It was the 1990s. The Catholic twenty-somethings like me who gathered around their TVs every Thursday night to watch Friends were too young to have ever heard of the Legion of Decency, which operated back when a Catholic organization could make or break a Hollywood movie.
We wanted something entertaining, a story and characters we could enjoy and engage with, that had some (maybe distant) relevance to our lives. We found it in the story of the six young people gathered at the Center Perk Cafe.
Our Evangelical brethren had something to compete. Catholicism had (and has) nowhere near their celebrity culture or the genius of Evangelical marketing. Nothing in American Catholic publishing can match the trends that sweep the Evangelical world. Older readers will remember the huge-sellers, like the Left Behind series in the 90s, ThePrayer of Jabez in 2000, and ThePurpose Driven Life a year later. And there were a lot more no one remembers now — except the publishers and writers who grew rich on the sales.
Back then, dating and marriage was a hot subject in Christian publishing. One reason, of course, was the vision of sexual relations shows that Friends preached. Christians felt pulled between their faith and their culture. Again, Evangelicals had the really successful creations. Joshua Harris’s I Kissed Dating Goodbye was a mega-seller. (The author’s since recanted it and many of its readers came to reject it.) Catholics had Dawn Eden’s The Thrill of the Chaste and Jason Evert’s Chastity Project, but nothing remotely comparable in sales or influence.
The Bruderhof publisher Plough heavily marketed Johann Christoph Arnold’s A Plea for Purity. Mother Teresa wrote the foreword and the backcover included endorsements from Catholic stars like Cardinal O’Connor, Benedict Groeschel, Peter Kreeft, Richard Rohr, and Richard John Neuhaus. Does anyone even remember this book? I bought it when I was 26. I never read it.
As I say,American Catholicism didn’t have as effective a celebrity culture as Evangelicalism — much less the wider culture, like the companies that produced and marketed Friends. But EWTN came the closest. EWTN began running its young adults program, Life on the Rock, every Thursday night at 8 pm, the same time as Friends. The set was, of course, a coffeehouse. They filled it with as many trappings of the youth culture of that era as they could.
Every episode was filled with some new Catholic singer or snazzy new youth ministry or other shiny thing that might attract the young. The original 1990s opening was a snazzy thing in itself, with a catchy theme song. Attractive college students at, I think, the Franciscan University, reading aloud the Matthew 16 passage where Jesus declares St. Peter the rock. Flashy MTV-style footage of Pope John Paul II. The host Jeff Cavins, standing on an actual rock, hands in the air, holding aloft the original Ignatius Bible.
It was wonderfully cheesy. I loved every minute of it.
I also loved Friends. I was in law school at the time and my housemates and I would gather in the living room every Thursday for it. It became an event, a highlight of the week. Other classmates came over to watch it with us. As one of the creators said on the reunion show, Friends is “about that time in your life when your friends are your family.” If, writes the Wall Street Journal‘s John Anderson, “you were living through that particular time of your life during the 10-year run of Friends, the show might hold the same place in your heart that the Beatles do for Boomers.”
There was much chatter at the time about the bad example it set for young people. The chatter was not wrong. Matthew Franck pointed out in Public Discourse article a few years ago that Seinfeld‘s famous “Not that there’s anything wrong with that” helped moved society toward gay marriage. Friends had similar effects. It was not the only force, by any means, but an incredibly influential one. Its last episode, in 2004, had over 52 million viewers. It’s been in syndication ever since and continues to rake in the viewers and the cash.
Remember the episode where Ross and Rachel had their first date and immediately slept together? George Will thundered against it in a nationally syndicated column, noting (among other things) that it marked the first premature ejaculation joke in the history of primetime TV. It would be impossible to imagine Will — now an anti-Catholic atheist — or any of his peers writing that column today.
Our pop culture is so much filthier now, and the cultural conservatism Catholics once relied upon has almost disappeared from mainstream conservative politics and pundits. Cultural conservatives like Will and Charles Krauthammer either gave up or joined the party.
In 1995, Krauthammer wroteA Social Conservative Credo for The Public Interest. It included this paragraph: “The single greatest shaper of these wants and values is not government but culture. Mass culture is a very recent phenomenon. As an engine of social breakdown, it is vastly underappreciated. … Never in history have the purveyors of a degraded, almost totally uncensored, culture had direct, unmediated access to the minds of a society’s young. An adolescent plugged into a Walkman playing ‘gangsta rap’ represents a revolutionary social phenomenon: youthful consciousness almost literally hardwired to the most extreme and corrupting cultural influences.”
The concern for our decaying culture became less and less of a thing for him over time. By the early post-9/11 era, it was a staple for him to berate the late 90s concern over L’Affaire Lewinsky. He loved to go on about how we have “real” problems now.
Where Sin Abounds
But the Church still had a trick up her sleeve. No, not a Catholic cultural juggernaut like a Catholic version of Friends, where everyone goes to daily Mass and talks about the theology of the body. But a steady, ongoing, surprising influence.
Matthew Arnold, a magician who used to do the warmup act for Friends‘ live studio audience went on to write the bookConfessions of a Traditional Catholic for Ignatius Press.
And 2021, the year of the much-anticipated Friends reunion? One of the hottest podcasts on Apple right now is “Bible in a Year with Fr. Mike Schmitz.” The podcast, and the Great Adventure Bible Timeline upon which it is based, is the brainchild of Jeff Cavins. The same guy who started EWTN’s Life on the Rock opposite Friends in the 1990s.
No more Legion of Decency. Catholics won’t see that kind of cultural power again. But that’s not the kind of power the Church needs. We have the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit is full of surprises.