Send in the Clowns

Maintaining a sense of humor in light of the depraved and cruel actions of some prelates is a healthy and necessary response for Catholics.

Two recent events in the seemingly endless parade of the bizarre that this pontificate is producing hit this writer all at once. One was of worldwide importance and the other, purely local. The first was the revelation that Cardinal Fernandez had authored some excruciatingly theological hard-core porn and published it some years ago. The second was the surprise suppression of the Tridentine Mass at New Haven, Connecticut’s St. Stanislaus Church after 38 years—in accordance, of course, with the effluvia blowing from the Holy See in the wake of Traditionis Custodes. Strangely, the depravity of the one seemed perfectly matched with the soulless cruelty of the other.

Of course, with the constant barrage of this sort of drivel, it is easy to become despondent and/or bitter—to hate the moral and mental munchkins whence comes all this abuse. But that is a temptation straight from the devil himself, who wishes us to share in his hatred and despair. There are two sane and complementary responses to the problem.

The first is perhaps the most obvious—doubling down on prayer and the sacraments. The more our ecclesiastical masters break the furniture and abuse the faithful, the more should we pray for them and their victims—clerical and lay. Finding reverent Masses and Liturgies; frequenting the sacraments ever more; doubling down on our adoration, Rosaries, and veneration of the Sacred and Immaculate Hearts; finding ways to perform more often and better the Spiritual and Corporal Acts of Mercy—and remembering constantly those who have made themselves our foes in this strife—are all part of our essential arsenal. But there remains the second: maintaining a sense of humor.

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Sign up to get Crisis articles delivered to your inbox daily

Email subscribe inline (#4)

Now, in a lot of ways this is the harder. What could possibly be funny about the deluge of blasphemy and sacrilege with which we are confronted? Well, we must tear our eyes away from the crimes themselves and look at their perpetrators. 

A great help, really, is the old story of The Emperor’s New Clothes, as Msgr. Antall helpfully noted in these pages yesterday. After the child’s revelation that the Emperor had, in fact, no clothes, the crowd began to laugh and then to jeer. At first, the emperor tried to reassure himself that they were all fools. Finally, he could no longer; and grabbing a cloak from a courtier, he beat a hasty retreat. At last, accepting the fact that he had made himself look ridiculous, the sovereign ordered the tailors brought before him. Alas, they and all the gold and silver the emperor had paid them were safely over the border.

There is an important lesson here. The more rulers become self-seeking, the more they abuse their power, since power is placed by God among men to be wielded for the common good. Such rulers become oppressive and nasty, to be sure. But they also become ridiculous—as was seen with the Roundheads, Jacobins, Communists, Nazis, and many other such folk; their hapless subjects soon resisted in the only way most of them could—by ridiculing them and making them the butt of endless and very funny jokes. For though they might fear the regime under which they lived, such jokers could not respect it.

I am reminded of the story of a comic in Romania, Constantin Tănase, during World War II. A popular nightclub performer, he constantly mocked both the country’s effective ruler, Marshal Antonescu, and his German sponsors, when to do so meant risking one’s life. So great was his popularity, however, that the marshal’s thugs did not dare touch him. After 1945, when the Soviets had occupied the country, he transferred his aim to the Romanian Communist puppets installed by the occupier. 

One night, as he was performing his act, a secret policeman warned him in front of his entire audience that if he did not stop, he’d be eliminated. The comedian pointed at the policeman and ridiculed him, and the policeman left to the laughter of the crowd. The comedian continued as usual. Two weeks later, another secret policeman came in and shot him in mid joke during his performance. But as he lay on stage dying, the comedian looked his murderer in the eye, said, “So you’ve killed me. You’re still a bunch of idiots!” and died.

To hate those in power over us is to give them still more power—a power they do not deserve. Misusers of power of any sort, in any sphere of life, are inevitably, as men, very inferior individuals. They make up through the arbitrary exercise of their power for the many inadequacies of their own character of which, more or less unconsciously, they are on some level aware. This awareness itself leads to a deep-seated suspicion that despite every outward sign of respect they can compel from their subjects, they are still being laughed at. That suspicion, for many, is the closest to reality that they may ever come.

The best thing in such a situation is to ensure their suspicions come true. Behold their limitations, their paltry pretenses, and their weak approximations of leadership! See how wide the difference is between the greatness of the truly great leader, who places the good of those whom he heads above his own, and the paltriness of the munchkin in power, who seeks only his own gratification. The former deserves whatever respect and obedience they receive while alive and respect and homage after death. But the latter, albeit often clothed in the uniforms or robes of leadership, and raised to office with the proper forms and ritual, still manage to look ridiculous in comparison.

