'God or the Girl': Catholic priesthood hits reality TV

New York, USA - God has finally come to United States reality television -- and against all guesses the oddball match has delighted the Roman Catholic Church.

God or the Girl pits four aspiring young Catholic priests against their libidos during the final four weeks before their decisions to take the church's Holy Orders, with the vow of chastity.

The first two episodes, fittingly broadcast on Easter Sunday, showed Joe, Dan, Steve and Mike as they steer between the temptations of secular life, including old girlfriends, and the path toward Catholic robes.

The show opens to intensely dramatic music, pictures of a crucifix and a heavenly blue cloud-flecked sky, a censer slowly swings back and forth.

"They're bright, all-American guys with ambition to spare, buddies to party with, even girls they might want to marry. But beneath the surface, they are in turmoil trying to decide whether they're being called in an entirely different direction," the A and E cable channel show says.

The show "captures the tension, terror, and triumph" of the four in "the ultimate struggle between the choice of two goods", it said.

Joe (28) is the most torn by the decision he must make by the fifth and final episode. In the opener he travels to Germany for the Catholic World Youth Day celebration -- where he hopes to connect with a German girl, for whom he has never declared his affection.

Long-haired Dan (21) has stopped seeing girls and joins a pray-in in front of an abortion clinic. He decides to test his own faith by marching 30km with a 40kg cross on his back.

Boyish Steve (25) who dreamed of becoming a millionaire, declares his intention to become a priest to his former drinking buddies. And Mike (24) is torn between his girlfriend Aly and a path laid out by his mentor, a parish priest who is visibly jealous of Aly's pull.

It is a long way from Temptation Island, the reality show where sexy young men and women bond, fight and make out in televised dates set in a tropical paradise.

Reviewers expressed relief after the first episode of God that it did not pursue the everything-goes, outrage-is-good credo of American reality TV -- as does The Swan, which transforms unattractive women into living Barbies.

"It's only one percent as crass as it could be," said the online magazine Slate.

"One can imagine the alternatives," Slate continued, suggesting a seminary-based show in which "former altar boys would attempt to fend off the advances of, say, kittenish human-resource specialists who recruit them for jobs in finance while slipping Ecstasy in their breakfasts".

The New York Times commented that God or the Girl "trivialises the decision [to become a priest] and the deeply held beliefs that drive it".

"Still, the show ... could have been much worse," the newspaper said.

Ironically, the most positive comments have come from the church itself which, after scandals triggered by paedophile priests, has had difficulty recruiting enough clergy.

"It's finally happened: reality TV has found religion," cheered the US Conference of Catholic Bishops.

"The series ... offers a surprisingly reverential treatment of a profound life passage [and] is as serious-minded as a public television documentary on the subject, albeit fitted out with all the trappings of Survivor," the conference said.

"The filmmakers have done all in their power to hook viewers, with standard pre-commercial teases and cliffhanger closes. And if those methods build a large audience for such an atypically religious-based series, then why not?"

"At the beginning we were concerned, for different reasons: the title God or the Girl, and the use of a girl in a tight t-shirt in promotions," said Kiera McCaffrey, communications director of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights.

Instead, the show has given the church an opportunity to advertise itself to a new audience, literally -- by taking out ads during commercial breaks to promote faith.

To Robert Thompson, a Syracuse University professor of television and popular culture, a reality show about joining the priesthood is more marketable than a documentary, because reality TV people can more readily manipulate reality than documentary makers.

"What a reality TV show does is, it takes the idea of documentaries that generally aren't known for getting big audiences, and packages it into something than can survive in a mass medium," Thompson said.