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James T. KeaneOctober 11, 2022
Sinéad O’Connor performing in 2014 (Wikimedia Commons)

Thirty years ago, on Oct. 3, 1992, Sinéad O’Connor appeared for the second time on “Saturday Night Live.” She was promoting her new album, having become an international superstar two years earlier with her cover of Prince’s “Nothing Compares 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 were played. But nothing could compare to the furor to come.

At the conclusion of her performance of Bob Marley’s “War,” O’Connor held a photo of Pope John Paul II up to the camera, tore it to pieces and shouted “fight the real enemy!”

The photo, O’Connor later explained, had hung in her mother’s house throughout her childhood. Because her mother had physically and emotionally abused her, she associated the picture with child abuse. In a documentary film released on Oct. 7, “Nothing Compares,” O’Connor said she did it as a protest against child abuse and its coverup in the Catholic Church.

Brenna Moore: “Despite O’Connor’s reputation, arguably the heartbeat of the memoir is her sense of transcendence and her longing for it, as well as the depth of her religious imagination since childhood."

The public backlash was instantaneous and fierce. She was banned from future appearances on NBC. Numerous celebrities criticized her (Frank Sinatra called her “one stupid broad” and threatened to “kick her ass”) and other musicians called on her to apologize to Catholics and to the pope in particular. Less than two weeks after her performance, she was loudly booed at a Bob Dylan tribute concert. Radio stations sponsored rallies where her albums were crushed under a steamroller. The Anti-Defamation League condemned her. Always happy for a new public enemy, the Catholic League for Religious & Civil Rights released a statement saying “(We) are outraged at this blatant hatred shown toward the Catholic religion.”

What did America’s editors have to say? Nothing. A search of our archives turned up zero mentions of the incident, and indeed nothing about O’Connor in general for that entire decade. Were the editors staying above the fray? Did they want to distance themselves from the cartoonish grifting 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 1990’s “I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got.” She has remained a puzzling and quixotic figure over the years, and her public struggles with substance abuse and mental illness have perhaps overshadowed her musical genius. Her religious journey has also been a wandering one: O’Connor was raised Catholic but left the church as a young woman; at one 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 Shuhada’ Sadaqat.

In 2021, O’Connor released a memoir, Rememberings, that chronicled her upbringing in an abusive household, her fraught relationship with the Catholic Church (including a brief stint in a Magdalene laundry as a teen), her rise to fame in the late 1980s and her life in and out of the music industry since.

Were the editors of America staying above the fray? Or did they just not know who Sinéad O’Connor was?

Brenna Moore reviewed Rememberings for America last fall. A theology professor at Fordham University, Moore noted the depth of O’Connor’s religious imagination, both in her music and in her writing. “[D]espite O’Connor’s reputation, arguably the heartbeat of the memoir is her sense of transcendence and her longing for it, as well as the depth of her religious imagination since childhood. She is famously hard to place religiously—a critic of institutional religion and a recent convert to Islam,” Moore wrote. “But her memoir shows that her 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. Hers is made of serious stuff, tough stuff.”

Rememberings serves as a reminder that O’Connor’s appearance on “SNL” was but a moment in a long career and a tumultuous life, and Moore praised O’Connor’s memoir as “a revelation, full of beauty and spiritual vitality with flashes of humor and sheer irreverence.” For fans in the 1990s, “like me, who sang their hearts out to every line of every song in the album ‘I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got,’ to those who only vaguely know her name from the controversy that ensued in 1992 after she ripped up a photograph of Pope John Paul II during her performance on ‘Saturday Night Live,’ there is something in Rememberings for everyone.”

O’Connor now lives in rural Ireland. In Rememberings, she writes that she remembers little of the past 20 years. Her success in the music industry was not the defining moment of her life; rather, the experience of “losing her marbles” and then regaining them has been the dominant one for her. She remains defiant about her “SNL” protest. “I’m not sorry I did it. It was brilliant,” she told The New York Times last year. “But it was very traumatizing. It was open season on treating me like a crazy bitch.”

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 coverup became much more widely known. The size and scope of the abuse around the world (with Ireland suffering more than most) has most certainly tarnished the legacy of Pope John Paul II.

Three decades ago, Catholics were demanding Sinéad O’Connor apologize for defaming the church. Perhaps we had it all wrong. Maybe we should be apologizing for the way we treated her.

Moore praised O’Connor’s memoir as “a revelation, full of beauty and spiritual vitality with flashes of humor and sheer irreverence."


Our poetry selection for this week is “One by One They Fall,” by Paul Mariani. Readers can view all of America’s published poems here.

In this space every week, America features reviews of and literary commentary on one particular writer or group of writers (both new and old; our archives span more than a century), as well as poetry and other offerings from America Media. We hope this will give us a chance to provide you more in-depth coverage of our literary offerings. It also allows us to alert digital subscribers to some of our online content that doesn’t make it into our newsletters.

Other Catholic Book Club columns:

Theophilus Lewis brought the Harlem Renaissance to the pages of America

Yes, J. F. Powers wrote about priests. But his real subject was America.

The Catholic faith (and pessimism) of J.R.R. Tolkien

Parish priest, sociologist, novelist: The many imaginations of Father Andrew Greeley

Leonard Feeney, America’s only excommunicated literary editor (to date)

Joan Didion: A chronicler of modern life’s horrors and consolations

Happy reading!

James T. Keane

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