Father Kiernan is less a man of faith than a man of science. He's paid by the Vatican to investigate unusual phenomena (images of Christ appearing on buildings, statues of Mary weeping blood, etc.) for the purpose of disproving them, thereby keeping people's focus and dependence where dogmatic Cardinal Houseman believes it belongs—on the Catholic Church. So when an "authentic" episode occurs, followed almost immediately by a Pittsburgh woman displaying stigmata (bleeding wounds of the head, hands and feet that mirror those Jesus suffered in His final days), Kiernan is compelled to check it out. He tracks down Frankie Paige. She's the bandaged 22-year-old hairdresser and avowed atheist who has already had holes appear in her wrists and invisible lashes shred her back.
Frankie doesn't know it, but the souvenir rosary her mother picked up in Rio was actually taken from the coffin of a mysterious priest who was busy transcribing a "missing gospel" before his death. The dead priest proceeds to possess Frankie on occasion, using her as a messenger to complete the task and communicate the extremely liberating "Gospel of Tom."
Sound ridiculous? It is, but there are just enough bits and pieces of truth tossed in [see below] that Stigmata could confuse viewers who possess only a casual knowledge of the Bible. Damaging stuff. Eternal consequences. Audience members with a more grounded faith and mature understanding of Scripture might not be as easily deceived, but will still be deeply disturbed and offended by the film's attempts to undermine orthodoxy and slander God's character.
Positive Elements: Kiernan describes his commitment to celibacy, unapologetically taking ownership of his choice. When Frankie thinks she's seeing a distraught woman on the street dropping her baby into traffic, she races to its rescue. Kiernan refuses to let an unearthly force take Frankie without a fight. Donna stands by Frankie, getting her friend medical help and supporting her throughout her ordeal.
Positive Spiritual Content: Kiernan explains that he started out a scientist, but went into the priesthood after he realized that the theory of big-bang macro-evolution had too many holes in it. His conclusion was that only a divine, intelligent Creator could've designed the world we live in. Audiences unfamiliar with the painful method of Jesus' death get a biblical history lesson (including the fact that He was probably nailed to the crossbeam by his wrists rather than his hands, despite the images portrayed in most artistic renderings of the crucifixion). The "hidden gospel," while not to be embraced or even taken seriously as a divinely inspired text, asserts that God cares more about the hearts of people than about fancy sanctuaries, formal institutions and the power-hungry hierarchies of men. There's some truth to that, however ...
Negative Spiritual Content:... Viewers presented with doubts may dismiss organized religion entirely and take the suspect gospel's oft-repeated assertion, "The kingdom of God is inside you," to mean that we are ourselves divine. Not indwelt by the Holy Spirit, but inherently connected to God's nature. Not sinful, fallen and in need of redemption, but self-sufficient. That's a dangerous misconception. For one thing, the Bible describes the kingdom of God as a place that believers enter—not something that indwells all men (Matthew 26:29; Colossians 1:13; Ephesians 5:5; John 3:5; Luke 22:28-30; Acts 14:22; 2 Peter 1:11).
Meanwhile, the Catholic Church is vilified and turned into an unfair, malevolent caricature of itself. The spiritually confused and skeptical Kiernan administers communion, though it's clear he doesn't believe a word he's saying. He later clings to a rosary and admits, "I haven't prayed in a very long time" (indicating that he believes in a creator God, but has little or no relationship with Him).
In addition, despite paying lots of attention to Jesus' crucifixion, nowhere does this film indicate why Christ went to the cross or that He was later resurrected. It's simply a morbid snapshot of His death out of context. There's talk of other historical saints—including Francis of Assissi—having been afflicted with verifiable stigmata. Cardinal Houseman's attempt at performing an exorcism on Frankie finds him calling on the authority of Christ, but Houseman is clearly an antagonist with impure motives. The idea that a young woman is possessed and manipulated by a dead priest should also raise red flags. Frustrated with her affliction, Frankie blasphemes God by saying, "Really believing in Him is a (expletive) terrifying thought." Equally disturbing, priests depicted as noble and spiritually aware discuss the proliferation of nearly three dozen gospels and why we can't really put faith in any of them—malicious anti-Christian propaganda.
Crude or Profane Language: A half-dozen f-words and several inappropriate uses of the Lord's name head the list. On one occasion, Frankie refers to the "g--d--n church" just as a priest strolls into the room (one can only assume this contrived faux pas was supposed to be funny).
Sexual Conduct: Behind the opening credits, Frankie and her boyfriend undress for a sexual romp. Immodestly dressed street walkers solicit business from Father Kiernan, who rejects the prostitutes' proposals. Frankie is shown nude in a bathtub (discreet, side nudity only), and later tries to seduce Kiernan. When he resists, she is possessed by her gravelly-voiced alter-ego who shouts at him, accusing him of being sexually incompetent.
Violent Content: Blood. Blood. Blood. An unseen force bores holes in Frankie's wrists after dragging her underwater during a quiet bath. On the subway, her arms are stretched wide as her blouse and back are torn to ribbons by an invisible whip. While at a dance club, lacerations appear on her forehead. Later, her feet are beaten bloody. In each case, the present-day violence is quick-cut back and forth with close-up images of a man having his extremities nailed to wooden beams or a crown of thorns pressed into his scalp. Houseman and Kiernan get into a fistfight. A possessed Frankie tosses Kiernan around her apartment like a rag doll (through glass, into furniture, etc.), and brutally slices and stabs herself again and again with a kitchen knife. After Cardinal Houseman tries to strangle the devil out of Frankie, fire leaps from a hearth and engulfs the room.
Drugs/Alcohol: Frankie smokes cigarettes incessantly, orders alcohol in a bar and offers Father Kiernan a beer (which he accepts). Priests drink wine.
Other Negative Elements: When the unmarried Frankie thinks she might be pregnant, her supportive friend, Donna, indirectly reminds her that she could choose abortion ("You've got options").
Summary: Occasionally edited with spasming, MTV-style images, Stigmata is a strange, illogically concocted marriage of The Exorcist and The X-Files. Beyond assaulting viewers with blood and physical anguish, the movie is theologically muddled and misleading. Its main characters are either confused, corrupt or channels of demonic possession. Catholics should be outraged (especially at those "religious experts" who reportedly advised the filmmakers), as should evangelical Christians who object to seeing their Savior's brutal death turned into little more than a plot device.
Unlike '70s predecessors such as The Exorcist, The Omen and Rosemary's Baby, it's not clearly the devil responsible for selfishly inflicting terrible pain on the protagonist. In fact, Stigmata implies that it's actually God using a dead priest's soul and a young woman's body to communicate a holy truth that somehow fell through the cracks when the Bible was compiled. That's blasphemous. Arquette told CNN she hopes to not only entertain audiences, but challenge their religious preconceptions, "What do you believe in religion? What do you think about this? Are there really other gospels? And how many gospels are there in the world?"
Come to think of it, an otherworldly force has possessed human beings to communicate a new doctrine. A false doctrine. The deceptive message is from the pit. The messengers are from Hollywood. Their misguided medium is Stigmata. Don't let spiritual curiosity lure you in.