While browsing in an antique store with my brother one day, I came across a china figurine of Adolph Hitler, six or seven inches tall. Hitler was bent over with a pained look on his face, and a pincushion was attached to his bare backside. “Stick Hitler in the Axis!” was painted across the base. Although the price for this rare historic oddity was right ($12), and I’m a desultory collector of sewing items, I couldn’t bring myself to buy it. Very few things are intrinsically too terrible to make jokes about, and Hitler is one of them. I suspect the creator of the pincushion did not, at the time he made it, fully comprehend the horrors of human annihilation Hitler committed. Still, we have a name for finding something to laugh about even in the midst of very grave circumstances: Gallows humor. It’s a kind of survival response to literal nonsense, I suppose, a way of overcoming a paralyzing sense of helplessness and hopelessness, of gaining the necessary objectivity to reassess a situation which does not submit to ordinary reason, and the courage to address it anew. That it’s really funny isn’t really funny, of course.
One hears a lot of gallows humor among Catholics these days. Here are a few recent events that have inspired it.
• In September, 1994, Senator Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts pontificated that he supports women priests and rejects Pope John Paul II’s reaffirmation of Catholic doctrine on the subject. The Senator, whose escapades have been the stuff of tabloids for years, is hardly known for his theological expertise or his fidelity to the Church, yet his opinion is as solemnly reported in the press as if he were the Cardinal Archbishop of Boston — and with considerably greater reverence.
Barely six months later, Kennedy, whose divorce and remarriage outside the Church are as well known as his anti-Catholic views on abortion, was televised receiving Holy Communion at his mother’s funeral. The Archdiocese of Boston had to disconnect its switchboard because hundreds of scandalized callers jammed the lines wanting to know why this happened. The Senator reportedly wrote a letter informing the Cardinal that his first marriage had been annulled, the new marriage blessed, and that he expected to receive Communion. Whether he also foreswore his public dissent from Church teaching on abortion and the priesthood was not revealed.
Why should people lose their heads over whether a high-profile Catholic’s marriage had been properly “fixed up” before he was re-admitted to the Sacraments of the Catholic Church? Saints Thomas More and Bishop John Fisher lost theirs over a similar matter. Now, though, another round of “Teddy jokes” began to circulate.
• Last November, Chicago’s Father Andrew Greeley, a media standby as a reliable dissenter on Catholic issues, a “sexpert” sociologist at the University of Chicago, and author of several x-rated novels about sexually degenerate Catholics, wrote in his column in a Chicago newspaper that Father Joseph Fessio is “a Jesuitical Newt Gingrich who, with the help of money from family and friends, has turned his Ignatius Press into a base for attacking gender-inclusive language in Catholic documents.” Greeley, who calls Fessio “the most powerful priest in America,” scores him for usurping the authority of American bishops, and concludes, “The Vatican might just as well abolish the American hierarchy and turn the governance of Catholicism in this country over to Father Fessio and his claque. Or alternately, the Curia perhaps should order the bishops to meet each year with Father Fessio and take his instructions about what they are to do next year.”
Barely two months later, in January of this year, Father Greeley complained to Knight-Ridder journalist William R. Macklin “that nothing bedevils a working cleric more than wealth and fame.” Greeley’s own best-seller novels have made him a multi-millionaire. “The hardest part has been the rejection of my work by other priests. They say ‘You’re on TV, you’re doing book tours, you’re getting too much publicity. . . .’ They dislike the visibility I receive, the money they think I make.” Fr. Greeley gave the interview on his promotional tour of Sex: The Catholic Experience, a sex-survey by his National Opinion Research Center, which contains the revelation that Catholics are “more playful in bed” than Protestants or Jews, among other titillating tidbits.
