Hypocrisy is a central pillar of the Catholic Church. Anyone who claims to be devoutly religious can’t avoid a little, forgivable hypocrisy — we’re all but human, and that’s what confession and penance are for — but the diocese higher-ups have made it into a key feature of the modern Christian identity. All throughout the far-reaching pedophilia scandal that continues to rock Catholicism to this day, appearances have been prioritized over the well-being of those abused, not to mention basic moral piety. For these predators of the cloth, it has always been more important to promote the impression of goodness than to actually engage in it, and now the proof guns for Pulitzers on BuzzFeed.
This week’s half-hour, “A Boy and a Priest,” obsesses over optics in a religious culture attempting to scrape itself back together and salvage what respect it still can. The gap between how things look and what they are has never caused men more anxiety, with creeps on Twitter fluttering their fingers over which behaviors might be construed as sexual impropriety, as if any harmless thing could land them on the hot seat. Misplaced as these concerns may be (anyone with a functioning moral compass knows harassment when they see it), they course through this week’s South Park, in which a perfectly decent priest realizes that hanging out around a young boy might not be such a good look.
Many people still think about the church as the Marsh parents describe it during the first scene, as being about “community, coming together.” Sharon chirps, “All I know is, after church, I just feel better.” For so long, the church stood as a locus of stewardship for a town — kids were instructed to tell a teacher, a police officer, a coach, or a priest if something wasn’t right at home. Despite the avalanche of shame, Catholicism hasn’t fully relinquished this social station. A religion built on the reverent upholding of old ways was never going to change so quickly, and many of the devout still see a one-on-one relationship between a priest and a boy of Butters’s age to be natural and beautiful.
Not so in scenic South Park, where every Sunday morning service might as well be a Friars Club roast of the priesthood. Attendees shout out middle-school-level pedophilia jokes from their pews while the local reverend tries to do his thing, leaving him feeling dejected. He finds a kindred soul in Butters, and their shared status as outcasts quickly brings them together. Though their bond provides the uncommon (in media, that is) example of the church fulfilling its intended purpose, everyone who sees them assumes the worst. Whether at a roller rink, playing board games, or going to the movies, seeing a man of faith hobnobbing with little boys inspires knee-jerk revulsion.
Though the episode certainly doesn’t take it easy on priests — the harshest, truest line of dialogue reframes the “few bad apples spoiling the bunch” rationale as “a few good apples trying to salvage the rotten bunch” — it seems odd that Trey Parker and Matt Stone would choose to defend this man’s dignity. But that’s only until the top brass get word of a priest cavorting about with a boy, and the sharpest satirical knives come out.
At Catholicism Headquarters, or wherever the elite squad of cardinals live in the South Park universe, the alarm sounds that trouble may be a-brewing for the church, and they leap into action on a full cover-up. The zeal with which the crusty-faced officials go about erasing all evidence, real or imagined, of any wrongdoing provides Stone and Parker both with their most pointed critique and a primo opportunity to make about a dozen jokes about cum. Their point rests not with the priest’s presumed guilt and actual innocence, but in the official protocol in place to protect both his reputation and that of the Church in any and all circumstances. We’ve learned that in real life, this took the form of an intricate series of transferrals between parishes, an aggressive battery of litigation to silence all critics, and high-visibility PR to shore up their ethical bona fides for the flock’s sake. Here, it takes the form of a massive semen-Hoovering contraption dubbed the “Cumboni.”
The episode ends in a more prescriptive manner than Parker and Stone’s usual shrug emoji, with the priest returned to his congregation and talking through the wisecracks. After a very Shane split with Butters, he’s learned to set some safe boundaries with the younger worshippers, and that being a representative of the church means shouldering the bad along with the good. If this is the bed they’ve made, those who stand by the clergy must sleep in it, Stone and Parker suggest. Anyone who’s seen The Book of Mormon knows full well that the Parker-Stone braintrust doesn’t hate religion for what it is, rather for the various strains of BS (self-righteousness, judgement, and lots of hypocrisy) in which it often gets wrapped up. In both Mormon and this week’s half hour, there’s a faint hint of respect for the dedication and introspection that Christian worship requires. They hold Christians to the standards set for themselves: to be honest and good. What a world we live in, where the guys behind Orgazmo can take the moral high ground over God’s chosen mouthpieces here on Earth.
Assorted Thoughts and Questions
• The exchange in which Stan floats the idea that going to church seems a bit pointless only for his father to respond, “Don’t say things like that, Stan, you wanna go to fucking hell?” may be the purest distillation yet of Stone and Parker’s general worldview.
• At the episode’s opening, Stan has an apparently broken arm set in a sling. Perhaps my memory’s failing me, but did he sustain that during one of the school shootings last week? Or has South Park decided that now is the time to start committing to continuity in terms of characters sustaining grievous personal injury?