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Bishops painting selves into a political corner.

A person named Sinead O'Connor ripped up a photo of Pope John Paul on NBC, or so I am told. A few days later, President Bush and Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua of Philadelphia strode purposefully into the future on the ABC evening news.

The cardinal's five minutes of fame lasted less than three seconds. It was part of the coverage of Bush's whirlwind last day of campaigning before 62 percent of the voters rejected him in favor of a dubiously qualified Democrat or a rich Texan. When bishops play hardball they risk getting beaned.

On the whole, and after mature reflection, I find the picture of Bevilacqua's smoking with a ship that even noisy Republicans had abandoned more offensive than the picture of the tonsorially challenged rock singer's trying to be gross.

For one thing, Ms. O'Connor means nothing to me. I wouldn't recognize one of her songs if she brayed it into my face. I also recognize the difficulty of being gross enough to be noticed in a world where biting the bead off a live animal already has been done and where Madonna is getting $50 for her book. I long for the good old days before rock when country singers whose careers were on the skids would find religion and record an album of gospel music.

It's kind of complimentary, in a way, to think that tearing up a photo of the pope is more gross than biting a live chicken. Complimentary to the pope, that is.

Catholics' media image disproportionately consists of strident political opposition to abortion and homosexuals. Bevilacqua's appearance with Bush was requested to buttress the notion that a vote for Bill Clinton or Ross Perot was sinful or, if not sinful, at least a vote against morality as personified by the GOP.

If it buttressed the idea that it is better to kill 100,000 Iraqis than to have a pro-choice plank in one's platform, that's for the cardinal to wrestle with.

The media image is not entirely fair. The bishops have said a lot of good things about war and peace, about the economy and the death penalty and welfare and wages, as any reader of NCR knows. Cardinal John O'Connor of New York, although better known for his opposition to abortion, has labored in the front lines against AIDS.

By and large, bishops have become best known, though, for bashing gays and saving fetuses. Partly it's the media's fault. But partly it is the bishops' fault. There's no excuse for being a public person today and not knowing how to use an easily manipulated medium. Priests are taught to shun "admiration," but in practice that comes off as arrogance. If the humble don't learn how to convey humility on television, they might as well be proud, for all the good they can do.

One bishop who made nongay, nonabortion news recently was Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles. His letter on morality and films got spotty coverage. Some papers headlined it a call for censorship; others read it as interesting because the cardinal didn't call for censorship. The latter generally played the story bigger. A cardinal calling for censorship is in the dog-bites-man category; a cardinal shunning it is man-bites-dog.

Neither reading gets the gist of the letter, and the former is just plain wrong. I suspect that the papers that skipped it did so because their copydesks correctly read the story and couldn't put a headline on it: "Cardinal Asks Producers to Think"?

The letter wasn't Mahony's first venture into film criticism. It was one of several steps that can make him a major player on the entertainment scene, not least because he emphasized violence as much as sex. But, as I have indicated, he needs to broaden his audience because producers' influence is at an all-time low. Mahony should think about op-ed pages and talk shows, where he can get across his message by accretion and not have to rely on headlines.

In a media-driven world, bishops can get more attention by taking film seriously or by working for peace as Detroit Auxiliary Bishop Thomas Gumbleton does. May their tribe increase, because a lot (not all) of the Catholic-bashing these days is due to the perception that the definition of bishop is somebody who plays power politics with the abortion issue.

They are losing there because their issue is unpopular and even the beneficiaries of their political blessings don't like them playing politics.

If they would take some of the other arrows out of their quivers, they would get more respect and so would the church. How about one leading a march against rape? How about one who could hold his own with talking heads the way Father Brian Hehir does on social-moral issues? Wouldn't it be nice to turn on "Fresh Air?" and hear the archbishop of Philadelphia discussing inner-city problems with Terri Gross, whose show originates in Philadelphia?

If - instead of sticking to the predictable script on abortion and lending a purple caste to political servants who make appropriate noises - they got out and mixed it up on the other subjects they have studied, the bishops would make the church a tougher target for neurotic singers. They might even find themselves getting more respect when they do talk about abortion.
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Author:Blackburn, Thomas E.
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Column
Date:Dec 18, 1992
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