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League attacks mythical TV windmills

These have been a heady few weeks for William Donohue whose Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights has confronted the Hollywood beast with an impressive mix of swagger and high-mindedness. The occasion was ABC’s “Nothing Sacred,” which depicts a diverse urban Catholic parish with all the weal and woe, warts and epiphanies any average pilgrim could expect two millennia after Jesus got Christianity off to a similar shaky start (story, page 3).

Donohue claims the Disney studio (Bambi’s godparents, for heaven’s sake) is in cahoots with the network, the sponsors and sundry others to besmirch Catholicism. The league has joined forces with 29 other fringe groups of various persuasions who say that “Nothing Sacred” is anti-Catholic or anti-whatever.

It may be that love of God and church is the driving force that keeps the league steadfast and pure; that the members truly fear for human souls or for the community of believers -- it makes no sense otherwise to say this is a Catholic crusade.

But as we listen to league leaders telling their story, the high-minded idealism drops its pants. James Hitchcock, former chairman of the league board, told NCR: “This shift into fighting defamation in a very public way, using the media effectively, has raised the organization’s profile remarkably.” So that’s the point: to raise the profile. League supporters’ own words fail to convince us that this brouhaha is about the good name of the church, least of all about the awesome heights of religious experience that remain forever just beyond the human grasp.

Rather, these gladiators come across as latter-day Don Quixotes who desperately need windmills to swipe at. And their savvy leaders know exactly what pushes the buttons of the loyal or fearful or nostalgic foot soldiers. It’s all Hollywood’s fault -- you can’t push a more effective button than that.

The world is full of problems and rip-offs, scams and scam artists, killers and rapists, bigots and blasphemers, and the great cause Donohue has found for his league is to put “Nothing Sacred” off the air. That’s slaying the Hollywood dragon? More like a mouse.

Listen to Donohue: “Rich people have no effect on me. ... We look for Joe six-pack.” Is he talking about Joe’s profoundest convictions and immortal soul? Or even about how we live together as a decent community for our uncertain few years on earth? It doesn’t seem to be either. The rich “can go to hell as far as I’m concerned,” Donohue says. It sounds rather as if Donohue has found a demon he can ride down Main Street to prosperity and notoriety.

Unfortunately Donohue’s ubiquitous rantings may be drowning out more important issues.

League members will never believe this, but if “Nothing Sacred” goes off the air, it won’t be driven off by the league but by the rest of us. From the beginning, this show has failed to make it where -- unfortunately -- it counts most: in the ratings. Week after week, the show has come in a sorry fourth. It has gained some ground, making room for hope, but is still in the doldrums.

There seems to be a more deep-rooted problem here: However well-done the show, most people are no longer interested in the subject. This series has been widely praised in show biz as well as religious circles, yet the majority of viewers seem to presume a drama series about a Catholic parish and its concerns in the late 20th century is irrelevant or boring. This is because viewers are alienated from the church.

In earlier centuries, when the church was alive and relevant, people’s faith expressed itself in mystery and miracle plays, in songs and festivals, jests and jousting, often irreverent and bawdy but always immediate and bubbling with the ferment of the times. They were the “Nothing Sacred” of their day -- imperfect and at times inaccurate but eye-openers and heart-breakers and soul-searchers nonetheless.

Today, by contrast, most people just don’t care. Their lives are spent fumbling with different concerns, searching elsewhere for meaning or entertainment.

At press time there are still a handful of episodes to which ABC has definitely committed. Whether more episodes will be made and broadcast will depend less on Donohue’s league than on the numbers watching. There is still time for the famous word-of-mouth method to turn the tide.

We should not leave the arena altogether to Donohue. Write to ABC’s Audience Information Department at 77 W. 66th street, New York, N.Y. 10023, or call them at (212) 456-7477 and tell them to keep the show on the road. (The department counts calls and letters daily and relays the tally to upper management.) Tell neighbors, friends and strangers alike, to watch on Thursday nights.

Even if we are not amused or amazed by this particular show, we should keep in mind that if it fails, it will be many a long year before the hard-nosed TV industry will again risk a series about church or the serious issues this show has had the courage to tackle.

National Catholic Reporter, October 31, 1997