30 years ago, Sinéad O’Connor tore up a photo of JPII on stage. What should Catholics think of his protest today?
Thirty years ago, on October 3, 1992, Sinéad O’Connor appeared for the second time in “Saturday Night Live.” She was promoting her new album, which had become an international superstar two years earlier with her cover of Prince’s “Nothing compares to 2 U.” She was already a controversial figure; she boycotted the Grammys in 1991 and refused to perform at a concert in 1990 if the national anthem was played. But nothing could compare to the fury to come.
At the end of his performance of Bob Marley’s “War,” O’Connor held a photo of Pope John Paul II up to the camera, tore it up, and shouted “Fight the real enemy!”
The picture, O’Connor later explained, had hung in his mother’s house throughout his childhood. Because her mother had physically and emotionally abused her, she associated the image with child abuse. In a documentary film released on October 7, “Nothing compares‘, O’Connor said she did it to protest child abuse and its cover-up in the Catholic Church.
Brenna Moore: “Despite O’Connor’s reputation, the heartbeat of the memoir is arguably his sense of transcendence and his longing, as well as the depth of his religious imagination since childhood.”
The public reaction was instantaneous and fierce. She was banned from future appearances on NBC. Many celebrities have slammed her (Frank Sinatra called her a “fat dumb” and threatened to “kick her ass”) and other musicians have called on her to apologize to Catholics and the Pope especially. Less than two weeks after her performance, she was loudly booed at a Bob Dylan tribute concert. Radio stations sponsored rallies where his albums were crushed under a steamroller. The Anti-Defamation League condemned her. Always happy to have a new public enemy, the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights issued a statement saying “(We) are outraged by this blatant hatred towards the Catholic religion”.
What is Americahave to say the publishers? Nothing. A search of our archives turned up no mention of the incident, and in fact nothing about O’Connor in general during this entire decade. Did publishers stay above the fray? Did they want to distance themselves from the caricatural scam of the Catholic League and other groups? Or did they just not know who Sinéad O’Connor was? All are plausible answers.
O’Connor went on to make seven more albums, several of which achieved gold status, but she never replicated the commercial success of 1990s “I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got”. remained a confusing and chimerical figure over the years, and his public struggles with drug addiction and mental illness may have overshadowed his musical genius. Her religious background was also erratic: O’Connor was raised a Catholic but left the church as a young woman; at some point in the late 1990s she was ordained a priest in the Irish Orthodox Catholic and Apostolic Church (an independent church not in communion with Rome) and took the name Mother Bernadette Mary. In 2018, she wrote an open letter to Pope Francis asking him to excommunicate her; that same year, she converted to Islam and took the name of Shuhada’ Sadaqat.
In 2021, O’Connor published a memoir, Memorieswhich chronicles his upbringing in an abusive home, his strained relationship with the Catholic Church (including a brief stint in a La Madeleine laundry as a teenager), his rise to fame in the late 1980s, and his life in and out of the music industry ever since.
The editors of America stay above the fray? Or did they just not know who Sinéad O’Connor was?
Brenna Moore rated Memories for America last fall. A professor of theology at Fordham University, Moore noted the depth of O’Connor’s religious imagination, both in his music and in his writing. “[D]Despite O’Connor’s reputation, the heartbeat of the memoirs is arguably his sense of transcendence and longing, as well as the depth of his religious imagination since childhood. She is notoriously difficult to situate religiously — a critic of institutional religion and a recent convert to Islam,” Moore wrote. “But his memoir shows that his religious eclecticism is not the stuff of the lighter “spiritual but not religious” fare that is standard in consumer capitalism, with its predictable heroes and villains. His is made of serious stuff, hard stuff.
Memories serves as a reminder that O’Connor’s appearance on “SNL” was just one moment in a long career and tumultuous life, and Moore hailed O’Connor’s memoir as “a revelation, full of beauty and spiritual vitality with flashes of humor and pure irreverence.” For 1990s fans, “like me, who heartily sang every line of every song on the ‘I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got’ album, to those who only vaguely know his name because of the ensuing controversy in 1992 after he tore up a photo of Pope John Paul II during his performance on ‘Saturday Night Live’, there’s something in Memories for everyone.”
O’Connor now lives in rural Ireland. In Memories, she writes that she remembers little of the past 20 years. His success in the music industry was not the defining moment of his life; rather, the experience of “losing her marbles” and then finding them was the dominant experience for her. She remains defiant about her “SNL” protest. “I’m not sorry I did. It was awesome,” she told The New York Times last year. “But it was very traumatic. It was open season to treat me like a crazy female dog.
Already in 1992, the sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic Church was attracting public attention, but in the years that followed, the extent of the abuse and its cover-up became much more widely known. The scale and extent of abuse around the world (Ireland suffering more than most) has most certainly tarnished the legacy of Pope John Paul II.
Three decades ago, Catholics called on Sinéad O’Connor to apologize for defaming the church. Maybe we had it all wrong. Maybe we should apologize for the way we treated her.
Moore hailed O’Connor’s memoir as “a revelation, full of beauty and spiritual vitality with flashes of humor and sheer irreverence”.
Our selection of poetry for this week is “One by one, they fall”, by Paul Mariani. Readers can see all America‘s poems published here.
In this space each week, America features literary reviews and commentary on a particular writer or group of writers (new and old; our archive spans over a century), as well as poetry and other offerings from America Media. We hope this gives us the opportunity to provide you with more in-depth coverage of our literary offerings. It also allows us to alert digital subscribers to some of our online content that does not appear in our newsletters.
Other sections of the Catholic Book Club:
Theophilus Lewis brought the Harlem Renaissance to the pages of America
Yes, JF Powers wrote about priests. But his real subject was America.
The Catholic Faith (and Pessimism) of JRR Tolkien
Curé, sociologist, novelist: the many imaginations of Father Andrew Greeley
Leonard Feeney, America’s only excommunicated literary editor (to date)
Joan Didion: a chronicler of the horrors and consolations of modern life
James T. Keane