Q magazine once regularly asked rock musicians the question, “How do you react when you see a nun?”  Bryan Adams replied that he had the highest respect for nuns and thus reacted accordingly.  He added that he had recently learned that nuns no longer wore their traditional habits, and that he was distressed by this change.  My reaction was to wonder where Bryan had been for 30 years and what had led him to believe that nuns still sported the old penguin suits.  Television, that’s what.

TV’s presentation of the Catholic Church, especially in commercials, remains resolutely pre-Vatican II.  Nuns wear floor-length skirts and wimples; priests wear black suits and dog collars; monks wear sackcloth and tonsures.  Churches are always neo-Gothic and feature stone altars, banks of dripping votive candles, confessionals, and Gregorian chant—the whole Council of Trent.

Television has little interest in the condition of the Church; it just likes the symbols.  This explains why its occasional sallies into Catholic debate are more risible than offensive, pace William Donohue and the Catholic League.  Nothing Sacred, the short-lived ABC drama Donohue succeeding in killing, would have been passé during Paul VI’s papacy, with its ever-so-earnest young religious determined to drag the Church (“kicking and screaming”) into the (insert number here) century while fearlessly confronting issues torn bleeding from yesteryear’s headlines.

TV networks don’t like controversy per se; they like to be on the side that’s already won.  So don’t expect many televised dramas about the “clerical abuse” scandal that’s bleeding the American Church white.  This would require an examination of the “lavender mafia,” and advertisers aren’t going to touch that with a ten-foot crozier.

Madison Avenue persists in its use of the Church’s superannuated symbols because these symbols comfort consumers.  There are two types of such commercials.  In the first, a priest, monk or nun is so impressed by a product (usually some advance in technology) that he or she raises his or her eyes to the skies in thanks, to the accompaniment of a mighty C-major organ chord or heavenly swell from the choir.  In the second, a priest, monk, or nun is so impressed by a product (usually some “decadent” food) that he or she is prepared to risk his or her vows of obedience, poverty, etc., in order to consume it.

The message of the first ad: God is on our side; the message of the second (if only in jest): The Devil is.  Many complain that these ads are puerile.  True enough, but they are also tributes to the enduring power of folk memory.  The old symbols comfort because they radiate authority.  The reason we don’t see “Father Dave” with his open shirt and sports jacket in these ads is because he has no authority.

Generations of modernist theologians have practically consigned Heaven and Hell to the rubbish bin, but these reactionary notions live on in commercials.  In one for Red Bull, Saint Peter complains that his presence at the Pearly Gates is now surplus to requirements, as this energy drink “gives you wings.”  And the angelic spots for Philadelphia Cream Cheese provide a pleasing echo of the Rev. Sydney Smith’s famous pronouncement, “My idea of Heaven is eating pâté de foie gras to the sound of trumpets.”

One in five Americans says he has been touched by an angel or knows someone who has.  There are a lot of George Baileys out there, which explains why It’s a Wonderful Life has become the Christmas TV tradition.  Of course, it doesn’t hurt that Frank Capra’s classic preaches a particularly American gospel: Money can buy happiness.  We are led to think of George Bailey as a saint not merely because of his lifelong sacrifices but because we are shown what would have happened to the people of Bedford Falls if George’s savings and loan had not been there to write them mortgages: the secular damnation consigned by the rented accommodation of Pottersville.  And what saves George from “bankruptcy, disgrace and prison”?  The goodwill, even the love, of his townsmen isn’t enough.  George always had that; it is their whip-round that rescues him.

Despite its latter-day reputation, It’s a Wonderful Life is not exactly a “feel-good” experience.  Jimmy Stewart’s portrayal of George Bailey’s breakdown, his terror, rage, and despair, is harrowing to behold.  So it is hardly surprising that a war-weary America was indifferent to the movie in 1946.  Twenty-eight years later, Republic Pictures thought so little of it that it refused to pay a nominal fee to renew the copyright.

So It’s a Wonderful Life entered the public domain and then the collective consciousness.  Television stations could run it for free, and, soon enough, it was playing several times a day every day in every market during the month of December.  TV turned this flop into a hit, so much so that there can hardly be an American alive who doesn’t know the story of how Heaven sent a blundering angel to save a good man and a good town from Mr. Potter’s predatory monopoly capitalism.

What happened next can be regarded only as proof of the Angelic Doctor’s belief that God created the world in the spirit of comedy.  Much as Mr. Potter raged that his renters had slipped from his grasp, Republic Pictures raged that “America’s holiday classic” had slipped from its grasp.  George Bailey had God on his side, but Republic had the Supreme Court, which ruled in 1993 that copyright holders of movie source material maintained some property rights even if copyright of the movie itself had expired.  On that basis, Republic (a division of Viacom) reclaimed, and successfully enforced, sole ownership of It’s a Wonderful Life.  It then sold the exclusive television rights to NBC (a division of General Electric).  It will not enter the public domain again until 2041.

Clearly, Mr. Potter was born too soon.