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"Ghost Burgers?" Really?

Kuma's, a Chicago burger joint, decided to market a "Ghost Burger," featuring an unconsecrated host as a garnish.

Needless to say, this scheme provoked protests by Chicago Catholics.  It wasn't only the older group that was upset at this marketing ploy.  Here's an eloquent response by Justin Bartkus, a Notre Dame grad and a Chicago resident.

So here's my question:  Where is the line between good-natured joshing and offensive mocking? I don't believe that Kuma's intentionally planned to offend Catholics--it's bad business in Chicago, if nothing else.  But how do businesses, and comedians for that matter, decide where the line is?

About the Author

Cathleen Kaveny is the Darald and Juliet Libby Professor in the Theology Department and Law School at Boston College.



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Great to have Cathy back on the blog. So, where's the line?  I think Stephen Colbert said it best at the Fordham event last year: the only religiously-themed jokes he said he's ever refused to do involved the crucifixion or the Eucharist.

According to the restaurant, the Ghost Burger was conceived, not as a way to mock Roman Catholicism or exploit Eucharistic imagery for profit, but as a tribute to a rock band that the owners love, called Ghost. Apparently, Ghost makes use of Roman Catholic imagery in a subversive way.  From its Wikipedia page:

Ghost are easily recognizable due to their eccentric on-stage presence, five of the group's six members wear hooded robes, while the vocalist appears in skull make-up, dressed as a Roman Catholic Cardinal. The nature of their identities is highly secretive and their names have not been publicly disclosed; the vocalist calls himself Papa Emeritus and the musicians are referred to only as Nameless Ghouls. Musically, the band is often compared to groups such as The DoorsBlack SabbathBlue Öyster CultMercyful Fate and Kyuss.

A Nameless Ghoul explained that Ghost has its roots in 2006, when the members were in another band together and he played the riff that would become "Stand By Him" to them; "I said that this is probably the most heavy metal riff that has ever existed.", "When the chorus came to me, it haunted my dreams. Every time I picked up the guitar, I ended up playing that progression, and when I fit the words in, it seemed to cry out for a Satanically-oriented lyric."

This Kuma's story was on a couple of local newscasts within the last week or so.  Several customers and locals were interviewed; one of them sensibly noted that inasmuch as the elements weren't consecrated, it's not really the body and blook of Christ.  FWIW.




Hmmm...the old "it's just a joke" line. Well, how oft the truth is spoke in jest. I draw the line at mocking and this runs the risk of, if not is, mocking. The line for offensive humour should be the same as the test for verbal harrassment; namely comments that the person saying are known or ought reasonably to hav been known to cause discomfort to another. We presume good faith on the part of people that they are not trying to offend but this is generally the test under human rights when there is a question of where to draw the line.

I can give you a concrete example. Over lunch many years ago following the OJ case, I was at work in mixed company and the case was brought up and people were saying how sad it was that Nicole was killed like that. Now one guy, who has a sharp wit, shook his head somberly and said, yeah...sometimes they just won't listen. That broke the mood and many burst out laughing. One woman took offense and said that he should not be joking about domestic violence. He apologized but there was still some furtive chuckling. Now clearly, he did not literally mean that. He was interjecting a joke. It did not go any further but the point is that it could have.

My Finnish mother HATED Finn jokes but her brother told the best ones of all!

Humour needs to be evaluated in context and some places humour is acceptable and others it is not. There are implied kinds of community standards that exist.

In this instance, he went over the line with using an unconsecrated host. Some things are tricky to joke about. Altar boy jokes and priests are among them. You won't hear those kinds of jokes on this forum even in a sideways kind of fashion but you might in other non-Catholic settings.

Sometimes those jokes can veer into the anti-Catholic territory.

Well, of course, there isn't any objective criterion or standard for determining where the line should be drawn "between good-natured joshing and offensive mocking." As George D. suggests, I suppose one should look to the sensibilities of the offended parties, but I think that his criterion of causing "discomfort" is too vague and perhaps too exigent and that there is likely to be considerable disagreement among the parties with some greatly offended and others not even discomfited.  I have occasionally been offended at the flip way in which some participants in this blog have referred to things Catholics have traditionally held sacred, whether beliefs, sacraments, figures, etc., but obviously sensibilities differ. Conversation may help. 

My Finnish mother HATED Finn jokes but her brother told the best ones of all!

George, you can't just bait the hook like that.  Let's hear 'em!


