e-mail us
Despite boycott, ‘Sacred’ draws Catholic applause

NCR Staff

The richly diverse American Catholic church rarely speaks with a single voice, and its pluralism is again in evidence in the debate over the new ABC television show “Nothing Sacred.”

The hourlong drama has drawn re from the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, a New York-based group that monitors anti-Catholic defamation, and from a handful of bishops. Other Catholic leaders, however, have hailed the show as compelling drama and have even suggested that its positive depiction of an urban parish could boost vocations and church attendance.

Meanwhile, the controversy may be hurting the show where it counts -- with advertisers and in the ratings. So far, eleven sponsors have announced their intention not to appear on “Nothing Sacred,” and the show nished fourth in its time slot in its second week.

“There’s a political message here [on ‘Nothing Sacred’] I’m tired of,” said William Donohue, president of the Catholic League. “It’s propaganda. The show suggests that everyone who is loyal to the church is a terrible, coldhearted bastard, while all the good, caring Catholics disregard the church’s teaching.” The league has been joined in its campaign by 29 mostly conservative Christian, Jewish and Muslim groups. A few bishops, including Washington’s Cardinal James Hickey and Camden’s Bishop James McHugh, have also published negative reactions to the show in their diocesan papers.

Many Catholics, however, have welcomed “Nothing Sacred.”

“I like it a lot,” said Paulist Fr. Ellwood Kieser, head of Paulist Pictures and coproducer of the lms “Romero” and “Entertaining Angels.”

“It portrays honest conict,” Kieser said. “It certainly pulls you into a God-centered universe, and makes you think about questions of faith. The writing is terric.”

Kieser even predicted that Fr. Ray -- the smart, caring and pastorally effective lead character, played by Kevin Anderson -- might draw more young men to consider vocations, in the same way, he said, that the popular show “E.R.” has apparently helped increase applications for trauma specialties in medical schools.

Mary Ann Glendon of the Harvard Law School said, “I haven’t seen the show, but Catholics I know and trust do not have a problem with it.” Glendon is a high-prole Catholic who was chosen by the Vatican to head its delegation to the 1995 United Nations Women’s Conference in Beijing.

She also serves on the board of advisers for the Catholic League and suggested that the group’s sensitivity to anti-Catholic bias may predispose it occasionally to overreact. “I’m glad the Catholic League exists,” Glendon said, “because there really is Catholic-bashing out there. But sometimes such groups can be a little overly sensitive,” she said. “This may be a case in point.”

In the season premiere, the show’s central character, Fr. Ray, encouraged a woman to follow her own conscience on abortion. The second episode revolved around the parish’s efforts to keep its soup kitchen open, despite city council opposition. Coming story lines include a priest suffering from AIDS who is considering leaving the priesthood. Critical reaction to “Nothing Sacred” has been generally positive, with Time calling it “by far the best of the new shows” and Entertainment Weekly saying the show is “clearheaded” and “beautifully conceived.”

Still, the Catholic League senses an implicit anti-Catholic agenda at work. “The average Catholic is not Fr. Ray,” Donohue said. “Some blacks blow each other up on the streets and some gays go to bathhouses,” he said, “but on television you see Cosby and Ellen. But Catholics have to put up with Fr. Ray? Catholics want priests who accept the teachings of the church,” he said.

“It’s not that clear-cut,” said Henry Herx, director of the Ofce of Film and Broadcast -- the successor to the Legion of Decency -- for the U.S. Catholic Conference. “There is a wide variety of Catholic views about the show, so it’s not accurate that the Catholic League speaks for the Catholic perspective,” Herx said. He emphasized that the Catholic League is not an ofcial agency of the church.

“Donohue wants a Bing Crosby kind of priest,” said Kieser, “but that’s just not the real world of 1997 -- if indeed it ever was the real world at all.”

ABC has worked to head off Catholic opposition, even editing the series premiere to satisfy concerns expressed by church ofcials who had viewed it at the network’s request. In the pilot, dialogue took place that could have suggested a bishop’s approval for tape-recording a confession; by the time the episode aired, the conversation was edited to make it clear that the bishop would not approve.

Despite those efforts, Catholic observers of the show still point to some ecclesiological gaffes. Kieser said he doubts that a priest would tell his congregation not to confess any more sexual sins, as Fr. Ray does in the rst episode. Herx said many Catholics would not nd “edifying” the suggestion in the second episode that the parish’s youth minister was involved in a sexual relationship before marriage.

