Catholicism has long distinguished itself from Puritanism in its joyful embrace of feasts and recreation.

But while Puritanism disdained forms of entertainment basically because they were entertaining, the Church has been cautious of the tendency of entertainment to degrade instead of edify. For a long time, pipe organs which worked by water pressure were banned from the liturgy because they supplied background music for the martyrdoms of Christians in the Colosseum and Circus Maximus.

Politicians have long known how to exploit entertainment. The Lincoln-Douglas debates were highly amusing, with Douglas at five feet four inches matching himself against Lincoln at nearly six feet four inches. Whiskey flowed freely. Douglas orated in deep and sonorous voice in contrast to Lincoln’s curiously high tenor. Both were honorable men and took each other and the crowd seriously. Douglas, whose wife and sons were Catholic, resisted the bigotry of the Know Nothing Party and willed his estate for the foundation of the University of Chicago. In their instance entertainment was to good effect.

The Roman satirist Juvenal (A.D. 55-127) knew the dangers of weak-willed people being manipulated by demagogues in exchange for spectacles and mindless celebrity. He marked the decay of republican Rome to the later imperial decadence when the Caesars bought support by offering panem et circenses, lamenting that “the people that once bestowed commands, consulships, legions, and all else, now meddle no more and longs eagerly for just two things — bread and circuses.”

Ignoring the lesson that should have been learned from the Munich Olympics of 1936, staged to divert the world from the Nazi crimes, the media and business interests recently indulged the Beijing Olympics, expressing minor irritation at reminders that one and half million people had been dispossessed to build the Olympic center, and that political prisoners were suffering while the crowds watched a spectacle that outdid the choreography of Speer. On the closing day of the games, while the medalists were honored, the 73-year-old bishop of Zhengding, Julius Jia Zhiguo, was arrested for leading underground Catholics in celebrating the Feast of the Assumption. He will not be paid millions of dollars to endorse products on television.

Anyone who had not watched television for the last generation would find it hard to believe what passes for entertainment on the screen today: the coarse language and degrading acts and numbing banality. Classical philosophers connected legitimate pleasure with virtue: id quod visum placet, or “that which pleases,” does not mean that any amusement is good. It means what pleases a person indicates that person’s character. A beautiful soul is drawn to beautiful things, and what makes us smile should be a hint of heaven. Gratification only on the animal level is a glimpse of the opposite. George Bernard Shaw said that hell is a place where the only thing you have to do is amuse yourself.




Fr. George W. Rutler is a parish priest in Manhattan who is known internationally for his programs on EWTN, including Christ in the City and The Parables of Christ. He is the author of thirty-two books including newly released, A Year with Fr. RutlerHe holds degrees from Dartmouth, Johns Hopkins, Rome, and Oxford.

Subscribe to CE
(It's free)

Go to Catholic Exchange homepage