This piece originally ran in the Los Angeles Times on the op-ed page of October 6, 1992.
Protest: What was Sinead O'Connor telling us by ripping up the pontiff's picture on 'Saturday Night Live'?
by Adele-Marie Stan
It wasn't until after the "Saturday Night Live" cameras cut away from Sinead O'Connor's dismemberment of the Pope's image that I realized my mouth was agape. Midway through the ensuing commercial, I finally uttered, "Wow!"
I don't recall feeling quite this knocked over by a televised image since, at the age of 6, I watched Jack Ruby take out Lee Harvey Oswald on live television.
My reaction to O'Connor's behavior was shared, judging by the cover stories on Monday's New York newspapers. But why such shock over a pop icon's indictment of an already controversial figure? Is what the audience felt really outrage that a self-styled neo-Druid priestess defaced the likeness of a spiritual leader, or rather a sense of panic that the clothes could be torn from our last great emperor, leaving us with too little to believe in?
It's been a long cultural tumble since the day Ruby shot Oswald, and along our downward slide the shrouds have been torn away from many a closeted skeleton. Exposes of government misdeeds have given way to tawdry tell-all tomes about the private excesses of public figures, while ordinary citizens eagerly await the chance to tell the seamy details of their unfortunate lives to the millions who watch Phil and Oprah.
Nor is this the first time a Catholic starlet has stuck her sword in Rome's side: At the height of her fame, singer Cyndi Lauper named the church as an enemy of women, and Madonna has thumbed her nose (and other body parts) at the magisterium, only to gain in adulation. Yet somehow the image of a half-naked sex queen prancing around draped in rosaries is more pleasing to our sensibilities than that ol a head-shorn, sexless creature draped in the white gown of a sacrificial virgin taking direct hits at the magisterial master. A simple case of vulgarity versus self-righteousness. In America, we'll go for the vulgar every time.
Still, I must admit, I appreciate the boldness of O'Connor's gesture. Singing the words to Bob Marley's once-banned anthem "War," a table full of white candles beside her, O'Connor delivered the tune a capella for the sake of a deliberate Gregorian spin. The stunned silence that met her antics must have been more gratifying than a standing ovation; she had achieved her aim--she had shocked us silly.
The performance of this daemon in white suffered one fatal flaw, though--the presumption of an audience informed enough to make a connection between the lyrics of Marley's anti-war, anti-racism, anti-child-abuse invective and the notion of the pontiff as the enemy of such.
In jaded Europe, it's not so unthinkable to regard the Pope in purely political terms. There the press reports daily on the church, and children learn its often-frightening history because it is the history of their continent. Here in Puritan America, we can hardly bear to recall our nation's own brief history, never mind that of Europe and the Holy Roman Empire.
So which actions of the Holy Father did Sinead O'Connor mean to condemn when she urged us to fight him as "the real enemy"? Was it his beatification (the first step toward sainthood) of the founder of the secret society Opus Dei, Msgr. Jose Maria Escriva, whom some believe to have been a serious anti-Semite? (The singer did, after all, wear a Star of David at her throat.) Or perhaps it was the bestowing of that same honor on Fra Junipero Serra, the 18th-Century founder of the California missions in which American Indians were held captive and forced to work the fields. Maybe the Vatican's behavior at this year's heralded Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro has O'Connor upset. Some see the Vatican's scuttling of a strong population-control agreement as racist, since only through such agreements will birth control be made available to Third World populations.
If only she'd let us in on the source of her rage, O'Connor might have given American Catholics a starting point for a discussion about the role of our church in the world. American Catholicism has been at odds with itself since the day John F. Kennedy stepped into the presidential ring (most of the American hierarchy supported Nixon), and as 12-stepper Stuart Smalley of "Saturday Night Live" might say, the first step in dealing with a problem is to stop denying its existence,
If O'Connor had only chosen a more enlightening and less chilling way to vent her rage, she could have served as the catalyst for a sort of family intervention in the American church, offering her American audience an opportunity to consider the church's past and present, and demand a role in determining its future. Instead, she chose to sucker-punch us and then scurry quietly out of the NBC studios, leaving only the stunning thud of her destructive act to serve as her last word.
Adele-Marie Stan has written on religion for the Village Voice, The New Republic and Ms. magazine.