Rorate Caeli

“Pomposity cannot stand ridicule”: A canon lawyer draws lessons from Communist history

My last semester in college, I took a seminar class on Eastern Europe since the Second World War, led by a strong apologist for the communist government in power at that time (but soon to collapse). I took the class a bit unwillingly—it was the most palatable seminar that fit into my schedule. I endured the class, which largely entailed 1980’s yuppie students arguing with our boomer prof about the strength and weakness of capitalism vs. communism.

I had no idea at the time that that class would become the most useful class of my college career.

We read works by Milan Kundera and Vaclav Havel among others and looked at the samizdat press and the underground economy. We discussed the Polish union movement and the role of the Catholic Church in supporting religious and individual freedom. Those “subversives” who, in the professor’s view, were ruining things for everyone else became my heroes.

Over thirty years later, I find myself re-reading those books and studying the practices of those subversives to help me deal with the world I currently live in—both secular and ecclesiastical.

The recent news that that Holy See has made known its interest in what parishes advertise in their bulletins (after sixty years of parishes advertising blatant heresy and heterodoxy with impunity) reminds me of the Lithuanian Soviet government’s requirement that religious entities pass every alteration of their churches through a labyrinthine approval process, designed specifically to halt alterations and frustrate religion. The response of the Lithuanian Catholics at the time: inundate the bureaucracy with a flood of requests. The priest’s chair needs to be moved ten inches forward, then the kneeler needs to be moved three feet to the left, then the potted plant that was next to the kneeler needs to be moved to the other side of the sanctuary, then the lamp that was on the other side of the sanctuary needs to be moved down one step... and so on. If the forms needed to be filled out in triplicate, there was a small army of church ladies who filled out every last line on the forms so that Father could drop off the 180 requests to the office for processing—standing in line with another 50 priests behind him requesting the same sort of alterations. The government backed off, and eventually the whole system collapsed.

The most important tool the Eastern Europeans—especially the Czechs and Slovaks—used against the system was humor. They laughed at the insanity of the bureaucracy and the hubris and self-importance of the leadership. The smiled wryly when they were being upbraided for their unpatriotic ways. They met the bombast of the self-decorated and self-congratulating solons with a chuckle and a knowing wink to their confreres. Many suffered, and suffered unspeakably, and their suffering should not be minimized, but the point it: pomposity cannot stand ridicule.

The best way to expose the deviant corruption of authoritarians is not to engage them in arguments, but rather to roll one’s eyes, ignore what one can ignore, and carry on with one’s life. In due time—usually shorter than imagined—it collapses under the weight of its own absurdity.

Fr. Timothy T. Ferguson, JCL, STL