A Papal Summons, or The Church Cat

by Bitter Karella


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Kaemi's IFComp 2021 Reviews, October 24, 2021
by kaemi
Related reviews: IFComp 2021

On the first day of the Decameron, in which the storytellers engage on the theme of the social structures of religion, one story relates the tale of two friends, a Christian and a Jew. Of course, the former tries to convert the latter, and the latter promises to go to Rome to study the new religion. The joke is that the Christian immediately panics: if his friend goes to Rome and sees the absolute debauchery of Church leadership, there is no way he will convert. Boccaccio obliges his Christian audience, however, with a comfortable out: returning from his trip, the Jewish friend does convert, reasoning that if a religion can prosper when so poorly led, then it must be blessed by God. Boccaccio affirms the power of individual religious devotion as a power unblemished by the inevitability of corruption of religious organization.

Bitter Karella’s A Papal Summons, or The Church Cat denies this hope, trying to directly tie an aesthetic repudiation of Catholicism to the naivety and complicity of the believer. I emphasize aesthetic, because, besides nods to hypocrisy or institutional cruelty, the brunt of the ire is aimed, not towards any concrete element of Catholic belief, but rather towards a phantasmal essence of decrepescence within rigid hierarchy: “A wail goes up from a gang of nude flagellants to your left, their bodies oozing black and red, as one of their number slaps a studded whip across their backs. / To your right, a clot of pilgrims chants a Gregorian hymn, their voices merging together into one dull drone.” Straightforward associations of devotion as violence: a gang of self-harm, the stagnation of being into community. Position within religion blunts individuality, a pseudonatural harmony of roles with a prelapsarian absence of the human, where “a steady stream of priests” leads inevitably to you being “swept along with the throng.” An endless motion carried seemingly of its own accord, throwing bodies this way and that, Dante’s punishment for lust writ large. Industry on a mass scale, in which roles are inhabitation of velocity, a way you move through the world, and yet never truly is it you moving: “Priests and officials, many carrying stacks of scrolls or stone tablets, constantly bustle in one door and out another in a never-ending flow of activity” as they slowly build: “No man alive today will live to see the completion of this basilica. The construction will take decades, possibly centuries, but when it is done it will be a monument to the righteousness of the faith …” The underlying threat of all this motion is that if, for any instant, you stop, if your office no longer pertains to the maelstrom, then your role will drag you down to some subterranean terminus, where you shall officiate over the nothingness, as when we find one unlucky bureaucrat as a skeleton: “Presumably this WAS the administrative official in charge of the Imperium department de Lucifugia. It doesn’t look like anyone’s checked in on him for a while.” Stripped of individuality in a brutal, bodily process, you are replaced with a decay of officiation, in which your agency is repurposed as a tool, as when we affirm that serving the Church is equivalent to serving God: ““Well said! They ARE one and the same, aren’t they? So when you work in the interests of the church, you can do no wrong, right? And when a man can no longer work in the interests of the church, then that man can no longer serve the interests of God. Isn’t that right?””

The higher up in the process you are, the more you decay, yet the more privileged of the mire you become, as in a character lucky enough to receive a name, Henricus, whom we meet as “A tall, nearly skeletal man, dressed in white sacerdotal robes caked with black soot” with “a long sour face with rheumy bloodshot eyes above a beaky nose and a fringe of stringy white hair around his ears”, and just in case we didn’t get the point, we’re told “His face is smudged with ash.” He then informs us that St. Peter’s is not open for pilgrims, so “If you have a pennance [sic] to make, you can deposit your payment at any Mammon kiosk in the city." This is a nearly smothering level of camp, relishing expectations as they cavalcade, as when the payment to Mammon results in a rather unsurprising reference: “Below the imp’s mouth is carved the word INDULGENCES.”

The anti-Catholic tropes rattle off with such aplomb that one would envision some sort of Protestant jeremiad, were the story not at pains to connect its criticisms with a wider judgment of Christianity, as in the cat, who cites a number of unsettling verses about sexuality, regularly reminding you just how much weird stuff there is in the Bible: Onan, unsettling and dense Torah commandments, a hadithesque involving circumcision. The real target of criticism is not the literally monstrous clergy, who are machinelike tendrils of corruptions, but the true believer, whose quest dovetails with ours, as when we first meet him, and he enthuses: ““Can you believe we’re finally here? In the very beating heart of Christendom?” / God, this guy. He’s so annoying. You’re glad you won’t ever have to see him again.” However, we do see him again, deep beneath the Vatican, near the Pope: ““To think, we’re about to meet the pope himself,” says the true believer. “What an honor! And to be able to give the ultimate gift to God’s ambassador on Earth? What Christian could ever dream for anything more?”” After feeding his blood into the Pope, being literally consumed by the religion, he continues to babble pieties before being led away. The message of the story is clear: don’t be that loser! Which seems to me an unserious dismissal of religious devotion.

