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HOWARD ROSENBERG

The Thin Line Narrows Between Church And Tv

September 12, 1987|HOWARD ROSENBERG

Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker may have been a temporary setback for the electronic church. But even as those evangelical cuties plot their next marketing moves on the comeback trail, the line separating TV and religion continues to blur.

Thus Jerry Falwell stated in a CBS documentary on America's Catholics Thursday night, "it is suicidal" for Catholic clerics not to mount the TV pulpit en masse as do other elements of the Christian faith.

As Falwell knows, TV theology can turn a tidy profit. A simple fiscal equation: The Catholic Church needs money. With its enormous reach, TV brings money.

This umpteenth TV discussion of the Catholic Church was fired by the media-blitzed visit here of Pope John Paul II, who (Vanna, beware) is undoubtedly this month's biggest TV star in America. And a rare one for Catholics.

Not since the Texaco-sponsored Bishop Fulton J. Sheen donned flowing vestments to captivate national television audiences in the 1950s has the Catholic Church regularly had a high TV profile. Joked Milton Berle, when his own-Texaco sponsored show was opposite the fatherly Sheen's: "We both work for the same boss--Sky Chief!"

"Television gives everyone a seat at the pageant of life," the late Sheen said in an old clip shown on the CBS documentary. Some skeptics worried that the telegenic bishop seemed at least as interested in cultivating the pageant of Sheen as in promoting Catholicism, however, and he ultimately fell out of favor with the church.

Falwell said on CBS that the absence of big-time Catholic fundraisers on TV has probably enhanced the fund raising of his own TV ministry as well as others, including the troubled PTL that he is now guiding.

Now you take the Pope, noted an admiring Falwell, himself a slick TV performer. "John Paul could do wonders if he got rid of the robes and got rid of the props," he said. "John Paul and the camera? He'd be magnificent."

Was Falwell launching a media consultancy? Perhaps the Pope will phone the reverend for advice.

The Pope is no slouch himself, however. He had spent that very day being somewhat magnificent on TV, in fact, after arriving in Miami to start his 10-day visit. While Falwell was in front of TV cameras Thursday sliding down a 68-foot water slide in a business suit to fulfill a PTL fund-raising promise, the touring Pope was on CNN, kneeling in extended prayer at St. Martha's Church.

Two super salesmen using clashing sales techniques, each professing to be in touch with a silent majority.

The Pope's trip here is a powdered, pampered, media-conscious, TV-tailored spectacle, an intended Vatican's-eye view of itself, no doubt. From Waldheim to celibacy, though, much of the coverage has been tough, including that CBS special and another on ABC Thursday night that stomped hard on the church's problems. "The legitimacy of dissent from non-infallible teaching" is how ABC's Bill Blakemore defined one critical church issue.

The debate continues in some circles whether the church should be purely theocratic and whether the Pope is in or out of touch with most of his flock. There's no question that the moralistic message he brings to the United States is not in sync with much of American TV. "All they show is that bad stuff," a teen-ager complained to CBS about prime time programming.

No matter your faith, however, there was something highly spiritual about seeing the Pope live on SIN Friday morning, addressing an estimated throng of 250,000 in a downpour. For a few moments, at least, the cool medium heated up and you could feel the emotion pouring through the screen.

On another level, the enormous advance coverage of the Pope's visit seemed to evoke an emotional backlash, one that rendered his actual arrival almost anticlimactic. Said KABC-TV's Bill Press in a commentary on Channel 7 about the relentless media attention: "I'm Poped out."

And the visit was just begining.

If not journalistic overkill, perhaps the medium itself--despite the crush of reporting and pictures--was doing the withering, reducing this historic event to TV size, compressing the papacy into a 23-inch rectangle.

After the Pope's arrival, an NBC chopper beamed an overhead shot of his motorcade traveling on a Miami freeway, the curving line of black limos resembling a procession of ants.

Peter Jennings had wondered on ABC why the Pope had not kissed the ground when disembarking from his jet. "That's because he's been to this country before," Dan Rather noted on CBS about the papal tradition, as if responding to Jennings.

Substituting for Johnny Carson on "The Tonight Show," Jay Leno insisted that the Pope didn't kiss the ground because he didn't wish to be a copycat. "With the airlines the way they are," Leno said, "so many people are doing that anyway."

God's deputy in America.

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