NEW YORK (CNS) — In the end, Roger Ebert’s doubts about his Catholic faith may not have been what really mattered. Chicago’s Holy Name Cathedral was, after all, the chosen venue for his April 8 funeral Mass, and it was packed to the rafters.
Arguably the nation’s best-known film critic, Ebert, 70 — who had written for the Chicago Sun-Times since 1967 and had hosted TV programs for decades — died April 4 of the salivary gland and thyroid cancer that cost him his lower jaw and his ability to speak in 2006. He continued to write until April 2, when he announced that he would take a “leave of presence” and write fewer movie reviews because the disease had recurred.
When he knew he was dying, Ebert wrote about his religious upbringing in the same unsparingly frank style that had endeared him to the many fans of his reviews. He made it clear that, all along, his readers had been encountering a specifically Catholic outlook. Yet he was just as straightforward in expressing his uncertainties.
“I consider myself Catholic, lock, stock and barrel, with this technical loophole: I cannot believe in God,” he wrote in a March 1 blog post entitled “How I Am Catholic.” He added, “I refuse to call myself an atheist, however, because that indicates too great a certainty about the unknowable.”
In a 2009 blog post, “How I Believe in God,” he said he hated easy labels: “I am not a believer, not an atheist, not an agnostic. … I am more content with the question than I would be with an answer.”
“All my life,” wrote Ebert, who won the Pulitzer Prize for his criticism in 1975, “I have deplored those who interpret something only on its most simplistic level.”
He received what he called his “core moral and political principles” from the Dominican nuns who taught at the now-closed St. Mary’s Grade School in Westville, Ill. “Many of them involved a social contract between God and man, which represented classical liberalism based on empathy and economic fairness. We heard much of (Pope) Leo XIII’s encyclical ‘Rerum Novarum’ (‘On Capital and Labor’).”
In March, he wrote of his early education during the era before the Second Vatican Council: “The morning hour in religion was my favorite class. As we advanced through the grades, it began simply, in memorizing chapters from the Baltimore Catechism, and concluded in eighth grade with the four lives of Christ as told in the New Testament.”
A study of the Book of Genesis “led us toward the theory of evolution, which in its elegance and blinding obviousness became one of the pillars of my reasoning, explaining so many things in so many ways. It was an introduction not only to logic but to symbolism, thus opening a window into poetry, literature and the arts in general.”
In 2010, Ebert wrote about being an altar boy at St. Patrick Church in Urbana, Ill. “I believe I could serve Mass to this day. There was something satisfying about the sound of Latin.” He once observed, in response to a blog comment, “The words ‘Miserere nobis’ (‘Have mercy on us’) really strike a chord within me.”
Ebert’s father, Walter, was an inactive Lutheran until a deathbed conversion to Catholicism. His mother, Annabel, about whom he often wrote, nourished a profound Catholic faith. She “believed in the faith until the hour of her death. In her final days, she lapsed into a comatose state. … Under her breath, barely audible, she repeated the ‘Hail, Mary’ over and over.”
Ebert began co-hosting “Sneak Previews” with Gene Siskel, film critic of the Chicago Tribune, in 1975 on public television. It was on this program that the pair introduced the simple, but highly effective, “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” for movies — assessments that became their copyrighted trademark. Retitled “Siskel and Ebert at the Movies,” the half-hour program went into national syndication in 1982, bringing the duo their widest audiences.
After Siskel’s 1999 death, Ebert continued the show with other co-hosts. Following his jaw surgery, Ebert was replaced by Michael Phillips, film critic of the Chicago Tribune. The series stopped airing in 2008. A 2011 revival — in which Ebert’s reviews were spoken by others — was not successful.
— Kurt Jensen is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.