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Eastwood Looks to Afterlife

The tough-guy director asks if heaven exists, but Catholics already know the answer

By James Breig

When a major star delves into spiritual matters, Catholics should pay attention. Even if he or she fails in the message, the attempt itself is so rare that it is worthy of notice.

Such is the case with “Hereafter,” the latest movie from Clint Eastwood. As an actor in westerns and cop dramas, he spent decades sending his foes to eternity after daring them to “make my day.” Now he has directed a two-hour movie about what happens – or doesn’t happen – at the hour of our death.

In “Hereafter” (rated PG-13 by the movie industry but “adults only” by Catholic News Service), director Eastwood and screenwriter Peter Morgan ask whether heaven exists at all. The question hovers over main characters who have experienced death up close by nearly dying themselves or by having a loved one take a last breath.

Writing for Catholic News Service, John Mulderig credits Eastwood for weaving “initially disparate strands into an emotionally compelling tapestry.” But he terms the film “religiously problematic” because the script “insistently steer[s] clear of any specific beliefs. Even the existence of God is left a matter of ambiguity. Issues of morality and the eternal consequences of earthly actions are also skirted, the vague implication being that all human beings end up in the same condition after death.”

Fathers have to explain many complex notions to their children: love and hatred, understanding and prejudice, faith and doubt. Heaven is certainly on that list. Most parents are eventually confronted with the fundamental question: “What happens when we die?”

Children ask that when a pet dies or a grandparent passes on. And kids aren’t alone. We all wonder about the afterlife. It’s an inquiry that has inspired music, poetry, novels – and encyclicals. In Dives in Misericordia (“Rich in Mercy”), his 1980 encyclical, Pope John Paul II referred to the promise in the New Testament of “a new heaven and a new earth,” when God “will wipe away every tear from their eyes, there will be no more death, or mourning, no crying, nor pain, for the former things have passed away” (Rev 21:4).

The problem for any artist – poet, composer or filmmaker – lies in their attempt to portray heaven as a place. That gives rise to images of ivory towers, the sound of soaring violins or scenes of shadowy figures moving slowly in a pale blue light. John Paul II sought to reorient that effort by asserting that heaven isn’t a place like Disney World or the seashore.

Speaking at a Vatican audience on July 21, 1999, he said: “We know that the ‘heaven’ or ‘happiness’ in which we will find ourselves [after death] is neither an abstraction nor a physical place in the clouds, but a living, personal relationship with the Holy Trinity. It is our meeting with the Father which takes place in the risen Christ through the communion of the Holy Spirit. It is always necessary to maintain a certain restraint in describing these ‘ultimate realities’ since their depiction is always unsatisfactory.”

He then referred people to the Catechism of the Catholic Church and its definition of heaven: “[Jesus] makes partners in His heavenly glorification those who have believed in Him and remained faithful to His will. Heaven is the blessed community of all who are perfectly incorporated into Christ.”

The Catechism also notes that the mystery of heaven is “beyond all understanding and description.” Even Eastwood’s, we might add. That means that taking a youngster to see “Hereafter” or going by himself won’t help a Catholic father answer his children’s questions about what happens after death.

What will help a dad is reading, thinking and praying about the Church’s teaching on heaven, and then conforming his answers to the age and understanding of his kids.

The bottom line is that heaven is the most wonderful and closest friendship with God, available to those who say “yes” to him during their lives. In children’s terms, we say “yes” when we love, give, pray, share and help.

Those terms provide a good checklist for adults, too, because they are a preview on earth of what the real “Hereafter” is all about.

The media and entertainment column by James Breig will appear twice monthly on Fathers for Good.