Vol. 1, No. 2
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
Catholic Controversy III: Philadelphia
On the Beat: "Irreligion" in Denmark
The Oklahoman's Bible Belt
Controversy I: Jesus Off Broadway
Anthony Burke Smith"Gay Jesus May Star on BWay" 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!
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 Leagues 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 MTCs 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
"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 "Dont 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 Donohues 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 Leagues
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 Legions 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, Donohues 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 Donohues "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 years 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,
ABCs new prime-time drama about a priest doesnt 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 shows protagonist, Father Ray, as
"prime times 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 Gods existence."
The Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinels 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 thats to say nothing of Catholic publications themselves. Commonweal
rebuked "Donohues 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 didnt 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 Donohues 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
McNallys 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 Leagues 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 Leagues 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