Theology of the Bawdy

In any decent education there should be a place for the indecent. Students should read stories like “The Miller’s Tale,” see plays like Romeo and Juliet, and learn songs like “Drunken Sailor.” The inclusion of low, lewd themes sometimes attracts curiosity and criticism in the realm of classical education, and especially Catholic classical education: How could any school justify material that involves roguish romances, drunkenness, or crude behavior? Though the shadow of the proverbial millstone might seem to hang about the necks of teachers who do not shy away from the unseemly, the bawdy, base, and burlesque are vital elements in the rearing of any Catholic worth his salt. Without an experience of earthiness—be it through song, story, or celebration—it is difficult to live on earth in a manner that merits heaven. Though prudence is ever necessary, the risk of the bawdy is one worth taking in the art of education for it bears the potential of providing a very particular theological sanity.

There is a venerable custom of vulgar humor in the annals of good folklore and great literature: Aristophanes, Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Cervantes are a few authors famous for portraying the coarser sides of life. These themes deal with the rude, rock-bottom, and ribald characteristics of human nature, portrayed in straightforward, comic fashion without shame or apology. The boorish in folk tradition and art deals with things that most people avoid acknowledging in a manner so direct they become delightful. In so doing, the bawdry helps expose those deviant aspects of nature that can paradoxically draw man closer to God—to theology—by demonstrating with humility and hilarity how much he needs Him.

Bawdy and tawdry educational devices are not intrinsically evil, but rather little winks at wickedness, acknowledging the reality of evil—which is the first step in avoiding it. The bawdy is distinct from pornographic depictions of excess and extremism insofar as it does not intend to elicit erotic or errant reaction. On the contrary, the only thing the bawdy seeks to stimulate is laughter in a fitting response to the ridiculous. The bawdy is not titillating or degrading. Classical crudities are not provocative or malicious. They are merely mischievous. Though, objectively, they depict sin, or at least sinful nature, they retain an element of innocence and playfulness, providing a momentary and recreational escape from the law. One may even surmise that the bawdy is a bizarre return to the Garden of Eden, where a lack of shame regarding the body dominates without the sense of sinfulness. The bawdy is undeniably more intellectual than passionate, turning on puns, absurdity, double-entendre, and counter-pointing, while pornography is never clever.

Though care must be taken that lines are not crossed, the bawdy creates an atmosphere of moral relaxation in a spirit of festivity for the sake of moral fortitude, having conceded and cautioned against those lower inclinations and foibles that man must bear. Festivity, however, tends toward abundance, where the danger of excess can rear its head. In the same way is the body prone to corruption; but the bawdy presents that tendency without guilt or shame in a laughing pedagogy rooted in realism, rather than lackadaisical hedonism. It is more ontological than moral, recognizing human fallibility and feelings without condemnation or consent. Ancient bawdiness is a rebellion against modern Gnosticisms that hold the body as insignificant or insidious. Allowing the crude and crass to occupy a lively corner on the horizon of a Catholic worldview fends off the heresy that the body—and therefore the bawdy—is evil and must be held at bay and at all costs. God gave man a body, though, and the bawdy not only emphasizes this, but also admits the fact that the body is actually a comic thing, rather than a corrupt thing. Though there are natural human comforts that are good that can become unnatural and harmful if given into in excess, the bawdy presents a vicarious experience of such temptations that is both celebratory and cautionary.

Bawdy stories and songs about real temptations and errors that real people fall into reinforce the all-too-easily-forgotten fact that people are just people. Catholics are people and are called to work with people, and all manner of people. The reality of the Church is that it is comprised of every type of Chaucerian pilgrim with their particular faults and flaws. In short, the Church is comprised of sinners, not of saints. Another factor in this consideration is that, though perilous, people can come to know and embrace virtue by encountering vice. The bawdy is a happy and un-sanctimonious reminder that men and women are weak and in need of self-correction and divine redemption; and that among the best responses to sin is to laugh at it and treat it as the specious thing it is. When sin becomes the subject of jolly and silly songs and tales that revel reservedly in a complete picture of the human condition, it becomes conquerable. When sin is taken lightly, it cannot enforce. The bawdy, brash, and brutal strains of vaudevillian imagination are frank about foibles, which, again, can be the first step in avoiding the pitfalls they make fun of without compunction. These do not glorify sin, but present it as a matter of fact and not something to be overly alarmed about, let alone paralyzed by. Sin should not inspire fear, for then it claims victory through scrupulosity.

