Have you heard the one about the German pope? If so, you may have me to thank. After Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was elected to the papacy Tuesday, a friend e-mailed me: "A German pope? Yikes!" To which I replied: "Vee haf vays of making you pray!" Little did I know that this frail jest, which would soon make its way back to my inbox from other correspondents, would be among the better jokes about the changing of the guard at the Vatican.
The Internet, which spontaneously generates gags about everything from the Michael Jackson trial to the tsunami, has produced its share of Pope Benedict jokes, but only in a dictatorship of comic relativism could they be called knee-slappers.
Take this Internet pope joke, please!
"Pope Benedict XVI hinted again today that he expects to have a short reign at the Vatican. Not because he expects to die soon, but because he wants to hurry up and move to America before Social Security runs out of money."
That comes from "Jake's Comedy Corner," the blog of Jake Novak, "a prolific comedy writer specializing in monologue 'news jokes' and longer-form satirical pieces." The best Ratzinger joke I've come across predates his promotion to pope, and can be found (like the Gospel) in different versions. The variation I like features two Teutonic theologians of a liberal bent who are household names if your household is a seminary:
Karl Rahner, Hans Kung and Ratzinger all die on the same day, and go to meet St. Peter to find out their fates. St. Peter points at Rahner and says "Karl! In my office." After four hours, the door opens, and Rahner comes out. He is distraught, mumbling, "Oh God, that was the hardest thing I've ever done! How could I have been so wrong! So sorry." He stumbles off into heaven, a testament to the mercy of God.
Kung goes in next. After eight hours, the door opens, Kung is near collapse. He too is mumbling, "How could I have been so wrong!" as he lurches into heaven, another testament to God's mercy.
Lastly, St. Peter calls Ratzinger. Twelve hours later, the door opens and St. Peter stumbles out. "Oh, God," he says, "How could I have been so wrong?"
Television jokes about the new pope generally have been lame, like this one from Jay Leno: "We have a new pope! Cardinal Ratzinger of Germany is now the most powerful Catholic in the world. Well, second most powerful, if you count Mel Gibson." Much funnier was this crack attributed to Dennis Miller: "Whenever I see a German on a balcony with an adoring throng, I get nervous."
But seriously, folks, the dearth of really witty Ratzinger/Benedict jokes ought to be a disappointment for Catholics who agree with G.K. Chesterton, that great convert to Rome, that "it is the test of a good religion whether you can joke about it."
I have been listening to -- and making -- Catholic jokes since my days at Sacred Heart Grammar School in Pittsburgh, where a beloved young priest broke us up by referring to a visiting friar as a "Capuchin monk-ey." At my high school, a Christian Brother (one of the most devout Catholics I ever met) told our class that he had been leaked the contents of the Third Secret of Fatima vouchsafed to Portuguese children by the Virgin Mary in 1917: It was, he said (wait for it!), the bill for the Last Supper.
Why are there so many Catholic jokes? I have a couple of theories. Catholicism, even post-Vatican II, is otherworldly, sublime -- and juxtaposing the sublime and the ridiculous is the essence of a certain kind of humor. The late Johnny Carson joked about a Catholic church in Beverly Hills that was so trendy there was a salad bar next to the communion rail.
Moreover, Catholicism with its vestments and candles is rich with resources for a prop comic. Father Guido Sarducci with his broad-brimmed Vatican cleric's hat wouldn't have been nearly as funny if he had been dressed like Billy Graham.
Writer Hilaire Belloc once wrote: "Wherever the Catholic sun doth shine / There's always laughter and good red wine."
Or a stein of Bavarian beer.