What the Star Wars franchise can learn from the Roman Catholic Church

Grand Jedi Master Yoda. Photo by Anton_Ivanov/Shutterstock

(RNS) — What is Star Wars? For the first decade or so after George Lucas made what would come to be known as Episode IV (which celebrates its 40th anniversary this year), the answer to that question was easy. Star Wars was whatever Lucas said it was.

But the answer became increasingly complicated as Lucasfilm licensed comics, games and books that were conceived and written by other authors. This would come to be known as the “expanded universe” or “EU.” Some of the EU, like the best-selling Thrawn trilogy, was broadly read and loved, but most are relatively unknown.

As the number of EU texts multiplied, and even contradicted each other, there became a need to decide what texts had standing within the Star Wars universe. If Star Wars could be anything, then Star Wars could be nothing.

The first issue of “Star Wars Insider,” Lucasfilm started conservative. It claimed that “‘Gospel,’ or canon as we refer to it, includes the screenplays, the films, the radio dramas and the novelizations.”

Later, Lucasfilm adopted a more expansive view. Lucas, when asked about the state of Star Wars canon in 2008 by “Total Film,” invoked the image of the Trinity:

“There’s three pillars: the father, the son and the holy ghost. I’m the father, Howard Roffman (president of Lucas Licensing) is the son and the holy ghost is the fans, this kind of ethereal world of people coming up with all kinds of different ideas and histories.”

By the time Lucas sold Lucasfilm to Disney in 2012, the canon situation was a mess and the coherence of the Star Wars universe was in real question. Disney decided only the Lucas-created material would be canon. Everything else would be “legends.”

Many Star Wars fans were aghast: “How dare this foreign entity tell us our favorite characters from the EU aren’t really part of the universe!” The simplistic canon/legends binary remains, however, despite continued protests from fans.

At a recent conference put on by the CAPER Center for Astronomy and Physics Education Research on “Science and Science Fictions,” I presented a paper arguing that a theological understanding of authority and canonicity — especially from a Roman Catholic perspective — can help inform the Star Wars debate.

Here’s a short list of principles from a Catholic theological perspective that has import for the Star Wars debate:

  • Formal authority structures are essential bulwarks against arbitrariness, but they are often complex and how they execute their authority in certain situations is not clear.
  • The founding members of the tradition and their immediate associates have an authority that people outside of that circle do not.
  • If a particular text was beloved and read by a broad range of communities, this was a strong argument in favor of including in the canon.
  • The “sense of the faithful” matters and the “people of God” can help direct the formal authorities back to the path of the tradition when they have lost their way.

How might these principles be applied to the Star Wars debates?

First, the institutional authority is not as clear as one might think, and bears some striking resemblance to the current Catholic situation. Kathleen Kennedy, the new head of Lucasfilm, is “the pope,” but the person she succeeded, though he retired after (like Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI), still holds substantial authority. (Kennedy and Lucas are friendly, and Kennedy sometimes consults with him on important matters.)

One complicating factor, of course, is the presence of Disney. Perhaps the most helpful analogy here would be to the Roman Empire, with Bob Iger, chairman of the board, playing the role of Constantine.

The founding members of the tradition have a special authority — not just Lucas, but also his close associates. Dave Filoni (Lucas’ mentee) and Lawrence Kasdan (writer of “The Empire Strikes Back” and “Return of the Jedi”) have an authority that recent directors hired and fired by Lucasfilm do not.

The de facto authority of the founding generation is one reason I have been annoyed that the director of the next major Star Wars film, Rian Johnson, was able to tell Mark Hamill — the actor who has played Luke Skywalker from the beginning — who his character was and what he believed, even when Hamill “fundamentally disagreed.”

Even in the face of institutional power, the “sense of the (Star Wars) faithful” matters.

The fan outrage over the Thrawn trilogy being relegated to “legends,” for instance, was so overwhelming that Lucasfilm simply had to respond. And it did, by making the character of Grand Admiral Thrawn canonical in the “Rebels” cartoon.

And remember when Lucas made Episode I and, among other things, insisted the Force had a physical, not spiritual, basis (the dreaded “midichlorians”) and created the supremely annoying character of Jar Jar Binks?

