Taking a Lesson From 'South Park'?

In a recent episode of the animated hit “South Park,” the steady stream of abuse scandals currently rocking the Catholic church became a recurring punchline. When asked a question that elicits an obvious yes, notoriously insensitive protag Eric Cartman trots out the “Is the Pope Catholic?” chestnut…with a topical twist:

“Is that something I’d want to do? Is the Pope Catholic…and making the world safe for pedophiles?”


It’s a joke intended to throw the viewer off-balance, in part because, ironically, the heart of its humor lies in its seriousness. Typically “Is the Pope Catholic?” is a joke that rebounds on the questioner – “thanks for asking such an obvious question, Captain Obvious, of the S.S. Readily Apparent!” “South Park,” whose humor is as ruthlessly acerbic as it is juvenile, double-barbs that quip: of course the Pope is Catholic, says the joke. And of course he helps pedophiles, “South Park” adds. If you’re Catholic, your response is probably a strangled groan-laugh coupled with a heavy sigh.

“South Park” deals in such sharp irreverence as a matter of course – in 2002, during the height of the revelations of abuse, creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone crafted an episode (“Red Hot Catholic Love” – there’s an uncontroversial title!) dealing more specifically with abuse crises. Fr. Maxi, a Catholic priest who is a regular in the “South Park” cast of characters, is organizing a youth retreat. The parents of South Park are hesitant and suspicious of Fr. Maxi’s intentions, perhaps without cause, as all of the consistently foul-mouthed main characters describe Fr. Maxi as “nice,” “cool” and “compassionate,” when pressed by a counselor.

Maxi quickly becomes the hero of this episode as he corrals a committee of priests to end sexual abuse – only to be met with forceful opposition from church hierarchs, who cite the mysterious “Holy Document of Vatican Law.” The show then parades an assortment of inventive, outlandish elements: a Queen Spider who controls the revision of Vatican law; a group of bizarre aliens known as the Gelgamek Catholics (the unspoken joke is that to defend child abusers, you’d surely have to be from another planet); an alienated, now-atheistic community, who, in the absence of a cultural mythology, have latched on to a new fad that involves….well, to put it delicately, reversing  the digestive process. (Thus, as the characters pass pompous, self-important and derisive comments about religious faith, the “South Park” writers ingeniously have them literally “spewing crap out of their mouths.” No fans of Dawkins or Hitchens, these writers!)

All of these nonsensical – and occasionally disgusting – details are positioned to contrast with the purity and simplicity of Fr. Maxi’s faith and his unwavering belief in the goodness of Catholicism. As blogger Brandon notes on his philosophy/theology blog Siris:

     Fr. Maxi's approach to the subject is clearly on the liberal side (one notices this from the moment he suggests marriage for priests as a partial solution); but it's noteworthy that it is a genuinely Catholic approach. What makes Fr. Maxi the hero of this episode is that he truly believes that the Catholic Church is there to bring the light of God, that he truly believes that Catholic thought is relevant to everyone, and that he acts out of a genuine compassion and desire for the right. One of his admirable qualities throughout the episode is that he lets no web-spinning get in the way of recognizing the importance of people. This episode took a lot of criticism for portraying Catholic priests as alcoholic child molesters, but it's actually a story of a virtuous Catholic priest fighting ecclesiastical corruption for the good of the Church. …The portrayal of Fr. Maxi isn't the portrayal of a saint -- Fr. Maxi may share with St. Peter Damian a refusal to stand for corruption in the Church, but he's no Peter Damian; nonetheless, it is the portrayal of a hero, and a genuinely Catholic hero at that. Catholics could do worse than take Fr. Maxi's protest as a motto: ‘We're here to bring the light of God, not harm the innocent!’

It’s a message we, and our church leaders, should heed. Because when a show that never met a scatological punchline it didn’t love starts occupying the moral high ground, we might need to worry.

