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James Martin, S.J.October 14, 2009

The controversial comedian Sarah Silverman is known for her special brand of what might be called meta-comedy.   Her funniest bits mock mocking, and offer up broad stereotypes to reveal the shallowness of, well, broad stereotypes.  “I don’t care if you think I’m racist,” she said in her (again, controversial but often very funny) film “Jesus is Magic,” “I just want you to think I’m thin.”  She’s also something of an equal opportunity offender (or defender, depending on if you see her humor as meta or just base) poking fun at stereotypes about Jews, blacks, gays and pretty much everyone.   Last fall her earnest (or was it?) plea for (fellow) Jewish young adults to travel to Florida to convince their grandparents to vote for Obama was a YouTube hit entitled “The Great Schlep.”  Several political observers opined that she may have actually made a difference in the race.  “Sarah Silverman won Florida,” wrote Frank Rich, after Obama carried the state's Jewish voters.  

But Ms. Silverman’s popular riffs are laced with liberal helpings of profanity; she is inordinately racy, spectacularly foul-mouthed and yes obscene, and is probably not your grandmother’s favorite comedian.  In other words, it's probably a good thing that she wasn't the one asking your bubbie to vote for Barack.

As for me, I’m never sure if we’re laughing at her jokes because they poke fun at hoary stereotypes, or whether her jokes allow us to laugh at minority groups under the cover of pomo meta-humor.  Laughing at over-the-top stereotypes is a good way to point out their absurdity, but then why am I always a little uncomfortable afterwards?  Perhaps it's healthier when someone in that particular minority group pokes fun at their ethnic and religious community, as when Ms. Silverman does about women and Jews (and Jewish women) or Margaret Cho does about Koreans and gays (and gay Koreans).

So what are we to make of Ms. Silverman's latest viral video, in which she puckishly “solves” the problem of world hunger?  “Sell the Vatican,” she pleads to Pope Benedict XVI.  “You preach to live humbly, and I totally agree," Silverman says in her Youtube spot, which has already garnered 500,000 hits.  “So now maybe it's time for you to move out of your house that is a city," she says. "You'll be the biggest hero in the history of ever."  (Oh and I’m not going to link to it since it’s so racy.  Feel free to look it up yourself at your own peril: just don’t blame me when you get to the “naughty bits,” as they used to say in Monty Python.)  

Another example of anti-Catholicism?   My friend Bill Donohue thinks so.  “Silverman's assault on Catholicism is just another example of HBO's corporate irresponsibility [the bit ran on HBO].  Time and again, if it's not Bill Maher thrashing the Catholic Church, it's one of his guests. There is obviously something pathological going on there: Silverman's filthy diatribe would never be allowed if the chosen target were the Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem and the state of Israel.  Here's a reality check for Silverman: the Catholic Church operates more hospitals and feeds more of the poor than any private institution in the world.”

I like Donohue’s last point especially.  The notion of the church as unconcerned with the poor always needs to be rebutted.  In fact, it's ridiculous and has been for 2,000 years.  In the United States, for example, Catholic hospitals care for fully one-sixth of patients.  Jesus is magic for a lot of down-on-their luck sick people.  And poor people, too.  How many "houses of hospitality" for the homeless has Ms. Silverman opened?  Her Wikipedia entry doesn't say.  Dorothy Day, who was a single gal like Sarah, and who founded the Catholic Worker Movement, opened lots!  That's her right there. 

But is it anti-Catholic to call on Catholics, and perhaps even the Vatican, to sell what it owns?

Not so fast.  After all, Jesus started the trend by telling his followers, “If anyone wishes to be perfect, sell what you have, and give it to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.”  That’s from the Gospel of Mark.  It’s Jesus’s advice to the famous “rich young man.”  Only after he does those things will he be able to follow Jesus as a disciple.  Centuries later, perhaps the most famous disciple of the poor, St. Francis of Assisi, wrote in his Rule regarding potential candidates, “If he be willing and able, with safety of conscience and without impediment, let him sell all his goods and endeavor to distribute them to the poor.”  Francis himself, after his conversion, made a public gesture of the renunciation of all his goods in the square of Assisi, by stripping naked in the town square.  (It's probably a good thing Silverman wasn't around to see that.)  And a little closer to home, St. Ignatius Loyola (who also divested himself of all his goods after his conversion) reminded the members of his Jesuit order that poverty is supposed to be the “strong wall” of religious life; indeed, Jesuits make, like members of all religious orders, a vow of poverty.

Of course Pope Benedict XVI could not “sell” any of the treasures of the Vatican, the same way that your local archbishop couldn’t sell off the cathedral at a whim; they are not his, they are the church’s.  And the church is not simply the hierarchy but the entire people of God.  Much in the same way the recent Ken Burns PBS series "National Parks" hammered home the oft-forgotten idea that the national parks are everyone's property, the treasures of the church are the property of all Catholics.

Still, perhaps Ms. Silverman, in her post-modern, potty-mouthed way is on to something.  Like Jesus was.  Sell the Vatican?  Well, maybe not everything..but perhaps a statue or two?

