The American Catholic Church on TV

No doubt about it, the creators of ABC's "Nothing Sacred" knew which scenes would get the most ink.

Like the premiere's scene in which a girl confesses that she's tempted to get an abortion and Father Ray tells her to follow her conscience. Or that night at the Valhalla Inn when he is tempted to sleep with the woman who was his lover during seminary.

But the real headline grabber is Father Ray's hip sermon bemoaning the church's obsession with sex.

"I am declaring a moratorium on sins of the flesh in St. Thomas Parish," he says, and then holds up a Bible. "You see this little book? This is the gospel. If it was written today, it wouldn't get published. Not enough sex. And all of the stuff that we've reduced religion to -- contraception, homosexuality, promiscuity, abortion -- they aren't in here. Oh, maybe a mention. But they're not what the book is about. And I was not ordained to be a sexual traffic cop, which is what I'm turning into most of the time. So, until further notice, I will not hear any more sexual sins in the confessional."

Cue the congregation, which applauds.

Father Ray isn't obsessed with sex, of course, and neither are the writers of this fall's most controversial new offering in prime time. And executive producer David Manson is shocked -- repeat shocked -- that many have been offended by events in this fictional parish.

"Hopefully, it'll be clear after a period of time that we're trying to give voice to many different points of view, that we believe there is an active pluralism inside the church," he wrote, defending the series on its Internet site. "We're trying to make sure that different points of view get articulated intelligently and with passion. ... We would like to get people thinking and talking about not only issues of the spirit but about the notion of inclusion."

Millions of American Catholics would say "amen" and will find "Nothing Sacred" beautiful, well acted, accurate and spiritually sensitive. These Catholics feel at home in the pluralistic body that many commentators call the American Catholic Church. But millions of others will disagree and see the series as another Hollywood attack on the Roman Catholic Church. One person's "dialogue" is another's "dissent." Meanwhile, the gospel according to "Nothing Sacred" is crystal clear: discipline, doctrines and creeds are the enemies of freedom, faith and spirituality.

In addition to sex, the premiere punched other buttons. Entertainment Weekly reports that it was written by Father Bill Kane, a Jesuit, using the pseudonym Paul Leland.

One reason Father Ray is so exhausted and angry is that he is hounded by critics who tape his unorthodox whispers in the confession booth and leak them to the ecclesiastical police. "It's just politics," says another priest. The problem, another priest adds, is a traditionalist hit squad called "Vinculum Caritatis" - Latin for "chains of love." This fictionalized group is probably a cross between advocates of the Latin Mass and another conservative group called Catholics United for the Faith.

And then there are the sacraments. During Mass, Father Ray offers a prayer over the bread and wine that is straight out of the Shirley Maclaine school of liturgy, saying: "Transform us, as you will transform these gifts, into life - deep and true." Later, he baptizes an infant without making the sign of the cross or referring to the Trinity of "Father, Son and Holy Spirit." In the most dramatic scene, the priest dabs holy oil on the forehead of a troubled teen who has rejected Christianity, while invoking the Eastern martial arts traditions of Sholin monks.

"The show's central premise is that the only good Catholic is a bad Catholic," said Father Gregory Coiro, media relations director for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, who has been critiquing rough scripts for ABC. "It's like they are saying that traditional Roman Catholicism is now a false substitute for the `real thing,' which is some kind of new faith that is completely built on experience and feelings. Well, that isn't the Catholic faith."