In the end—and especially regarding the education of youth—there has to be some calculated and controlled hazard. Some, unfortunately, will fall if introduced to the bawdy and the brazen. Some will be Icarus, and it is tragic. Some, however, will keep the middle course. The risk is worth running, for there must be a balance struck between the Apollonian and the Dionysian. Otherwise wisdom is not wondrous and the farcical is not funny. Much Catholic pedagogy, though certainly pious and certainly well intentioned, produces an over-solemnization of things like sex. To be sure, the human person is holy; but the human person is still spiritual and physical; and the physical is something to be taken with levity and gravity at the same time. It is both serious and ridiculous, but neither characteristic should dominate. If all is silly, people become cynical. If all is para-liturgical, people become puritanical. If both are recognized, then there is room for the sacred play of creation and the festive humor of the bawdy.

Everything should be taken with common sense and a sense of humor. Humor sustains sanity, for it provides the relief and balance required to avoid insanity. It keeps men level. It keeps them healthy. People are refreshed more readily by arrant absurdities than by academic analyses. Everyone needs the hilarious and humbling reminder that, though man is the steward of nature, he is subject to it at the same time—which is the basis of Christian humor: that man is both king and jester. It is true that people will not always like what they see when they hold up the mirror. But when they see something there that disturbs, one strategy to remedying the situation is to have a good laugh over it. Chesterton said, “It is the test of a good religion whether you can joke about it,” and the same can be said of the human condition that God called good—which is a theological lesson worth learning and especially if it can be learned through laughter.

Editor’s note: The scene above depicts con man Cuthbert J. Twillie (W.C. Fields) kissing the hand of gold digger Flower Bell Lee (Mae West) in the 1940 western “My Little Chickadee.”

Sean Fitzpatrick


Sean Fitzpatrick is a graduate of Thomas Aquinas College and the Headmaster of Gregory the Great Academy. He lives in Scranton, PA with his wife and family of four.

  • Anglicanæ

    Perfection. Thank you.

  • Rich in MN

    I think I understand what course the article is plotting between Scylla and Charybdis. However, I still cannot get out of my gut the feeling that preaching the benefits of the bawdy in this culture is like preaching the importance of water to someone drowning in the middle of Lake Superior.

    • s;vbkr0boc,klos;

      Would that we were drowning in Mae West double entendres and not junior high school demonstrations of mouth dams. (don’t ask).

      • Anglicanæ

        Indeed. Art has given way to bald displays of raw impulse.

  • Harry

    Some, unfortunately, will fall if introduced to the bawdy and the brazen.

    That is true.

    Children ought to be allowed to be innocent children. An early introduction to “the bawdy,” which children are all too soon subjected to continually in our sex-saturated culture, is to be avoided for as long as possible, letting innocent kids remain innocent kids. There is no way to avoid their being confronted with “the bawdy” eventually, but that shouldn’t happen until it is simply beyond our control to prevent it.

    Children, like a plant that you keep indoors until it is strong enough to endure the raw elements of nature, need to be protected from harm so they can grow up strong enough to endure the assault on Christian sensibilities they will have to deal with for the rest of their lives.

    • Nancy

      There are many, many old folk songs that mention the deflowering of young maidens, unmarried pregnant women, adulterous couples, lecherous soldiers as well as drunken sailors. They are not graphic, are good music and I’m sure many children heard them sung by their elders throughout the centuries. Most of it probably went over their heads when they were young and when they were old enough to get the meaning, they were at the age when they should know of such things. For Pete’s sake, girls were married when they were in their mid-teens! My maternal grandmother had her first baby at 15. Do your kids ever see animals in heat or mating? Farm kids did/do. It becomes a natural and normal and sometimes laughable part of life. Sex (and other bodily functions) are something we share with the animals and there is something ridiculous about the human condition, sharing in heaven yet very earth bound. The Theology of the Body fan club seems to over spiritualize sex and make it a burden. If a healthy married couple can’t laugh at themselves occasionally in their bed, then something is wrong.

