deleterious forces. And the battered lifeboat symbolizes the Church of today—one which has lost scores of adherents, has had its reputation tarnished by scandal, and has gutted its own storehouses.

Viewed through this lens, Connie’s possessions assume meaningful significance—they can be interpreted as various treasures of the Church. And just like Connie’s possessions, many of these treasures have been abandoned or destroyed over recent decades.

*             *             *




The first item to hit the waves is Connie’s camera. It contains film with powerful images documenting her war-related experiences, which Connie describes as “irreplaceable.” Similarly, the majority of our churches were once filled with timeless art depicting the history and heroes of the Church. But pastors and church architects dispensed with traditional imagery and architectural styles in the late 20th century, exchanging exquisitely ornate high altars for non-descript rectangular boxes on wheels, and trading stained glass for minimalist woodcuts and blank, whitewashed walls.




In the end, beauty that transcends trends, sparks the imagination, and hints at the splendor of heaven was traded for a now-outdated aesthetic almost as close to the sublime as the waiting rooms in dental offices.




The next item lost is Connie’s fur coat. It can be interpreted to represent clerical vestments. Before the reforms beginning in the 1960’s, vestments were made exclusively from high-quality natural fibers like silk and linen, and were heavily embellished and embroidered, often with thread made of real gold.




These days, most vestments are made of polyester, with low-quality embellishments that more readily evoke the cheap flashiness of cellophane tinsel than the opulent grandeur befitting priests, prophets, and kings.




Let’s not forget the abandonment of the cassock as the priestly “uniform.” It is not unusual for modern priests to wear the same leisure clothes a doctor, banker, or basketball player might wear. In so doing, they have become, in outward essence, just like everybody else. A friend recently related an anecdote about having met a priest without having realized that is what she had done—after all, there was nothing about his attire that suggested his vocation. When the person who introduced her later referred to the man she’d met as “Father So-And-So,” my friend became angry. She felt she had been tricked in some way—betrayed, even—and would have shown more deference and respect, had she known she had been speaking to someone who regularly acts in the person of Christ.




Connie’s typewriter is the third item lost. This can be interpreted as representing the liturgy, which was radically overhauled in the mid-20th century, particularly after Vatican II. Vatican II’s intended purpose was the spiritual renewal of the Church. However, the radical changes made to the liturgy under the so-called “spirit of Vatican II” prevented this goal from being achieved—indeed, the result was an epic failure. The numbers of priests, parishes, Catholic schools (and students therein), and baptisms, have all dropped dramatically since the close of the Council in 1965; meanwhile, the number of adults who have left the Church has skyrocketed. Furthermore, although the vernacularization of the Mass, disposition shift from ad orientem to versus populum, and other liturgical changes were meant to make the Mass more appealing to the faithful, and thereby to increase attendance, the reforms appear to have accomplished the exact opposite—in 1965, 55% of self-identified Catholics attended Mass every week, whereas by 2015, the number had dropped to a pitiful 24%.

Next to bite the dust is Connie’s suitcase. This can be interpreted to symbolize the tabernacle. While church architects and design professionals were busy transforming the breathtaking into the banal, they often moved the location of the tabernacle from its proper place of prominence to the liturgical equivalent of the kids’ table. Although not dispensed with entirely, it can be difficult to locate the tabernacle in many modern churches. A friend recently visited a church where the tabernacle wasn’t in the sanctuary, or on a separate altar beside the pews, or even in the main part of the church, but was, rather, down a hall, next to the bathroom.

But the last item—Connie’s diamond bracelet—is most important of all. It was a gift that cost her nothing; she describes it as having “worked miracles” for her, and as having gotten her everything she wanted. Kovac describes it as a “handcuff,” and devotes a large portion of the film to trying to convince Connie to abandon it, or sulking when she refuses.




Near the end of the film, when the passengers are starving and dying of thirst, Connie suggests they use this sparkling treasure as fish bait. Indeed, they catch a huge fish in no time flat via this method, but a looming Nazi supply ship on the horizon is sufficient distraction to cause the crew to let go of the line, and, consequently, the bracelet that could have fed them all.

Like the diamonds on the bracelet, the traditions of the Church are flawless, beautiful, and were forged over a long period of time under great stress. They are also capable of keeping countless people well-fed indefinitely.

Let us not allow the looming enemy to distract or distress us into casting them aside.

*             *             *

So what about that looming Nazi supply ship?

As it nears, the passengers aboard the lifeboat seem resigned to their fate, even relieved to be reaching the end of their tribulation-filled voyage, although they will be in the hands of the enemy and likely bound for a concentration camp. Just as the ship begins to close the distance, an Allied shell falls from the sky. In no time flat, the supply ship is headed down to Davy Jones’s Locker.

A remote Allied ship approaches. The passengers quickly begin to plan what they will do when they return to normal life.

Connie and Kovac look at one another lovingly. “Don’t forget,” says Connie, “you owe me a bracelet.”

“Yows’m,” says Kovac with an agreeable smile.

“And a typewriter.”


“And a camera.”

“You bet.”

