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It wasn’t so much a papal bull that was issued by the Vatican recently as a papal bear, and a teddy bear at that. In the week that “Pokemon: The First Movie” opened in Italy, an announcement on the Vatican’s satellite television station reassured Italian children — or their parents, since the children had never shown any signs of being worried about it — that Pokemon is “full of inventive imagination” and celebrates “ties of intense friendship.” What is more, said the Vatican, the trading-card and computer-game versions of the frantically popular Japanese game (it didn’t mention the TV show or the movie) has no “harmful moral side effects.”

That’s a relief, then. We wouldn’t want to hold Pikachu and Jigglypuff and all the other cute little monsters responsible for such old-fashioned moral failings as greed, envy, cheating and anger, which have been associated with the worldwide Pokemon phenomenon in the form of . . . let’s see . . . price gouging by sellers, relentless harassment of parents by pint-size purchasers, schoolyard brawls and even violent physical assaults, to name just a few. And to think that we had been under the impression that these were side effects.

We also stand corrected about the original point of Pokemon. What? You thought that the main job of those “trainers” was to instruct their cuddly charges in the art of whopping the stuffing out of other animated Beanie Babies with such God-given supernatural skills as the ability to squirt water, deliver an electrical charge or strangle one’s enemy with vines? You erred. As any up-to-the-minute theologian could tell you, this is a shortsighted, earthbound, even childish, view. Pokemon is about the filial friendship that sustains soldiers in the trenches. It is about the intense ties that bind one miniature, neon-bright samurai to another as they go forth to do battle against evil. It is about love.

What a good thing we have the Italian bishops, the people who run the Vatican’s TV station, to set us straight on these elementary moral distinctions. The bishops are of course thoroughly in tune with the movie, the moral of which (to the surprise of bone-headed parents) is that fighting is bad and being nice is good. Just be grateful that your children won’t ask you to explain the contradiction between this sanguine observation and the entire raison d’etre of the Pokemon universe as they know it, since such self-evidently idiotic wishful thinking will have sailed right over their bloodthirsty little heads. But who was that again who said, “Unless you become as little children, you shall not enter the kingdom of heaven”? Obviously no one that the Italian bishops have consulted lately.

It is reassuring, too, to have been steered so deftly past the quicksand of debate over the relationship between aesthetic experiences and morality. The Vatican got around this one by not even mentioning the aforesaid Pokemon movie, which brings the whole issue to a head. No doubt the bishops hadn’t seen it, not wanting to sully their dignity standing in line with all the noisy bambinos at the Rome Cineplex. Perhaps it feels that aesthetic considerations are entirely separate from moral ones, and that art-criticky terms like tacky, shoddy, plotless, dull, limp, cynical, moronic poop, and so on — all of which have been judiciously applied to “Pokemon: The First Movie” — have no bearing on the development of discerning young minds.

Oh well, perhaps they are right. Perhaps it doesn’t make a speck of difference how much manipulative, profit-driven pabulum a child sucks up; as long as it’s cute and fuzzy and everyone is having fun, all will turn out well in the end. Maybe.

It’s odd, but one had somehow expected more of the Vatican. Traditionally — and especially under the present pope — that institution has had a nose for the socially meretricious almost as strong as a child’s nose for shallow moralizing. Pokemon is not all sweetness and light, and it may very well have had harmful moral side effects (see above), and it would not hurt these guardians of morality to say so. Its childish devotees at least tend to be devastatingly clear about why they like it — and it doesn’t have much to do with ties of intense friendship etc. It has to do with intense, indeed nauseating, cuteness and intense competition, on both the fighting and the collecting fronts. The game versions make no bones about this; the movie, one suspects, is popular despite its “message” to the contrary, which the children universally ignore.

If the Vatican is going to descend from the clouds to defend childish fads, perhaps it ought to talk to some children first.

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