Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Belated notes on "God or the Girl."

Over the past couple weeks, various sectors of the media and the blogosphere have buzzed with discussion of the A&E reality show God or the Girl, a five-part series following four men through the process of discerning vocations to the Roman Catholic priesthood. As a Jesuit novice, I watched God or the Girl with more-than-average interest (it helped, I suppose, that one of the men profiled on the show was a novice at Loyola House when I was a candidate for the Society). I liked the series overall, but I hope that serious viewers take its portrayal of vocational discernment with a grain of salt.

The flaws of God or the Girl begin with the series' unfortunate title, which was apparently pushed not by the producers but by A&E's marketing department. Presenting the premise of the series in simplistic black-and-white, either/or terms, the title "God or the Girl" does a disservice to the serious task of discernment facing the program's subjects. The title misrepresents the facts, as only one of the series' four potential priests faces a serious choice between pursuing a religious vocation or a particular romantic relationship - and he opts for the latter option halfway through the series, narrowing the field to three men for whom "the Girl" is a largely abstract possibility. More generally, the title "God or the Girl" falsely implies that married life and service in the Church are mutually exclusive options. All of the men profiled by the series are revealed as dedicated individuals ministering to others in important ways, but the program's title sends the deceptive message that one can either serve the Church as a celibate priest or not at all.

The other major flaw I identified in watching God or the Girl comes in the way the program presents vocational discernment. The show endows each man's choice with a false sense of finality, giving viewers the impression that men considering the priesthood are under the gun to make a quick and unalterable decision. Many who rule out priesthood at one point in life find themselves considering the possibility again in later years, and many who seem firm in their determination to become priests later waver. Hemmed in by the conventions of its genre, God or the Girl generally treats the decisions announced on the show as permanent and binding, which they may not be. God or the Girl also fails to give viewers a sense of the 'nuts and bolts' elements of discernment. Though at least three of the four men on the program are shown with priest-mentors, it isn't made clear whether any of them are in regular spiritual direction - something I found to be an essential element of my vocational discernment. Though we see each of the men engaging in activities that could plausibly assist them in their discernment, we don't see them checking out the seminaries or novitiates they may attend if they choose to pursue a priestly vocation. Again, I can only compare the experience of the men on the show with my own. One of most valuable pieces of advice I received during my discernment came early in the process. coming from one of my Jesuit mentors at Georgetown - "look before you leap." Service experiences like those depicted in God or the Girl are important, but it's also important to see the places you'll live as a seminarian and get as good an idea you can of who you'll be living with. On a related note, I wish that God or the Girl had been a bit more explicit about what specific options the men on the show were considering - I got the impression they were all thinking of becoming diocesan priests, but this wasn't made very clear. It would have been helpful, I think, had the show given viewers some sense of the differences between the diocesan priesthood and life in religious orders. This is a fairly important question - I get it all the time - and one that could have been answered very easily had the show's producers and writers taken the time to do so.

In spite of its limitations, I was pleased with God or the Girl. To the extent that it raises awareness and puts a human face on the discernment issue, I would consider the program a success. Though some have argued that God or the Girl trivializes discernment, the series carries endorsements from the USCCB's communications director and from a number of diocesan vocation directors (two of whom were actually appeared on the program). There's a welcome element of pragmatism in these endorsements, for it isn't often that the secular media casts such an approving or positive glance at men thinking of becoming priests in trying times. Though it can be tempting to look a gift horse in the mouth, we should appreciate God or the Girl for what it is: a gift. AMDG.