Top Ten Reasons for Watching ‘Nothing Sacred'

Okay. I admit it. I like Father Ray. In the Catholic world, even the defenders of ABC television’s “Nothing Sacred” have had to gently tiptoe around the central character, for fear that the Catholic League would rip into them for promoting heresy. Bill Donohue, the Catholic League president, sends faxes to newspapers around the country which hum every Friday with the reasons why Father Ray is the greatest danger to the faith since cross-dressing Jewish comedian Milton Berle provided competition for Bishop Sheen.

But to borrow from that other TV character, Ellen, I am now out of the closet. Damn the faxes and full-steam ahead. I watch the show nearly every week—missing only one episode to date—and am proud to share my top-ten list of why Father Ray is a good priest:

10. He works hard and is always on the edge of exhaustion. I like a pastor who pushes himself. The job is structured so that the boss—the bishop—is usually far away. So the fact that Father Ray doesn’t take it easy is good to see. He is self-motivated.

9. When he does take a day off, he plays basketball instead of golf. We have enough clergy who play golf, an ecologically damaging sport in which fertilizers are used to ruin God’s green earth. Basketball is a way to learn teamwork, coordination, and to find out something about the urban proletariat. Besides, it takes real conditioning and youth. If we had more priests playing basketball, we’d have a younger clergy, or a lot more shattered knees and ruptured tendons.

8. When there’s a fight in the soup-kitchen line, he’s ready to get in and break it up. He’s a blessed peacemaker, ready to get his cassock dirty in the process. Father Ray is a real defender of the poor, all in the tradition of Father Karl Malden in On the Waterfront.

7. He’s got good taste in music. Here’s a rock-era priest who likes Lena Horne and Frank Sinatra, illustrating a respect for tradition and melody at the same time.

6. He prays, he talks to God, in living color and on network television in primetime. He believes it can actually make a difference.

5. He chews out slumlords. As a New York City tenant, I’m partial to those who would defend us as an aggrieved group. I’ve lived in rodent-infested buildings and never had the support of my pastor, although I doubt his influence on a fallen-away Buddhist landlord would have had much impact. Still, I’d like to have Father Ray on my side.

4. He’s prolife. In episode number four, he tells a girl contemplating abortion that the world needs a child from a wonderful person like her. Her name is Rachel, an allusion to the Hebrew Scripture’s citation about the woman who weeps for her lost children. Father Ray is gentle, not strident, and although it’s not effective in the long run—Rachel has the abortion—Mother Teresa once noted that we are called to be faithful, not necessarily effective.

3. He’s true to his celibate calling. Here we have a handsome priest who is tempted, yet keeps his pants on. Score one for chastity, which you can’t say for those Friends who provide Father Ray’s major network competition.

2. He can’t lie. No weaseling from Father Ray. He tells you what he thinks, which gets him in trouble on the show and is the main cause of his problems with his real-life opponents.

And, finally, the number-one reason why Father Ray is a good priest is that he regularly admits to doubts, but says everything comes together when he celebrates Mass. He is a walking sacramental catechetical lesson in which the church rituals surrounding Eucharist, marriage, and reconciliation come alive each week for viewers, all woven together via scriptural threads.

Unfortunately, Father Ray’s television days appear to be numbered. His ratings are abysmal, frightened sponsors have caved to Dr. Donohue, and the show may well be over the heads of those who are not immersed in Catholic symbolism and theological thought. Fornicating hip young adult Friends will always garner higher ratings. Still I’m willing to start a Father Ray fan club. I like my current pastor at my parish in Queens so I don’t look forward to his ever being replaced. But if Father Ray ever needs a place, I wouldn’t mind his being assigned to my parish. Administration may not be Father Ray’s forte; he does seem to get overly tense about money matters. So maybe he’s not such a great pastor and administrator. But a nice little niche as an associate in an urban parish may be just what he needs.

Maybe then the Friday faxes will fall silent, peace will reign in religious press newsrooms across the country, and the Catholic League will move on to some other more deserving target.


Related: Bare-chested Christianity, by P. E. Cruise
Shut Up, He Said, by the Editors

Published in the 1997-11-21 issue: 

Peter Feuerherd is a freelance writer in New York.

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