The story can rage itself into over-the-top condemnations which lose contact with substance and become aestheticized screeds connected to no particularly tangible criticism, for instance in the description of the Pope, surviving on the blood infusions of the faithful: “From this position, you can see the pope lying in his bed. He is so thin that even the soft feather bed bruises him, large purple welts spreading across his back and hips, across skin like paper stretched tightly over bones. His eyes sunken so deeply into his skull that they resemble empty black pits, staring sightlessly up at frescoes of cherubs and saints. His dry blackened lips have curled back from his teeth, leaving his mouth an open hole of blackness. You would think that even know he was already dead, but the physician in all his wisdom has detected the faintest intake and exhale of breath. The body is connected to a network of artificial tubes, plugged into incisions along his arms and chest, extending up to be lost in the gloom of the domed ceiling. Dark fluid circulates through the tubes, doubtless part of the physician’s plan to help the pope cling to life.” This visceral distaste swirls the story into heady fumes of recrimination, so that our cat begins to cite strange heretical verses: “You feel the cold of this place in your bones. You wonder if there something about this place, about being at this depth, about being thing close to the very epicenter of Christendom, that might be causing the cat to… / pick up signals that it shouldn’t be.” The disdain that drips through these descriptions culminates in the story’s final sentence, the nail in the coffin: “The pope has nothing to say.”

I’m not here to defend the Catholic Church, although I think the story comes from a place of dismissive incuriosity, which renders elements of its emotive verve jejune. Calling chants “dull drones” for instance ignores the beauty and intention that has been poured into a rich tradition of music; like, listen to how beautiful and sincere this is. However, the deluge of resentment spares no one, resulting in a rather distasteful application of the monstrous aesthetic to sex workers: ““Welcome to Our Lady of the Evening,” says the procuress, her piggy eyes gleaming. She licks her cracked lips eagerly, leaving a slug-trail of spittle.” No humanity exists here, not even for victims, who are, unfortunately, aestheticized in the story’s usual camp: “Upon the mattress is a slender young woman naked other than a scandalously altered yellow samarra cloak, decorated with red devils and dragons and cut so that you can see… most of her flesh. The left side of her face is disfigured by severe burns, her flesh scarred and blackened and oozing, her left eye a milky white. The flaming red hair on the right side of her head falls over her right shoulder like a crimson waterfall; what little hair grows from the blistered left side of her head is brittle and wispy.” But no, she likes being this way, delights in it, making sexual interplay about being burned at the stake: ““Tell the pope I DESERVE the pyre,” she says as she shoves you out the door. “And this time, tell him to make the flames hot.”” That this is an insensitive treatment of a grave historical circumstance is an understatement, but very well, there’s room for that in art, yet the dehumanization really seems to exist for its own sake: “her talons lightly trailing against your skin to raise goose pimples”, a whisper “hisses the whore”, it’s all a bit tasteless. The entire scene takes the venomous invective that, when aimed at a global institution with a deeply troubled history, feels, if not thoughtful, at least understandable, then just splatters it over everyone, powerful and powerless, with the very unfortunate implication that everyone, sex worker and true believer, is complicit in their abuse, which surely wasn’t intended? I did not see what happens if you select the “virgin” rather than the “whore”, and I do not seek to find out.

I think these problems arise in part because the engagement with Catholicism seems driven less by polemic or emotive engagement and more by the sheer aesthetic enjoyment of the caricature stylistics. The game seems to think of itself primarily as fun in the way that a haunted house is fun. Enter into the spoooooky Vatican: “You pass though [sic] another gate, this one carved to resemble a hellmouth, an image in bas relief of a grinning demonic mouth chomping sinners between its teeth.” Religious terror, it’s a carnival ride! Catholic traditions, like the release of differently colored smoke to indicate the status on electing the next Pope, are ripped out at random as set decor: “Great plumes of black smoke are visible from behind the walls; occasionally a sudden burst of new smoke is accompanied by a cacophany of inhumanly high-pitched screeches.” All the appropriations create a successfully disturbing Catherine’s wheel, but perhaps with a bit more patience and curiosity, rather than only a suffusive delight in plasmatics, the animosity could be channeled more purposefully. As it is, we have a German Expressionist nightmare, in which you can choose whether to delight or despair.