Catholic guilt? Think again

Apr 27, 2009

Catholic guilt? Think again

Apr 27, 2009
Matt touching Maggie's cross

Matt touching Maggie's cross

A few months ago, I wrote a post called “My other senses more than compensate” in which I attempted to poke some holes in the claim made by some Daredevil fans (and even the odd writer) that Matt’s preternaturally heightened senses render him completely “non-disabled.” In that post, I also briefly touched on what I perceive to be two other pervasive Daredevil myths, namely “Matt the Man-Whore” and “Matt the Devout Catholic.”

While Matt’s recent indiscretion under Brubaker’s pen may have somewhat tainted my view of Matt Murdock as a serial monogamist, it still doesn’t change the fact that only the most sexually inexperienced of male comic book fans would consider a man in his mid-thirties with fewer than ten proven sexual partners under his belt to be even remotely promiscuous. And yes, I’m looking at you Kevin Smith… 😉 For those who care to count Matt’s former sexual partners, I already did it for you in Matt’s love life by the numbers.

Now the time has come to take a closer look at Matt’s religious faith or, as I would see it, his lack thereof. I realize that this is a touchy subject, and if people out there, whether Catholic or not, enjoy this take on the character I’m certainly not going to claim that they are wrong to view Daredevil from a religious perspective. In fact, the great thing about fiction is that we, as readers, are co-creators of the reading experience. All I’m saying is that this is one aspect of the character where the reader must add a lot of input themselves since there is very little in terms of “scripture” (i.e. Daredevil canon) to support it.

At this point, I can almost hear one or two of you out there go “Wait a second, everyone knows Daredevil is Catholic, heck Joe Quesada talks about it all the time!” First of all, I completely agree that it’s indisputable that the character of Matt Murdock is a “cultural Catholic,” i.e. someone who has been born and raised in a Catholic context, might observe Catholic rituals on occasion and would certainly check the Catholic box on one of those census forms that the U.S. government likes to send out. What I take issue with is the notion that he’s an overtly religious practicing Christian. I base my own views on the simple fact that I’ve never really gotten that vibe from actually reading the comic. (Well, until Kevin Smith wrote a wildly out of character Matt threatening Karen with hell if she didn’t go to church with him.) And there was about as much active church attendance in the Daredevil movie as there has been in all of comics canon combined, though the movie has certainly served to skew perceptions on this issue.

There has been plenty of religious imagery in Daredevil, particularly in stories like Born Again. Religious imagery doesn’t make the main character a regular church-goer, however. Neither does the fact that his mother is a nun, especially since he didn’t grow up with her. What about quotes like the one below, made by Joe Quesada (Newsarama, December 2006)?:

“The characters that have religion play into their stories are that way because their religion played an important part in who they are as a character and it effects their decisions and their stories, no one more so than Matt Murdock. In direct contrast, one would have to assume that due to Peter Parker’s Irish heritage (Parker/Fitzgerald), he’s most likely of Christian Protestant beliefs, yet while there have been rare instances when he’s reached out to God, it’s not an important makeup of his character.

In the case of Matt Murdock, it’s come to define him. It also adds an interesting juxtaposition and wonderful irony between a man who worships a Catholic god yet wears a devil suit to fight crime. There have also been numerous scenes depicting Matt gaining an incredible amount of comfort from his religion. The scenes of him in the confessional stand out most to me as one of many moments when organized religion has been shown in a positive light.”

As someone who has read virtually everything Matt Murdock has ever appeared in, I have no idea what Quesada is talking about here. The only confessional scene I can think of off the top of my head is the one in Elektra Lives Again by Frank Miller, and that’s not even considered to be in continuity. The only other one that comes to mind is Matt in costume collapsing inside a confessional stand because he had the flu and needed a rest in the 2007 annual. Surely, Quesada can’t be talking about the Daredevil movie? I also can’t immediately think of any instances of Matt drawing “an incredible amount of comfort” from his religion. I’m sure I’ve missed something, but to say that religion, in the real sense and not merely as metaphor, figures heavily in the life of Matt Murdock, as depicted in the comic, just doesn’t ring true to me.

