Of Men in Foolish Hats and Housecoats
By Paul Fericano
A Room with a Pew
March 27, 2016
One of the healthiest and most powerful ways to address the seemingly endless folly of organized religion is to use the tools of social and political satire to reveal it. When the Catholic church, for example, attempts to make the problem of clergy sexual abuse invisible in its own history, it not only confounds everyone’s ability to see the problem in the present, but it holds itself up to be mocked. For years religious leaders and their attorneys have played hardball with victims in an attempt to spin the truth and rewrite the moral narrative. On this issue alone the sovereign farce that has become church practice and policy toward survivors has trumpeted the arrival of its own court jesters.
Throughout history, satire has always provoked curious and uncomfortable laughter while attempting to deflate and expose the pompous and duplicitous. At the same time, it has often managed to entertain and offend just about everyone in the process. The offending comes with the territory. It’s a big reason why this type of humor is one of the most misunderstood art forms. History is riddled with the self-righteous and indignant bodies of satire’s often difficult targets, as well as with those who’ve rushed to defend them. But illuminating dark secrets often comes at a great price. Satirists have risked everything, including bodily injury and death, to follow the advice of Horace and “tell truth with a laugh.”
Today, as the number of victims worldwide continues to grow at an alarming, but unsurprising rate, some would feign offense by arguing that such humor ridicules and trivializes the pain and suffering of victims of clergy sexual abuse. It’s a specious argument at best. But more to the point, it’s an argument that serves to enforce the church’s unwritten body politic that states: if we don’t acknowledge a problem it doesn’t exist.
Keeping itself concealed and mysterious while dressing itself in bright and colorful vestments is one of religion’s greatest illusions. Anyone who has ever been hurt by the church understands this.
The real issue is not about making fun of clergy sexual abuse. It’s about making sense of it. This is no easy task. If I were a stand-up comedian I'd be the guy dressed in Franciscan robes wearing a shoulder holster ("He's in the bell tower! And he's got an altar boy!").* The problem is that the clergy in charge who claim to be sensible are often men who make little or no sense at all. Pope Francis doesn’t escape this criticism. His canonization of Pope John Paul II in 2014, conveyed one of the most disturbing messages that any religious leader could send to victims of clergy abuse. By making a saint of a pope who deliberately turned his back on and helped perpetuate the worst modern crisis in Catholic history, Francis appeared to join the ranks of those who talk and act like they get it, but really don’t.
There are those who argue that it would have been unforgivable meddling by Francis had he tried to stop the canonization, or even delay it, seeing as how he had inherited the sainthood cause from his predecessor, Benedict XVI. According to this logic, it would have been unforgivable meddling by John Paul II had he tried to stop priests from molesting children, seeing as how he had inherited the sexual abuse scandal from his predecessor, Paul VI.
Considering the way the church has operated for thousands of years, that's probably a lot closer to the truth than anyone would ever dream of making up.