Regina Nigro


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David Patrick
8 years 8 months ago
What purpose other than posing the kind of provocative question a person with a PHD on chewing gum does, does the above piece actually serve?
The only thing I'm worried about as I eat my toast and drink my cup of tea this evening is that people actually watch "South Park". Having said that, Americans actually seem to think that "30 Rock" is a funny show when in fact it's just the full flowering of what Seinfeld always threatened to become but never quite could pull it off, thankfully, a show about nothing.
Moral high ground!   Would you give me a break?  LOL
Regina Nigro
8 years 8 months ago
Not everyone appreciates pop culture. But no one can deny the potency of its effect - I love Levinas and Kierkegaard but try quoting some of their works to make a point and you'd be met, mostly, with blank stares. However, almost everyone everywhere is at least passingly familiar with Lady Gaga or Avatar or 30 Rock or, yes, South Park. If dialogue is the goal, why *shouldn't* we talk about television shows or movies that everyone has seen to facilitate a better understanding? Jesus used parables precisely because he cared about mutual understanding and about meaningful teaching. We draw meaning from our culture, all aspects of it, so why turn up our nose at a lesson offered just because it's a television series or because it's animated or because it's aggressively raw? What does any of that have to do with truth?
And forget about PhDs in chewing gum; one could rail against the meaningless of almost *any* humanities-based academic pursuit. What's the 'point' of devoting a significant portion of one's life to obtaining an advanced degree in 12th-century French literature? Why is that more worthy than studying pop culture phenomena, which, unlike many highbrow academic disciplines, are accessible to everyone? I don't see how an argument against the use of cultural touchstones - like sitcoms or movies or music - to make a broader point is anything other than an argument in favor of elitism. 
It's a provocative question, sure, but it's not empty provocation. I don't operate with any false binaries so it doesn't surprise me that a show as unrelentingly lowbrow as South Park can espouse a belief system that is actually deeply ethical and moral. It offends your sensibilities with scatological humor but also raises a more valuable question about what is *truly* offensive (it also manages to come down on a side that is surprisingly pro-religious- belief, which runs counter to a lot of secular comedy).
Jeff Bagnell
8 years 8 months ago
I'm amazed that South Park could possibly generate an article like this.  Do we remember the episode where Trey and Parker desecrated the Virgin Mary and the pope at the same time in a way that can only be described as gut wrenching.  Do I need to provide the details?  There is nothing positive about that program.  
Brendan McGrath
8 years 8 months ago
Regina, I found your post very interesting, though sad, too, of course.
About South Park in general - often, if one laments the anti-Catholicism in a show like South Park, one hears the objection, "Oh, but they make fun of EVERYONE - Christians, Jews, atheists, etc."  But that's a specious argument - there's making fun, and then there's making fun.  As a hypothetical example, it's one thing to make jokes about Jewish people and bagels, or yiddishisms, etc.; it's another thing to attack or joke about a religion or a religious institution/community as being corrupt, evil, ridiculous, etc.  You wouldn't see South Park portraying a courageous rabbi going up against an establishment of rabbis or something, with the establishment rabbis resisting reform by citing "the Holy Document of Talmudic Law" or whatever.  You would never see devout Jewish people criticized for "blind faith" or "following whatever their rabbis say without question," etc.  On a related note, it's funny, when people criticize "religion" or say they wish "religion" would disappear, it's interesting that that's never analyzed further: if you say "I hate religion," then it would follow to that you hate Judaism, Hinduism, etc. 
Brendan McGrath
8 years 8 months ago
Sorry, in the last line of my previous post, "to" should read "too."
Stanley Kopacz
8 years 8 months ago
Thanks, Regina, for tracking South Park for me. I hate the show. It's almost as nauseating as watching Fox News or any network news, for that matter. But I'm glad someone is doing the necessary work of following what is going on in the popular media re religion. Glad it's not my job.

Interesting that you detect SOME sort of positive message there. Otherwise, it's consistently brutal.


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