Tom Lehrer's "The Vatican Rag" is famous for causing controversy, and I think a teacher was fired for showing it in a schoolroom. I understand how the title can be minorely offensive to a particularly sensitive religious zealot, but they lyrics seem to be a bunch of religious words thrown together without much regard to their meaning, one of (in my opinion) Lehrer's worst songs (and I like his music). Can someone explain the song? I put a video link and the lyrics below (introductions do not match)

To claryify, I'm not asking for a line by line explanation of the lyrics (though that would be helpful) so much as an explanation of how they are offensive.


Another big news story of the year concerned the ecumenical council in Rome, known as Vatican II. Among the things they did, in an attempt to make the church more... commercial, was to introduce the vernacular into portions of the Mass to replace Latin, and to widen somewhat the range of music permissible in the liturgy. But I feel that if they really want to sell the product in this secular age, what they ought to do is to redo some of the liturgical music in popular song forms. I have a modest example here; it's called The Vatican Rag!

First you get down on your knees,
Fiddle with your rosaries,
Bow your head with great respect,
And genuflect, genuflect, genuflect!

Do whatever steps you want if
You have cleared them with the Pontiff.
Everybody say his own
Kyrie eleison,
Doin' the Vatican Rag.

Get in line in that processional,
Step into that small confessional.
There the guy who's got religion'll
Tell you if your sin's original.
If it is, try playin' it safer,
Drink the wine and chew the wafer,
Two, four, six, eight,
Time to transubstantiate!

So get down upon your knees,
Fiddle with your rosaries,
Bow your head with great respect,
And genuflect, genuflect, genuflect!

Make a cross on your abdomen,
When in Rome do like a Roman;
Ave Maria,
Gee, it's good to see ya.
Gettin' ecstatic an' sorta dramatic an'
Doin' the Vatican Rag!

  • Listening to the live version of this, it's interesting to hear the somewhat hysterical laughter of the (What I assume are the) Catholics in the audience. Apr 23 '19 at 11:32

This reflects a larger social change. At the time Lehrer was active, in the 60's, religion was treated with a much higher degree of respect and reverence. Making light of religious doctrine was still shocking.

Lehrer's satires can be contextualized as a part of a dramatic set of shifts in attitudes in America in the 1960's and 70's that lead to many previously off-limits institutions being opened to both serious criticism and open mockery.

In more recent times, we are so accustomed to religion being harshly and directly attacked and/or mocked in popular culture, it becomes difficult to believe or understand that Lehrer's mild jabs ever offended anyone. However, at the time, the song's repeated implication that the rituals of the church are empty and meaningless --dance steps as arbitrary as the Charleston --would have been truly shocking.

  • Thanks for your answer. Can you explain what the mild jabs are?
    – cat40
    Apr 26 '16 at 15:49

I thought the introduction, about "selling the product," was spot on. Lots of Catholics at the time were wary about the changes that came from Vatican II, and the notion that the liturgy could be altered was addressed in what I thought was a humorous manner. Of course, humor is always individual.

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