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14 years 6 months ago
The Church disposing of its wealth...It's happened in fiction if not in fact. In Morris West's "The Shoes of the Fisherman," a 1960's book (and film of the same name) set in the 1980's, a Ukrainian cardinal who had survived the Soviet Gulag becomes Pope Kiril I. The Cold War is in full swing, and there is friction between the Soviet Union and China, in large part the result of a widespread famine in China, that puts the two countries on the brink of war. Pope Kiril seeks to act as an intermediary for the two sides, and, to show the Chinese Communist leader that the Catholic Church practices what it preaches, the pope agrees to sell off the wealth of the Church for food that will feed the Chinese people. This act of charity, which is met with approval by the Church's faithful, defuses the situation.
The film is worth watching. It's not a great film (it can drag at times), but IMO it's a very good film. I think Anthony Quinn gives his best acting performance in the role of the humble, religious, conflicted Kiril I, who is told at one point after assuming the papacy that he has begun his personal "slow ascent to Calvary." There are also excellent perfomances by Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud, Leo McKern, and, especially, Oskar Werner as a Jesuit priest/philosopher/archeologist, thinly-disguised as Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, who is both criticized internally for his theological views and who, in one of the several subplots, expands Pope Kiril's imagination about what it means to be a Christian. If nothing else, there's a lot of Catholic lore in the book and in the film, and it's eerie reading the book or watching the film now with the hindsight that a Slavic pope with Cold War experience became pope in 1978.      
14 years 6 months ago
Like Fr Martin I could not help myself laughing at elements in this video,but then I felt myself before her humanity and no amount of humor can cover the fact that this is a person not at ease with themselves,well practised in the art of feigning indifference or insouciance as the English were trained to do.Not to get heavy as this was a comedian making a joke ,but it is always interesting to see how Jews relate to the Holy Father or any element of the Catholic Faith.It usually reveals a certain resentment and sense of victimhood in very subtle shades.The same day it was announced that the Holy Father would go to the Synagogue next year and continue the dialogue.We must love the Jews and we are better in every way for doing it.It maytake fifty years of lovin but ,one day the love will be reciprocated!Pope John Paul led the way and we would do well to follow his path 
14 years 6 months ago
Bill's comment on The Shoes of the Fisherman is spot-on.  The same film came to my mind while reading the Fr. Martin's post.
I doubt Sarah Silverman has ever seen the film, or the great story of the Church that is depicted therein.  She probably believes she has better thngs to do, like something involving Matt Damon.
14 years 6 months ago
As someone with their own irreverent sense of humor, I have indeed laughed at Sarah... but not always and not at this.
Being part of what is often called the "liberal leftist blogosphere" this had been thust into my consciousness numerous times this past week or so, sometimes kindly, sometimes with humor and often with downright malice.
This video and related thoughts are truly simplistic. I would have to say that I do not often find myself fully overtly agreeing with Donohue, but this time I absolutely do.
It is so painfully easy to mock the Catholic church in ways that would not be done for other denominations or faiths. Yet - as Donohue and you have said, what for hospitals? Schools? Soup kitchens and food pantries? And so much more?
I work in a parish office where many come for help and I can tell you with authority, my first (or second or fifth) question is never to ask if they are Catholic, but really to simply ask what they need.
Yet people will read your words, my comment, other comments and accuse us of whining. It makes me very unhappy.
Sarah Silverman needs to take a rest. I think even her bubbie might agree with that, she has caused enough tsouris with this mishegos and madness to last a lifetime.
14 years 6 months ago
Ms. Silverman is not even funny however there is also nothing funny about the legal claims for billions in damages against the Holy See including money laundering of concentration camp gold (Alperin v Vatican Bank), money laundering and raceteeering (Dale v Holy See), and sexual abuse.  While Silverman may be offensive, there is also something morally wrong with the Vatican hiding behind legal defenses of sovereign immunity. 
14 years 6 months ago
Whenever anyone insists that the Church is "soooo wealthy" and should sell off her wealth to feed the poor, I think of John 12, when Mary annoints Jesus' feet with costly ointment. Judas says they should have sold it and given the money to the poor, but Jesus tells him that we will always have the poor with us. The money to be made by selling any of the Church's property will be easily and quickly spent, but will not solve the problem of poverty.
Many interpret Judas' "concern" with the poor as an excuse to mask his own sin of stealing from the common purse-acusing others of waste or extravagance often serve to turn our attention from something else.
We honor God with the best we have-art, architecture, music, etc-and there is nothing in any way "wrong" with doing so, provided we do so from a spirit of generous thankfulness for the good things and beauty He has given us (and not from some selfish desire to outdo someone else, or to show off, or some such motive).
The Church, of course, considers her art and buildings to be a universal patrimony, not even to be used to secure loans. This beautiful art belongs to all of us-if the Church sold it to private collectors (or even to museums), the public would lose access to it. Not to mention that all this "wealth" actually costs the Church money (in upkeep, restoration, etc) to maintain.
14 years 6 months ago
A few months ago there was a petition on Facebook (40,000+) of people who wanted the Vatican to sell its art treasures to feed the hungry. The Vatican responded that this couldn't be done (http://www.zenit.org/article-25379?l=english). 