Catholicism is an important aspect of the character because Joe Quesada, Kevin Smith and others have said so, not because that is how the character has actually been portrayed for the vast majority of his existence. If anything, I’d say he’s been portrayed as a lapsed Catholic with a very secular lifestyle. Belief in God or a higher power is one thing, but Matt has never seemed to think twice about engaging in extramarital sex and appears very much to be a typical liberal New Yorker. He even lead something of a sexual revolution in mainstream comics by living with the Black Widow in San Francisco in what would have to be a presumed sexual relationship without the required nuptials.

So where does “Catholic guilt” come in? The supposed driving force behind so much of what Daredevil does? Until I finally decided to look this up a few days ago, I never really took issue with this. I wasn’t even 100% clear on what Catholic guilt was so I just assumed that it was an acquired cultural trait which predisposed people with this background to go around thinking that they weren’t trying hard enough. That would certainly be a spot on description of Matt Murdock and very much in line with the relatively greater emphasis on doing good deeds traditionally associated with Catholicism (as opposed to Protestantism’s heavier focus on faith as an act of conscience). Boy was I wrong.

It turns out that the most common meaning of the term has to do with the conflict people feel when trying to reconcile traditional Catholic tenets with Western values, particularly when it comes to abortion, pre-marital sex and masturbation. Does this mean Matt fights crime because he feels guilty about pleasuring himself? Holy cow, I never considered that angle before… I suspect that people throw the Catholic guilt explanation around because they, like me, simply aren’t clear on what it means.

To me, Matt Murdock is a fascinating and, yes, conflicted character who carries a lot of things on his shoulders. His background and upbringing influence him a great deal and his morals and aspirations suggest a spiritually inspired quest to do right in the world, as well as a belief in God. But is he a poster boy for organized religion or even a practicing Catholic? Joe Quesada might say yes. The vast majority of the written record says no.

While my own views on this matter are quite firm, I would love some input on this post. If you feel differently, let me know by commenting. Keep it civil, though. I know the topic might be a little controversial.


  1. Jon

    Good article Christine, I think you wrote it in a way that will keep the controversy out of it. So kudos for that.

    I do believe there was some confessional scenes in the Smith/Quesada runs. I distinctly recall the last issue of that run ending with Matt running out of the confessional, putting on his tights, and swinging away as Daredevil. But, as you mention in this post, Quesada talks about the Catholic piece more than anyone, so since he was a main creator on the book, it really doesn’t prove anything.

    There was also the story where Matt was trying to find his mother and some of the religious aspects were pulled in then.

    Certainly, the early stuff, had no mention of of any religion. So it wasn’t something that came with the character, but was added later.

    To me, I think I identified with him as Catholic because of two reasons:

    1. His mother is a nun. You point to this in the post and dismiss it, and I completely agree it needs to be dismissed. It’s a nonviable association. But for some reason, it just made sense to me….weird I know.

    2. But I think the biggest reason I like DD as a Catholic is the whole Angel/(Dare)Devil duplicity. And for no other reason than it’s kinda cool. To be wearing the devil costume and doing angelic things. The angelic things like, you know, busting heads in, fornicating before marriage, and actually visiting the devil himself. 😉

    No, there is certainly no angel here….

  2. JP Nguyen

    Matt Murdock is surely no devout catholic. But I think religion, or at least some religious elements influenced his life. Maybe inducing an “opposite reaction” : very early in his life, he became a “sinner”, disobeying the Father. He went through a lot of rough stuff and didn’t accept it “because it was written so somewhere”. Quite the contrary, he kept on fighting, never gave up. He’s practicing man’s law (when the writers remember his profession) but also his law (which leaves room for interpretation as you can read he doesn’t accept God’s law or that he serves divine Justice).

  3. Mark

    first off, nice article. Being a practicing Catholic and a fan of comics i found it very interesting. While i have always appreciated the “color” and depth that Matt’s Catholic background has givin him, I would agree that he certainly does not come off as a devout Catholic. I would like to know where you got your definition of “Catholic Guilt” from as i was a bit suprised by it. Can’t say that i subscribe to that particular definition, but i can’t say that it’s off the mark either when referencing Catholics in general.

