NEW YORK – It sounds like "Temptation Island" for the Catholic Church. But the controversy surrounding the new reality show "God or the Girl" may wind up being only over its title.
Premiering Easter Sunday (April 16) on A&E, the five-part series about four young men trying to decide whether to enter the Catholic priesthood has, not surprisingly, raised eyebrows because of what it appears to be on the surface: an exploitative program that tries to lead aspiring priests astray by tempting them with attractive women.
"So many of these reality shows sound so egregious on paper," said Robert Thompson, director of Syracuse University's Center for the Study of Popular Television. "The automatic response when you hear this is to think, 'Oh man, how low can we sink?' But it's all going to depend on how it's executed."
The way "God or the Girl" is executed is as a serious documentary about the difficult journey involved in choosing a life devoted entirely to God — but with a reality-show feel to it to keep it interesting. (The cable channel has made the first four episodes available to the media for advance viewing.)
"The name seemed controversial, but the show isn't as controversial as the name," said one of the show's executive producers, Darryl Silver. "It's about these four guys who are struggling with this very internal decision, and on the show they externalize the decision. They really love the Catholic Church, but they have just as strong a love for family. They're stuck between a rock and a hard place."
"God or the Girl" follows 28-year-old Joe Adair of Cleveland, Ohio; 21-year-old Dan DeMatte of Columbus, Ohio; 25-year-old Steve Horvath of Lincoln, Neb.; and 24-year-old Mike Lechniak of Scranton, Pa., through the process of trying to figure out whether God is calling them to become priests.
All grapple with the sacrifices they'd have to make should they enter the priesthood, including the vow of celibacy the church requires priests to take.
And all of them do unusual things, often at the suggestion of their spiritual mentors, that they hope will guide them toward the right path.
Adair goes on a pilgrimage with no money or food, relying completely on the kindness of strangers to help him get to his destination — a religious center in Niagara Falls. DeMatte builds an 80-pound cross and carries it 22 miles. Horvath travels to a mission in Guatemala to work with people living in extreme poverty. Lechniak goes on a retreat and stays with nuns.
Each of the men also has a woman in his life ("the girl") who factors into his decision.
Adair met someone special in Germany and goes there to see if there's anything to build on. DeMatte stopped all contact with his girlfriend for six months while he pondered his calling, but then is reunited with her to determine whether she is part of his future. Horvath was dating a girl he wanted to marry before he felt pulled in the direction of the priesthood. And Lechniak is in a serious relationship with the woman he considers his soul mate while he tries to figure out his destiny.
Agreeing to participate in "God or the Girl" didn't come easily to the men either, since making such a weighty, personal decision before a television audience seems antithetical to what a humble, religious life is all about.
DeMatte said he hesitated when he was approached, but ended up saying yes because God told him he should.
"I had to pray about it," he said. "God revealed to me in my prayer that He wanted me to do it to be a witness to the world. I think one reason God asked me to do this show is because there's a desperate need for people to hear God's voice."
He said the name of the series doesn't thrill him, but he's happy with how it turned out.
"The title of the show is less than appealing to any faithful Catholic," said DeMatte. "It's not a decision between God or the girl. It's a decision between serving God through celibacy or serving God through married life. God is No. 1 no matter what. The title is simply to catch eyes."
Silver said A&E, not the four executive producers, came up with the name in the hopes that it would get attention and draw viewers.
It isn't the first time a reality show's title has been far more inflammatory than the program itself. "Amish in the City," "Wife Swap" and the current "Black.White." all raised hackles before they were even broadcast.
"With 'Amish in the City,' it was the title and everybody went crazy, but when the show actually aired, they said, 'Oh that's kind of nice,'" said Thompson. "'Wife Swap' turned out to be nothing, but it sounded like it was a swingers' show."
Often, however, the controversy sparked by the title and promotional gimmicks can be a plus for a program that might not attract a lot of viewers otherwise.
"These reality TV shows are a way in which some of these subjects can be explored," Thompson said. "The reality TV format is the sacrifice and price you pay to get a big audience to watch it."
All four major networks rejected "God or the Girl"; the WB was going to air it but then backed out of the project, according to Silver. The Catholic Church wanted nothing to do with it, but has had a change of heart since seeing the final result, he said.
"We spoke to the church, trying to get their help, and they shut us down really quickly," said Silver. "Not only did they not help us, but they kind of hurt. There is no church thumb on this show — they had zero input. But now they love us."
Some Catholic groups, however, are still not thrilled about the series — though they're reserving judgment until it actually airs.
"There are some red flags. One is the title itself. Then we have the promo with the girl in the tight T-shirt. Obviously the whole idea is titillation," said William Donohue, president and CEO of the Catholic League, the country's largest Catholic civil rights organization. "And to air this on Easter Sunday raises questions about an agenda."
The involvement of Mark Wolper as one of the executive producers also troubles Donohue. Wolper told Washingtonpost.com's "The TV Column" that producers wanted to take advantage of the church's sex abuse scandal, and Donohue said Wolper has insulted the Catholic Church in the past.
He noted that in an episode of one of Wolper's projects, Showtime's "Penn & Teller," the F-word was used in the middle of Mother Teresa's name.
"Wolper has a track record of standing behind assaults on the Catholic Church," Donohue said. "This has an odor to it I don't like, which is why I'll monitor it."
The Catholic Church is a particularly hot topic right now because of the child-molestation scandal that has plagued it in recent years, which is why some Catholic leaders are hypersensitive about projects like "God or the Girl."
"There's no easier target in the United States in 2006 than the Catholic Church," Donohue said. "It's partly because the church itself has been delinquent in its handling of the sexual abuse scandal and partly because there is a strong strain of bigotry in our society [among people] who receive bad news about the Catholic Church as good news."
But Silver said concerns that "God or the Girl" is taking a swipe at the church are totally unfounded.
"This show had no agenda," he said. "No sides were chosen. We're not out to hack up the Catholic Church."
In any case, the problems that have befallen the church don't seem to affect the soul-searching of the young men in the series.
"If anything, the scandals have made me want to become a priest even more," said DeMatte, who is prohibited from disclosing what path he chooses at the end. "It would bring me great joy to be a priest and help heal the wounds that the priesthood is suffering."