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‘Nothing Sacred’ Raises Catholic Debate

Wed., Sept. 17, 1997

Our Father, who art in heaven … strike Father Ray with a lightning bolt.

Lately that’s the basic tenet of the 350,000-member Catholic League, which charges the new ABC drama “Nothing Sacred” with “fostering the most negative stereotype of those who remain loyal to the church” while embracing the “trendy positions of dissenting Catholics.”

The organization pledges to target the program’s sponsors with a campaign “they won’t forget.”

Meanwhile, the Catholic magazine America calls “Nothing Sacred” the “best television series ever produced about the rich and often-complicated lives of American Catholics. It is, in short, brilliant.”

ABC, caught in the middle but probably not minding all the attendant publicity, is encouraging people of all faiths to join hands with a “real guy with real problems whose boss just happens to be creator of heaven and earth.”

Here’s where yours truly, an ex-altar boy from St. Rose parish, gets to mediate. Singing the praises of “Nothing Sacred” might seem heretical to some. But network television’s first serious-minded series about Catholicism is an uncommonly daring, uplifting and intelligent attempt to make religion more than a formulaic sacred cow.

Still, reviewing “Nothing Sacred” is playing with fire, if not hellfire. It pushes more hot buttons than the St. Rose priests and nuns who regularly invoked eternal damnation. Wonder what Sister Assumpta or Father Garvey would have thought about a TV show in which:

Young, cute Father Ray (Kevin Anderson), pastor of a financially strapped inner-city church, openly questions the very existence of God while wrestling with urges to have an affair with a former divinity school classmate who’s now unhappily married.

Father Ray - him again - tells a young woman in confession that it’s up to her to decide whether she’ll have an abortion. “You’re an adult with your own conscience,” he says. “I can’t tell you what to do. I can only tell you what the church teaches.”

The church business manager is an atheist. And Father Ray’s right-hand nun, Sister Maureen (Ann Dowd), insists that God easily could be a woman and regularly should be addressed as our “Mother.”

Older, presumably wiser Father Leo (Brad Sullivan) has his own qualms about certain long-held church beliefs.

Father Ray - one more time - declares a moratorium on “sins of the flesh” and then tells his congregation why: “You see this little book? This is the Gospel. If it was written today, it wouldn’t get published. Not enough sex. And all this stuff that we’ve reduced religion to - contraception, homosexuality, promiscuity, abortion. They aren’t in here. Maybe a mention, but they’re not what the book is about. And I was not ordained to be a sexual traffic cop.”

All of this and more is in Thursday’s premiere episode. But Week 2 looks like another pew-rattler. A priest who was Father Ray’s best friend in the seminary is banished from his parish after developing AIDS.

He’s ready to leave the priesthood, but “Ray tries to keep him in the fold,” says “Nothing Sacred” co-producer Richard Kramer.

Given the recent turmoil within the Dallas Catholic diocese, co-producer David Manson offers small comfort by saying, “I don’t think we are doing a show on pedophilia - at the moment.”

“That doesn’t mean we wouldn’t,” Kramer adds. “But is this a show that is dedicated to be endlessly embroiled in controversy? The answer is no. It will not be torn from the pages of today’s Catholic headlines.

“This show is trying to find its own ‘one-armed man,”’ Kramer says, referring to the killer at large in “The Fugitive.” “And the one-armed man is God. That’s the question that every character is asking. Where is God today and how can I find him?”

God has never loomed larger on the prime-time TV landscape. The success of “Touched by an Angel,” which became CBS’ most popular drama series last season, begat the sugary spinoff “Promised Land,” which will be competing with “Nothing Sacred” on Thursday nights. In the comedy arena, ABC’s spring bloomer, “Soul Man,” returns Dan Aykroyd to the role of a widowed minister with three kids. And UPN’s new “Good Times” is an updated “Amen” featuring newcomer David Ramsey as the new pastor of a black church.

None holds a candle to “Nothing Sacred,” which might test the patience of a saint but at least would keep him or her interested.

The producers appear to be acting in good faith while at the same time challenging viewers to view Catholicism as something more than singing nuns and Father O’Malleys.

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