Today, the latter sort of “leadership” seems dominant wherever one chooses to look: not merely in the Church but in the vast majority of governments, in academia, in learned societies, in industry, and on and on. It is at once a symptom and a cause of where we are now. So, what must we do when the current president of an institution excoriates the founder or founders of that institution for racism, sexism, or whatever other shibboleth rises to his lips? We must laugh. 

We must laugh at his pretension, in pretending he has some right to stand in judgment over men who accomplished far more—indeed, are worth far more—than he could ever dream of doing or being. We must laugh at his vanity, that having attempted to destroy the reputation of his august predecessors—whose achievement is the only reason one pays any attention at all to this little pup—we shall remain spellbound and obedient due to his own personal excellence. We must save some laughter for ourselves, of course, for however long or short a time we were impressed by him.

So it goes with academia, and professors of history or literature who tell us that huge chunks of history or literature are worthless because they concern only the doings of dead white men—and others, who question the validity of either topic at all. There must be gales of laughter for military leaders who tell us that elite units like the SEALs must lower their physical standards to admit women in the name of “equality.” We really have to let loose with laughter for the purveyors of gender confusion.

All of which merriment having ensued, we may now turn our attention back to the Church. The publication of Fiducia Supplicans and its aftermath has unleashed a tidal wave of fast shuffling reminiscent of Mack Sennett’s Keystone Kops pouring in and out of their police clown car. The text itself warned that there would be no clarifications of what the text itself claimed was complete clarity. But in response to the worldwide negative responses on the part even of entire Episcopal Conferences—and the positive responses and practical applications by such as James Martin, another “clarifying” document ensued, which insisted that the first not only did not change anything but allowed only for 10- or 15-second gestures.  The publication of Fiducia Supplicans and its aftermath has unleashed a tidal wave of fast shuffling reminiscent of Mack Sennett’s Keystone Kops pouring in and out of their police clown car. Tweet This

Then Cardinal Roche, over at the DDW, complained that he had not been consulted. Then, just today, it was announced that St. Peter’s Basilica, although banning Tridentine Masses, private Masses, and the use of Latin, would be blessing gay couples. Isn’t it rich? Don’t we love farce?

Indeed, one fears that Cardinal Fernandez is losing his timing, this late in his career. But it really doesn’t matter, since despite it all, and despite his hard-core pornography, Tucho apparently retains the confidence of the ringmaster of the circus that the Holy See appears to have become. And why should he not?

In a sense, the New Haven charade is even funnier. There, not only St. Stanislaus’ pastor, Polish native Fr. Sebastian Kos, but his “co-pastors” of Bl. Michael McGivney Parish (an ingathering of eight dying inner-city churches, including the one where the founder of the Knights of Columbus is enshrined) apparently requested Archbishop Blair of Hartford to terminate the Mass. Of course, one cannot help but suppose, in the light of various American bishops closing their Tridentine Masses down at the order of the nuncio, that this apparent request upward might be a fig leaf. Either way, it is very amusing, given that it happens in the very locale where a holy priest who said only the Tridentine Mass worked to deeply empower the laity. Such a triumph of utter clericalism in such an area is about as ironically amusing as it gets.

The laughs keep coming and get ever shriller. Now, there is a downside. One sometimes sees comedians wanting to be taken seriously as dramatic actors. They then act against type, often getting themselves lead roles in romantic dramas or thrillers. But very few have the capability of carrying it off, and so, very often, their new series or their dramatic film bombs in the ratings or at the box office. It is a question of horses for courses. 

Often this inability to make such a transition is very painful for the performer. But it is a choice each has made and must live with. So it is with our clerical comedians. Having built up such a huge body of slapstick work in the past few years, they wish also to be obeyed and respected as serious spiritual leaders, as virtual voices of God. Alas, as Jerry Lewis could not break out of comic roles, neither can they.

Indeed, it is healthier for us that we honor their choices and laugh at them at every opportunity, although we should pray for them as hard as we laugh. For unlike the comedians, these men really were meant to be our spiritual fathers, however much they have wasted themselves on becoming ridiculous. Still, when I look at Tucho’s odd-looking visage and think “Send in the Clowns,” I immediately realize there’s no point in bothering. They’re already here.


  • Charles Coulombe

    Charles A. Coulombe is a contributing editor at Crisis and the magazine’s European correspondent. He previously served as a columnist for the Catholic Herald of London and a film critic for the National Catholic Register. A celebrated historian, his books include Puritan’s Empire and Star-Spangled Crown. He resides in Vienna, Austria and Los Angeles, California.

tagged as: Church

Join the Conversation

in our Telegram Chat

Or find us on

Editor's picks

Item added to cart.
0 items - $0.00

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Signup to receive new Crisis articles daily

Email subscribe stack
Share to...