Downton Abbey and Your opportunity to school me

I was “pwned” by a professional Catholic apologist today, but let’s start at the beginning…

My wife and I tried to watch the first episode of Downton Abbey the other week, thinking we’d preview one episode before we considered watching the show as a family. Everyone’s raving about it, and people I love and/or respect highly present it as a family-friendly masterpiece that is not to be missed. The family-friendly review sites give it high marks. The Catholic blogosphere and twitterverse is full of adulation for the show. Clearly a “must see.”

We got this far…

Rob James-Collier as Thomas kisses Charlie Cox as The Duke on the pilot of Downton Abbey

And that’s where it sat in our Netflix queue, and burned into my retinas, until we finally logged in to remove it from the queue entirely.

I’m the sort of guy who tries to figure out where the lines should be in an unmarked parking lot. As much as I’d like all parking lots to have clearly delineated spaces, they just don’t. God, in his mercy, allows enough gray in the universe that we can remain blissfully ignorant at best, or at the very least excuse ourselves, and thereby avoid the absolute despair of seeing clearly our abject unworthiness until such time that we value his love more highly than our own illusion of worthiness. But that’s another post about great saints and their bizarre insistence that they are, in fact, among the greatest sinners. In light of all this, I try to refrain from jumping to conclusions or making hasty judgments.

Anyway, I shelved my disquiet about Downton Abbey. It isn’t for me, or for my house, but perhaps our standards are too rigorous. Perhaps I just need to lighten up.

But it kept coming back.

This is a show that presents, for our entertainment, typical soap-opera delights such as theft, lying, blackmail, class warfare, and unchastity. The unchastity comes in your typical soap-opera flavors: hetrosexual or homosexual? between peers, or exploiting age and authority differences? consensual or coerced? While some elements may have given scandal fifty years ago, they’re common fare in modern times.

That is exactly the problem.

We’re not scandalized.

This is family-friendly entertainment.

This is the type of show that we don’t hurry to change if our pastor drops by.

This is what we tweet and status-update about.

There are so many reasons not to watch this show, and yet we do. For those struggling with homosexuality, or who have a loved one who is struggling with homosexuality, the show vilifies and demonizes homosexuals; they are caricature “bad guys” and generally rotten people. For those who mourn the degradation of our culture and the destruction of the family, we present a smorgasbord of unwholesomeness and depravity. We claim to “love the sinner and hate the sin,” but justify consuming the unwholesome material with the consolation that at least we’re holding “those people” up as examples of “badness.” That is the very opposite of our aim:

We love (to watch) the sin, but we justify ourselves by hating the sinner.

I hate it. I see it in myself too, but I hate it the more for that.

But what you really want to know is how I got pwned, right?

So… After another DA endorsement, I sent a private message to a couple of public personages I used to follow on Twitter, hoping to present a challenge that might elicit an enlightening response. After all, if their endorsement of the profane lead me to “unfollow” them, perhaps it has done the same to others. These are good men doing a good work, and perhaps a private word in season will go somewhere…

euphemos @EricHybner
@_nameWithheld_ So disappointed that you would promote a show that presents homosexuality and fornication for your amusement. #unfollowing

Enlightening response? Not so much… One of them replied:

@EricHybner So happy that you are not following me anymore. Thank you for that. #misguided

Ouch. One of us was just a complete jerk.

I’ve met this guy, listened to him at conferences, read his books, and appreciate much of what he has to say. He even played a role in my being received into the church. I am hesitant to dismiss him offhand. That, taken to its logical conclusion, implies that I am misguided. And probably a jerk.

I can’t do much about the jerk part. Perhaps I’ll grow out of it.

What about being misguided? Perhaps we can go somewhere with this.

Here’s where I am taking my guidance, in a nutshell:

We are to be like David, who knew he couldn’t entirely avoid unclean things, but resolved not to choose to set them before his eyes (Psalm 103).

We are called to strive (imperfectly, requiring mercy) to become like the righteous:

Whoever walks righteously and speaks honestly,
who spurns what is gained by oppression,
Who waves off contact with a bribe,
who stops his ears so as not to hear of bloodshed,
who closes his eyes so as not to look on evil –

That one shall dwell on the heights,
with fortresses of rock for stronghold,
food and drink in steady supply.
Isaiah 33

We are to heed the words of the Church in modern times (emphasis mine):


Chapter I.
7. Finally, the narration, description or portrayal of moral evil, even through the media of social communication, can indeed serve to bring about a deeper knowledge and study of humanity and, with the aid of appropriately heightened dramatic effects, can reveal and glorify the grand dimensions of truth and goodness. Nevertheless, such presentations ought always to be subject to moral restraint, lest they work to the harm rather than the benefit of souls, particularly when there is question of treating matters which deserve reverent handling or which, given the baneful effect of original sin in men, could quite readily arouse base desires in them.

