It might have been hinted at, like Northstar’s homosexuality was, but it was never spelled out clearly before Frank Miller’s run on the Daredevil series in the early 1980s that Matt Murdock, Daredevil’s alter ego, was a Catholic. Frank Miller made the character’s religion a big part of his reinvention of him, drawing on his alleged Irish roots. Since, then, Murdock’s Catholicism has played a large role in his identity and what sets him apart from the other super heroes he was originally cloned from – Spider-Man and Batman. But is Daredevil really a Catholic?
With red locks of hair and a persona mocking the Devil, Matthew Michael Murdock had all the staples of an Irish American. Even his family background set him up as a working class American whose father worked as a boxer in an environment fraught with crime. Instead of stemming from Boston though, Daredevil lived in Hell’s Kitchen. Miller skipped the generic New York City backdrop in favour of the traditional Irish-American neighbourhood. Miller revealed during his run on Daredevil that Murdock was a Catholic and that his mother had not died, but escaped her marriage to become a nun.
Whereas iconography associated with Batman, after whom Daredevil was strongly inspired, was based on Gargoyles and Gothic architecture, Daredevil’s urban iconography was based on religious artifacts like Catholic Cathedrals, churches, ornamental crosses and stained glass windows. Few comic book characters have urban iconography as unique as Daredevil. Some of Daredevil’s supporting cast were religious figures like priests and Catholic missionary workers. Does that make Daredevil really Catholic though?
To answer the question one must look at what it means to be Catholic in the United States, and what was the usual comic book religion ascribed to characters created before the 1970s, after which comic book culture became more liberalized. Although it's one of the main religious denominations in the United States, Catholicism is the not the preferred Christian faction. The United States were founded on Protestant values of work, frugality and a strong desire to escape from the domineering main religion of the United kingdom. Many Protestant sects escaped from the Europe and established themselves in the Americas to gain religious freedom. Catholics at the time were also struggling in England and other British territories. However, the fight of the Catholics against Anglicans was different from the fights other Christian denominations had against the Church of England and the monarchy. Catholics used to be the dominant force in England and Scotland. They were trying to gain their authority back. Neighbouring Southern Ireland remains Catholic to the present.
When the United States welcomed Irish settlers in the mid 1800s, they were not deemed as optimal immigrants as other Europeans immigrants of Protestant origins like the Swedes, the Swiss, or even the French Protestants were. They were lower class newcomers just one step above the former black slaves. The Irish worked in factories and lived in slums of Northern American cities. The Catholic religion they brought with them from Ireland was suspect. Although it would flourish in other parts of the Americas, such as Latin America, Brazil and French Canada, the United States would remain primarily a Protestant nation.
When another religious denomination started creating comics in the 1930s and 1940s, they did so with an attempt to emulate and uphold the dominant religious denominations they had always been excluded from. Jewish comic book creators would systematically create gentile super heroes with Protestant names and backgrounds. Religion never came up in their comic books, but there were no doubts that Clark Kent, Bruce Wayne and Steve Rogers were Protestant super heroes. Perhaps Stan Lee had a stroke of genius when he named Daredevil Matt Murdock, an Irish name, and gave him typical Irish red hair. Then mockingly called him Daredevil and encouraged Bill Everett to dress him like the Devil.
Yet, for much of his early days, Daredevil acted like all the other White Anglo Saxon Protestant comic book characters. His religion and alleged Catholicism were not alluded to. Frank Miller had enough insight to see a few threads and compile them in one story which drew on the Irish Catholic background of Daredevil and used it to differentiate him once and for all from Spider-Man and Batman.
But as comic books would have it, Daredevil’s Catholicism was pretty much a shallow affair. Conveniently, as all good soap operas demand, Daredevil’s long lost, and never seen, mother was suddenly revealed to have become a nun. She was both motherly and asexual, having escaped her union with Daredevil’s father Jack Murdock. Suddenly, Daredevil started to hang out around churches, and even confessed his deeds. Miller pulled out every Catholic cliché to flavour Daredevil, and it worked. It worked to such an extent that Batman was the one to borrow from Daredevil’s Catholic background in other stories, some of which were written by Miller.
I cannot blame Miller for using folklore to flavour Daredevil into a Catholic, instead of using deep religious teachings and focus. For example, we never see Daredevil rise against some of the constraining parts of his religion. A man like him would have been ex-communicated years ago in real life. Daredevil doesn’t really pray or hold Catholic sacraments dear. There is no moral or religious conflict about the callings and teachings of his religion and his personal lifestyle as Matt Murdock or his vigilantism as Daredevil.
Perhaps Daredevil is nominally Catholic, like many others are in the United States. They are officially Catholics but do not practice their religion. However, they enjoy their first communions, their Christmas masses and celebrations, and once a year will donate some money to a local church. They feel good about sending their girls to an all girls’ private school run by a declining number of nuns. The Catholicism they practice is shallow and more folkloric than deeply religious. In a sense, Daredevil is really Catholic in the sense that he mimics the lives of many Americans Catholics.