Fall 1998, Vol. 1, No. 2

Contents Page,
Vol. 1, No. 2


Quick Links
to other articles
in this issue:
A New Establishment?

Race and Disgrace

Submission in Salt Lake

Church, Lies, and Polling Data

Catholic Controversy II:  Handling Pedophilia

Catholic Controversy III:  Philadelphia Story

On the Beat:  "Irreligion" in Denmark

The Oklahoman's Bible Belt

Catholic Controversy I: Jesus Off Broadway

by Anthony Burke Smith

"Gay Jesus May Star on B’Way" cried the May 1 headline in the New York Post over a story about how the Manhattan Theater Club (MTC) was preparing to produce Corpus Christi, a new work by noted playwright Terrence McNally. The play, according to the Post, would recount the life of Jesus from a gay perspective-and Jesus would have sex with his apostles! New_Corpus_Christi.gif (4522 bytes)

The Post also reported the reaction of William Donohue of the Catholic League of Religious and Civil Rights, a private organization committed to defending Catholics against "defamation or discrimination." The play, said Donohue, was "sick beyond words." For weeks, the Post had the story largely to itself, keeping up a steady stream of reportage on what it deemed a "theatrical cheap trick."

But then on May 21, the MTC announced it was canceling production after receiving threatening and anti-Semitic phone calls-calls condemned by Donahue-that promised to burn down the theater and "exterminate" McNally. Suddenly newspapers across the country discovered a full-fledged fight between censorship and artistic freedom. That the Catholic League’s strong-armed tactics could succeed in New York, the very capital of artistic production, cast ominous clouds over all free expression in the United States.

The Boston Globe reported that playwrights and authors were protesting the MTC’s decision to cancel Corpus Christi in a "rare display of solidarity." The San Francisco Chronicle described the actions of a "squadron of outraged playwrights and the national Coalition Against Censorship."

"There is no essential difference between suppressing the production of a controversial play and suppressing a form of worship," proclaimed the New York Times. "This is not only a land of freedom; it is a land where freedom is always contested. When courage for that contest is lacking, freedom itself-religious or artistic-is terribly diminished."

Bowing to the countervailing pressure, the MTC went ahead and reinstated Corpus Christi in its fall line-up, but there was little sense of a rousing triumph for freedom in America. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the Denver Post headlined their editorials, respectively, "A Close Call for ‘Corpus Christi’" and "Don’t let extremists rule stage." Back in New York, columnist Frank Rich, the Times’ doyen of all things artistic, decried the contemporary cultural environment in America, where the "hysteria" of the New York Post and the Catholic League could enjoy such influence.

As objectionable as Donohue’s rhetoric was, the press coverage greatly exaggerated the power of the Catholic League. For even had the Manhattan Theater Club not reversed itself under counter-pressure from the arts community, the League’s actions were but a pale imitation of an era when Catholics imagined themselves guardians of American values and Catholic morality did influence popular culture.

Back in the 1930s and 1940s, the Catholic bishops themselves led a campaign to clean up immorality in the movies via the Legion of Decency. Catholics in the pews took pledges to refrain from attending movies the Legion condemned. Well-placed Catholics in the film industry censored screenplays and movie production, and influenced the "moral character" of what Americans saw on screen: a toned-down Mae West, gangsters who paid for their bad deeds, clergy who had all the answers, and married couples who slept in separate beds.

In their effort to mobilize Catholics against what they perceive as the moral liberalism of American culture, Donohue and the Catholic League represent an attempt to reprise the Legion’s glory days. Yet the lives of American Catholics are no longer shaped by the circumstances that enabled the League to flourish: an intense religious subculture and a search for respectability in an America still suspicious of the Catholic Church. Today, Donohue’s indictment of the cultural establishment for anti-Catholicism is simply incapable of organizing many American Catholics into full-scale protest. As the independent Catholic magazine Commonweal pointed out in a critique of Donohue’s "bullying tactics," Catholics "are the largest religious group in America; we are not a persecuted minority. Indeed, so secure do we seem to be that we conduct our disagreements in public."

Nowhere was the diminished power to mobilize Catholics against mainstream culture more evident than in the other major controversy involving the Catholic League: last year’s television drama, "Nothing Sacred." Weeks before the September premiere of the show-a Graham Greene-ish drama about a young, urban parish priest-the press portrayed "Nothing Sacred" as a complex, provocative drama whose chances of success the League threatened.