Fr. Greeley’s own words and works pose a severe challenge to parodists. Nevertheless, a pseudonymous gallows humorist, “Rev. Andy Frain” (the name of an old chain of usher services at sporting events), makes a good effort in a spoof column: “Last week I was on the Concorde en route to Buenos Aires from Paris seated next to the Papal Nuncio to Monaco. Over . . . a mature but indiscreet armagnac he let slip the secret (known only to Casaroli, Bianca Jagger, and himself) that the Vatican Council for Pontifical Museums and Galleries (formerly called the Holy Inquisition) gets a 6 percent cut — off the top! — of all Ignatius Press sales of James Schall. Need I say more? . . . At the root of the matter is that Humanae vitae is being used by Joe Fessio and his capon to obliterate Vatican II and return the control of our bedrooms and pronouns to media reactionaries like Mother Angelica who want to silence Catholic women.”
• In February, a group of students at Loyola College in Baltimore showed their concern about Father Greeley’s favorite subject by publishing an ad in the student newspaper, The Greyhound, describing an undergraduate “sexuality seminar” featuring pornographic videos. The course has been taught for the past three years by psychology professors Charles LoPresto and Cynthia Mendelson. The students’ ad said, in part, that the seminar included “films explicitly showing men and women masturbating and homosexual men and women having oral sex; an overview of masturbation, including methods and proposed benefits; a personal testimony by one of the faculty presenters explaining why he feels that Church teaching on homosexuality is not the true Christian position; and a separate story involving how he feels Church teaching on masturbation is also flawed.”
No one — not even Dr. LoPresto who taught the masturbation techniques — denied this description of the content of the course. Some, in fact, described it in considerably more vivid detail.
In mid-February, after the ad appeared, the Baltimore Sun and the Washington Times featured the story prominently. Some of the students who sponsored the ad were interviewed by the Associated Press, and the protest even made the local TV news.
Student protests in the nineties, however, are evidently not what they were in the sixties. Father Harold Ri dley, S.J., Loyola’s president, determined that the sexuality seminar would continue as scheduled. He said cancelling it would have led to “questions of censorship and academic freedom.” Cardinal William Keeler’s spokesman said the Cardinal was concerned about whether use of the films is consistent with Catholic teachings and moral values.
As of this writing, the sexuality seminar is still in session. Ironic, when you consider that even President Clinton dumped Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders for offensive comments about masturbation vastly milder than Dr. LoPresto’s hard-core presentation.
Why was a well-publicized student protest unable to persuade a Catholic college to cancel a course that is so overwhelmingly immoral and anti- Catholic? Possibly because some college administrators of the nineties were the student-protesters of the sixties. “Censorship” and “academic freedom” were major student rallying cries thirty-some years ago. Father Ridley, incidentally, was ordained in 1969. Another possibility is that some authorities are Mugwumps.
A Mugwump, according to my mother, is a fence-sitter with his “mug” on one side of the fence and his “wump” on the other. Actually, the epithet was coined in the 1884 presidential campaign to describe Republicans who refused to make up their minds to support their candidate, James Blaine. One of Blaine’s supporters had described the Democratic Party as the party of “Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion.”
That unfortunate slogan didn’t sit well with the Irish Catholic voters. Although Blaine disavowed the slogan and attempted to disassociate himself from it, he lost the crucial state of New York — and the election — to Grover Cleveland. Catholic voters, like Catholic colleges and universities, were apparently different in those days. Autre fois, autre moeurs.
The Loyola College student protesters may now be asking themselves, “What does being a Catholic mean if it doesn’t mean accepting and defending what the Catholic Church teaches?” The answer, now as in the time of Henry VIII, is “Nothing at all.” Let us all hope — and pray — that these young Catholics were not bruised too badly by their apparently futile first mission, and that their objectives may yet be achieved. We salute their parents and teachers who train, support, and inspire them. We welcome them to the ranks of full-fledged witnesses to the faith, and hope they will continue to “fight the good fight” for Truth, even, or most especially, when the situation looks grim. In fact, we, and the entire Church, depend on it.
So come on in, kids! The water’s, well, freezing!