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The Vatican has been on a pop culture roll lately, giving belated blessings to the Beatles (some 40 years after the group broke up), "The Blues Brothers" (30 years after the movie's release) and "Harry Potter" (a dozen years after the first book series’ debut).
Now, more than two decades after Matt Groening and Co. began putting the "fun" in dysfunction, L'Osservatore Romano, the official Vatican newspaper, has declared – presumably somewhat tongue in cheek – that Homer Simpson is a Catholic.
Sunday's not-quite-papal pronouncement spurred many jokes and clever headlines (our favorite: The Washington Post Comic Riffs blog's "Is the Dope Catholic?").
The Vatican verdict on the lovable cartoon buffoon is fun, junk food for thought – but another sign the Holy See, while trying hard, remains behind the pop cultural times.
For every attempt at playing catch up, announcements like January’s gem that "Avatar" is about worshiping nature set Rome back a couple giant steps. Even the slow yeah-yeah-yeah for the Beatles included implicit forgiveness for the band’s supposed dabbling in the "satanic" (maybe L’Osservatore Romano was thinking about Black Sabbath – or Christine O'Donnell).
Whatever the case, the editors at the Vatican paper recognize the power of what folks in the news business call “a good talker” – but they risk, at times, coming across as a tad tone deaf.
The observation that "The Simpsons” is “among the few TV programs for children in which Christian faith, religion, and questions about God are recurrent themes," is sound enough (even if one of those questions was Homer’s "Why should I spend half my Sunday hearing about how I’m going to hell?”)
But the assertion that he’s Catholic, based in part on an episode in which he flirts with converting, might come as news to holy roller neighbor Ned Flanders and the very married Rev. Lovejoy of Springfield’s “Presbylutheran” church.
The show’s executive producer, Al Jean, for the record, told Entertainment Weekly, that Homer is not Catholic: “I really don’t think he could go without eating meat on Fridays – for even an hour.”
Homer, whatever he believes, is more of a doughnuts-and-Duff guy than the bread-and-wine type. He’s certainly guilty of nonstop sloth and gluttony (and occasionally greed and envy) in a town where the deadly sins are comically covered.
That Homer is an ultimately goodhearted oaf who cares about his family shouldn’t necessarily link him to any specific denomination – or any religion at all (particularly, since, after all, he’s animated).
Still, he has experienced crises of faith through the years: "And what if we've picked the wrong religion? Every week we're just making God madder and madder?" he asked in an early episode titled, “Homer the Heretic.”
If nothing else, The L’Osservatore Romano piece will give Homer and lots of others something to think about while sleeping through Sunday services.
Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NY City News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.