There are a lot of people who don't understand why the Church  needs so much wealth to do its job (I'm one of them).  It may not be a good idea to liquidate art treasures, but every time I read about the millions spent on new church buildings, or for that matter on defense fees for clergy abuse, I cringe and wonder how many starving people that could feed.
14 years 6 months ago
Sorry - I forgot to add this from a past article at Chritianity Today titled "We are not commanded to be a docent in the art museum.  We are commanded to love the poor." (http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2009/juneweb-only/123.53.0.html) ....
"About 26,000 children under the age of 5 die every day of causes related to their poverty."
About the Church keeping art treasure for the benefit of all mankind, I doubt someone watching their children starve would be consoled to know that the Vatican has some of the nicest sculpture ever "liberated" from the Atehns acropolis (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/7717269.stm).
14 years 6 months ago
I suppose you should consider yourself lucky that Ms Silverman didn't suggest that all of you Jesuits at America Magazine who have taken a vow of poverty ought to sell your outsized Midtown Manhattan ''house'' and move your operations to more modest quarters in a suburban New Jersey office park. 
14 years 6 months ago
The people who propose selling off Vatican art treasures to ''feed the poor'' seem to assume that the Church's only legitimate function is as a charitable institution and that art is only wealth that can be turned into cold hard cash.  Sacred art in particular was created for the glory of God; it has / had a function.  The great cathedrals were constructed to create a sacred space for the worship of God, to help the faithful turn their minds and hearts to God.  Sacred art was meant to help teach Christians their faith, to inspire them, to remind them of the beauty of God, to support them in their prayer and meditation.  Think of Henri Neuwen's book-long meditation on Rembrandt's painting of the Prodigal Son.  Our culture used to think that using one's artistic talents for God's glory was its highest use and as a result our Faith has inspired some of the greatest works of art mankind has ever produced.  The Vatican art treasures are a witness to this fact.  The Church's preservation of this art is a reminder of what art can be and what it can be used for.  We tend to forget this in our day when a very debased view of art is ascendant.  I think it would be a betrayal to sell off sacred art.  I am often sad to go into museums and see displayed icons and paintings of saints sitting there like dead objects viewed by indifferent passersby when they used to be objects of reverence.  How about jeweled ciboriums which used to hold the Holy Eucharist sitting in a glass display case.  Pretty pathetic. 
14 years 6 months ago
Much of the Vatican collection is very ethnocentric - and incorrect in most of its portrayals of the Holy Family as light skinned northern Italians.  I'm not sure of its cultural worth.  Also, much of it is in private areas and its sale should be considered.  If the papal crown can be given the the Bascillica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception with a donation box underneath to raise funds for the poor, surely some of the tableau art can be sold.  (BTW, what's with the clunky name - how about simply the National Bascilica of the Imaculate Conception - which of course has its own culturally skewed art - including the angry and very buff triumphalist Jesus).
14 years 6 months ago
Random thoughts generated by the story and comments...
Boy I wish I could go on national television and slam the Jews or the State of Israel or blacks or hispanics or women, but I'm a white male Christian, so that would be bigoted or racist or naive or insensitive or conceited or...
Why the ranting of a foul-mouthed, and I mean foul-mouthed, entertainer(?) is considered legit social commentary is beyond me. Any credentials here? 
The Gospel recommendation to 'sell all and give to the poor' is mistakenly perceived by many to be about the poor or to be presenting a possible means of ebbing or eradicating poverty. It is not about the poor or poverty. The recommendation is directed at the objective spiritual growth in virtue of the seller/giver, a growth that risks being suffocated by clinging to material possessions. The Jesuit vow to poverty is not about alleviating poverty. Christ never proposes a welfare program. ''The poor will always be with you.'' The poor will be rich in the next life - check out the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. We embrace the poor because we seek the hidden face of Jesus in the poor. It's about seeking and following Christ - always. 
Silverman and company display their shallow grasp of reality when they believe the answer to any given problem, in this case world hunger, is to just throw enough money at it. Does she honestly believe what is issuing from her own mouth? That there is a price tag to ending global hunger and all we have to do is come up with the cash? That's it? Can we divert NASA funds as well? How big does the Smithsonian need to be? If they sold just half of their holdings no one would notice. Can we stop funding the arts and inject that money into the poverty? How come these ideas don't resonate?
Regarding the plight of the poor in general, the Vatican is a target for criticism because it is the lone voice speaking on behalf of the voiceless, a voice and message that evidently gets under the skin of some. I wonder why? What Silverman and co. are really saying is 'It's your problem! You deal with it! Here's how! Now leave us upwardly mobile aspiring rich alone!' If only Silverman was voiceless.
Lewis Tabor
6 years 11 months ago

It's a bogus argument. If the Catholic Church and all of her followers sold everything they owned and quit their jobs to go out and help the poor then very shortly we would all be poor, hungry and begging Sarah Silverman to feed us. Jesus gave that instruction to one rich young man (not all of his followers) because he knew that the young man valued his riches more than anything else. My standard answer to anyone who complains about the riches of the Catholic Church, especially if they are Catholic, is you go first and lead by example.

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