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.
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.”
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