Back in the day, when Life of Brian came out, some of my friends were offended, or thought they should be offended, by what seemed to be points too sharp and sacreligious.  I have always believed that religions leave themselves open to satire by being satarizable, and God knows, Christianity generally and Catholocism specifically have left themselves wide open for some serious comedy; or perhaps I should say Christians generally and Catholics specifically ...

By the way, I have always thought Life of Brian was a hilariously funny movie.  I have never seen anything funnier than the stoning scene:

Jim, just listen to "A Prairie Home Companion" and when Garrison Keillor jokes about Norwegians, just change "Norwegians" to "Finns."

There shouldn't be a distinctive form of bread for consecration, such that it has, in its unconsecrated form, an unambigous identification as the eucharistic species. This whole problem would not occur except that the wafers are identified with Eucharist and only with Eucharist, in advance of their consecration, so it seems irreverent to eat them in other contexts.

We'd never object to bread being offered in a restaurant. We don't object to the drinking of wine.

I think the message is terrible as it stands. The restaurant should not be offering a "host garnish" on the menu. But the scandal is really only possible because we've created a situation that can be exploited in this way.

Jesus didn't say: produce a form of bread that will be recognized only as a rarified, sacramentally appropriate substance, and eat it, all of you... 

I'm with Colbert on this one.   It's a bit like pornography:   You might not be able to define it but you know it when you see it.   There's an inherent humor to offense ratio that must exceed a certain threshold.   If what you're doing is offensive to many, it better be really, really funny.

The function of humor--especially with regard to ethics--is addressed in this quote from Lonergan's Insight, chapter 18, on the Possibility of Ethics.  You can decide for yourself whether it is an objective or subjective genetive...(ho ho)

"It is in this [existential] context that the profound significance of satire and of humor comes to light. For satire breaks in upon the busy day. It puts printers to work, competes on the glossy page of advertisement, challenges even the enclaves of bright chatter. It enters not by argument but by laughter. For argument would presuppose premises, and premises that would be accepted easily also would be mistaken. But laughter supposes only human nature, and men [and women] there are. Moreover, as it is without logical presuppositions, so it occurs with apparent purposelessness; and that too is highly important for, if men are afraid to think, they may not be afraid to laugh. Yet proofless, purposeless laughter can dissolve honored pretence; it can disrupt conventional humbug; it can disillusion man of his most cherished illusions, for it is in league with the detached, disinterested, unrestricted desire to know.

…the significance of satire and humor is, I suggest, out of proportion to their efficacy. …. the satirist is likely to clip one head off the monster he attacks only to witness another sprout out in its place. Again, because the point of humor is transcendent, it is apt to be missed. But if satire and humor are weighed, not by the results they obtain, but by the potentialities they reveal, then theirs is the signal importance of marking with a chortle the chasms that divide successive orientations of man's polymorphic consciousness"

Lonergan Insight p 649

Not a line, but a tight rope.  Colbert seem to walk it every night!



A rule of business:  when you play games you take chances.

They played.

It looks as if they may have lost.

They just killed their chances for franchises.. probably no business plan either, so 'no IPO for you'... . .Seinfelds Soup Nazi had a come back next year. .

Obviously, it was just a fun way to honor a rock band.  Sure.  And chickens have lips.  

One of the local television stations is now reporting that the restaurant has offered a $1,500 donation to Catholic Charities of Chicago as a sort of peace offering, but Catholic Charities is refusing it.


As someone who goes about life offending people (mostly out of stupidity), I offer this story:

I recently went to a friend's grave to say a rosary. Afterward, I poured about a quarter of a small cup of Tim Horton's black coffee on the grave; my friend and I frequently went to Tim Horton's as an outing when she felt well enough during her last year of life. My companion, also a close friend of the deceased, was horrified and said it smacked of paganism and had no place in a Catholic cemetery. I explained I did it as a memorial and apologized profusely, of course. I still don't see that I did any harm. It wasn't like I left anything messy there. But I expect future visits to that gravesite will be solitary ones.

Fr. Komonchak's comment that conversation sometimes helps is on target, I think. Justin Bartkis's response to Kuma's was reasonable and helpful, though it strikes me as a little thin-skinned toward the end ("anti-Catholicism is the last acceptable prejudice"). Hope the restaurateurs will listen.

