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Fr. Corapi: Death of Irony, Limits of Tragedy

The ironist's take on this should be pretty easy to guess: Thought you could regain the pleasures of your youth by the sweat of your brow, did you? Not so fast, tough guy. You should have stayed in the City, close to the Mt. Sinai emergency room. 

Now, had this happened to a stranger, I might have come away with that very point. But since it happened to my own dad, it was no longer cricket. When I learned he'd never equipped himself with epinephrine, despite living through some close calls in the past, I felt oddly comforted. Don't take stupid risks. If you suffer from an allergy, bring along an antidote. Here was a lesson I could stomach. The God who wrote it was a God I could believe in. 

And so, it was in the aftermath of his death that I began to develop an appreciation for tragedy. Aristotle characterizes the ideal tragic hero as a likeable but imperfect chap who comes to grief not through vice or depravity "but through some mistake." This was certainly true of Oedipus (who, after all, suffered not from any Oedipal complex). It was true of my dad. (Why he was so careless on this one point, I have no idea. For him, it was always seatbelts in the car, a helmet on the motorcycle, and low sodium in the diet.) 

This new appreciation for the tragic made Christianity intelligible to me. Certainly, there are episodes in the Bible that can be read as irony. The Romans' mocking proclamation of Jesus as king of the Jews when He was exactly that is textbook dramatic irony. But tragedy is much more pervasive. When Jesus told God that His tormentors knew not what they did, He was describing all tragic heroes—at least up till the moment of realization. The God of Abraham tends to be very generous with these: Moses and Paul, two other Jewish boys denied a pleasant retirement, were both shown the light early.

But for coming to grips with a case like Corapi's, tragedy is as inadequate a framework as irony. For a completely innocent man to be undone, even temporarily, by a gold-digger or a thwarted chalice-chipper isn't tragic. It's plain wicked, and worse, sordid. For that reason, it is understandable that some would want to re-imagine the accuser as a succubus. To be brought low by the devil through a clingy, dopey Monica Lewinsky type sounds as undignified a fate as dying from a bee sting. 

Then there's the possibility nobody wants to consider—that Fr. Corapi is guilty of some or all of the alleged acts. That wouldn't be tragic, either. And here is where, I think, Catholics really have it over the Greeks. They believe in human wickedness as the basic fact of life, which it is. The minute it enters a story, the story becomes credible. Who can't, at some level, identify with the desire to transgress? It's as plainly real as gravity.  

Of course, wickedness as a grand explain-awayer can lead to reductive thinking. If Fr. Corapi canoodled the woman, or if the woman has libeled him, neither of them is merely a sinner. Sure enough, the Church has that base covered, too. By her lights, human dignity is a given; it does not require the blamelessness of the tragic hero. The very fact that we're here, existing, makes us redeemable, given Grace and a greater or lesser degree of effort on our own part. 

Sin-and-redemption stories are often messier than we'd want them to be.

Think of Jimmy Swaggart and Mel Gibson, two men whose strong consciences have taken many a pounding from their stronger appetites. Imagining Fr. Corapi's accuser as a vampire or a bimbo makes it, frankly, very hard to believe she could reverse any time soon. If Fr. Corapi turns out to be the one who erred? Well, shouldn't one conversion be enough? What is this, anyway, an all-you-can-eat buffet? 

Well, yeah, it is. At least I hope so, for my own sake. The story of redemption for the truly base, of 70 x 7 for the repeat offender, is one I can make myself believe. And when I find myself doubting, it's only because that story sounds too good to be true.

3/27/2011 4:00:00 AM