"Few people know it," an article in the official Vatican newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano, proclaimed this week, "and he does everything he can to hide it ... but it is true: Homer J. Simpson is a Catholic."
Hold on a tick there, padre.
Not to cast aspersions on the theological sleuthing of the Rev. Francesco Occhetta, the Jesuit priest who came to that conclusion after analyzing a 2005 episode of the Simpsons called "The Father, the Son and the Holy Guest-Star," but last time I checked, Homer was a member (if begrudgingly so) of the First Church of Springfield, an outpost of what its pastor, the Rev. Lovejoy, claims is the "one true faith": The Western Branch of American Reform Presbylutheranism.
L'Osservatore Romano has caused a bit of a religious kerfuffle by laying claim to the first family of American television. It also surprised many observers by invoking pop culture in the pages of a publication more accustomed to discussing the intricacies of Byzantine theology and papal encyclicals than the creedal leanings of cartoon characters.
"The Simpsons' remain among the few programs for children in which the Christian faith, religion and the question of God are recurring themes," the Vatican paper said. "The family recites prayers together before meals and, in its own way, believes in heaven."
With that, L'Osservatore Romano gave The Simpsons, the longest-running primetime show in television history, the next best thing to an official papal blessing: Two prayerful thumbs up.
"Skeptical realism seems to prevail in the Simpson stories," the paper said. "Young generations of television watchers are educated to not let themselves be fooled. The moral? None. But one knows that a world without easy illusions is a more human world and, perhaps, more Christian."
While the Vatican has arrived late to the party (many of the children who watched The Simpsons when it debuted on FOX in 1989 now have children of their own), for a place that counts time in centuries not years, the Holy See's engagement with the worldwide cultural phenomenon that is The Simpsons is well ahead of schedule.
This is the second time L'Osservatore Romano has praised The Simpsons. Last December, the paper congratulated the cartoon series on the occasion of its 20th anniversary, describing it as a "tender and irreverent, scandalous and ironic, boisterous and profound, philosophical and sometimes even theological, nutty synthesis of pop culture and of the lukewarm and nihilistic American middle class."
Since 2007, when a new editor took the helm, L'Osservatore Romano has taken an unprecedented interest in pop culture, covering topics such as the 40th anniversary of the Beatles "White Album" (and forgiving the late John Lennon for claiming to be "more popular than Jesus"), Harry Potter, "Avatar" and the music of U2.
In January 2009, the Vatican even launched its own YouTube channel, with Pope Benedict XVI lauding the "wise use of communication technology ... to promote the search for the true, the good and the beautiful."
Religion has always been a Simpsons' leitmotif.
There's the Rev. Lovejoy and evangelical poster boy Ned Flanders. Apu, the convenience store clerk, is famously Hindu. Krusty the Clown is Jewish. And Lisa Simpson is a self-proclaimed Buddhist. While Simpsons' creator Matt Groenig identifies himself as an agnostic, clearly faith is a fascination for him and his clever stable of writers who have produced some of the most astute religious commentary (and satire) in recent memory.
In the episode analyzed by Ochetta, Homer becomes enamored with Catholicism after his son Bart is expelled from Springfield Elementary School (for something he, for once, didn't actually do) and enrolls in the local parochial school, St. Jerome's.
St. Jerome's principal, the affable "Father Sean" (voiced by the Irish actor Liam Neeson), befriends Homer and encourages his conversion to Catholicism.
"He's so cool! He plays drums in a band with a bunch of other priests!" Homer tells his anti-Catholic spouse, Marge, who forbids him to convert.
"I knew they'd try to convert you! That's what they do!" she snaps.
But has Homer really crossed the Tiber or is he just flirting with Rome?
"The fan consenus is that The Simpsons belong to a splinter spinoff of the Presbylutherans, Mainline-ish, leaning slightly in the evangelical direction," says Mark Pinsky, veteran religion reporter and author of The Gospel According to the Simpsons.
"Homer is enticed by the lure of bingo, pancake breakfasts and, oh yes, absolution through Confession," Pinsky says. "But in the end, Homer doesn't take the last step to conversion, in part ... due to the armed intervention of evangelical Ned Flanders and the Rev. Lovejoy, who are both still fighting the post-Reformation religious wars."
Cathleen Falsani is a columnist for Religion News Service and Sojourners magazine, and is author of The Dude Abides: The Gospel According to the Coen Brothers.
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