      • Harry

        Hello Nancy,

        I am not into The Theology of the Body. Never have been. I haven’t read one book on the topic. Not one. Nor any of JPII’s talks on it.

        I agree with you that a lot goes over the heads of children and does them no harm.

        I grew up in a small farm town and most of my friends were farm kids. It seems to me now, looking back on it, that they were happy, well adjusted kids, although I don’t think animals mating is generally thought of as “bawdy,” and I don’t think seeing animals mating affects children like what is generally thought of as “bawdy” affects them. The kids I grew up with got to be innocent kids a lot longer than children do now.

        Some of the good things God has made are harmful unless one has reached an age where one possesses enough maturity for them, and unless they are experienced in the context in which God intended them to be experienced.

  • I DO rather enjoy me some tales of ribaldry.

  • s;vbkr0boc,klos;

    Humor and human and humility all come for the same Latin root for DIRT.

  • Filmair

    I’m sure Jesus told many bawdy and ribald jokes on His way with the disciples to pray in the garden! …Or maybe not. Color me old-fashioned or worse yet, evangelical, but this whole article seems specious to me.

    • Researchers claim that joke-telling dates back nearly 4000 years:

      Whether Jesus was a teller of jokes, or even had a good sense of humor, is unknown.

      • joebissonnette

        Though scripture says “Jesus wept” but does not say “Jesus laughed”, the first miracle was turning water into wine and wine brings laughter.
        Would Jesus bring forth laughter without himself laughing? “Inconceivable” as the philosopher from Princess Bride would say.
        Elsewhere Jesus uses hyperbole and irony. The Good Shepherd is a classic. We kept sheep for a few years and were constantly harassed by coyotes. No good shepherd would leave the 99, who were constantly being followed by wolves. To do so would have led to a slaughter. Jesus’ example refers to shepherding in the absurd, to illustrate how extreme God’s love is. This would certainly have provoked laughter among the shepherds.
        Irony has got to be a possible explanation of “render onto Caesar”

        • He was like us in all ways but sin.

    • s;vbkr0boc,klos;

      A wedding feast with lots of wine (and I am ithinking Cana) must have been quite a raucous and joyful affair with a lot of off color groom and bride teasing. I don’t care what anybody says – I refuse to believe that Jesus was a drag at parties.

    • STF

      Who knows? One thing we do know is that humor is holy, and therefore important. But the manner in which it is wielded is a matter of mystery. Recall these beautiful last lines of Chesterton’s “Orthodoxy:”

      Joy, which was the small publicity of the pagan, is the gigantic secret of the Christian. And as I close this chaotic volume I open again the strange small book from which all Christianity came; and I am again haunted by a kind of confirmation. The tremendous figure which fills the Gospels towers in this respect, as in every other, above all the thinkers who ever thought themselves tall. His pathos was natural, almost casual. The Stoics, ancient and modern, were proud of concealing their tears. He never concealed His tears; He showed them plainly on His open face at any daily sight, such as the far sight of His native city. Yet He concealed something. Solemn supermen and imperial diplomatists are proud of restraining their anger. He never restrained His anger. He flung furniture down the front steps of the Temple, and asked men how they expected to escape the damnation of Hell. Yet He restrained something. I say it with reverence; there was in that shattering personality a thread that must be called shyness. There was something that He hid from all men when He went up a mountain to pray. There was something that He covered constantly by abrupt silence or impetuous isolation. There was some one thing that was too great for God to show us when He walked upon our earth; and I have sometimes fancied that it was His mirth.

  • St JD George

    Lost me on this one Sean, sorry. Never had a appetite for the bawdy, and my tolerance for it is growing less each day as I see the world filling like a cesspool with it and worse more each passing year. Bawdy doesn’t enter the equation for me when I reflect on the truth, the way, and the life.

