Those Oscar-winning sermons

Rare is the movie lover who hasn't glared at the television and muttered: "If I could pick the Oscars, things would be different."

This year, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops ( urged Catholics, and anyone else who heard about the online poll, to cast their own votes for the major Academy Awards.

And the winners are? The best picture winner was "Million Dollar Baby." Clint Eastwood won best director, for "Million Dollar Baby." The best actress honor went to Hilary Swank, for "Million Dollar Baby." In a big switch from the real Oscars, the Catholic-poll voters didn't pick Jamie Foxx as best actor for his work in "Ray." They selected Clint Eastwood, for "Million Dollar Baby."

The bottom line: It was a knockout for the sucker-punch melodrama in which a gritty boxer (with a gold cross around her neck) asks her surrogate-father trainer (a daily-Mass Catholic) to kill her because she does not want to live as a quadriplegic after tragedy ends her meteoric rise to fame.

Meanwhile, the bishops' own film critics gave "Million Dollar Baby" an "O" -- morally offensive -- rating and warned that its "guilt-wracked, but ultimately permissive" take on euthanasia "will leave Catholic viewers emotionally against the ropes."

This movie did not have the catechism in its corner.

"We praised it on the artistic level and, in many ways, it is a fine film," said Harry Forbes, director of the USCCB Office for Film and Broadcasting. "But we also felt duty-bound to give it the worst rating we can give, in terms of moral content. ... In the end, we did not believe it was propaganda for the euthanasia cause, although we know some people did."

Thus, the office's review said: "The pain and devastation of those involved is achingly evident. However, in spite of all the soul-searching that precedes it, the deed itself is presented as an act of reluctant heroism. ... Our sympathies and humane inclinations may argue in favor of such misguided compassion, but our Catholic faith prohibits us from getting around the fact that, in this case, the best-intended ends cannot justify the chosen means: the taking of a life."

Catholic ethicist Thomas Hibbs went even further, calling "Million Dollar Baby" a trip into a "nihilistic hell" in which Eastwood meditates on life in a chaotic, amoral and ultimately hopeless universe. At the movie's heart is the ultimate question: "What if God does not exist?"

The fierce debates about this movie underline a sobering reality, said Hibbs, author of "Shows About Nothing: Nihilism in Popular Culture from The Exorcist to Seinfeld." Modern consumers are more likely to find guidance at the mall or multiplex than in a religious sanctuary. Thus, whether they admit it or not, artists such as Eastwood are moral leaders when it comes time to wrestle with America's most divisive issues.

"What happens in pop culture shapes so many of our debates -- even political debates -- about these kinds of issues," said Hibbs, dean of the Honors College at Baylor University. "So maybe you haven't seen this movie. But you've heard about it on the news, seen it on magazine covers and read about it in the checkout line at the grocery store. And an Oscar-winning film like this influences other films. ...

"We have a vacuum in our society and this is what fills it -- politics and movies. Where is the church in this picture?"

Forbes said feedback to the Conference of Catholic Bishops indicates that many readers do consult its film reviews. The Office of Film and Broadcasting critiqued 225 movies in 2004, publishing its reviews online and through Catholic News Service. The staff suspects that many of these readers are parents, looking for that friendly "A-I" rating that says the church believes a movie is appropriate for all ages.

Movies for adults are another matter.

"There was a time when what the bishops said had more clout," Forbes said. "They could say, 'Don't go to see that movie' and it would be so. We're in a different age and people go see what they want to see.