ST. PAUL, Minn. (The Catholic Spirit) - One hundred thousand poor, starving orphans from Third World countries have flocked to St. Peter’s Square in what the pope believes is an elaborate scheme orchestrated by birth control activists to embarrass him and the church.
So begins “The Pope and the Witch,” a fictional play to be performed at the University of Minnesota in March that has spurred protest from thousands of area Catholics.
The play, by 1997 Nobel laureate Dario Fo, challenges church teaching on contraception, abortion and other issues, and portrays the Vatican as a corrupt bureaucracy.
Despite objections from Minnesota’s Catholic bishops and several Catholic organizations, the show will go on, university officials have said.
A twisted plot
In the play, a doctor and a witch disguised as a nun arrive at the Vatican to treat the delusional, unnamed pontiff, who is afflicted by a “crucifixion stroke” that leaves him paralyzed with outstretched arms.
Desperate for a cure, the pope visits the witch’s clinic, where he discovers her dispensing free heroin to addicts, courtesy of a mysterious benefactor.
The witch uses hypnosis to coerce the pope, who has been forcefully injected with a heroin-laced truth serum, into falsely exposing himself and the Vatican as players in the illicit drug trade.
Back at the Vatican, the pope, under the witch’s control, releases a revolutionary encyclical calling for the legalization of drugs and endorsing contraception as a means to reduce the number of unwanted children. Declaring that the church must return to a “dignified poverty,” the pope orders distribution of the church’s wealth to the poor.
Global anarchy ensues. Governments fall, the church breaks into schism, and hundreds of thousands of enraged Catholics riot in St. Peter’s Square, culminating in the pope’s assassination.
Italian playwright Fo, whose most popular play is “Accidental Death of an Anarchist,” is known for his satirical and often controversial works, which have provoked government and religious censure. One of his most recent plays is “Peace Mom,” about Iraq war protester Cindy Sheehan, who demonstrated at President Bush’s Texas ranch in 2005.
The New York Times reported that Fo was twice denied a visa to enter the United States in the 1980s under a section of the Immigration and Nationality Act that excluded aliens who are members of or who support anarchist, communist or terrorist organizations.
University of Minnesota theater director Robert Rosen said he chose to stage “The Pope and the Witch” for its political message and physical style.
Rosen, who is not Catholic, said he is not surprised by the strong reaction; however, he does not see the play as an attack on the Catholic faith.
“Some people will disagree with the message and still others with the means with which the message is conveyed,” Rosen wrote in a statement on the university’s Web site. “Students of theater must learn to use their art form to express their views of the world in which they live.”
Rosen, a visiting assistant professor at the University of Minnesota, said he has received about 2,000 letters, including some threats that have raised security concerns, from people who object to the play.
Many of the play’s critics, Rosen believes, have not read the script, which, he stresses, is a “fantasy.”
Rosen said he changed parts of the play to make it more contemporary and to remove any inferences to the late Pope John Paul II. However, Rosen views the controversy as positive.
“It’s a great thing to question authority,” Rosen said. “It’s a great thing to question ourselves. If we ever stop doing that, I think we’ll be in trouble.”
Some say the University of Minnesota has taken academic freedom too far.
In the Sept. 21, 2006, issue of The Catholic Spirit, Archbishop Harry Flynn denounced “The Pope and the Witch,” which he called a form of “hatred and prejudice.” In a private meeting, the archbishop reportedly asked university president Robert Bruininks to cancel the play.
Though Archbishop Flynn did not call for a boycott of the play or protests at the university, that hasn’t stopped local Catholics from expressing their anger.
Donald McMillan, a parishioner at St. Agnes in St. Paul and University of Minnesota alumnus, wrote in a letter to Bruininks, which he forwarded to The Catholic Spirit: “This is not merely a discussion of differing political views, but it appears to be a deliberate attempt to attack the church by some people hiding behind the principles of academic freedom.”
McMillan, who admits he hasn’t seen the play or read the script, said he received a response from Bruininks defending the university’s decision.
R. J. Houck, from the Minnesota Catholic Defense League, wrote a letter to Minnesota senators asking them to take action against the university.
“This play is certainly not needed to bring discussion of the Catholic Church to the campus and, in my opinion, only serves to promote ridicule and hatred of the Catholic Church among the student population, that of Minnesota and your constituency,” Houck wrote in the letter, posted on the Catholic Defense League’s Web site.
Dialogue, not censorship
Steven Rosenstone, dean of the University of Minnesota’s College of Liberal Arts, which includes the Department of Theatre Arts and Dance, said he understands how Catholics might be offended by “The Pope and the Witch.” However, he does not believe the play is anti-Catholic.
“It’s a very satirical and aggressive attack on the institution of the church. There’s no doubt about that,” Rosenstone said. “But, . . . I don’t think it’s an attack on faith.”
Dialogue, not censorship, is the best response, Rosenstone added. “Universities are places where all kinds of views are welcome and there is open discussion of views that some people don’t like.”
The university will host a forum following the March 8 performance, where the public will have an opportunity to express their opinions.
A panel of experts at the forum is not planned to include an official Catholic representative, Rosenstone said, adding that “nobody was selected for the panel on the basis of faith or religion.”
“The Pope and the Witch” will be performed at the University of Minnesota March 1 through 9.
This story was made available to Catholic Online by permission of The Catholic Spirit(www.thecatholicspirit.com), official newspaper of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, Minn.