May 20, 2014

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In 1997, my second book came out. It was a collection of columns I”€™d written for a Catholic newspaper, so Vatican Radio requested an interview.

Before we went on the air, the host asked me to count to three before answering each of his questions. He needed those few seconds to reach across the console and push the “€œrecord”€ button. You see, Vatican Radio is the world’s oldest transnational broadcasting network. The equipment was installed by Marconi himself.

And they”€™re still using it.

It’s one of those anecdotes that encapsulate the often infuriating “€œgood news/bad news”€ paradox that is the Roman Catholic Church.

For instance, non-Catholics are often stunned to learn that the same Church that persecuted Galileo also runs one of the world’s oldest observatories. (And that it didn”€™t really persecute Galileo that much.)

Catholics, however, are not surprised. After all, we”€™re the same people who came up with the pretty brilliant idea of making engaged couples take classes before they get married, covering budgeting, conflict resolution, and even sex and child rearing.

“€œI wish Catholics had taken that era’s Satan-mania seriously, instead of leaving it for the Protestants to handle in their usual way: that is, without an ounce of style or wit.”€

OK, so these classes are usually taught by an unmarried celibate man who”€™ll never have to worry about kids and a mortgage. That’s just a little bug in the system that still needs working out. Give us another 200 years.

Back in the “€œRonnie Raygun,”€ no-nukes 1980s, one joke making the left-wing rounds went that America was trying to make up for being late for the last two world wars by being really punctual this time. That’s the first thing I thought of as I watched the Catholic Church spring into action with uncharacteristic alacrity last week, to prevent a “€œblack mass”€ from being performed on Harvard property.
“€¨I”€™m so unaccustomed to seeing Catholics publicly protesting against anything that doesn”€™t start with “€œab”€ and end in “€œortion”€ that I figured the story was a gag. Especially since the (astonishingly sympathetic) President of Harvard is named “€œFaust.”€

But it was for real. A critical mass of local Catholics was sufficiently exercised”€”there was even a Eucharistic procession“€”that the black mass was ultimately aborted.

Here’s the thing, though: I grew up in the Sixties and Seventies, during the inescapable “€œoccult craze.“€ Rock music larded with supernatural tropes blared from the radio. Every other major motion picture costarred the Devil. Sybil Leek’s witchcraft instruction manuals were matter-of-factly stocked right beside the TV Guide, as were countless similar tomes. Ouija boards outsold Monopoly.

During all this, I was going to Catholic school. I never heard the word “€œSatan”€ once. No, what was really, really important was selling a gazillion boxes of chocolate-covered almonds, when we weren”€™t gathering dented cans of lima beans to send to Ecuador.

I wish Catholics had taken that era’s Satan-mania seriously, instead of leaving it for the Protestants to handle in their usual way: that is, without an ounce of style or wit. Their ham-fisted harangues drove more dumb kids to embrace the devil”€”or, at the very least, bad drugs and worse music”€”than they ever saved.

Because here’s the thing: Satanists are like Muslim terrorists”€”backward bumbling losers who provide the rest of us with plenty of self-satisfied comic relief, except for all the times they manage to kill us. Poison is still toxic, even if it’s administered, accidentally, by an idiot.


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