And what about us? We’ve not yet been rescued—we’re still in the lifeboat. So will we go happily into the hands of those who’ll gleefully destroy us? Or will we hold out for final victory, a restoration of our treasures, and the eventual re-establishment of fraternal accord within the Church? It is a decision each of us must make, over and over, every day.

Lord, your Church often seems like a boat about to sink, a boat taking in water on every side … The soiled garments and face of your Church throw us into confusion. Yet it is we ourselves who have soiled them! It is we who betray you time and time again … When we fall, we drag you down to earth, and Satan laughs, for he hopes that you will not be able to rise from that fall; he hopes that being dragged down in the fall of your Church, you will remain prostrate and overpowered. But you will rise again. You stood up, you arose and you can also raise us up. Save and sanctify your Church. Save and sanctify us all.

-Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, 2005




Calvary on the Docks: Catholic Themes in On the Waterfront

“You want to know what’s wrong with our waterfront? … It’s making the love of a buck, the cushy job, more important than the love of man. It’s forgetting that every fellow down here is your brother in Christ. But remember, Christ is always with you … And He’s saying with all of you, if you do it to the least of mine, you do it to me.”

-Father Barry, On the Waterfront


Though it may at first glance seem like nothing more than a sophisticated gangster movie, Elia Kazan’s 1954 film On the Waterfront has profoundly Catholic themes simmering just below the story’s surface. In fact, it can be argued that the film is a meditation on the Communion of Saints masquerading as a tale about a labor union commandeered by truly grave sinners. Don’t expect to hear the phrase “communion of saints” uttered by any of the characters, because you won’t find it within the script. However, this concept is both implicit and incessant; it is embroidered over the entire fabric of the film.

The basic plot follows Terry Malloy on his journey from small-time thug to star witness before the waterfront crime commission. In the opening scenes, John Friendly—the corrupt boss of the local longshoremen’s union—and his gang of crooks murder Joey Doyle, a union member who was set to testify against them. Terry plays a small, but integral, part in the killing. Of course, there is no evidence linking any of the perpetrators to the crime. The victim’s sister, Edie, is determined to bring the killers to justice. The local priest, Father Barry, also gets involved, encouraging members to stand up against union corruption.

Most of the characters in On the Waterfront are members of the union, which should, in theory, provide various benefits in exchange for their contributions. The same characters, knowingly or not, are also part of a less-tangible, more abstract, but equally real, and far more important organization, so to speak—the Communion of Saints. Two characters in the film are attuned to this reality and behave accordingly; both are practicing Catholics—Father Barry and Edie. These two characters act as champions of virtue, persuading others to become better citizens.

Within the microcosm of the film, good citizenship within the Communion of Saints can be attained by devoting proper attention to the Four Cs: Charity, Conscience, Confession, and Conversion. The film’s hero, Terry Malloy, journeys through all four.



After Terry advises Edie to abandon the search for Joey’s killers, he justifies his position, saying, “I’m only trying to help you out. I’m trying to keep you from getting hurt, what more do you want me to do?” Edie responds: “Much more. Much, much, much more.” Indeed, in the moral code of the film, the Golden Rule is of foremost importance, and people are honor-bound to assist others. After all, as Edie says: “Shouldn’t everybody care about everybody else? I mean, isn’t everybody a part of everybody else?”

Father Barry states the film’s philosophy well:

Some people think the Crucifixion only took place on Calvary. They better wise up … Every time the mob puts the crusher on a good man, tries to stop him from doing his duty as a citizen – it’s a crucifixion. And anybody who sits around and lets it happen, keeps silent about something he knows has happened, shares the guilt of it just as much as the Roman soldier who pierced the flesh of Our Lord …

Putting the duty to actively care for others more succinctly, Edie asks, “Did you ever hear of a saint hiding in a church?”

Conversely, the failure to act charitably toward others is painted as a grave offense with harsh consequences. “That’s what makes people mean and difficult,” Edie opines. “People don’t care enough about them.” We find Terry, in contrast to Edie, living in a decidedly uncharitable manner at the film’s outset; when Edie asks him whether he is on the side of the gangsters or those whom they oppress, he replies: “Me? I’m with me.” He even tries to convert Edie to his self-centered mentality: “Quit worrying about the truth all the time and start worrying about yourself.” Her response to this suggestion, which runs completely counter to both the morality of the film and Catholic doctrine, is to connect Terry’s low social status with his egocentric ethos: “No wonder everybody calls you a bum.”

Terry got to be a bum, not only through his lack of charity toward others, but also due to others’ lack of charity toward him. In Terry’s famous monologue, he confronts his brother Charley for failing to stand up to his mob associates, and instead encouraging Terry to take the dive that prematurely ended his boxing career. “You was my brother, Charley, you shoulda looked out for me a little bit. You shoulda taken care of me just a little bit so I wouldn’t have to take them dives for the short-end money.” With abject regret, he continues, “I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am.” Terry has no particular accomplishments or assets. The only person who respects him is a neighborhood kid; everybody else considers him a bum, just as Edie said. The reason? “It was you, Charley,” Terry bluntly concludes. Had Charley acted charitably toward Terry, things might have turned out differently.





