When St. Thomas More was led to the scaffold at the Tower of London, he joked to his executioner: "Please help me safely up. For coming down, I’ll cope by myself."
The British sense of humor is one of the things that, unlike our cooking, has generally given pleasure to the world. And those who are both British and Catholic should consider themselves twice blessed. You don’t get too many Baptist jokes; there are a smattering of Anglican ones; I’ve never heard of a Methodist one; but Catholics are well able to laugh at themselves.
There are innumerable confessional jokes, jokes about nuns, jokes about children mishearing prayers ("Blessed art thou, a monk swimming") or misunderstanding words (as a child, I thought the drawn-out "Amen" at the end of the Credo at a sung Mass was the congregation singing a long "Aaaaaaah" of sympathy for Our Lord as He hung on the Cross; an older friend told me that she assumed it referred to "our men" whom she saw, in their uniforms, regularly at church on Sundays during World War II).
John Henry Cardinal Newman is an immensely English figure: One reason why we are all so keen to have him honored is that so much about him is so agreeably connected with things with which English people identify so readily: Oxford, Birmingham, railways, rain, a sense of not always being understood by the rest of the world. He has a particular connection with English Catholic converts — with their difficulties, their particular culture, the things they want to explain, and the contribution they want to make. Everything about his conversion story somehow rings with this — even the night he entered the Church was a rainy one, of bitter cold, and the Italian Passionist priest who received him was standing by the fire, trying to dry his cloak, when Newman entered the room.
We don’t often think of Cardinal Newman as being humorous, but we’re mistaken in this, as my brother discovered when he studied Newman’s essays "On the Present Position of Catholics in England." Originally given as a series of lectures in 1851, these point out some of the absurdities in the prejudices held by anti-Catholic writers of the day: One of the best includes a lengthy quotation from a campaigner who, after visiting a Catholic chapel during Benediction, gives a magnificent denunciation of the horrors of Catholics who are apparently unable to see, while they are bowing down worshipping a candlestick, that the mysterious bell that they hear ringing is not a mystical one at all but is actually an ordinary one being rung. And there is even better stuff from newspaper accounts of the building of the Birmingham Oratory: When the foundations and drains were being dug, local observers were confident that these were to accommodate underground dungeons and sinister windowless cells.
Best of all, however, is Cardinal Newman’s quoting of the hapless British visitor to a European cathedral, who saw — and denounced at a British public meeting — what he was confident was a list of sins hanging up on the door, with relevant sums attached, for which the sins could be forgiven in a nearby confessional. Consternation! Back in England, the crusader’s listeners were suitably horrified. Alas for him, however, so were the authorities of the cathedral in question, who forthwith sent a categorical denial. And Cardinal Newman explains:
Now it so happens that on the right-hand door of the transept of this church of St. Gudule there really is affixed a black board, on which there is a catalogue in the French language of the price to be paid, not for sins, but for use of these chairs. The inscription translated runs as follows: "A chair without cushion, one cent (about a farthing); a chair with cushions, two cents . . ." and so on.
But, as Cardinal Newman went on to explain, the British anti-Catholic crusader continued undeterred, despite the evidence, to announce in print that "it is the practice, as our readers are aware [Newman’s emphasis], in Roman Catholic countries to post up a list of all the crimes to which human frailty can be tempted, placing opposite to them the exact sum of money for which their perpetration will be indulged . . . ."
Cardinal Newman’s lectures were addressing a real and pressing problem: Anti-Catholicism was on the rise in Britain, fuelled by various organizations including the British Reformation Society and the Protestant Association, concerned at the rise in conversions and the building of Catholic churches in towns and cities around the country. Cardinal Newman, in tackling the subject, enjoys laughing, as an Englishman, at the English and their prejudices — their assumptions about food, travel, religion, and foreigners. Formal and structured in his prose, he is bitingly satirical — today, in a completely different England where every small detail of our lives, to say nothing of our larger understanding of ourselves, seems to be so different, we can still enjoy these essays and know of what he speaks.
Cardinal Newman was writing about anti-Catholic campaigns.
But Catholics can and should also laugh at themselves, at our mistakes, silliness, fads, absurdities. Of course we do this, but today perhaps not quite enough. The excellent Why Catholics Can’t Sing
by American author Thomas Day is gloriously enjoyable in its descriptions — oh, how well we know of what he writes — of the Man at the Microphone who dominates the church, rendering it impossible for any decent singing to take place; of nuns with guitars and inane ditties; of trite words put to unsingable tunes. In fact, the whole of modern liturgy is of course a rich vein of possibilities for the modern humorist — tinged, as are Newman’s essays, with real anguish and the need to address a real cause.
Can we employ humor — without savagery, without nastiness — in a good cause? Of course we may. I am not speaking here of moral possibilities, because humor can certainly be used for good, and is the more effective when it lacks vulgarity or cruelty. The question is not "may we?" but "can we?" Are people open today to real wit and humor on issues concerning God, truth, the Church, human frailty? Has TV, the general crudity of our culture, our lack of a sense of common purpose, the loss of an understanding of history, robbed us of this possibility?
I don’t think so. But we need to know the risks. Cardinal Newman, who could make the pompous Englishman of yesteryear admit to his narrow-mindedness, and highlight the absurdity in much fashionable posturing and campaigning, spoke to packed halls and did much good in the lectures. But he had to endure the misery of a drawn out libel case involving an ex-priest whose notorious lifestyle, including the appalling violation of young women, had not prevented him from becoming a hero of anti-Catholic campaigners. Humor jostles with the rest of life: It throws out a challenge and makes a lecture sparkle, but at the root of things there may still be important truths to convey that will make others angry, or vindictive, or anxious to crush us.
Standard Catholic jokes usually center on things that somehow make us feel comfortably esoteric, like the differences between religious orders. There are all those Dominican/Jesuit jokes. (Sample: The Dominican and the Jesuit both enjoy cigarettes, and wonder if this conflicts with their prayer lives. Next day, the downcast Dominican is annoyed to see his Jesuit friend smoking comfortably over his breviary. "How come you’re allowed to do that? My spiritual director said I shouldn’t smoke while I say my prayers." "You asked him the wrong question. I asked if it would be all right to say some prayers while I smoke.") But real Catholic humor has a darker side, a recognition that we are laughing about things that are actually uncomfortably serious. Cardinal Newman was grappling with unjust prejudices that were making people’s lives miserable and preventing the truth from being heard. Thomas More was actually on the scaffold.
Joanna Bogle is an author and broadcaster living in London