Comedians Poke Fun at Pope; Vatican Not Amused

Some Italian comedians have been poking fun at Pope Benedict XVI and other Vatican officials. The Vatican isn't happy about it, but some Italian newspapers are taking them to task for being overly sensitive.

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Italy's government is struggling to cut the country's huge deficit. The national airline and railway systems are on the verge of bankruptcy, but the Italian media's obsession this week has been how far can you go in satirizing the pope? The country's Catholic bishops say some Italian comedians have gone too far.

NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports from Rome.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI: In Italy, very little is considered sacred. The papacy has been a target of sharp barbs at least since the time of Danté, and anti-clerical jokes are part of a long popular tradition. But TV satire of the Vatican had always been off-limits, until recently. In his weekly show, comedian Maurizio Crozza has a skit dedicated to the pope. Here he depicts Benedict XVI speaking with a thick German accent as hyper-strung and over-sensitive to comparisons to his predecessor, John Paul II.

(Soundbite of TV show)

Mr. MAURIZIO CROZZA (Comedian): (Speaking Italian)

POGGIOLI: The Crozza pope barks at his quivering aides. Could John Paul tap dance like this? Or juggle oranges like this? In another skit, he plays with the name of the married African Bishop Emmanuel Milingo, ex-communicated by the Vatican for ordaining four married men as bishops.

(Soundbite of TV show)

Mr. MAURIZIO CROZZA (Comedian): (Speaking Italian)

POGGIOLI: Popes of the past have often been the subjects of political cartoons. The election last year of a German pope unleashed a flurry of un-politically correct cartoons and commentary. Benedict was lampooned for his red Prada loafers, designer sunglasses, and his revival of Renaissance-era papal capes. But now with the TV skits, Catholic officials are really not amused.

L'Avvenire, the official newspaper of the Italian Bishops Conference, attacked the Crozza satire as a vulgar attempt to ridicule the Catholic leader. Newspaper editor Dino Boffo said the skits inflict a wound on Italian society.

Mr. DINO BOFFO (Editor, L'Avvenire): (Through translator) And they undermine the democratic feelings of the country. This satire has no respect for people's religious sentiments. It is arrogant and even fundamentalist.

POGGIOLI: The Vatican never makes official comments on these types of topics, so it was surprising when Pope Benedict's personal secretary, Monsignor Georg Gäenswein, told a news agency he considers the impersonations offensive and hopes they'll end soon. He hastened to add that he has never watched the skits and never will.

(Soundbite of radio show)

POGGIOLI: Gäenswein himself is the butt of comedian Fiorello, who on his radio show impersonates the handsome German prelate as keenly aware of his good looks and as a sports-loving hedonist.

(Soundbite of radio show)

FIORELLO (Comedian): (Speaking Italian)

POGGIOLI: Here the monsignor is depicted organizing a soccer game with other prelates and planning a dinner at a brand new restaurant inside the Vatican called The Last Supper, where one portion of fish is shared by 20.

The protests against these skits prompted criticism in the Italian media, with several commentators accusing the church of being over-sensitive. Under the headline, The Vatican Can't Take A Joke, the leftist daily, L'Unita, said any curbs on artistic freedom would be a crusade by the Vatican. Drawing comparisons to the uproar in the Muslim world over the Mohammed cartoons published in a Danish paper, L'Unita said this smacks of Catholic fundamentalism.

A commentator for the daily La Repubblica advised Pope Benedict to get used to satire. He said it's hard to resist making fun of a pope who seems to have been raised in libraries and not among people.

Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Rome.

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