Pope John Paul II came to Hollywood's doorstep Tuesday and told the giants of America's film, news, television and music industries that they are a "force for great good or great evil" and must choose between producing work that is "noble and uplifting" or appealing out of greed to "what is debased in people."
"The world is at your mercy," the Pope told a rare gathering of 1,500 of the country's most prominent entertainment and media leaders in an address at the Registry Hotel near Universal Studios, billed as a key stop on his 10-day pilgrimage to the United States.
The media can destroy, the pontiff said, if it chooses to emphasize the weaker side of human nature, pornography, casual sex, materialistic greed, violence and what he called "irresponsible individualism."
Address Was Exhortation
Many in the audience found the Pope's address more restrained than they had expected, an exhortation rather than a castigation of the communications industry.
"You are the stewards and administrators of an immense spiritual power," the Pope said.
Introduced at the podium by Lew R. Wasserman, the influential chairman of MCA Inc., the entertainment conglomerate that owns Universal Studios, John Paul urged the communicators--who included such luminaries as David Puttnam, chairman of Columbia Pictures, producers Merv Griffin and Dino De Laurentiis, actors Charlton Heston and Ed Asner and comedian Bob Hope--to avoid becoming slaves of profit and listen more to their audience.
The pontiff expressed fear that the drive for profit in the news and entertainment business imperils the higher purpose of communicating "the full measure of human dignity. . . . Do not let money be your sole concern, for it too is capable of enslaving art as well as souls."
In an allusion to the extraordinary wealth and influence of the men and women sitting before him, the Pope called on media leaders to "cultivate the integrity consonant with your own human dignity. You are more important than success, more valuable than any budget."
In a section of the speech omitted at the last minute but included in the version released to the press, John Paul touched on the darker vision of Hollywood as a state of mind: "Working constantly with images, you face the temptation of seeing them as reality. Seeking to satisfy the dreams of millions, you can become lost in a world of fantasy."
A spokesman for the archdiocese, Juan Pedro de Jandt, said the omitted phrases were "still considered as if they were read" but had to be excised because of time constraints. The half-hour speech began late because the Pope lingered with an audience of young Americans at the Universal Amphitheater.
Said Jack Valenti, president of the Motion Picture Assn. of America: "As Edmund Burke said, 'You can't indict a whole society,' but there are things we are guilty of that it doesn't hurt us to be reminded of."
"I thought he was going to be tougher on us given some of the things we put out there," said film maker Peter Bogdanovich. "One thing that rang a bell with me was the remark that even the smallest decision can affect millions for good or evil. I thought of decisions I've made, and would like to unmake."
"It wasn't a Sunday punch," talk show host Phil Donahue said afterwards. Donahue added that the Pope's call on the media to listen "is appropriate for him to heed as well"--a reference to many American Catholics who differ with the Vatican's stances on assorted issues.
John Paul refrained from directly condemning the American media, as some Catholic scholars had predicted, for actions that he described in a 1984 message as a "complacent and insistent repetition of evil."
Instead, John Paul used the meeting, which host Wasserman called the first gathering of media figures this Pope has ever addressed in the United States, to set out "broad outlines of a choice for good within the framework of your profession."
You "can build or destroy," the Pope said, "uplift or cast down."
America's constitutionally protected freedom of speech, the Pope said, carries with it "corresponding duties" not to manipulate "truth and its completeness."
Echoing frequent complaints by American Catholic theologians that the media fail to adequately foster family and religious values, John Paul said "this manipulation in fact takes place when certain issues are deliberately passed over in silence, in order that others may be unduly emphasized."
The Pope called on his audience to become "collaborators of truth in the service of justice, fairness and love." To further that aim, he asked them to consider how they portray society's most defenseless--the handicapped, the elderly, the unattractive, the lonely.
The U.S. Catholic Conference has complained that major news media give religious issues "less than in-depth treatment." And the church historically has tried to have a role in shaping the direction of American entertainment, including the creation in 1934 of the Legion of Decency, which now reviews and classifies films as the conference's Department of Communication.
John Paul, himself a former actor and playwright, told the communicators that the church "is on your side." The church, he said, "offers you her challenge and her praise. I pray that you will welcome that help and never be afraid to accept it."
The speech was drafted first by a Los Angeles priest and rewritten by a Jesuit in Washington before being sent to Rome.