'Corpus Christi': Sick and Sicker

William Donohue, the president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, probably wishes you had never heard of him or his organization. The attention he's getting defending his church speaks volumes about the lamentable frequency of Catholic-bashing in late 20th-century America.

In the past year or so, the Catholic League has been everywhere in the news. First there was the ABC drama "Nothing Sacred," finally dropped thanks in large part to the League's efforts. Then, on April 7 - Tuesday of Holy Week - another ABC entry, the sitcom "That's Life," aired a truly vile installment featuring references to churchgoers visiting prostitutes on Ash Wednesday and attending Midnight Mass in drunken stupors. "That's Life," too, has been cancelled. Chalk up another win for the League. Then, on May 1, the New York Post broke the story that the Manhattan Theater Club (MTC) was to produce a new play, Terrence McNally's "Corpus Christi," in which, among other things, "a Christ-like character... has sex with his apostles."

Donohue joined the battle, calling the play "sick beyond words" and starting a national letter-writing campaign opposing its production. On May 21, the MTC canceled "Corpus Christi," but a week later, after protests from some of the theater world's biggest names, it reversed its decision, and plans are for the work to be staged this fall. What's actually in the play? An MTC brochure is clearly disingenuous; it hints only that it might be somewhat edgy: "From modern-day Corpus Christi, Texas, to ancient Jerusalem, we follow a young gay man named Joshua [the Jesus figure] on his spiritual journey, and get to know the twelve disciples who choose to follow him... Terrence McNally gives us his own unique view of 'the greatest story ever told.'"

But a June 5 column by Bill Buford in the London newspaper the Guardian illuminates how far McNally's willing to go with his "unique view." Buford provides a plot summary: "The play... opens... with a woman... screaming 'F-- me, f-- me,' over and over again (Joseph, we learn, got his [testicles] shot off... thus Mary's virginity)...Joshua disappoints his girlfriend on prom night - he can't get an erection - and later comes to recognize his sexuality... with Judas.

If this isn't sick enough, read on: "The magic, curing touch of Christ is [masturbation]...When Joshua reveals that one of his disciples will betray him - someone who 'has lain with him' - they all [say], well, that it could be any one of them, really." Buford is unequivocal: "Corpus Christi" is "more flagrantly blasphemous than anyone has yet realized." Already the rhetoric is starting to heat up on both ends. Look for the establishment media to posit this as another Religious Zealots vs. Freedom of Expression imbroglio, but it's instructive to read exactly what each side is saying.

From Religious Zealot Donohue: "There is something terribly perverse going on in the artistic community. The need to offend Catholics is so deep and sick it can only be described as pathological... Perhaps most disturbing... is the cowardly attempt to hide this bigotry under the covers of artistic expression." Tough stuff, to be sure. But also completely true. Meanwhile, several of McNally's fellow playwrights are revealing themselves as bigots, or idiots, or both.

-Tony Kushner, of "Angels in America" fame, blasted the "medieval notion that the arts in the U.S. need to follow the Roman Catholic theological line." That is absurd. There simply is not a single mass medium in this country that hews to Catholic tenets, or even comes close. Prime time television... The movies... Popular music...

-Craig Lucas ("Prelude to a Kiss") remarked that "no one has a monopoly on views of Jesus." But Donohue isn't demanding such a monopoly. He's objecting to a vicious and deliberate attack on his God.

-Jon Robin Baitz ("The Substance of Fire") assailed "the collusion between the trash press [i.e., the Post] and the far right [i.e., the Catholic League]." Forget the silly pejorative labeling; it's a plot when one organization defends Jesus, and another reports on their defense...

If ever there was a time for Christians to draw a line in the sand, this is it. But I suspect that Donohue won't be alone on this one. Look for Protestants from Jerry Falwell to Pat Robertson to marshal their forces. Look also for Jewish leaders, from critic Michael Medved to columnist Don Feder to public policy experts like Chris Gersten and Rabbi Daniel Lapin, to ride to the rescue.

Who knows? This one might be big enough to finally wake up the leadership of the Roman Catholic Church, asleep for so long while others manned the ramparts in her defense.