(RNS) Pope Francis told an Argentine newspaper on Monday (May 25) that he hasn’t watched television since 1990. Think of all he’s missed, not just in terms of popular culture, but also in terms of American Catholicism. Here, in no particular order, are seven television shows the pope might want to catch up on before his September U.S. trip.
The Colbert Report
It is hard to pick a favorite clip of Stephen Colbert, who describes himself as America’s most famous Catholic. But any of his sit-downs with James Martin, Jesuit priest and editor-at-large at America magazine, would serve quite nicely. In the “Income Inequality Debate” (2014), the two have a hilarious exchange about what the gospel has to say to American Catholics (and others) about capitalism.
The Jim Gaffigan Show
In this new Web-only series, comedian Jim Gaffigan’s Catholic faith is front and center. In its first episode, Jim takes a Bible blessed by the pope to a comedy club and finds himself in the middle of the culture wars. The show is notable for its almost backhanded yet accurate depiction of American Catholic churches: largely attended by women, run by women, but with men — many of them from the Global South — in all the high positions.
This comedy series imagines that Jesus has returned as a homeless black man in Compton, Calif. This Jesus smokes, drinks and cusses a blue streak, but in the end he leads his friends to do right. And while the show does not specify what denomination Black Jesus or his friends belong to, Pope Francis would be wise to take note: In 2009, 5 percent of all African-Americans identified as Catholic, but by 2015, the number dropped to 3 percent. Where are those black Catholics going?
Pope Francis should really watch all 86 episodes to see how this Catholic family of Italian-American ancestry compartmentalizes religion. And while the vast majority of American Catholics do not lie to the cops, cheat on their taxes, steal from other gangsters or chop up their former associates in the back of a butcher shop, they likely do ponder the nature of hell, worry about the wages of sin and pray. At least one priest described “The Sopranos” as “the most spiritual show on television.” (explicit language below)
Stan’s quest to find out what Easter eggs have to do with Jesus lead to the uncovering of a vast “Da Vinci Code”-like plot to protect the Easter Bunny because he is — GASP! — really Saint Peter. The Catholic League’s Bill Donohue makes an animated and disgruntled appearance just before Jesus comes to clean up the mess. The message for the pope comes from Jesus, who turns the Easter Bunny into the new (silent) pope because, “No one man could speak for everyone in a religion.”
This short-lived ABC television drama focused on a Roman Catholic priest who had doubts about his faith and himself. The Catholic League — Bill Donohue has seen all the television Pope Francis has missed — condemned the show, but organizers of the Peabody Awards – one of broadcast journalism’s highest honors — disagreed. They honored the show as “an honest portrayal of the complexity of faith in the modern era.”
The West Wing
The series’s fictional President Jed Bartlett, a Roman Catholic, struggles with the morality of the death penalty when he is asked to commute the sentence of a death row inmate. He calls on his priest (the estimable Karl Malden, whose prop Bible was reportedly the same one he used in “On the Waterfront”). When the execution goes forth, President Bartlett kneels in the Oval Office to give a confession to his old parish priest. While the Catholic Church officially opposes the death penalty, polls show American Catholics are divided on the issue.
And we leave you with two honorable mentions — Nurse Jackie, a television series in which a Catholic nurse never seems to turn to her Catholic faith while dealing with her drug addiction, and Boardwalk Empire, a Mob drama set in the Depression Era that often rubs up against the Catholicism of its characters. If His Holiness only has time for one episode each, we suggest Nurse Jackie’s “The Astonishing,” where daughter Grace selects Christina the Astonishing as her saint because she was imperfect (like most people, Catholic or otherwise), and Boardwalk Empire’s “Resolution” in which devout Margaret does what many American Catholics do today — ignore the church’s sanctions against birth control when she learns about the work of reproductive activist Margaret Sanger – definitely not a Catholic saint.
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