Fan reaction to these moves was so overwhelmingly negative, and (despite the movies making Lucas a billionaire) he changed direction. Jar Jar’s role was substantially cut in future films, and we now almost never hear about midichlorians.

In other cases, however, the fans have been less successful. They know #HanShotFirst in his famous scene with Greedo in the Mos Eisley Cantina. In the special edition of that film, however, Lucas altered the sequence such that Han shot after Greedo, ruining a scene that had originally established Han’s character for an arc of redemption. Lucas eventually changed the scene once more to make the shots simultaneous, but the clear sense of the Star Wars faithful is that the original version of the scene is the correct one.

But, again, Star Wars can’t be whatever the fans want it to be. The authority of the fans comes from their capacity to hold institutional leaders accountable when they stray from the already established tradition.

“The Last Jedi” comes out this Christmas, and rumblings are that the film is taking huge risks and (minor spoiler alert) may even fundamentally change what the tradition has established about the Jedi and the Force. If it does, faithful Star Wars fans will faithfully dissent in large numbers and once again call the institution back to the tradition.

(Charles C. Camosy is an associate professor of theological and social ethics at Fordham University. He is a contributor to “The Ultimate Star Wars and Philosophy.” The views expressed in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service)

About the author

Charles C. Camosy

Charlie Camosy, though a native of very rural Wisconsin, has spent more than the last decade as a professor of theological and social ethics at Fordham University. He is the author of five books, including, most recently, "Resisting Throwaway Culture." He is the father of four children, three of whom were adopted from the Philippines.


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  • What Star Wars franchise can learn from the RCC?
    How to sell a crappy product based upon a phony spiritual premise., with lots of false sentimentality and even falser morality, plus selling a lot of indulgent extras, all masquerading as wholesome family entertainment.
    Or am I too late?

  • I dare say the institutional authority of the Star Wars franchise is now clearer than the writer implies. The establishment of the Story Group in early 2014 (slightly over a year since the Disney acquisition) clearly remains the sole authority of canon for the Star Wars universe. I’m not sure why the writer conveniently doesn’t mention the Story Group or the Magisterium in the article, both of which were formed exactly because of this question of canonicity.

    If nothing else, I feel that the whole article comes across as self-serving. The writer seems to be suggesting that he, as a member of Star Wars fandom and the Catholic Church, just wants HIS preferred canon to be THE canon. This kind of personal agenda and desire for a sense of authority is dangerous in both contexts.

  • The most famous use of a RCC equivalent in fantasy fiction is Philip Pullman’s “His Dark Materials” literary series. Was made into the box office flop, “The Golden Compass”. They are the villains of the series.

    Apologist extremis Mr. Camosy would not approve. 🙂

  • And yet Henry II would get two films, the same actor playing him twice and Oscar nominations. (Peter O’Toole in Becket and Lion in Winter.)

  • Really? Star Wars and Christianity (RCC) are fiction and fantasy, written by men. At least Star Wars is coming up with fresh material, appears free of pederasts and causes no harm – which can’t be said of the RCC.

  • I’m not sure Star Wars does no harm. It takes weighty moral matters, grinds them into sausage, and presents then morally muddled sausage as something spiritual and important. It takes mass murder and turns it into wholesome family entertainment. We saw the first new movie nearly two years ago. Basically, it recycled the old movies, so originality was gone.

    But they did sell a lot of lunch boxes, light sabres, and action. Figures, so I guess it isnt all bad.

  • I always got the feeling Hollywood didn’t really know what to do with it. The series would have worked better on a moderate budget cable miniseries.

  • Hollywood doesn’t deal well with metaphysics and moral issues. All of the things the books were really about were missing from the movie, however gorgeously it was done. They went straight to zthe story part, which was easy, and skipped the message, which would have been difficult.

  • There are harms of another type in this world. The harm of an entire generation being lost to the real fiction of a modern literary genre without reference to any genuine philosophical end.

  • ” If it does, faithful Star Wars fans will faithfully dissent in large
    numbers and once again call the institution back to the tradition. ”

    JK Rowling next ?
    Camosy – a Trad perhaps…

  • The RCC can teach Star Wars some consistency, at least for this new canon. The old canon (Legends) was consistent, this new canon is not.