While reading Jim Gaffigan’s book on family life, Dad is Fat, I couldn’t help but ponder the inherent comedic value of our Catholic faith. While immersed in a culture striving to annihilate all differences, distinctions, and depth our Catholic faith draws together extremes in a stream of paradoxes. Joined are divinity and humanity, man and woman, heaven and earth, body and spirit, the one and the many, universality and particularity, and the list goes on with dizzying effect. Paradox and absurdity are the hallmark of comedy, and if you want those, then look no further than the Catholic faith. Perhaps this is the crackling mirth behind Tertullian’s claim “I believe because it is absurd.”
Secular culture wants to do away with strict family commitments, distinctions between women and men, and any rules about sex beyond a head nod to not physically harming another – unless they’re into that sort of thing. Perhaps that’s why everyone is so bored. Catholicism upholds traditional family life, the difference between men and women, and truths about sexuality that make many squeamish, if not incensed. Why? Apart from the rich theological significance of those very human realities, Jim Gaffigan is on to the quirky fun had with living out those commitments. The many ups-and-downs, triumphs and failures, deaths and resurrections of committed family life are the rich “stuff” of the Paschal Mystery enfleshed for the world. Those family tensions that only result from sincere love and commitment shape the plots of every great family comedy. Think of National Lampoon’s: Christmas Vacation, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, or the sitcom Everybody Loves Raymond. These shows are as endearing as Gaffigan’s Dad is Fat because they’re written from the “inside” with a deft ability to laugh at oneself. There’s a humility and perceptiveness to this type of familial humor that stands in sharp distinction to the cold cynicism from “outside”.
For example, compare the snarky witticism of Bill Maher on his show “Real Time” and Jim Gaffigan’s stand-up routine about his Catholic faith. Both, on the surface, are making fun of Catholicism. But, there’s a warmth to Gaffigan’s approach that makes it sound more like my uncle needling my dad at a family get-together, rather than a harsh rebuke wielding a sarcastic gavel. Both in his stand-up and book, Dad is Fat, Gaffigan refers to his wife as a “Shiite Catholic” and laughs about how uncomfortable it is to talk about Jesus. Yet, every other page in Dad is Fat rings with a husband’s unabashed love for his wife and her nurturing care for their children. He doesn’t hate Catholicism, or his wife for being Catholic – he’s Catholic. Gaffigan might have some misgivings with waking up early and readying five small children for Mass, but he goes. The humor sees the picture from that familial stance and smirks knowingly like a wife who’s reading her husband’s body language during a check-in at a hotel with a pesky receptionist; he’s saying “uh-huh” and “thank you”, but she knows intuitively that he’s really saying, “We’re switching to the Econo Lodge”.
On the other hand, watch or listen to a diatribe by Bill Maher on Catholicism. It’s cold with a highbrow arrogance that is strangely as endearing as a Brit ordering English Breakfast tea at Waffle House. Maher speaks from the outside, atop a judgment seat having already condemned the Church. The wit sees the absurdities, but dismisses the axis around which they revolve. Maher is more like Herod itching to hear John the Baptist preach, but only while John’s in prison with an executioner on the way. Maher imperceptivity senses the wild danger of Catholicism; but, unfortunately, he’s stepped out of that danger and prefers the icy intellectualism of an armchair to the craziness of Catholic family life. This should be cause to embrace Gaffigan’s familial humor and not conflate the Maher-esque jibes with the Gaffigan knowing, belly laughs.
For those whose faith life can only be granted the appellation “staunch” there’s often an ill-ease with any type of humor about the Catholic faith. When Gaffigan goes on about his time at Mass with five kids, he’s rolling his eyes a bit, but we laugh while reading because we’ve been there, we’ve experienced it, and it’s humorously all true. Kids are hard to handle at Mass. They’re bored. And, the parents’ job becomes whispering out the Our Father while keeping their young son from blowing out the votive candles. This is the comic reality of a faith rooted in God the Father’s embrace of all his screaming, crying, and constantly needing-to-use-the-bathroom children. It’s not irreverent, it’s real.
I imagine that’s why Jesus spent a lot of time with “tax collectors and sinners”; so much time, in fact, that he was called a “glutton and a drunkard.” If you had the choice between boisterous sinners on the way to conversion or Pharisees tinning out jabs over hand washing, with whom would you rather party? I think Jesus was able to breathe a sigh of relief when he was in Zacchaeus’ home, sipping wine and getting Peter riled up with the boys. When I think of him in the Pharisee’s home, my mind turns to that scene of Rose nervously sitting in the high class restaurant of the Titanic wanting to dance with Jack and the Irish immigrants in the hull.
We can learn a lot from Jesus, and – perhaps to Jim’s surprise – we can learn a lot from Mr. Gaffigan. If we take our faith so “seriously” that we clam up during a children’s liturgy, then we might be missing the mirth of God the Father’s tender heart. Becoming heated because the first graders didn’t reread the General Instruction of the New Roman Missal or memorize their favorite passages from Sacrosanctum Concilium before taking the ambo for the Universal Prayer might make us “smart”, but it doesn’t make us super-Catholics. Before we get wound up with all the in-fighting of the Church or the out-fighting with everyone else, beg our mirthiful Father for the grace of humor. Humor holds together the beauty and the absurdity we feel while living our Catholic faith. So, sing without restraint with your first grader because, as G.K. Chesterton noted while ending his book Orthodoxy, perhaps God’s greatest secret is His mirth.