Has Shia LaBeouf finally gotten religion?
Bethel McGrew | His story of conversion to Catholicism offers an example for the church in reaching damaged young men
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It’s been less than ten years since Shia LaBeouf last got religion. In 2014, the former child star claimed to have “found God” while playing a devout Protestant Christian in the war drama Fury. Now, a new round of breathless headlines are trumpeting his conversion to Catholicism, ahead of his star turn in a forthcoming biopic of the iconic Padre Pio. For all their differences, Protestants and Catholics alike tend to get excited when a celebrity appears to be walking in their direction.
Before getting too excited, they might want to heed the cautionary wisdom of Fury director David Ayer, who reminded audiences that the young star is always acting, even when the camera’s off. LaBeouf has even turned his apologies into performance art, like the times when he’s committed plagiarism, then ‘fessed up on Twitter … in someone else’s words. Irony likewise defined a show where he put himself on display with a brown paper bag over his head reading “I AM NOT FAMOUS ANYMORE.” He’s called his various stunts “metamodernist,” a fusion of “modernist commitment and postmodern detachment—sincerity with a wink.” We can assume that means more “wink” than sincerity.
If that sounds like an excuse for trolling, well, you’re not wrong. But one doesn’t have to take such “art” seriously to recognize it as a generational distress signal. LaBeouf represents many bored, erratic young men searching for meaning with no compass—and, too often, no strong father figures.
LaBeouf’s own childhood was tragically fraught. His father was a damaged, addicted ex-felon, which forced young Shia to become the breadwinner for their broken family. Alcoholism ravaged multiple generations, becoming one of his own demons in adulthood. By 2020, he was facing multiple allegations of domestic abuse. He had always been taught that “God helps those who help themselves.” But where does a “post-God” generation turn when they need help?
In his recent sit-down with Bishop Barron, LaBeouf vividly recalls his “deep shame and guilt” in this rock-bottom moment. It was then that he was given the unexpected opportunity to play Padre Pio. In order to prepare, he would have to immerse with Capuchin friars in a California monastery. He jumped at the chance, but as he explains, he wasn’t in a hurry to get religion. He just wanted to get “back on the hustle.”
What the young actor experienced next appears to have deeply affected him, though whether it actually converted him to Catholicism is up for interpretation. And even if the clickbait headlines are true, as Protestants we hope he finds a firmer foundation for his young faith. Yet his story is worth listening to, as an example of how the church can help damaged young men where a thousand generic secular rehab programs fail.
The friars at San Lorenzo offered LaBeouf something he had never experienced before: a community that simultaneously provided structure, masculine camaraderie, and authentically Christ-centered spirituality. Some gave him paternal guidance, such as one priest who was “like an old sheriff,” sometimes instructing, sometimes just laying a massive hand on his shoulder. Some felt more like brothers, like the younger friar who sternly advised him to go sit in chapel and “just shut up. Just sit there and be quiet.” (They became close friends, and LaBeouf asked that he be cast as his “right hand man” in the film.) The community also balanced spiritual discipline with playfulness—“drawing me into laughter.”
LaBeouf was further humbled by the life stories of men like Brother Jim Townsend, who devoted himself to the Capuchins after doing hard time for the murder of his own pregnant wife. This man was presented to LaBeouf as a “depraved” sinner who had nevertheless been “found in Christ.” Like Brother Jim, LaBeouf was a drowning man who knew he couldn’t swim. As he reflects with Bishop Barron, a religion like Buddhism was no help, because it would just throw him a swimmer’s manual when he needed a lifeline. Yet if there was hope for Brother Jim, maybe there was hope for him too.
That hope suggested a new purpose for his life. Before, his only dream was to excel at his craft. Now, he saw this as “the dream of an ant.” His best-laid plans were “garbage.” He wanted to make amends. He wanted to help others. He still wanted to be a good actor. But now, more importantly, he wanted to be a good man.
Time will tell if LaBeouf finds a stable church community that can nurture this new resolution and encourage him to take full ownership of the damage his sins have caused. He may be a celebrity, but at the end of the day, he represents just one more lost soul among many who seek a guiding light. For him, and for all of them, we continue to pray.
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