Thursday, November 16, 2006

In On the Joke

Apparently, the papa tedesco and his secretary have become grist for the Italian humor mill:
They imitate Pope Benedict XVI's German-accented Italian, poke fun at his secretary and even have the pontiff shooting pigeons in St. Peter's Square.

The pope and the Vatican have long been favorite targets in a country where satirists hold little sacred, but Italy's Roman Catholic bishops and others now complain that the current crop of comedians is going too far.

"You can't joke about the Vatican," was the banner headline Wednesday in the left-wing daily L'Unita, which denounced a "crusade against satire" by Catholic media and conservative politicians.

"This is Catholic fundamentalism, a faithful mirror of certain Islamic fundamentalists who don't want cartoons about Allah," the paper wrote in an editorial, drawing comparisons to the uproar in the Muslim world by cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad in Danish and other European newspapers earlier this year....

The Maurizio Crozza [pictured above in an unrelated 2005 file] satire on TV is stronger, with a hysterical pope shooting pigeons on his ledge over St. Peter's Square because they disturb "people who have work to do" or throwing burning candies to the "dear children" in the square.

Avvenire, the daily newspaper of the Italian Bishops Conference, said that Fiorello was "bravissimo, but even he has his off moments," while it termed Crozza's humor as "failed satire which is not without cowardice."

Many commentators, both left and right, partially backed the criticism of the satire saying that Italian comedians attacking the church were picking on an easy target, while staying clear of references to Islam.

"It would be easy and rightful to champion free satire if only it were exercised impartially, in all directions," the left-leaning daily La Repubblica wrote in an editorial. "You can't satirize one prophet and not the other, you can't satirize Christ and spare, out of fear, Muhammad."
The pontiff's private secretary, Msgr Georg Ganswein, lashed out at the papal satire in an interview with an Italian wire service. Admitting that he had never viewed the material, he said that he takes its existence as a "polemical act," expressing his hope that "broadcasts of this kind stop immediately."

"Satire's OK," Ganswein said, "but these 'things' have no level of intellect and offend men of the Church." "They are not acceptable," he said, going on to voice his finding that the sketches are of little "constructive" value.

The question of humor of the ecclesiastical kind is a very salient one to these days, a time when we've got too many people taking too many things too seriously. Just because our teachings and beliefs are serious business doesn't mean that, within reasonable limits, said gravity extends to every last thing church. Think about it: when the Good Lord was sitting at table, his dinner companions didn't communicate with him by singing Palestrina motets, nor was he waited on by solemn attendants clad in pleated lace albs and brocaded maniples.

(If that reality-check served to scandalize anyone, my apologies.)

The shortest verse of the New Testament may be "Jesus wept," but we can also be sure that, indeed, Jesus laughed -- a task he was able to accomplish even without the aid of scrolls advertising "Jokes Messiahs Can Tell."

Of course, there's a fine line between a healthy, reverent irreverence, and that which could be deemed offensive. Candor, humor, commentary and charity are a delicate balance, one at which many have failed (one which these pages continue to fail at, each and every day).

For an example of both bulls-eye and horribly wide of the mark, some of you will remember the June piece from The Onion on Pope Benedict's "journey" to Six Flags. While the first doctored photo that ran with the fictitious amusement park visit by The Man Called Fluffy -- featuring the pontiff on a roller-coaster -- rightly hit the funny-bone of all but the most hopelessly anal-retentive, the second, featuring the Pope with a superimposed Bugs Bunny, crossed the line not because of Bugs' presence, but as it distorted the image of the Pope on his powerfully evocative walk through the gates of Auschwitz the month before. (A setting notably kept out of the caption.)

Then again, look at the upshot -- and, yes, there is one. In a time when much of the church keeps bleeding credibility and its influence as cultural arbiter remains on the wane, its presence as a continued foil of the comic class is definitive proof that its cadences and customs are still universally recognized enough to be synthesized into a laugh-line or two, however biting in some corners.

What's more, to be able to laugh at oneself is a sign of self-confidence, and when we can't do that, we're in a bit of trouble.

As for one relevant example, look at the USCCB.

Alongside the bishop of Juneau keeping an eye on the BaltoSun's sports pages, one of the many striking things on the floor of this week's Baltimore meeting was the bishops' keenness to try and find something, anything, to get a chuckle from as they debated their way through the mine-ridden, high-stakes agenda. (This was especially the case during Tuesday's discussion on ministry to PWAHIs.) The attempts at laughter evidenced something that's been heard across several fronts of late: more than just a few veteran backbenchers feel the vacuum of humor among their current leadership, a void deemed weighty in light of the difficult exigencies of the current moment, especially as the laughter of the trenches has a history of uniting the conference, defusing much of the body's tensions in years past.

Of course, the last senior cleric revered for his light touch -- oft-accompanied with a Ricklesian flair for the loving (and, sometimes, not-so-loving) barb -- was the iconic figure of the eighth archbishop of New York, whose spirit was prominently conjured to great effect at Sunday night's liturgy in the nation's first cathedral.

While speaking of the historical legacy of the early American church, and the 1810 ordinations of John Carroll's first suffragans, Bishops Benedict Flaget of Bardstown, Michael Egan of Philadelphia and Jean Lefebvre de Cheverus of Boston, Cardinal William Keeler noted the one who didn't make it: Richard Luke Concanen, the Irish Dominican named as the first bishop of New York.

Consecrated in Rome, en route to America Concanen died and was buried in Naples without ever having seen -- let alone taken possession of -- his charge.

In his homily, when Keeler said of Concanen that "Cardinal O'Connor called him 'the most successful of his predecessors, because he never made a mistake on the job,'" the first part of the quip alone was enough to cause a prolonged, almost deafening, surely cathartic roar of hysterics from the bishops.

Far beyond the punch-line, though, the significance and subtext of the moment weren't lost on the high-hats. And when we speak of "restoring the light," said mandate involves recovering not just a Basilica, but another vaunted virtue of American Catholicism's confidence and excellence -- surely one less costly than unearthing the magic of Carroll and Latrobe's original plan, but by no means of lesser value.

AP/Luca Bruno
PHOTO 2: AP/Chris Gardner