One half of the latest news about the scandalous career of actor Shia LaBeouf is that he has converted to Catholicism. In a long interview with YouTube evangelist Bishop Robert Barron, the always-in-hot-water Hollywood star says that he was drawn into the Catholic faith by preparing to play the Italian saint Padre Pio in an upcoming movie.
The other half is that 36-year-old LaBeouf has spoken out about allegations that he abused his ex-girlfriend, musician FKA twigs. “I hurt that woman,” LaBeouf said on Jon Bernthal’s podcast “Real Ones. “And in the process of doing that, I hurt many other people, and many other people before that woman. I was a pleasure-seeking, selfish, self-centered, dishonest, inconsiderate, fearful human being.”
That is the tip of the iceberg of awful behaviour by a guy who is a 24-carat jerk.
In Bishop Barron’s extended interview, LaBeouf opens up about his life. He was a moral wreck. “I didn’t want to be alive anymore when all this happened,” he said. “Shame like I had never experienced before — the kind of shame that you forget how to breathe. You don’t know where to go. You can’t go outside and get like, a taco.”
But researching Padre Pio’s astonishing life and living in a Franciscan Capuchin monastery to prepare for his role changed him.
“It was seeing other people who have sinned beyond anything I could ever conceptualise also being found in Christ that made me feel like, ‘Oh, that gives me hope,’” LaBeouf told the bishop. “I started hearing experiences of other depraved people who had found their way in this, and it made me feel like I had permission.”
Who knows whether LaBeouf’s conversion will be lasting? Here’s hoping. There are countless people who lived wayward lives and changed. A few of the better known one are Dorothy Day (affairs, an abortion); Oscar Wilde (homosexual); St Thomas a’Becket (profligate); Blessed Bartolo Longo (Satanist); or Alice B. Toklas (lesbian lover of Gertrude Stein). These are all Catholics, but the best-known hymn of repentance and redemption was written by the former captain of a slave ship, John Newton: “Amazing grace how sweet the sound / That saved a wretch like me.”
What I do know is that on Twitter the hashtag is #abuser and not #amazinggrace.
Today is the 1,592th anniversary of the death of Augustine of Hippo, whose early life was flagrantly licentious but who became one of the greatest saints and theologians of Christianity. But he is not the paradigm of Christian repentance. That honour belongs to the thief who was crucified with Christ and slipped into Heaven after repenting minutes before death.
This possibility of ultimate forgiveness is being ridiculed in the media and on Twitter in LaBeouf’s case as “a long, ugly, misogynistic redemption tour”, in the words of The Daily Beast.
In his conversation with Bishop Barron, LaBeouf mentioned another conversion story which had moved him deeply. The friars introduced him to the life of Jim Townsend, a former Marine who murdered his pregnant wife in 1947. He received a life sentence and – a bit like LaBeouf, perhaps – took a job as an assistant to the Catholic chaplain in his prison to chalk up good behaviour points. But eventually he changed. After 25 years he was paroled and he became a Capuchin friar in the Pittsburgh area and a chaplain to inmates in the prison in which he had been incarcerated.
There are often calls to expunge Christianity from public life. We ought to think twice about that. Amongst the cultural jewels which would be tipped onto the rubbish heap in a post-Christian society is the possibility of repentance and forgiveness after a crime, no matter how heinous.
Cancel culture is a vivid demonstration of the denial of redemption. Its devotees are gripped with a feverish passion for naming, blaming, and shaming. Once the statues are toppled, there’s no forgiveness. Just as the Roman emperors used to bury the memory of their predecessors by erasing their names from public inscriptions, the Twitter mob banishes offenders for ever.
Repentance is not a get-out-of-jail-free card. In God’s good time justice will be restored and crime will be punished. LaBeouf may still face a reckoning about how he has treated women. But in the Christian tradition, sinners like Augustine and LaBeouf – and the rest of us – can ultimately be redeemed.
That’s a legacy too precious to discard.