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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.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pvhYqeGp_Do

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!

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  • 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, 2019 at 11:32

3 Answers 3

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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.

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    Thanks for your answer. Can you explain what the mild jabs are?
    – cat40
    Apr 26, 2016 at 15:49
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It's very much not random, but looks at stereotypical Catholic practice.

The first stanza fairly simply looks at knelling to pray; a rosary is a strong of beads each one representing one of the prayers of the Rosary. "Fiddling with" them is passing the beads through the fingers moving one along as each prayer is said; one can see someone to whom that's an important practice getting miffed with to seeming to be belittled.

The second stanza is the satirical heart of the piece. The Pope (aka the Pontiff) authorising the use of the vernacular in Masses on the recommendation of the Second Vatican Council being one of the most eyecatching of the modernisations would be "doing whatever steps you want" The Kyrie Eleison is an Ancient Greek prayer, an integral part of the litany of the Mass, now spoken in the local language; a possible double meaning of everyone praying as an individual and each now in their own language.

The third stanza starts with a nod to the processions of clergy into a Mass before dealing with the most common Sacraments, Confession then Communion. Again, the more uptight could take umbrage at the light hearted references to the priest confessor ("the guy who's got religion"), the doctrine of Original Sin and of the act of taking Communion. Transubstantiation is the heart of the rite of Communion; it is the Catholic doctrine whereby the bread and wine become entirely the body and blood of Christ, as opposed to the Anglican idea of consubstantiation that while Christ is present in them, the bread and wine persist in their own right. A small seeming point to some, but one of the major points of contention in the schisms in the Church in the Reformation period.

After the reprise of the opener, it finishes with a play on the proverb "When in Roman...", conflating the standard meaning of a local inhabitant with a Roman as in Roman Catholic. The rhyming pair ecstatic and dramatic refer respectively to a religious ecstasy and the perception of Catholic rituals being showy.

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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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