Copyright (c) 1998 First Things 79 (January 1998): 16-17.
This season’s most controversial new program, Nothing Sacred, is about everyday life at an urban Catholic parish. At any rate, it is about everyday life as refracted through the multi-layered narrative techniques used in ER and its progeny: handheld cameras, several subplots running at once, and lots of characters on-screen. (The soup kitchen at this parish has as many patrons as the chow-line in the film epic Spartacus.) Considering what might conservatively be called the adventurous attitude that ABC and its parent Disney Corporation have taken toward cultural issues in the past few years, it was never likely that Nothing Sacred would provide many ringing affirmations of Catholic orthodoxy. Even before its premiere, the show raised quite a lot of dudgeon among the defenders of the Church. In any case, the show’s ratings have been so dismal that any assessment of the theology of Nothing Sacred is soon likely to be purely academic. Still, the experiment does seem to have taught one lesson. We now know, from no less an authority than the Nielsen ratings, that reactionary liberalism has no audience.
Nothing Sacred is like the joke about the old dog that was still fit enough to chase female dogs but too old to remember why. The basic template seems to be the movie Mass Appeal and similar stories that feature a progressive young priest who shakes up a parish grown frowzy with social respectability and outdated dogma. The protagonist in this series is indeed a reasonably young priest—Father Ray (Francis Xavier Rayneaux)—who is impatient of obstacles to his good intentions. The problem is that the door he’s trying to kick in is already open. No one objects to his ideas, which in any case tend to get lost in the banter. The senior priest in the parish is a sardonic old geezer who gives the young Turk amused encouragement, punctuated by ironic references to the old days, when people used to believe in Hell. There are occasional ominous references to The Bishop, but he is a distant and alien figure with no real influence over what goes on at the parish. The series has been praised, perhaps rightly, for showing that life in a rectory is more often concerned with practical matters, like running a soup kitchen, than with abstract theological issues. What Nothing Sacred fails to show, however, is why the staff should not forget this parish nonsense and just run the soup kitchen.
The parish church in the show does not teach orthodox doctrine. It does not teach liberal doctrine. It does not teach any doctrine at all. A running gag is the uselessness and tedium of Sunday homilies. (Maureen Dowd of the New York Times wickedly suggested that its moral latitudinarianism was the work of the show’s Jesuit advisers.) The premiere episode dealt in part with a young woman who brings a tape recorder into the young priest’s confessional and asks him for the Church’s view of abortion. In answer, he states neither the Church’s teaching nor the views of the many dissenters. What he does come out with is something along the lines of "You’re an adult and I cannot live your life for you." Lest we miss the point, the end of the episode shows the young woman pleading with the old priest to give her some sure answers—but he remains significantly silent.
The really odd thing is that a program Ms. Dowd labeled "intelligent television" should take such pains to keep the intelligence to itself. Certainly you learn nothing about Catholicism from watching the program, and one would be tempted to dismiss Nothing Sacred as merely high-concept puff ball, were it not for its Social Gospel mean streak.
The old priest says at one point, "What goes on in the basement [the soup kitchen] is why the Masses make sense." Certainly the basement is where all the moral fervor seems to have leaked. Now, running a soup kitchen (or a shelter) is not for the timid. If you want to run one in a church in a residential neighborhood, you are going to have to pay careful attention to the neighbors’ concerns about crime and sanitation and property values. Some of these worries will be exaggerated, some will be well-founded. The enterprise will require diplomacy and pragmatism. In the case of Nothing Sacred, however, this is where the old dog remembers why he runs.
Maybe ER-style directing does not lend itself to nuance. In any case, a local man in an early episode, a lawyer no less, is so ill-advised as to raise some objections to bringing hundreds of strange people into the neighborhood every day. The young priest lets into him like a chainsaw. The lawyer’s objections are dismissed as bigotry and greed (he sells property to "yuppie scum," as Father Ray unpastorally calls them), and become the occasion for a tirade on the persistence of poverty. This speech was delivered in the sacred soup kitchen, but many Catholics have heard it from the pulpit. Not a small percentage, one suspects, left church that Sunday thinking about joining some denomination where it is easier for the congregation to fire stupid clergymen.
Programs with religious themes are proliferating on network television, many of them dealing with the adventures of clergy and their families. Most of these shows seem to be set somewhere in suburban Televisionland, and I suppose the creators of Nothing Sacred should be given credit for presenting what they imagined was a more realistic offering. Nevertheless, the show does a grave disservice. The Catholicism it portrays is so contentless as to kill any interest that non-Catholics might have had in the Church—unless they’re looking for a convenient place to practice social work.
John J. Reilly is a member of the Center for Millennial Studies, Boston University.