Superheroes are often called the Greek gods of our time, but it may be more on-point to liken them to saints. The Greek gods were defined by their vainglorious lust for power and praise, which is actually a better description for supervillains. Superheroes are people who devote their lives to pursuing justice — they embody humanity’s highest ideals, even if they express those ideals in flawed and relatable (i.e. human) ways.
Like saints, some superheroes are also Catholic, though their relationship to their faith is complex. Some are faithful adherents while others struggle (not unlike many saints), but in profound and meaningful ways, their Catholic identity shapes their lives. Behind their masks are human beings who struggle with the same doubts, temptations, and challenges as the rest of us, but who find courage and conviction in their beliefs.
Who are these Catholic superheroes, and what can we learn from them?
Justice is blind and so is “The Devil of Hell’s Kitchen” — Daredevil. A childhood accident cost Daredevil his sight but empowered his other senses, giving him sonar-like abilities. Daredevil is the patron superhero of lawyers, but his sense of social justice stems from his Catholic upbringing. When his Irish Catholic father, a boxer, was murdered by the mob for refusing to throw a fight, Daredevil was raised in a Catholic orphanage. His faith inspires him not just to defend the oppressed in court, but on the streets. But don’t assume he doesn’t struggle. Daredevil suffers a severe case of “Catholic guilt,” and faced his greatest crisis of faith when (*spoiler alert*) he discovered his mother was actually the nun who raised him. It’s complicated. But so is life, even if your nocturnal hobbies don’t include fighting crime.
The X-Men universe is a thinly veiled metaphor for bigotry, with mutants suffering oppression at the hands of regular humans who fear them. While some mutants look normal and can hide in plain sight, Nighcrawler looks like a demon, with bright blue skin, yellow eyes, and a forked tail. Nightcrawler’s demonic persona frightened the villagers in his small German town, but his Catholic faith inspired his compassion for them. He’s so devout, he even became a priest. Nightcrawler may be able to teleport, but his faith keeps him grounded in his fight against prejudice and hate.
Daredevil and Nightcrawler look like demons; Hellboy is one. More than that, Hellboy is the son of Satan, who was summoned by Nazis to turn the tide of World War II. The infant prince of Hell was rescued by professor Bruttenholm, who raised Hellboy to fight supernatural threats alongside an emo girl, who manipulates fire, and a humanoid amphibian, who hatched during Lincoln’s presidency. It is said the devil quotes Scripture, but the son of Satan is a faithful Catholic. Hellboy even carries holy water and wraps his ever-present rosary around his stone hand, called “the Right Hand of Doom.” Hellboy’s faith is even stronger than his hand: he has not only seen evil — he was born from it.
Huntress — aka Helena Bertinelli — isn’t a demon, and doesn’t dress like one, either, but her relationship with her faith is the most complicated of all these characters. Bertinelli was raised in a family of Italian Catholics, who somehow reconciled their faith with their life of murder and criminality as mobsters. When Helena’s entire family was murdered by a rival mob, she devoted her life to seeking revenge, becoming the Huntress. The Huntress accomplished her mission, but still felt a void that vengeance could never fill. Inspired by Batman, the Huntress also defended the streets of Gotham — though her emblem is not a bat, but a cross. The Huntress was a lapsed Catholic for a long time, however — her faith shaken not only by the unspeakable horrors she suffered as a child, but also because she’s a lesbian. The Huntress has reconnected with her faith, though religion is still a struggle for her.
“You truly are incorruptible, aren’t you?” The Joker asks Batman in The Dark Knight. The question reminds viewers that Batman’s faith is the most unshakeable of any superhero. But Batman’s devotion isn’t to any established creed or cause, it’s to his own lifelong mission to rid Gotham of the same crime that took his parents. You won’t find Batman in the pews on Sunday morning, but there’s still reason to believe Bruce Wayne was raised Catholic.
In Frank Miller’s seminal The Dark Knight Returns, a middle-aged Batman prays and even uses sacramental language (“The rain on my chest is a baptism — I’m born again.”) A Catholic himself, Miller also brought Daredevil’s faith to the forefront during his run on that series, though Miller wasn’t the only writer to explore Batman’s faith. Different Elseworld’s tales (DC Comics’ speak for “non-canonical”) reveal that Bruce was ordained a priest before becoming Batman, and that he’s even descended from kdnights who were charged with protecting the Holy Grail.
In some ways, being The Batman is an identity that Bruce adopts like a priest adopts ministry. Though he certainly hasn’t made a vow of chastity or poverty, Bruce is singularly devoted to mercy, justice, and sacrifice. Lacking powers to protect him, Batman defends the innocent knowing every night could be his last, and every mission could make him a martyr. Yet he accepts this. In The Dark Knight Rises, Catwoman pleads with him to escape Gotham with her, saying, “You’ve given these people everything.” Batman stoically replies: “Not everything. Not yet.”
Whether they are lapsed or practicing Catholics, these superheroes are modern society’s secular saints. They struggle with doubt, quest for justice, and devote themselves to a cause greater than themselves. More than their powers, this is the source of their popularity. In a world plagued by real supervillains, superheroes give us all an ideal to strive for.