How will the Pope play in Peoria?

Joe Pisani

August 16, 1993|By Joe Pisani

WHAT DOES the pope have to do to reach the youth of America?

Form a grunge rock group?

Produce a music video?

Get some new threads at the Gap?

Work out with Cindy Crawford?

Make an appointment with Bill Clinton's hair stylist?

Be on the cover of Rolling Stone?

Stop lecturing kids about casual sex and drugs?

That morality stuff isn't what kids today want to hear. Give them some rap music.

If the pope wants a new image, he has to get with the program. He has to hire a packager, a promoter, an L.A. agent. He has to take a page from Bill Clinton and look for the middle ground, instead of the high ground. Most of all, he has to watch the polls.

Everywhere you turn, there are protests against the church's moral positions and surveys pointing to the shifting values of young Catholics.

From Sinead O'Connor, who called Pope John Paul II "the enemy," to the editorial pages of America's newspapers, there has been an intensifying chorus of Catholic bashing, as pervasive as anti-Semitism but far more vocal.

Catholics have fallen from grace in popular culture. To be a Catholic in America is to live in a hostile society. Catholicism provokes debate in the office cafeteria. It causes divided loyalties among friends and family. It incites ridicule on college campuses, and if there's one thing that unsettles the youth of America, it is being ostracized.

Among the 59 million U.S. Catholics, there is a diversity of opinion on many issues, from birth control to ordaining women, but on one issue most of them agree: The church is embattled in America.

The entertainment industry, which defines our culture, increasingly portrays the church as an unfeeling and unforgiving monolith of orthodoxy and authoritarianism. Who could forget Hollywood creations of the past decade like "Monsignor," "The Verdict" and "Last Rites"?

Gone is the era when Catholics could identify with films like "Boys Town," "The Bells of St. Mary's" and "The Song of Bernadette."

And when it comes to moral matters, Pope John Paul II has an unfailing tendency -- perhaps it's an obligation -- to say things people don't want to hear.

Before arriving in Denver, he visited Jamaica, where he urged young people to eschew the "easy road" of drugs, violence and casual sex. He attacked "self-indulgence, crime, cynicism and escape from responsibility," which are the very things that made America great.

And then in Mexico, he urged a redistribution of wealth between the rich and the poor of our continent. Didn't he ever hear of capitalism and free enterprise? Didn't he ever read Money magazine? Is it a surprise that his message has never been embraced in America?

In America, where our government is beset by far more scandals, sexual and otherwise, than the modern church has ever endured.

In America, where there is an escalating spiral of teen violence and teen suicide and teen pregnancy.

In America, where more than one in four pregnancies ends in abortion, and where more than half of all marriages end in divorce.

In America, where we worship at the altar of the entertainment industry and where our cultural icons like Woody Allen distinguish themselves by their misdeeds.

Maybe, just maybe, the pope isn't the problem. Maybe America is.

Joe Pisani is managing editor of The Greenwich (Conn.) Time.

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