I often wonder, writing here, what possible expertise I have to offer. I’m not a theologian, so my take on deeper issues is by necessity secondhand. My knowledge of Catholic history is wide-ranging but thin — and focused disconcertingly on religious orders that brew beer, make wine, or invented distinctive liqueurs. (Surely there’s much to be said about Carthusian spirituality, but my interest tends to fixate on the spirit Chartreuse.) I know a thing or three about the saints, but again my attention sticks on those with really outrageous legends: German monks and talking bears, Irish hermits milking badgers, Greek martyrs who proved as hard to kill as Terminators.
Lately I’ve taken to writing about the moral life, denouncing at once the Deadly Sins and the Neuroses that loom as their polar opposites (hence Lust and Frigidity, Vanity and Servility, Greed and Prodigality), in defense of the Virtues that stand in the Golden Mean. You’d think that the subject matter might sober me up, but invariably my illustrations tend to come from TV episodes, dog anecdotes, and oddments of Catholic history that feature impressive costumes and battle narratives. Someone once asked me why I’d dedicated myself to the study of “sacred ephemera.” I quipped back, “Because I’m a very silly person, and we need the gospel, too.”
How could it be otherwise, when the three major influences of my life, which struck me at the same time and with equally enduring force, were the catechesis of Rev. John Hardon, the novels of J. R. R. Tolkien, and the skits of Monty Python? Somewhere in my 16-year-old brain I mashed it all together, till my dreams consisted of Jesuit hobbits doing silly walks while evangelizing China. That formation helped me keep my faith intact at a hostile college.
A better answer is that humor makes a thick and tasty sauce to flavor the rather pungent meat of Catholic metaphysics and morals — which is hearty, low-fat, and nutritious, but you must admit has kind of a “wild” taste, like deer meat or turtle. I’ll never forget addressing a Catholic bookseller’s conference over dinner, as the hundreds of gathered nuns and earnest, underpaid laymen finished a nice piece of chicken breast. I told them about the “theology of Mardi Gras,” and suggested they mark the holiday by serving up “Smothered Squirrel.” It would have taken a puny soul to resist the obvious punch line: “How do you like it? It tastes just like chicken, doesn’t it?” Two hundred forks dropped at once. It is for such moments that I was born.
People don’t usually lose their faith because they’ve slogged through 600-page books by Protestant fundamentalists, or even by Richard McBrien. Many more just slip-slide away after watching a hundred monologues by George Carlin or Ricky Gervais that make the Church seem silly. Not false — calling the Church’s teachings false raises the squirmy question of Truth, which Screwtape rightly warned his tempters to stay away from. Just silly.
Now, there’s plenty that’s merely human about the Church (and therefore alternately sordid and ridiculous). Sometimes joking about such things is useful and truthful. A humorless Faith is stereotypically brittle or repulsive, raising the obvious question: “If believing all this stuff will make me a prig like you, do I even want to consider it?” In the South, our Protestant brethren warn of the scandal given by “dowdy Christians.” So for Pentecost, I hope some earnest people I’ve seen distributing pamphlets attacking NFP will make a bonfire of their floor-length denim jumpers, shiny polyester suits, and patriotic neckties. I’d happily feed the flames with works by Garry Wills — and assure the good people at our bonfire of the drabberies, “This isn’t a fashion purge — it’s a book-burning!” I’d remind them that this practice was praised by Gregory XVI in Mirari Vos. And everybody’d be happy.
Just as we shouldn’t slap down an earnest theological inquiry with a flippant, offhand quip, it isn’t prudent to counter sarcasm with dourness. Instead of answering the Kathy Griffins of this world with press releases that pound on the table, “That’s not funny! There are eternal souls at stake here, you dog-faced strumpet!” I think it more useful to be . . . funnier. Don’t bring a gun to a rubber-chicken fight. What I’ve learned from secular comedy’s counter-apostolate is this: People’s hackles go up when you attack them and drop when you tickle them. Get someone laughing — as the best Catholic authors knew how to, from Waugh and Chesterton to Percy and O’Connor — and his barriers collapse. Don’t compare contraception to sodomy, but bulimia — and toss off the line that NFP is like dieting. Smile, and shrug, “You’re right — I don’t see the difference.” Then stick your finger down your throat.
Humor can cut the other way as well, helping those who are tempted not by the world but by anti-worldly gnosticism come back out to God’s free air and sunlight. I’ll never forget the grimmest wedding I ever attended. Not irreverent or disrespectful — quite the contrary. A lovely Tridentine Mass, in a New England Gothic church that had somehow escaped the wreckovators and liturgists, the pedophiles and the plaintiffs. The choir sang well. The bride was glowing, the groom was gloating, and all seemed as it should be. Then the priest mounted the pulpit to give the homily. He took as his theme the unique value of suffering, and offered the theory (cribbed from Rev. Frederick Faber) that willfully accepted suffering is the only currency acceptable in Heaven. He spoke of the many and heavy crosses that married people must carry, and illustrated his message by pointing to the bride and then to the groom — explaining that each of them would serve for the other as the heaviest cross in life, the deepest and most enduring cause of suffering. “It is thus, as we embrace the Cross, that we work our way in fear and trembling along the narrow path to Heaven.” Victim soul, embrace your cross. You may kiss the bride.
Given that the bride and groom had specially chosen this priest for his preaching, and in light of some things they’d said that left me feeling like Sebastian Flyte (“Is it nonsense? I wish it were”), it seemed some response was in order. So when the couple sent out the announcement that they’d got themselves with child during their honeymoon, I thought back to their wedding sermon, and sent them a note in a similar spirit:
Dear Friends in Christ,
I have been informed of the news of your recent conception. While I hope it does not provide for you an occasion of the sin of Vainglory for me to say so, I feel obligated to laud you both for stoically shouldering the solemn duty of those Christians called to the (lesser) vocation of marriage to graciously accept all children whom God, in His Providence, deems fit to entrust you. Were we worldings, it might seem fitting for me to join with you in a merely fleshly celebration of the continuation of the species. However, given the grim reality of the Fewness of the Saved (a fact attested by St. Leonard of Maurice), one must acknowledge that the conception of a human soul is a hazardous undertaking, and one not likely to end well. Nevertheless, it seems that it has, in your case, been tolerated through God’s permissive will. Given that fact, I know that you will embrace this cross as courageously as you have the arduous cross of matrimony, and I hope that your mortifications as parents will be many and edifying, and I will pray for the unlikely event of your son or daughter’s eternal salvation.
Yours at the Foot of the Cross,
They knew how to take a joke, and it had its intended effect. They didn’t, in fact, name their kid Stigmatus.