  4. Christine

    @Jon You’re probably right about there being a confessional scene in Guardian Angel, I’ve tried to repress most of that story arc (though I know we disagree about its merits). It’s also rather damaging to Quesada’s line of reasoning that the meaningful religious moment he might be talking about is one he helped put there himself, as you point out. I think Quesada is probably a brilliant business man and even seems like a very nice guy, but when it comes to Matt’s religion, I feel he’s pretty much decided what Matt’s religious leanings should be rather than take into account the character’s past portrayal.

    @JP I think you’re absolutely right. I think having been raised (culturally) Catholic does influence Matt a great deal, and I also find it likely, based on DD canon, that he actively believes in God. It’s the idea that he is a practicing Catholic, and this being a big part of his identity, that I take issue with. There are degrees of religious fervor, and Matt’s seems lukewarm at best.

    @Mark I would love to hear what you personally think of when you hear the term Catholic guilt since I was way off the mark myself in what I assumed it meant. I found the above definition on Wikipedia as well as in a couple of other places (I just googled it). I never use Wikipedia as the sole reference for anything, even though it makes more sense to do so in cases where a term basically has the meaning people give to it, rather than being a hard fact or defined by some field of science. Catholic guilt is an expression, after all, and can probably be used differently by different people.

    Thank you all for commenting!

  5. Robert

    Hi, Christine. I pretty much agree with what you’ve written. I think the ‘cultural catholic’ term is a very important one, certainly for me. As an Irishman, I’ve grown up in a place where it’s impossible to ignore identification as either Catholic or Protestant, no matter what your religious convictions are. I think this is perhaps why I think that this cultural background is important to Matt. Hell, his surname’s Murdock, he’s got red hair, there’s no doubting where his heritage is from, is there? Therefore, for me, as for pretty much anyone who calls themselves Irish, his ‘religious’ tradition is going to actually be incredibly important, even if this doesn’t translate into actual vibrant faith. However, it’s also completely understandable, for me anyway, how someone with this strong cultural identity might fall back on his faith in times of crisis.

    As an aside, I’ve always felt, like Jon, that there’s a strong literary well to be drawn from by the very nature of this being (dare)devil – the juxtapositions of good and evil, the irony of the devil being good and especially that someone may have a faith contrary to the costume they’re wearing. I also feel that, if you look back at comics in the 60s/70s, that there’s very little exploration of religious belief anyway and that it’s something that became more interesting to comment on by writers in the 80s (cf Nightcrawler as another good example).

    So what am I saying? Broadly I agree with you that Matt’s a secular guy with a catholic cultural undertow. But, perhaps slightly disagreeing with you in that I get why this sleeping giant might manifest itself in an actual sense of belief.

    I also agree that it’s funny that Matt gets worked up more by his sexual antics than by his daily working overs of Hell’s Kitchen denizens. That’s very Catholic (and Protestant, for that matter)!

    Robert (formerly known as dmstarz)

  6. euthanatos

    Great article.

    I believe the first Daredevil story that truly made a mark on me was exactly Frank Miller’s Elektra lives again, and the strong catholic imagery in that book has really stuck with me ever since. Because of that, when I think of Matt Murdock, I do think of him as being a catholic character, and like so many catholics, he confesses, he prays, but he commits what would be perceived as sins in his religion frequently (in that particular book). But when reading your post, I do agree that we very rarely see Matt practicing his catholicism.

    I think Quesada and Marvel alike are more concerned about portraying the company as an heterogeneous environment of characters, with people from multiple backgrounds, race, religion and sexual orientation. It would conform to the political correctness norm of today, no matter what canon and continuity have shown.

  7. Gloria

    As a former Catholic, I can tell you that, hum, still have that tingling feeling when about to do something I was taught in my childhood to be “wrong” or “sinful”… Maybe it’s guilt, or maybe I am endowed with a variant of the Spider-sense ;p.

    Still, being a Mediterranean gal, I think that Robert is right in pointing to the “Irish-Catholic” aspect, which I think is more relevant to Matt than the plain “Catholic” side of the character: As you, I see Matt as “culturally Catholic” but fairly liberal in his behaviour. In fact, his impulse to become Daredevil had more with avenging his father’s death than guilt about it… Compare it with Spider-man’s origin: he’s obviously loeaded with guilt about not having stopped the man who would kill his uncle Ben… Now, that’s a Superguy loaded with guilt!

