ROME — Americans are accustomed to ribald satires of their political, religious and cultural icons, from Jon Stewart's daily sendup to the routines of ubiquitous stand-up comedians.
But in Italy, spoofing the pope may be one guffaw too many.
An Italian comedian has given new meaning to the term irreverence with slapstick television skits in which he portrays an unmistakable Pope Benedict XVI, complete with thick white hair and heavy German accent. This pope, however, also goose-steps and possesses a giddy obsession with fashion.
Needless to say, the Vatican is not amused.
Avvenire, the official newspaper of the Italian Bishops Conference, blasted the parodies by comedian Maurizio Crozza as "failed satire" that bordered on the cowardly. "These are vulgar television programs ... that attempt to ridicule figures dear to the Catholic world," Avvenire said.
The pope's personal secretary, Msgr. Georg Gaenswein, also spoke out. Such satires, he said, should be yanked from the airwaves. Of course he has never watched them, Gaenswein hastened to add, and never will.
Gaenswein has come in for a fair amount of ribbing from another popular comedian, Fiorello, who does a series of radio gags.
In them, Fiorello portrays the notably handsome Gaenswein as a hip, fun-loving, fast-car-driving man about town.
"Satire is fine," Gaenswein told a Roman Catholic news agency, "but these things have no intellectual level and offend men of the church. They are not acceptable."
Popes have long been the objects of a certain amount of ridicule. Comedians sometimes poked fun at Benedict's predecessor, John Paul II, because of his Polish accent.
But Crozza's spoofs are unusually pointed, say church observers and many Italian politicians who have joined in criticizing the comedian.
In one skit, Crozza as pope is dressed, as usual, in white vestments head to toe. "White! White! White!" he complains. "Why can't I have a bit of color, maybe a green stole that would look really good on me?" he squeals. "Or a camouflage outfit would be nice. I already have the boots." At which point, he hikes up his gown and heaves his foot, clad in a black storm trooper's boot, onto a table.
In another skit, aides remind him that he must always pay homage to John Paul in his speeches. The Benedict character appears fed up with living in his predecessor's shadow.
"I don't want to talk about Pope John Paul II," he says. "The pope doesn't want to talk about colleagues who are generally better than him."
"Did John Paul know how to do this?" He begins to tap dance.
"Did John Paul know how to do this?" He juggles oranges.
And in one skit, he is shown shooting pigeons flying over St. Peter's Square.
Fiorello, the radio comedian, has confined his jokes to Gaenswein. Assuming the persona of the secretary, he says Benedict has been preparing for an upcoming trip to Turkey by smoking three packs of cigarettes a day -- "smoking like a Turk." The secretary goes on to complain that Mondays are especially awful for him because all of the hair salons are closed.
The programs have led to a running debate in the Italian media. After the criticisms from church officials, the political left jumped into the fray, suggesting that the Vatican was threatening censorship and showing too thin a skin.
L'Unita, a communist newspaper, spoke of "Catholic fundamentalism" not unlike that of Muslims offended by cartoons of the prophet Muhammad.
But another pro-left newspaper, La Repubblica, editorialized that what's good for the goose should be good for the gander.
"You can't satirize one prophet and not the other," the paper said. "You can't satirize Christ and spare, out of fear, Muhammad."
As the controversy swelled, Fiorello on Thursday was asked by an Italian interviewer whether he planned to back down. "I don't think I'll go to hell for this," he responded.