In a recent episode of the animated hit “South Park,” the steady stream of abuse scandals currently rocking the Catholic church became a recurring punchline. When asked a question that elicits an obvious yes, notoriously insensitive protag Eric Cartman trots out the “Is the Pope Catholic?” chestnut…with a topical twist:
“Is that something I’d want to do? Is the Pope Catholic…and making the world safe for pedophiles?”
It’s a joke intended to throw the viewer off-balance, in part because, ironically, the heart of its humor lies in its seriousness. Typically “Is the Pope Catholic?” is a joke that rebounds on the questioner – “thanks for asking such an obvious question, Captain Obvious, of the S.S. Readily Apparent!” “South Park,” whose humor is as ruthlessly acerbic as it is juvenile, double-barbs that quip: of course the Pope is Catholic, says the joke. And of course he helps pedophiles, “South Park” adds. If you’re Catholic, your response is probably a strangled groan-laugh coupled with a heavy sigh.
“South Park” deals in such sharp irreverence as a matter of course – in 2002, during the height of the revelations of abuse, creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone crafted an episode (“Red Hot Catholic Love” – there’s an uncontroversial title!) dealing more specifically with abuse crises. Fr. Maxi, a Catholic priest who is a regular in the “South Park” cast of characters, is organizing a youth retreat. The parents of South Park are hesitant and suspicious of Fr. Maxi’s intentions, perhaps without cause, as all of the consistently foul-mouthed main characters describe Fr. Maxi as “nice,” “cool” and “compassionate,” when pressed by a counselor.
Maxi quickly becomes the hero of this episode as he corrals a committee of priests to end sexual abuse – only to be met with forceful opposition from church hierarchs, who cite the mysterious “Holy Document of Vatican Law.” The show then parades an assortment of inventive, outlandish elements: a Queen Spider who controls the revision of Vatican law; a group of bizarre aliens known as the Gelgamek Catholics (the unspoken joke is that to defend child abusers, you’d surely have to be from another planet); an alienated, now-atheistic community, who, in the absence of a cultural mythology, have latched on to a new fad that involves….well, to put it delicately, reversing the digestive process. (Thus, as the characters pass pompous, self-important and derisive comments about religious faith, the “South Park” writers ingeniously have them literally “spewing crap out of their mouths.” No fans of Dawkins or Hitchens, these writers!)
All of these nonsensical – and occasionally disgusting – details are positioned to contrast with the purity and simplicity of Fr. Maxi’s faith and his unwavering belief in the goodness of Catholicism. As blogger Brandon notes on his philosophy/theology blog Siris:
Fr. Maxi's approach to the subject is clearly on the liberal side (one notices this from the moment he suggests marriage for priests as a partial solution); but it's noteworthy that it is a genuinely Catholic approach. What makes Fr. Maxi the hero of this episode is that he truly believes that the Catholic Church is there to bring the light of God, that he truly believes that Catholic thought is relevant to everyone, and that he acts out of a genuine compassion and desire for the right. One of his admirable qualities throughout the episode is that he lets no web-spinning get in the way of recognizing the importance of people. This episode took a lot of criticism for portraying Catholic priests as alcoholic child molesters, but it's actually a story of a virtuous Catholic priest fighting ecclesiastical corruption for the good of the Church. …The portrayal of Fr. Maxi isn't the portrayal of a saint -- Fr. Maxi may share with St. Peter Damian a refusal to stand for corruption in the Church, but he's no Peter Damian; nonetheless, it is the portrayal of a hero, and a genuinely Catholic hero at that. Catholics could do worse than take Fr. Maxi's protest as a motto: ‘We're here to bring the light of God, not harm the innocent!’
It’s a message we, and our church leaders, should heed. Because when a show that never met a scatological punchline it didn’t love starts occupying the moral high ground, we might need to worry.