8. Since public opinion exercises the greatest power and authority today in every sphere of life, both private and public, every member of society must fulfill the demands of justice and charity in this area. As a result, all must strive, through these media as well, to form and spread sound public opinion.

9. All who, of their own free choice, make use of these media of communications as readers, viewers or listeners have special obligations. For a proper choice demands that they fully favor those presentations that are outstanding for their moral goodness, their knowledge and their artistic or technical merit. They ought, however, to void those that may be a cause or occasion of spiritual harm to themselves, or that can lead others into danger through base example, or that hinder desirable presentations and promote those that are evil. To patronize such presentations, in most instances, would merely reward those who use these media only for profit.

Above all, we are to be like our Lord who said “neither do I condemn thee…“, and listen to St. Jude’s exhortation

But you, beloved, build yourselves up in your most holy faith; pray in the holy Spirit.
Keep yourselves in the love of God and wait for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ that leads to eternal life…
Jude 1

Here’s your chance, my friends, or even total strangers who can express themselves without being hateful. I submit to you the same response I sent the anonymous professional apologist:


Despite your snarky reply, I’m open to being educated. You’re the apologist, can you offer a compelling defense, or perhaps even a brief explanation of how I am “#misguided” in this matter?

I don’t understand how it is acceptable to watch, much less promote, a show that graphically portrays sexual immorality as a plot device, thereby either making light of the plight of those struggling with chastity, glorifying their behavior, or demonizing them as “bad guys” and sexual predators. I’d love to understand your justification for promoting this entertainment to your followers, as I rather enjoyed the show until that critical moment in episode one. What am I missing here? How can we simultaneously encourage one another to gaze upon our Lord in adoration, and to also feast upon… that?

Educate me.

Teach me how I am misguided.

Post with an alias. I won’t even look up your IP to figure out who you are, and if I know you. Please, I am begging you, have mercy on me. This has been bugging me for three weeks. Help me to see this aright.

I don’t think you can, of course, but that’s why I’m misguided, and why you’re performing a spiritual act of mercy to forgive me for being a jerk and set me straight.

3 thoughts on “Downton Abbey and Your opportunity to school me

  1. admin

    From Adam via FB.

    I was going to be snarky, as I’m wont to do, but cooler heads prevailed and I’ll try to formulate an answer here.

    My snarky response was, “y’all are right, and I’m going to go censor my Bible right now, lest my children read about adultery, betrayal, and lust, ala David and Bathsheba (speaking of David)”!

    April and I sat down to try and watch DA after getting glowing recommendations. I fell asleep a couple of times because it’s pretty slow moving, so we abandoned the idea. The first episode irritated me, as it did y’all, because I’m sick of the homo stuff being forced upon us. I thought, “oh, here we go, same ‘ol same ‘ol”.

    What I found after finishing that episode and watching subsequent episodes is that it reminds me much of a Shakespearean drama. It is truly an “adult television” show which requires the full attention, deduction, and involvement of the audience.

    Writing true humanity into a show, play, book, whatever, and having the audience identify with and become immersed in the story takes God-given talent. That alone would be enough for me to watch, but I typically have low standards.

    An exposé of the human condition takes even more skill, and as such affords the audience an opportunity to look at their own lives and discern whether they have dropped into a pit of despair. This is another reason I would watch.

    I come down more on the side of the first sentence of Inter Mirifica 7, “Finally, the narration, description or portrayal of moral evil, even through the media of social communication, can indeed serve to bring about a deeper knowledge and study of humanity and, with the aid of appropriately heightened dramatic effects, can reveal and glorify the grand dimensions of truth and goodness.” There’s no question that particular programming can readily arouse basal instincts – the way that instinct is handled is left up to the individual, however.

    For example, my father LeRoy won’t watch anything with an excess of cursing in it. It’s a distraction to him and arouses basal instincts. I on the other hand am not bothered by language, provided it’s used appropriately (Super 8 was annoying, for example). My threshold for taking the bad with the good is higher than his, but I also am very careful to meter things to which my children are exposed.

    This example falls under Inter Mirifica 9 – we have special obligations as consumers of entertainment. If it leads us to an occasion of sin, we ought not partake. If it doesn’t, and isn’t leading our children into an occasion of sin, then it’s just a TV show. There is a great appreciation for the arts by the Catholic Church and, provided entertainment isn’t taking time away from the mission goal of the Church and her followers, it’s innocuous.

    As they say, “sometimes a spade is just a spade”.

