sincerest form of flattery?
Robbie Coltrane's (right) new film about the Pope prompts Paul Goodman to ask why the world likes to poke fun at the church.
"ROBBIE Coltrane is the Pope," shrills the poster, in a proclamation that, surely, can only be a nugget of implausible disinformation or the unleashing of a snap conclave result on the bemused faithful.
Mr Coltrane's eyes glance skywards; the jowl-heavy, puglike features — offset against the unspeckled whiteness of the papal cassock and soutane — seem to strain themselves to follow the gaze, sagging under the weight of so much unlikely piety. To his left, a little posse of drab clergy and baleful tnafiosi scowl and glower. One has seen as much, perhaps, as one would wish to. Yet there is something missing.
That something is the title. The film — which portrays the effect upon a corrupt Vatican of a country simpleton's election to Peter's chair — is called The Pope Must Die. In order to minimise offehce (evidently, the memory of the 1981 assassination attempt upon the present Pope still lingers), the posters slapped up in the
London underground omit it, lending them something of a baffling air.
Dario Fo's The Pope and The Witch, currently playing at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, is less tactful: in one scene, the anarchist playwright represents John Paul II handing out contraceptives on the streets of Rome.
Next month, the Italian clothes manufacturer Benetton launches a sales campaign in Britain with an advertisement that displays a priest and nun kissing.
A recent newspaper article critical of the Pope's views on abortion expressed itself by remarking that he "has only one claim to fellow feeling with women, apart from being called Karol, of course. And that's that he wears skirts, too. There it ends."
Or, rather, there it doesn't. Nuala Scarisbrick, Life's honorary organiser of administration, drafted a letter of protest from her home address, writing as an ordinary
citizen: it was published under Life's office address. She feels strongly that there is an antiChristian — and particularly anti-Catholic — bias in some sections of the media, and that much of the satirical punishment meted out to the church is highly offensive to ordinary believers.
"The beliefs of other religious groups are not ridiculed and belittled in the way that the beliefs of Catholics frequently are," she told me. "No nonJewish comedian makes insulting remarks about rabbis, and no-one mocks Islam; in the aftermath of The Satanic Verses controversy, they wouldn't dare. It is usually considered unacceptable to make derogatory references to groups on the basis of race, religion, or colour. Catholics appear to be the exception."
Her recommendation is unambiguous: "I don't think that we should be passive in the face of abuse, misrepresentation, and name-calling."
What is it about Catholicism
that seems to render it so easy a target? Is it the mystique of a religion that sometimes seems exotic and opaque to the practical English? Is it the iconoclastic delight of assailing an ancient — and, to the eyes of the satirist, an antique — institution? Is it the church's teaching on sexuality and (in particular) the emphatic nature of present papal pronouncements on contraception?
Perhaps the answer encompasses all of these, and yet cannot be confined by their sum; analysing laughter is a wearisome business. Dr Jim McDonnell, the secretary of the church's committee for communications, mulled thoughtfully over the puzzle when I put it to him.
"In many ways, satire is a back-handed compliment," he said. "One doesn't mock something one is indifferent to, especially if there is a degree of virulence in the mockery. It proves that the church remains part of our cultural fabric."
He pointed out that the virtues of the church, as well as its faults, are often exaggerated. One thinks of those supraperceptive priests of fiction, like Chesterton's Father Brown or Evelyn Waugh's Father Rothschild.
Both those writers, of course, were Catholic converts (although Waugh had not yet begun instruction when he wrote Vile Bodies). It is worth remembering that there has always been a rich vein of humour that has laughed at Catholicism from the inside: the savage burlesque of the medieval "feast of fools" — when, according the historian Barbara Tuchman, "every rite and article of the church was celebrated in mockery" would prove too strong for modern stomachs.
The routine of comedian Dilly
Keane — which features a song entitled "I Fancy the Pope" — is a good deal milder. She is at once outspokenly critical and fiercely defensive of the Catholic culture which nurtured her, believing that one laughs most readily at that one understands most. "I'm not so much satirising the church," she told me, "as displaying the foibles of human nature. l can make jokes about it because it's something I know."
One trembles on the verge of the great debate that sweeps through the pages of Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose — the debate on the appropriateness of laughter for Christians. "We must," says one of the characters, dropping into italics to emphasise the point, "make the truth laugh," and it would indeed be a sad world in which faith and humour were separated by a sea of prim-faced disapproval.
And as for the puerile, gross, and distasteful, Jim McDonnell has perhaps the best response. "These things always concentrate upon the clerics and religious," he said. "Do we do enough to portray the church as what it is — a community of believers?"