    I think that Quesada’s beliefs have little to do with the character, as previously established, and more with his own agenda: come to think, he’s Cuban, and therefore a cultural Catholic as well. But I don’t like the way he tries to shove his own thoughts into the character, as when, in “Father”, he invents a dark secret for the blind old man Matt saved, in order to give poor Matt a roaring feeling of guilt about which is possibly his purest act of heroism.

    But then he also shoved a brand new “cool” group of Cuban-rooted superheroes which we haven’t heard of since (and possibly we aren’t particularly interest in hearing of again) because he wanted Marvel to have a Latin supergroup… being an Iberian, I’m obviously not against Hispanic supers, but I’d rather have a good story with super Eskimos than a bad one with Super Latins…

  8. Christine

    Thanks everyone (again in some cases) for all your comments. For full disclosure I guess I should provide some of my own religious background, so I can give you a better idea of where I’m coming from.

    I was born and raised in what has often been labeled the most secular country in the world: Sweden. I’ve also lived in the US, so I have that basis for comparison. My own upbringing was typically Swedish. Like the vast majority of ethnic Swedes, I was born into the Church of Sweden. I am baptized, and I even went through the Lutheran version of first communion. My dad left the church at eighteen, to his parents’ chagrin, the rest of my family are still members (personally, I like to support all of that medieval architecture).

    Like most other members of the Church of Sweden, I don’t go to church. I’ve attended church services maybe ten times in my life. My mom and brother are both atheists, to the extent that they think about religion at all, whereas my dad and I are of a more spiritual inclination.

    I believe in a higher power, and I believe that we are reincarnated after death. I have no evidence for any of my beliefs and I don’t consider myself a Christian in any sense other than the cultural one. My religion, if you can even call it that, is a loose collection of ideas that happen to appeal to me.

    I have a great deal of appreciation for spirituality, but very little for the dogmatic “musts” of organized religion. For me, these are easy to separate as I myself believe in God but do not consider myself religious. There absolutely can be separation of “church and faith.”

    When I look at Matt Murdock, I see a person who absolutely believes in God. I also think I would regard him as being more religious than I am, but not by a very big margin. I might view him more like some of the Swedish Christians I know (my best friend for example) who do consider themselves religious, but interpret their religion through a very modern and liberal filter where premarital sex is completely permitted and creationism is considered to be just plain weird (personally, I didn’t realize there were people in the modern world who hadn’t accepted evolution until I was in my late teens).

    Returning to Matt Murdock here, I think I would have really noticed if there had been a lot of really “in your face” religious overtones in Daredevil, as I would have probably been slightly put off by it, given my own particular background. Nothing wrong with religion in and of itself, but I would have had a much harder time relating to the character if I had felt that his world view was considerably different from mine. He’s a spiritual character, yes, but his lifestyle is very secular, at least as far as we’ve seen. I guess that pretty much sums up what I had to say on that. 😉

    @Gloria: Interesting to hear about your catholic spider sense! LOL Also, I would love to see an Eskimo superhero. That would rock, actually.

  9. Gloria

    And I thought Norse Christianism was as in Dreyer’s “Ordet” or In Bergman’s Films ;D

  10. Frangelo

    Very interesting article. There’s a segment in a book called “Superheroes and Philosophy: Truth, Justice, and the Socratic Way” wherein they explained the relationship between the religion of Matt Murdock and his life as a superhero. Have you read this? If so, what’s your opinion on it? Awesome blog by the way! 🙂

  11. Anonymous

    way cool, christine. I see no reason not to agree. I have always felt more religeous overtones in the few DD comics ive read. they were the only comics i knew that quoted bible verses for instance (see “fog” the suicide of heather glenn). Spiderman is the hero burdened by guilt, matt was more of an avenging angel.

    oh an girls, dont you know that “eskimo” is an offensive term. the correct for is “innuit”. im sure youve offended all of your innuit readers.

    (this is a joke poking fun at PC terms)

    Merzah from Prague

  12. Andrew

    I am coming to this discussion rather late (sadly I only discovered this blog a week or so ago) but I just wanted to add that I too found this article to be great, and I wholly agree with your conclusions Christine. As a “cultural Catholic” myself and someone familiar with both Catholic teachings and Daredevil comics I would find it hard to support any other interpretation of the character.

