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'Sacred' offers commercial for Catholicism


I presume that the creators of ABC's new series "Nothing Sacred" have memorized Antonia Bird's 1995 British film "Priest," about clerical sexual confusion. The movie angered conservatives, but struck me as good to show on a priests' retreat with the bishop there to listen to the discussion.

In any event, "Priest" generated a tremendous buzz in the press, which is what ABC needs right now. This fall ABC is running scared. Newsday critic Marvin Kitman said on the radio recently that there are good things on TV, but few are on ABC. Most of ABC's media attention to this point has sprung from a New York Times Magazine article on how ABC hired a woman president to revamp its fall schedule, not foreseeing that they had thrown her in over her head and now had to bump her up, over or out. Not an auspicious way to launch the new season.

Now, the network has developed a Thursday night prime-time pilot for a series about the day-to-day struggles of a parish priest. It stars Kevin Anderson of "Sleeping with the Enemy." And, of course, the network salted it with material guaranteed to offend someone out there -- someone.

Because this is America and this is TV, TV must hold your attention or you will flick the channel and not see the commercial. And religion is boooorrrring. Except TV Catholicism -- because Catholicism has sex (it's bad) and devils and uptight authority figures (because they don't have sex) and confessional secrets and occasional young good guy priests who stand up to authorities until they're cut down.

Fortunately for ABC, William Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, has got wind of the show. He has labeled it "another sick look at priests" and an "insult to most Catholics" and is campaigning to kill it.

The ABC PR people, delighted with the controversy, have played it on two levels. They sing to the religiously alienated audience, with Kevin Anderson telling an interviewer that his character "is a real human being" who "goes against the ritualistic structure of the church." As if most priests, particularly those who go along with ritual, are inhuman.

Then they assure the rest of us that the project is A-OK because it virtually has the Jesuit Seal of Approval. The technical adviser is Jesuit Br. Michael F. Breault, artistic associate at Circle in the Square Theater. The writer/cocreator is "Paul Leland," reportedly the pen name for a New York Jesuit who, for countless reasons we may speculate on, would rather have his "privacy" than take responsibility for what he has put on America's tubes. As a result, the Society of Jesus has its own "Anonymous" case, having learned little from Joe Klein's fiasco with Primary Colors.

Finally, America magazine has released the advance text of a rave review Jesuit Fr. James Martin has written for its Sept. 18 issue, and has allowed it to be used to puff the show before the other critics have seen it.

All this fuss to cover its tail, when the last thing ABC has to worry about is Catholic opposition. "Nothing Sacred" is an hourlong commercial for the Catholic church. For the Catholic church at its best, struggling to be the touch-point -- the sacrament -- the Christian must be between the Father God who has called us to minister and the "people of God," as the Vatican Council called them, reaching out to be touched.

Kevin Anderson's Father Ray is Superpriest. He's up at 5:30, pops in a CD, staggers to the bathroom in his skivvies, shaves and, presto, there he is vested for morning Mass! He stands up to parents who whine when their boy doesn't get an A at his school, calls upscale neighbors who object to his soup kitchen "yuppie scum," and is truly a better father to young people than their biological parents who have lost touch with their kids.

Furthermore, he is supported by a with-it parish staff and a fraternity of happy, worldly wise fellow priests the likes of which comparatively gloomy novelists such as Georges Bernanos, J.F. Powers and Edwin O'Connor never dreamed existed.

But Father Ray has problems. He's still attracted to an old flame whose son is in his school. After the boy tries suicide, Ray tenderly anoints him in a scene Jim Martin praises. It will bring tears to the eyes of any viewer with a shred of human feeling.

But my favorite scene is when Ray, the tape of his squishy abortion advice having been secretly recorded and sent to the chancery, is called in to headquarters to be chewed out by a functionary in a black suit and Roman collar. "Sex is your Achilles heel," the cleric-bureaucrat coldly warns. "It would be a shame to lose you." If this were a World War II movie, he would be saying, "Ve haf vays of making you talk." The bishop's flunky then strides over to a chess board and moves a figure.

Father Ray is also occasionally an irresponsible jerk. Enraged that his confessional advice has been recorded and reported to the bishop, he proclaims to his parish at Sunday Mass that, since the gospels don't talk about sexual sin, he will listen to no more sexual sins in confession! The congregation applauds. Our Jesuit "creators" have created a diocesan priest who has not read the New Testament. Has Father Ray no qualms about adultery? And how about sexual harassment, pedophilia and child abuse, which Jesus does not mention specifically but which even 1990s sexual liberals presume should be condemned?

Ray is directed to preach on St. Thomas Aquinas' proofs of the existence of God and bones up on the Angelic Doctor as if he had never heard of the guy. Nor does he seem to know that, in the Mass, the Our Father comes at the end of the Eucharistic Prayer, not in the Mass' first two minutes!

It's hard to escape the conclusion that Father Ray has been created -- did the producers use focus groups? -- to fit ABC's research on what kind of a Catholic priest would be acceptable to a prime time audience. Which is the worse reason why writers will not come up with a Catholic priest who thinks adultery and abortion are sins -- the writers' failure of nerve or their lack of creative imagination?

The final homily, in which our hero tells his congregation that God's existence is not proved by logic but seen in human love, is transcendent. But I thought of this show while reading John Leo's New York Daily News column about New Yorker media writer Ken Auletta, who asked a series of TV and film moguls and producers, "What won't you do?" Auletta meant, Are there any moral limits on the plots and scenes you would use to hold an audience? Most didn't even understand the question and babbled on about resisting censorship.

I suspect that "Nothing Sacred" is a very shaky investment. ABC execs will cut it off at the first sign that a confused do-gooder cleric with an ex-girlfriend in the wings is too far removed from the kind of cool exuded by "Seinfeld" or "Friends."

Swimming in the Atlantic Ocean at Sea Bright, N.J., this week, I was hit on the head by a briefcase bearing an ABC logo, which had apparently fallen off the Staten Island ferry and floated down to our beach. What did it contain but the internal memos on this very program spelling out a series of proposed story lines! I quote:


1. The conservative curate who keeps running off to the monastery turns out to be gay and wants Father Ray to bless his and his lover's union.

2. Shattered by his mother's death, Father Ray develops a drinking problem and is shipped off to Guest House.

3. Devastated by his father's death, he sinks into depression, goes into psychotherapy and is maintained on Prozac.

4. Father Ray and his liberal nun friend go to say Mass in a prison cell block and are held hostage in a riot. Either the prisoners are released or you-know-what will happen to the nun.

5. Father Ray teaches a pastoral theology course at the local seminary and the seminarians turn against him, charging he is not a "real" priest. Ray thinks they might be right.

6. A visiting cardinal takes a shine to Father Ray and determines that he will be sent to Rome to study at the Gregorian and become a bishop. After all, isn't that the logical next step for a dynamic young priest?

7. Angry and abandoned when his parish staff, resenting his promotion, accuses him of selling out, Father Ray calls his old flame and tells her to meet him in that motel room one more time.

Jesuit Fr. Raymond A. Schroth is assistant dean of Fordham College and author of The American Journey of Eric Sevareid. (Steerforth Press)

National Catholic Reporter, August 29, 1997