The ratings for the televised daily miniseries that attended the death of the last pope and the investiture of Benedict XVI were good _ better than day-to-day church attendance. But then one doesn't have to be Catholic to be entranced by spectacle.
Apparently something mysterious and ornate is needed amid the drabness of modern life. For the past several years, Roman Catholic symbolism and end-of-days theology has been pervasive in American pop culture.
The most obvious example is Dan Brown's 2003 thriller, The Da Vinci Code (officially condemned by the church), which has sold more than 20-million copies. Principal shooting of the movie, featuring Tom Hanks, is under way in Europe. A healthy percentage of the people tuning in to the papal funeral and investiture last month (which, according to Nielsen Media Research, numbered in the millions despite the live events' nonprime U.S. time slots) presumably were fans of the novel, which asserts that the church has led a centurieslong conspiracy to keep the truth of Jesus' human nature secret to elevate an all-male, celibate priesthood.
The Da Vinci Code theme is similar to that in Dogma, the 1999 movie in which Alanis Morissette plays God, George Carlin is a marketing-savvy cardinal and Linda Fiorentino is the last descendant of Jesus. (The Da Vinci Code also features a last scion of Jesus' family, who is, again, a woman.)
Keanu Reeves played DC Comics' spiritual gumshoe John Constantine this year in Constantine, a movie with computer-generated hell effects based on the architecture of eternal damnation set out in Catholic teaching. In last year's horror-adventure flop Van Helsing, Hugh Jackman portrayed the vampire-killer from Bram Stoker's novel as a Vatican foundling raised by the church to kill hell-spawned monsters. The movie even features a monkish laboratory in the catacombs below St. Peter's Basilica where the clergy manufactures blessed swords, silver bullets and stakes, and gas-powered crossbows that shoot silver-tipped arrows. On television, the teenage heroine of Joan of Arcadia girds for battle next season with the devil.
There have been spikes of pop Catholicism before in American culture, but usually they involved efforts to bring Catholicism into the mainstream. Going My Way won seven Oscars in 1944. In that classic, Bing Crosby played against the eccentric stereotype of Catholic priests at the time, portraying a golf-loving St. Louis Browns fan who revived a decaying inner-city Irish parish.
Lately, it's the secret, incantatory Catholicism that dominates. The heavy in The Da Vinci Code is an albino member of Opus Dei (a conservative Catholic organization founded in Spain under the reign of Generalissimo Francisco Franco) who wears a cilice, a leather strap lined with metal hooks that is cinched around the thigh to discourage sexual thoughts. The albino also whips himself bloody after every murder his "Teacher" orders him to commit. Compared with Crosby, he's something out of The Exorcist, the 1974 hit about satanic possession in a Georgetown townhouse.
In retrospect, The Exorcist seems to signal the beginning of the shift in pop culture from the mainstreaming of Catholicism to a fascination with pious perversity.
The real-life backdrop to this shift involves the conservative trend in the church since the last years of Pope Paul VI (1963-1978) and the effort to roll back the innovations of the 1960s and Vatican Council II to return to old fire-breathing catechisms.
Another explanation for what might be called Catholic goth is the global pedophilia scandal among the Catholic clergy, which over the past 15 years (it actually started in Ireland in 1991) offered mounds of evidence that some priests and bishops were indeed engaged in a conspiracy.
Ultimately, everything in pop culture is about marketing, and religion is part of culture, too. Mainline Christianity (Presbyterians and Methodists, as well as Catholics) may have been losing ground in recent years to a new, hotter, more personal evangelicalism. But if it's antiquity-based thrills that are particularly wanted now, the Roman Catholic Church has the keys to the basement of Christian eschatology (the theology of the end of the world).