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VATICAN LETTER Nov-17-2006 (770 words) Backgrounder. With photo. xxxi

Poking fun at the pope: Satire sparks debate over limits of humor

By John Thavis
Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Italians have a long history of satirizing the papacy, but recent gibes at Pope Benedict XVI and his personal secretary have ignited a national debate over the limits of humor.

A running sketch on a popular Italian TV show portrays the white-haired pope as a capricious egotist who complains about always having to wear white and giggles as he types out excommunication edicts.

A radio comedian has the pope shooting pigeons above St. Peter's Square -- because they "bother people who have to work" -- and tossing burning candies down at children.

Meanwhile, another radio show impersonator has found a comic target in the papal secretary, Msgr. Georg Ganswein, who comes off as a vain lightweight -- he dreams of being a circus acrobat, but worries that it might mess up his hair.

In mid-November, the Catholic newspaper Avvenire decided it had seen and heard enough. It said the parodies of the pontiff and his secretary were vulgar and grotesque and in some ways represented a cheap shot at the church.

Citing a sketch that showed Pope Benedict preparing to deliver an Angelus talk, Avvenire editorialist Umberto Folena said the pope "appears as a hysterical man flanked by two cardinal-altar boys, worried about having enough good lines to deliver, out of control, his fingers swollen with big rings."

"What does this have to do with the real pope? Nothing. If satire magnifies a defect in order to ridicule it, this operation has failed," he said.

In his TV impersonation, Maurizio Crozza's pope speaks in a thick German accent and worries about being overshadowed by his predecessor, Pope John Paul II.

At one point, exasperated by the comparisons, he asks his aides, "Did John Paul II know how to do this?" and proceeds to tap dance across the floor and juggle three oranges.

In another show he launches a dove as a sign of peace. When it falls with a thud on the ground, he shrugs and remarks, "It must have had bird flu."

The radio spoof on Msgr. Ganswein plays on his popularity in the Italian media and his reputation as the most sportive and handsome member of the pope's household.

In the Italian comedian Fiorello's version, Msgr. Ganswein plays at curling in St. Peter's Basilica and talks about opening a restaurant inside the Vatican -- the "Last Supper," where you order one fish and it serves 20 people.

The real Msgr. Ganswein told an Italian reporter he'd never heard the radio show or seen the TV spoof of the pope, but thought such transmissions were offensive. Satire is legitimate but should respect the people involved, he said.

"These things have no intellectual level and offend men of the church. They're unacceptable, and I really hope they end immediately," Msgr. Ganswein said.

The papal secretary's comments led some Italians to accuse the church of being oversensitive.

"One of the characteristics of satire is that it doesn't make the victim laugh," said Fausto Colombo, who teaches media theory at the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart in Milan.

The limits of satire are fixed by the law, he said, not by the fact that it may offend some people. And in any case, poking fun at the pope or a papal secretary is not the same as ridiculing Jesus Christ, he added.

But German Cardinal Walter Kasper was more critical. He said this type of satire aims at attacking and damaging the image of the pope and encourages the creation of "a society of ridicule."

Several commentators said the gags aimed at the pope and the Catholic Church indicated a double standard, at a time when people are being asked to show greater sensitivity toward Islamic feelings and beliefs.

The freedom of satire should be in every direction, said an editorial in the Rome newspaper La Repubblica.

The newspaper Corriere della Sera concurred: "Between an Islamic religion that doesn't even tolerate a cartoon and a Catholic religion forced to feed the tired fantasies of humor, there must be a middle way."

Satire has been employed against the church throughout Italian history. The best remembered is Giuseppe Gioacchino Belli, a 19th-century Roman poet, who once described the pope as "wined and dined and mellow" in his Rome fortress, ready to bestow blessings or cannonballs on the populace.

Belli was a master of popular expression, and today's Italian comics are not considered at his level. Several critics, in fact, suggested that the greatest sin of the modern papal satirists is that they're not all that funny.


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