Donohue sees the show as fundamentally awed and has vowed to “kill it.” He says the Catholic League will continue to use aggressive, high-prole tactics to bring it down, including urging Catholics to boycott the show’s sponsors. “We play hardball,” he said.

The opening salvo in this campaign was red in the Sept. 8 issue of Advertising Age, where the league spent $13,000 to run a full-page ad warning sponsors that there would be reprisals for advertising on “Nothing Sacred.” The league has given out the phone numbers and E-mail addresses of “Nothing Sacred” sponsors to its members, encouraging them to complain. Donohue has also expressed gratitude for the help of the conservative television outlet EWTN, where Mother Angelica encourages viewers to protest to “Nothing Sacred” advertisers during her nightly television program.

Some evidence exists that the league’s efforts are bearing fruit. Two sponsors -- Weight Watchers and Isuzu -- that had advertised on the rst show have withdrawn, while several others who had either inked agreements for future episodes or were considering doing so have asked ABC to switch them to other programs.

Weight Watchers conrmed that it had received a number of complaints about its sponsorship of “Nothing Sacred” on the company’s 800 number. An Isuzu spokesperson also acknowledged receiving complaints.

One archdiocesan ofcial who initially signed on to the league’s campaign has since backed away. Fr. James Barker, director of vocations for the Baltimore archdiocese, was a signatory to the league’s petition protesting the show. After seeing the rst episode, however, Barker said “I’m kind of sorry” for lending his name to the effort. “[‘Nothing Sacred’] really was quite good and much better than what I had expected or feared based on what some people -- like the Catholic League -- were saying,” he told Catholic News Service.

While ABC claims that “Nothing Sacred” is fully sponsored for the rest of the season, a network spokesperson admitted that the defections are of serious concern. On the other hand, shows such as “NYPD Blue” suffered through the withdrawal of several sponsors, only to reclaim them once it became a ratings hit.

The ratings for “Nothing Sacred” have so far been unimpressive; the show claimed a 7.6 household rating, which translates into just under 9.9 million viewers, for its debut Sept. 18. On Sept. 25, it garnered only a 4.4 share, meaning 6.1 million viewers. Network ofcials noted that in its second week, “Nothing Sacred” was up against NBC’s highly popular Thursday night lineup, including “Friends” in the same time slot.

If the show does fail, it will disappoint many Catholics who see potential in it. “It’s a very eloquent picture of what the church can be,” said Atonement Fr. James Gardiner, head of the Tri-State Catholic Committee on Radio and Television, an association of the communications directors of the seven dioceses and archdioceses in the New York media market. Gardiner likes the show so much he’s written letters to sponsors to thank them in an effort to balance the Catholic League’s opposition.

“I hope the show continues,” Gardiner said. “We need to work with creative types, not punish them.” He said colleagues have told him of people calling chanceries and parishes after watching “Nothing Sacred,” expressing an interest in coming back to Catholicism or considering it for the rst time.

Gardiner would like to see Catholics friendly to “Nothing Sacred” speak more forcefully on the subject. “So many people whisper to me, ‘good job’ and ‘keep it up,’ ” he said, in reference to his own comments, including a positive column about “Nothing Sacred” published recently in the New York Daily News. “I tell them to speak out, to say it openly, so that people know most Catholics aren’t condemning the show.”

For Donohue, the ght over “Nothing Sacred” is about much more than the show itself. It’s ultimately about what kind of face American Catholicism will project to the broader society -- dialectical and accommodating or militant in defense of its own interests. Donohue clearly prefers the latter. “I don’t have much use for the wimps in the Catholic church, on either the left or the right,” he said.

Donohue said that while the generally low-key remarks from the American hierarchy about the show had “created some confusion,” he predicted its failure to speak out against “Nothing Sacred” would ultimately help his cause. “The more average Catholics get enraged, the more likely they are to join our side,” he said.

Donohue indicated that Catholic League membership was climbing as a result of all the publicity. “I’ve had to pull staff just to answer the phones,” he said. In just one day, Donohue claimed, the league had 700 requests for membership information.

The Catholic League’s campaign irks those who argue for a more open, less deant approach to popular culture. “I don’t think the Catholic League speaks for the Catholic church,” said Kieser. “I don’t think the bulk of American Catholics are upset about this [`Nothing Sacred’].”

Still, this is prime-time network television, and some skepticism is probably in order. “I just hope it stays good,” Kieser said. “I hope they don’t succumb to temptation and get tired or trendy.”

National Catholic Reporter, October 10, 1997