    • STF

      Thank you for your readership and your comment.

      I would say that bawdiness is a lost art. What you identify as bawdy humor in our day and age—whether in sitcoms, romantic comedies, advertisements, and such cesspools—mixes a titillation in that throws it into a pornographic category rather than a bawdy one. Humor that degrades the body is rampant, but bawdy humor pokes fun at the body in an honest, human, and healthy manner. It is innocent. It is therapeutic, not pornographic. And though I understand your point that it might be difficult to imagine how such pastimes are connected to the Way, the Truth, and the Life, we have to remember that we have bodies that require relaxation and risible faculties that need exercising.

      The bawdy does flirt with a line, which is always risky, and different people will cross that line at different points. In other words, it is impossible to say anything concrete about the limitations of bawdy humor, but the purpose of the piece is to encourage an attitude towards our bodies, silliness, and laughter that should be part of our pilgrimage.

      I am sorry if I lost you on this one, but perhaps I could find you again with this perfect tidbit of the bawdy:

      • St JD George

        Honestly I do appreciate the nuance differences. Still, it’s never resonated in me, probably because I have prudish tendencies. With my synapses growing ever more inflamed each passing day I could stand for more humor though to be sure.

        • Sacerdos

          It is better to err on the side of caution in this matter. I am involved also in the education of Catholic youth, and have discovered after years of experience that we need to exercise great care in this matter (without of course falling into rigorism). When we read the great saints who were involved in the formation of youth – St. John Bosco, St. John Neumann, Blessed John Henry Newman, for example – we read nothing along the lines of including a ‘literature of bawdiness’ within the curriculum. Moreover, St. Paul wrote in Eph 5:3-4: “Immorality or any impurity or greed must not even be mentioned among you, as is fitting among holy ones, no obscenity or silly or suggestive talk, which is out of place, but instead, thanksgiving.”

          • STF

            I would say that there is a place for the bawdy, and at the proper time in the proper context among the proper people it is not “out of place.” I do not think we disagree. Caution is always necessary – and caution against rigorism as well, as you rightly say. But let us also remember that over-caution spills the milk, as the saying goes.

            Have you read John Senior’s “The Restoration of Christian Culture?” If you have, or have access to this excellent little book, I invite you to read the closing paragraphs of the first chapter to see the ethos I am driving at better expressed. To quote a passage:

            “There is a certain kind of parent who wants to bind a child’s soul the way the Chinese are said to have bound their little girls’ feet to
            keep them dainty. There are Catholic families who proudly send their eighteen-year-olds up to college carefully bound and wrapped at the emotional and spiritual age of twelve—good little boys and girls in cute dresses and panty-waists who never get into trouble or into knowledge and love. The Kingdom of Heaven is the knowledge and love of God, and we learn to bear the living flames of that love only through suffering the paler heats of human desire…”

            Let is also be said that I am not proposing or advocating a specific “literature of bawdiness.” I am only saying that it can and should be tolerated to the extent that it provides a healthy laugh (and perhaps a wholesome lesson) over the sillier sides of our nature and experience. St. John Bosco was famous for being an energetic performer, juggler, and even a clown for his boys. Silliness is not always “out of place.”

            Thank you for comment and God keep you.

  • ColdStanding

    Once and awhile Crisis will issue
    Works with thesis thin as tissue
    It makes one weep
    With the bawdy don’t keep
    Oh Fr. George, we miss you

    • St JD George


    • joebissonnette

      ColdStanding you’re landing on the wrong side
      Your skewering verse I cannot abide
      Brave Fitz as a writer is fresh and daring
      But you as a critic are cool and unsparing
      The heckler shouts out from the shadowy crowd
      Safe anonymity makes for bold and loud

      • ColdStanding

        An eh? Be bee? See sea?
        Not me.
        Of rhyming, I’m no disciple.
        Limit the word?
        Then statements absurd!
        Worry not, ’tis but a triffle.

        I don’t know why you complain to me on a piece that is meant to encourage literary pursuits and I respond by generating an original, if silly, work.