    I personally wouldn’t want to overstate someone’s particular religious (or even political) motivations, as that could needlessly alienate some fans, but I can understand Joey Q’s desire to illustrate the “diversity” of the Marvel Comics stable. My main problem with the ‘Father’ storyline however was his attempt to retcon aspects of DD’s origins that I didn’t like.

    Anyway, I also really agree with Roberts comment that “the juxtapositions of good and evil, the irony of the devil being good and especially that someone may have a faith contrary to the costume they’re wearing” are certainly factors that make Matt unique and complex. I just wouldn’t mistake the symbolism for devoutness of any kind. A practising Catholic? No, but Matt is certainly informed and influenced by his Catholic heritage in much of what he does.

  13. Mia

    Great article! I agree with you. Matt had always seemed like a relapsed catholic (like most catholics out there) and even though catholic symbols are a constant in the stories, I don’t think religion is a important part of his life. Not like other catholic characters at Marvel, like Nightcrawler. Sometimes I think the term “catholic guilt” is overused (this coming from a person who was raised as catholic and now is an atheist).

  14. Thomas W

    In response to Mia, I do think (in the least offensive way possible) that Catholic guilt would be less of an issue for who was raised Catholic and is now an atheist than for someone who was raised Catholic and is now a non-denominational, but still very firm, theist (this coming from someone who was raised Pentacostal and is now a non-denominational theist).

  15. Stan A

    Very very late to the game here. I stumbled across this blog while looking up stuff for the Daredevil Netflix show (premiered today but I haven’t watched it yet). Love the blog btw.

    I think my views on the character are mostly similar to your’s Christine…with one exception. I see Matt as someone who strongly considers themselves Catholic, without necessarily “following the rules” of Catholicism. A cultural Catholic with still a strong attachment to the religion in thought but not in actions. Granted, this interpretation is not overly supported by canon. It is more influenced by Matt’s similarities to Catholics I know personally.

    I also like to think that’s why Matt chose to dress as a devil. For a child, few things can be as frightening as the prospect of hell & the devil. So when it comes time to become something that he feels will be terrifying to criminals, he picks the scariest thing he can imagine: a devil.

  16. SP

    So late toooo.

    I can see where you are coming from, but I don’t know if I agree completely. I think he’s culturally Catholic, I am biased though, because I am as well. I can’t tell by the comic books or even the show, but Matt may be even more than just culturally Catholic. I don’t know. I guess if Quesada insists, it should be true to an extent anyway. I think that the reason why it’s not portrayed more in the comic books is because the writers don’t want to scare off readers with too much religious stuff.

    I can see how it fits into Matt’s life, all things considered.
    This religion thing was one of the reasons why I liked Matt. He is different from other characters, and I guess I made the connection in my head and I was all happy and set hahaha.
    I refer to myself as Catholic, even though I don’t practice at all. It’s just a part of who I am and where I come from. I can say from personal experience that when you feel powerless and terrified and you don’t know what to do, it is very comforting to believe someone’s watching over you (heck, sometimes it’s even comforting to pray). When you feel lost and you feel like everything around you is unstable and just plain crazy, entering a church is comforting (because all churches are designed in specific manners and mass everywhere follows the same formula). I also think that it fits his character well in general. And it’s nice to connect with the character in that way, to imagine that even Daredevil needs to feel comfort and that he is just human at the end of the day.

    Also, I always felt that the concept of “Catholic guilt” was interesting. It’s just a feeling of wariness and guilt you get when you do something that might piss God off. It’s like someone’s going to catch you or like someone is watching. But it doesn’t always happen with things that are obvious. For example, listening to certain songs that have lyrics that are disrespectful towards Catholic characters (namely Jesus, the Virgin, and the Saints) will make me blush in embarrassment and go “oh my” in a very demure manner, but of all the times I’ve had casual sex I have never felt ashamed or guilty about it (at least not for religious reasons, but that’s a story for another day haha!).
    There are lots of things that I do that are culturally based: I keep a rosary at all times, I make the sign of the holy cross whenever an ambulance/firetruck/cop car passes by, and I have a few books about prayer. I can’t bring myself to get rid of any of these things. I’d feel guilty otherwise. But I love sex, drugs, and alcohol, and if I ever do feel guilty about partaking, it is never the same kind of guilt.

    Also, your blog is wonderful!


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