Humor and the Catholic Church

(This is Neil) The Catholic blogosphere can be a rough place. (I doubt that it is rougher than the political blogosphere; I am not sure if it is rougher than, say, the Anglican blogosphere.)

Why should this be the case? There doesn’t have to be a single, sufficient reason. Perhaps it has to do with the impersonality of the internet, where a blogger is likely to confront nothing more than a mere name (or pseudonym) on the screen that seems to represent an ideology rather than the irreducible mystery of another person. Perhaps it has to do with the sort of person that becomes a blogger in the first place – someone who feels the pain of past or continuing marginalization, and, in response, overarticulates his or her position and desperately wants to be heard. This tends to be self-defeating, since the desired recognition needs to come from those who have already marginalized the blogger, and the bitter sense of powerlessness is intensified.

Perhaps it has to do with the very process of successful blogging, which, as Haden Doerge suggests, seems to compel a sort of self-branding. A blogger who wants to become prominent in a community, or sell books and other products, needs to construct a fascinating – if inevitably synthetic – persona. In the Catholic blogosphere, this persona must bear some relation to “orthodoxy”: doctrinal orthodoxy, the approved language of pre-existing “conservative” or “progressive” groups, a required nearness and distance from Catholic and secular culture. This persona can be constructed in part, as Halden says, by defining and asserting oneself “over against others,” even in “the shaming of others if necessary.”

My brief analysis could be misguided. It certainly is speculative. But I would like to focus on another reason. Perhaps we do not appreciate the importance of a sense of humor.

In the current issue of New Blackfriars, the Dominican theologian Fergus Ker tells us that one needs a sense of humor to be Catholic. He draws, somewhat unexpectedly, on Hans Urs von Balthasar’s book, Der antirömische Affekt. Balthasar’s book suggests that the Catholic Church is “a tension of forces” so that “contest within the Church herself” is “ineluctable.” Kerr, who has written about Newman’s Preface to the Third Edition of Lectures on the Prophetical Office of the Church elsewhere, claims that Balthasar’s presentation is actually close to Newman’s Preface. There, Newman wrote that liturgical worship, theological reflection, and institutional governance corrected each another, preventing the Church from descending into “superstition and enthusiasm,” “rationalism,” or “ambition, craft, and cruelty,” respectively. As this sometimes unsettling process occurs, the Catholic needs to keep a sense of humor. Humor is actually a charism.

But humor, Balthasar said, was lacking in the factions of the contemporary Catholic Church.

Kerr explains (I’ve placed the key paragraph in bold):

Neither the “progressives” nor the “integralists” seem to possess much sense of humor —’the latter even less than the former’, [Balthasar] says. “Both of these tend to be faultfinders, malicious satirists, grumblers, carping critics, full of bitter scorn, know-it-alls who think they have the monopoly of infallible judgment; they are self-legitimizing prophets – in short, fanatics.”

The word “fanatic,” Balthasar explains in parenthesis, derives from the Latin fanum, ‘holy place,” so that fanatics may be described as “guardians of the temple threshold, transported into frenzy by the Divinity.”

“They are ill-humored, as was Jansenism in toto, which spread like a blight, for centuries, over the spiritual life of France.” Indeed, Balthasar suggests, perhaps Georges Bernanos (1888–1948, author of Journal d’un curé de campagne, 1936) and Paul Claudel (1868–1955, Le Soulier de Satin, 1931) were the first Catholics in France to be “completely free” of Jansenist gloom. If not just a tease, that is a suggestion that would require some unpacking.

Balthasar’s dislike of these “humorless hard-liners” becomes yet more eloquent: “They are rigid, while the Catholic is pliable, flexible, yielding”— why?—”because the latter’s firmness is not based on himself and his own opinion but on God, who is ‘ever-greater’—semper major,”— the Jesuit motto which remained deep in Balthasar’s soul.

The “progressives” (of the 1960s and ’70s) were “fanatically ‘come of age,'” Balthasar says sardonically, while the intégristes (by which he means Catholics in communion with Rome, not followers of Archbishop Lefebvre and such) are “fanatically immature”— a rather odd put-down, explained (however) by the way they “clamor for the tangible exercise of papal authority and elevate to the status of dogma things that are not, such as communion on the tongue and all kinds of apparitions of the Mother of God, etc.”

“Not all [in the Catholic Church] possess the balance that we have indicated by the reference to humor” (page 304). One example of humorous Catholic response to the Reformation would be the putti in Baroque sanctuaries in Bavaria. More persuasively perhaps, Balthasar invokes Chesterton’s Orthodoxy, concluding that GKC’s work shows that “only the Catholic form guarantees the miraculous quality of being, the freedom, the sense of being a child, of adventure, the resilient, energizing paradox of existence”.

We should need, of course, to distinguish humor from frivolity, scorn and cynicism — much more common antidotes to tensions in the Catholic Church.

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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3 Responses to Humor and the Catholic Church

  1. Great and important post, although I don’t know that I agree with your assessment about the “impersonality” of the Internet. I think the new media has evolved enough that users know how to reveal distinct personalities.

    While you’re right that “branding” goes on, I’m not sure that the vast majority of bloggers are sophisticated enough, relative to marketing communications, to consciously brand themselves.

    As for your major point re: humor, applause. Up with Down!

    For laughs in the Catholic blogosphere I rely on: Alive and Young, Ask Sister Mary Martha, Dirty Catholic, and Ironic Catholic. I also reread my own posts.

  2. I have actually written posts with “Not for the Humor Impaired” in the title because of this very problem.

  3. Neil says:

    Dear Meredith and Michael,

    Thanks for writing.

    Regarding Meredith’s interesting points about the impersonality of the internet and self-branding:

    It is reasonable to believe that users “know how to reveal distinct personalities,” especially over time. But I wonder if this doesn’t at times contribute to more online impersonality, because we are aware that these “personalities” have been carefully (and perhaps predictably) constructed and then selectively revealed. There isn’t real intimacy where there is always the possibility of deception or self-deception.

    I don’t think that branding requires a great deal of sophistication – one might even say that it comes naturally in today’s consumer culture.

    Thanks again.


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