As we grow in charity, our consciences become better-attuned. This is certainly true of Terry Malloy. As he begins to learn about the importance of charity–principally from his associations with Edie and Father Barry–he begins to feel pangs of conscience for his role in Joey Doyle’s murder.

The film emphasizes the importance of a well-formed conscience directly and repeatedly. When Terry goes to Father Barry for advice, Father Barry at first speaks passionately about Terry’s “brothers,” who are being exploited by the very men Terry’s silence protects—again, alluding to the Communion of Saints. Then he cuts himself off, saying, “Nevermind. I’m not asking you to do anything, it’s your own conscience that’s got to do the asking.” A mere fifteen minutes later Edie says something similar: “I don’t want you to do anything. You let your conscience tell you what to do.”

A properly formed conscience is, in fact, so important that it has its own totem: Joey Doyle’s jacket. Pop Doyle passes it from Joey, who was set to be the first conscientious actor against the mob, to Kayo Dugan. Over the course of the time Dugan has the jacket, his conscience is shaped, and he makes a turnabout; he shifts from believing Joey should have “learn[ed] to keep his mouth shut,” to being the next man in line to testify. After Dugan is murdered for breaking his silence, the jacket is handed over to Terry. He, in turn, experiences a similar conscientious transformation, leading to his own testimony before the commission, and, ultimately, his final showdown with John Friendly.





The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that every sin, no matter how private or personal, harms the entirety of the Communion of Saints (953). The normal method for seeking absolution is via Confession. Likewise, in On the Waterfront, confession of covert criminal activity is essential to restoring the health of the community, the entirety of which is damaged by said crimes. One might say the entire story hangs on the importance of this principle: only Terry’s confession of two key crimes/sins—namely, Joey Doyle’s murder, and John Friendly’s racketeering operations—can restore proper order based on charity, and rectify the harm done to the community.

After receiving Joey’s jacket, Terry takes the first steps toward confession. Most appropriately, Terry first seeks his priest after deciding to come clean. But, just as in the Confiteor we confess our sins before all the saints, Terry cannot confess to Father Barry alone. Indeed, the latter advises Terry to immediately confess his part in Joey Doyle’s murder to Edie, which Terry does. Interestingly, this second confession is almost entirely drowned out by the sound of a steamship whistle, making it, like the confessions of our fellow parishioners, confidential. The parallels between Terry’s confession to Edie and those of a sacramental nature are amplified by the two select phrases we are allowed to hear: “Honest to God,” and “I swear to God.”

Terry’s final confession, of course, must be before the general public—the entire Communion of Saints—in the form of his testimony before the crime commission.





All of the above steps lead naturally toward conversion. In this overtly secular film, however, conversion is not explicitly religious in nature, but, rather, is manifested by a transformation from egocentrism and apathy to dynamic charity and virtuous action.

We first witness the beginnings of Terry’s conversion process during Father Barry’s impromptu eulogy of Kayo Dugan. When one of John Friendly’s trigger men throws garbage at Father Barry, Terry scolds him, saying, “Hey, don’t do that,” and “Let him finish.” When the same hood tries to throw something else, Terry socks him in the face. He does all of this in the sight of John Friendly and his union thugs—all of whom have been, up to this point, Terry’s associates.

The next major step in Terry’s conversion process comes when he decides not to pursue violent revenge against John Friendly for murdering his brother Charley. Instead, he chooses to take the high road and seek justice by testifying before the crime commission. His actual testimony is yet another big step—he names Joey Doyle’s killers in front of the murderers themselves, as well as a packed courtroom and rolling cameras. These two steps demonstrate his transformation from a self-centered, opportunist bum to a responsible citizen within the Communion of Saints.

But the ultimate evidence of this change occurs during the final showdown with John Friendly at the film’s finale. Friendly has a whole crew of hired muscle to help him win his fistfight with Terry, and Terry is inevitably beaten nearly unconscious. The other longshoremen, however, are moved by Terry’s courage and integrity, and decide to take a stand of their own—they refuse to go back to work unless Terry, who has been blackballed by Friendly, goes with them. Bruised, bloodied, and dizzy with pain, Terry drags himself down the dock and onto the job, affirming the men’s ultimatum, and effectively destroying Friendly’s grip on the union in one swift stroke.

Terry hereby performs the preeminent act of charity—he sacrifices himself for the sake of others. In the closing scene, he and his fellow longshoremen march through the warehouse door, just as though they were marching through the gates of heaven. The final image is that of the door closing, with John Friendly vociferously on the outside.

As stated before, this is an overtly secular film; however, there are clearly strong Catholic themes woven throughout. Furthermore, it indubitably promotes virtue, in stark contrast to the vast volume of vice spewing from most modern blockbusters. Although some of the content makes the film too gritty for children, I believe most adult Catholics will find it to be edifying, perhaps even inspiring. In these outrageously self-centered times, any creative work that reminds us of our connectedness with, and obligations to, the rest of humanity can be like a cool, clean drink of water on a parched tongue. If you find yourself feeling thirsty, give On the Waterfront a try.




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