    Much of the same arguments against DA can be made for role-playing games, Magic the Gathering, intense board games that either celebrate or prevent the end of the world, computer games, etc. These are also all fantasy constructs that incorporate some degree of human drama to make for interesting game-play, much like a TV program utilizes human drama to make for interesting viewing. The gluttony of Pandarians and the entire theme of the expansion comes to mind…

    The point is that some of us are called to be hermits, some are called to be cloistered monks. Most of us are called to make a positive impact on the world in whatever way God’s gifts to us justify, and DA affords its viewers the opportunity for introspection.

    Lastly, the writer, Julian Fellowes, highlights the anti-Catholicism he himself experienced as a Catholic in Great Britian later in the series. Yet another reason to watch.,91413/

    God bless y’all!

  2. jai

    I was totally shocked and weirded (grossed) out by that scene. It took me totally off guard. I couldn’t understand why the graphic nature of it was deemed necessary by the writers. I totally agree that it was unnecessary.

    I’m not sure who is calling the show “family-friendly,” however. Annie has watched bits and pieces of a couple episodes with me. And she is bored to pieces. It is a mature plot which deals with real life things – budget crisis, war, love interests, marital problems (inability to conceive, etc. – without ever showing one sex act), death, black market, prostitution (a plot where a girl is desperate, turns to prostitution, then is led out of it by Lady Isabelle, who cares for her, hires her, and has made it her mission to pull girls out of the dangerous profession… no one will come near the girl, and she brings shame upon the family, but Lady Isabelle will not give up on helping her restore her life). There are a hundred amazing and well-written story-lines, intertwining into this “masterpiece classic.” Heh. Heh. Yes, the initial one scene in the first episode is unfortunate. They could have gone about that story line very differently, but that is that. Just as the Mark of the Lion series could have gone without details of Julia’s abortion or homosexuality, but, for some reason, deemed it necessary as part of her character and the entire story plot.

    All that being said, it is the best series I’ve ever seen. After “strike one” as I’d call it, I, for whatever reason, decided to give it another shot (and warned others of the scene. My sister-in-law, for example, did not have to encounter the scene because she was fore-warned and able to skip it) I was never again met with any discomfort, but only a delightful, modest, appropriate, mature, entertaining show of which I’ve never seen the likes. I laugh out loud, have shed many tears, and have learned some history and enjoyed some lovely romance plots. The show gives us a time when women were modest, and promiscuity was looked down upon and made a woman used, unwanted, blemished, and unfit for matrimony. When men were men, and women were women. When families stuck together, and divorce was rare and under only extreme circumstances. It is a very, very good show. And, at the risk of judgement, I am a very, very big fan.

    I hope they are able to continue to keep gross things out, and only give us the tasteful, brilliant, beautiful story they’ve built thus far. I’ll be tuning in to see.

    P.S. Thomas is, indeed the “bad guy”, and I’d like to answer your question “I don’t understand how it is acceptable to watch, much less promote, a show that graphically portrays sexual immorality as a plot device, thereby either making light of the plight of those struggling with chastity, glorifying their behavior, or demonizing them as “bad guys” and sexual predators.”
    Many stories of saints, many parables, many good, Christian books (Redeeming Love and the Mark of the Lion series come to mind) use sexual immorality as a plot device. It is one of the downfalls of human nature that every single human, at one point or another, struggles with. Not necessarily with homosexuality or promiscuity or prostitution, but sexual immorality in some form. It does not make light of the plight.

    If you don’t want to watch the show, no one can blame you. But, pray, do not judge those of us that do watch it, simply because we accidentally saw that shocking scene. Had I tuned in knowingly and intentionally to watch that scene, I’d have been a sinner. But, because it was an accident with no way to foretell it, there was no sin committed on my part – except the sin of gluttony when I watched three episodes in a row… for which I must confess and be absolved.

  3. jai

    P.S. I’m certainly not trying to promote the show or sway your opinion. I completely understand why your reaction is what it is. I’m not trying to make it okay or justify it, either, just because I love the show and want to feel better about watching it. I know it shouldn’t have showed what it showed, and that it could have made the point just as easily without showing anything at all.

    Also understand that I hold strong opposition to many movies and TV shows. I am very picky about what I allow the eyes and ears of myself and my children to take in. We do not allow anything PG13, and PG movies must be reviewed. I stood my ground with many close friends about my stance on 50 Shades of Grey and why I will not read it. I am, to many close friends and acquaintances, a prude. And I don’t mind being that.

    I enjoy Christian and Catholic literature, fiction and non, and read very little of anything else. I pray daily. I have a decent relationship with God (always working to improve that one). I never watch anything that opposes my morals or that I knew will lead me to indulging in sinful behavior.

    But I do not have any issues with this secular show. Other than that scene and one other episode. Those two things I choose to skip, and thereby avoid sin on my part.

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