        If I was serious about disagreeing, you’d know.

        I liked your verse.

        • Tonight on “Poetry Wars”…..

          • ColdStanding

            I don’t even.

            You have no idea how much I loath poetry. My brain was wrecked for the day because of that bloody limerick.

            • Too bad. You’re pretty good with a rhyme.

  • Is it too much of a stretch to see that a lot of what Fitzpatrick contends — albeit not all, of course — applies interestingly too to the present discussion of communion for the remarried. That is, could there not be something extremely salutary about the very DISCUSSING of the issue? “…There has to be some controlled hazard… The risk is worth running… Otherwise wisdom is not wondrous…” Try re-reading the whole article in this light and see if you don’t think this kind of thing could be what’s in the back of Pope Francis’ mind.

  • Paddy

    Thanks for a timely article. Any who object confuse the bawdy with the “dirty”. We, as Catholics, can enjoy a pie in the face along with any other people and indulge in a belly laugh about human nature. It isn’t the end of the world.

  • BillG

    An interesting article and perspective. It makes me wonder about Paul’s comportment in Galations 5.12 where, in reference to the Judaizers and their obsession with circumcision he states how he wishes they would go all the way and ’emasculate themselves’. Modern Bible translations, and the popular revence for Paul, perhaps miss the possibility that he was cracking-wise and bawdy and portray him as somewhat crazed with anger.

  • Martha

    My children actually know the words to ‘Drunken Sailor,’ partially from me, partially from a Disney album we used to have. Yep. I think it was right after ‘Whale of a Tale,’ which is plenty of bawdy fun. Not that we’d ever accuse Disney of a dearth of bawdiness.

    Love the title, BTW. I think it also applies to the book, no? 😉

  • Larry in MKE

    While in college I was asked to read “The Arabian Nights”, I thought what rubbish, after all there are thousands of great works of literature to read, why this? Then I entered the workplace and I realized the reality of the human condition. How broken it is. Did anyone say “field hospital”? I have grown to appreciate many types of literature as I am compelled to look within. Antonin Scalia explains it well, he calls it the “Shakespeare Principle”. He once had a teacher note that when you read Shakespeare, Shakespeare is not on trial. You are. The same can be said of Dostoyevsky, Kafka, O’Conner, et al and perhaps the bawdy.

  • mitch64

    I love that Crisis used the picture of Mae West and W.C. Fields..two people who knew how to get a joke across with a wink, wink, nudge, nudge. Though West, in particular in her day was picketed and blamed for “bringing morals down,” and had her humor toned down when the infamous code took place.(she truly believed that yes, not only was sex fun, it was funny) .she believed in “not showing,” as much as possible to leave it to the imagination and humor. She also always had a prude like Margaret Hamilton on hand to expose the hypocrisy in the arbitrators of community morals.

    Though this article really reminds me of my very Catholic Mom, who in the morning says her rosary and in the evening settles down to her British comedies like “Are you being served?” where she laughs like a sailor at the dirty jokes and entendres that I am “shocked,” they can get away with!

  • I find this article – which I could not finish – very disappointing, and insane. My first, second and third inclination was merely to ignore it. Then I came back to read the comments, .

    Humor is one of the most dangerous of human gifts, I think, along with sexuality. Every gift from God is an invitation into holiness – into holy communion with Him and with others also created in the divine image. In this culture of growing depravity, both humor and sexuality continue to race to the bottom – ever in search of that bottom, if indeed there is a bottom.

    I believe that God does have a “sense of humor” if that is the right term for it, and although He does not have “sexuality” in His nature, He certainly does have profound joy and fecundity in interpersonal communion. “Winks at wickedness” I do not find in God, nor therefore in the divine image. But man? Man loves to push the moral envelope, in humor and in sexuality. I dread to think that his pushing is still not finished, and I shudder to realize that religious men are helping the push.

    The world today is in desperate need for righteousness, for righteous men, for saints. I hope that somehow our youth are being directed to their true and noble calling.

  • TJ

    I think it was W.C. Fields who said” Watch out for temptation, you might miss a few”. I liked the point that this article made.