"If the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights has its way, ABC’s new prime-time drama about a priest doesn’t have a prayer of surviving a month, much less a season," declared the Boston Herald. Later the Louisville Courier-Journal declared, "Never mind that reviewers love the smartly written ensemble series about life in a poor inner-city parish; the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights does not like it. And the league has cloutèthe New York-based group has convinced sponsors like Kmart, Red Lobster and Ocean Spray to jerk their advertising dollars from the series." The Boston Globe reported that Donohue was leading a "jihad" against "Nothing Sacred."

This was all the more disheartening because the show seemed so darned good. Washington Post television critic Tom Shales called "Nothing Sacred" "probably the best drama of the new season." Howard Rosenberg of the Los Angeles Times described the show’s protagonist, Father Ray, as "prime time’s most interesting, thoughtful, and complex new character." In the view of the Dallas Morning News, "Nothing Sacred" was "an uncommonly daring, uplifting and intelligent attempt to make religion more than a formulaic sacred cow. What makes it click is its absence of easy pieties or angels all aglow. It boldly goes where no TV priest has gone before-to the heart of questions about faith, hope and even God’s existence."

The Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel’s Robert McCabe jumped out on a limb to assert, "I feel compelled as a practicing Catholic to rush in where angels fear to tread and to take exception to the bashing that "Nothing Sacred" is receiving from the Catholic League and others. Rather than being offended, I am elated by the program." This kind of response was frequent. Indeed, one never realized just how many Catholics are television critics for daily newspapers.

And that’s to say nothing of Catholic publications themselves. Commonweal rebuked "Donohue’s scorched-earth response" and described the show as "sophisticated drama that, whatever its shortcomings, actually took religious life and the institutional church seriously." Writing in the National Catholic Reporter, John L. Allen, Jr. stated that "Nothing Sacred" is "certainly the best prime-time treatment of Catholicism ever." The priest, sociologist, and popular novelist Andrew Greeley called the show "great Catholicism and great television."

In fact, for all the allegedly controversial risk-taking of the show, what is striking is the overwhelming support for the drama and the near universal portrayal of Donohue and the Catholic League as parochial censors hell-bent on destroying a much needed corrective to feel-good religion in popular culture. But as Robert P. Laurence in the San Diego Union-Tribune observed about the dramatic fall-off in ratings after the first episode, "[S]everal million American have tried ‘Nothing Sacred’ and decided they didn’t like it." Some commentators seemed to take perverse glee in turning the drama into a proverbial club to beat the American viewing public over the head for its unsophisticated tastes, but the fact was that the show failed to gain a popular audience. What killed "Nothing Sacred" after its first season was ratings, not Donohue’s protest.

When Corpus Christi finally opened in mid-October, it was accorded the usual fanfare of controversy in the press. The brutal death of a gay student in Wyoming the day before seemed, for some, to heighten the importance of the play. Yet McNally’s re-telling of the gospel from a gay perspective turned out to be more a story of empowerment, affirmation, and love than a gender-bending, in-your-face provocation. As often happens in such episodes, Corpus Christi, the play, turned out to be far milder than Corpus Christi, the event.

Outside the theater opening night, Donohue and the Catholic League enlisted 2,000 protesters. As the League’s web page boasted, they represented nearly 50 groups-including Protestants, Jews, and Muslims-in an attempt to show that Corpus Christi was an offense against all religious people. This line of attack built upon and expanded the coalition Donohue had organized against "Nothing Sacred" and suggests a recognition on the part of the League that efforts to rally Catholics alone will no longer suffice. If that is the case, Corpus Christi may signal a new turn in the culture wars.

Sociologists such as James Davison Hunter have argued that a progressive-conservative divide has displaced denominational boundaries as the defining feature of religious engagement in American public life. Yet the conservative Catholicism of grass-roots organizations like the League has, so far, helped limit a full-blown coalition of Catholics and other religious conservatives. The League’s effort to cast a wide net of support among non-Catholics in its protest against Corpus Christi suggests this may be changing. If a concern with anti-Catholicism is being translated into a more general moral critique of contemporary America, it may bring a new infusion of Catholic energy into a movement that until now has been largely dominated by Protestant activists.