In general, I think that a whole cluster of factors should be taken into account when it comes to evaluating activity that may be offensive, while at the same time recognizing that there will always be fuzzy and downright rough edges. For example, I kind of get the sense that the proprietors of this burger joint actually didn't anticipate that what they were doing would upset people, which is kind of pathetic. I think that being deliberately blasphemous (or whatever) is actually probably better, because it involves owning your actions and intentionally framing what you're doing in a particular way. When it comes to being intentionally offensive, again, there are lots of factors, none of which everyone will evaluate in the same way. Creativity and execution should count: offensiveness is all too often carried out through cliché and laziness, because offending people makes shooting fish in a barrel look like rocket science. I generally hate it when people write off offensive jokes by saying that the worst crime is when the jokes aren't funny (because that's bullshit), and I'm aware that something similar can apply here ("the biggest crime is that the blasphemy is just unoriginal”). Still, if blasphemy can escape the mire of cliché and achieve something genuinely striking, if it can be truly interesting...well, that's something else. One problem is that something like Poe's Law can affect religious offensiveness: As grotesque a portrayal of religion as you may make, the odds are that that religion is fully capable of portraying itself in an even more grotesque fashion (How could deSade ever top stories of saintly nuns drinking pus from the sores of lepers?)

I think that when institution and bodies of teachings, traditions, and practices present themselves as repositories and arbiters of what properly denotes the holy, then they are begging to be torn down--at least just a little. Who doesn't like it when the sanctimonious or the know-it-all gets revealed with his pants around his ankles? I am not sure if it just isn't healthy and maybe downright necessary to maintain a bit of agency in the face of Grand Edifices of the Holy by deliberately (if perhaps just occasionally) resisting their prescriptive powers over your life

I am aware that such neat distinctions can't be made with full confidence, but I also think that there can be a difference between mocking institutions and mocking peoples, and between mocking privileged people and powerless ones. Is your blasphemy meant to chip away at the authority of those entrenched in positions of power, or are you going after the disenfranchised? Is mocking a religious institution a cover for mocking an economic class or ethnic group? Like I said, neat distinctions aren't always possible: in mocking a vaunted institution, you run the risk of stepping on the toes of the people who value said institution.

One last thing, if anyone's bothered to keep reading: many people like to be offended, so there is often a sort of symbiosis at play in blasphemy and the like. Bill Donohue and his ilk want to be offended. They wants to believe that "anti-Catholicism is the last acceptable prejudice." I've said it before, and I'll say it again: the guy paying a dominatrix to whip him does not resent her. The situation with offensiveness is pretty much the same, except the nature of the relationship demands that nobody acknowledge what's going on. Bill Donahue gets to be offended, and the blasphemer of the day gets to be offensive. Everyone wins.

Jean:  it think that there is a significant difference between a cup of coffee, with no liturgical significance (except to. possibly, coffee-aholics) and the eucharistic wafer.  And to expand a completed grave to an ongoing liturgical activity is really stretching it.  Are we now to be forbidden to walk on a grave? leave flowers there (talk about paganish!)?

Jean - I thought your gesture was wonderful, sort of an oddball irreverence that is not offensive.  Abe, I don't know if you agree, but I might classify it as a salutary or therapeutic act of resistance.

And compared to some of the objects I've seen placed in caskets before they're closed,  a few drops of coffee is nothing.

Jean:  Your story reminds me of another I heard somewhere: At a cemetery one person criticized another for bringing some food item and leaving it on the grave: "Do you think the deceased is going to eat that food?"  The neat reply was: "Do you think he's going to smell those flowers you just left?"

Just before they closed the coffin on my mother's body, two of my sisters came up and placed a paper hanky inside the sleeve of her blouse, my mother's favorite repository for the item.

I saw a perfectly new 9 iron placed in the coffin in the hands of the deceased. He never made the long par four in two. .

If I were at Catholic Charities, I would accept the donation.


We give offense wittingly and unwittingly. Sometimes we take offense too quickly, or too easily brush it aside. Aristotle noted that “it is easy to fly into a passion -- anybody can do that; but to be angry with the right person to the right extent and at the right time and with the right object and in the right way -- that is not easy, and it is not everyone who can do it.” Nor is it easy to be reflective, to express sorrow, or to extend forgiveness. 

On the other hand, who would want a world without comedy or satire? And what sort of literature, art or music offends no one at all?

Claire - I agree.

Just in case people are curious, using wafers meant (in other contexts) for communion is pretty standard in forms of cooking: -- there is nothing obviously bad, I think, about using bread marked as standardly meant for communion, for other purposes.  After all, that's what's special about mass.  

Also -- in line with what others have remarked -- if I were in charge over there in Chicago, I'd accept the donation, so long as a kind of clarification were issued by the restaurant, as it seems to have done.  Or, better, I'd accept the donation perhaps on condition that copies of Anscombe's ``On Transubstantiation'' were placed somewhere near the door of the restaurant.   

It appears to me that the restaurant did do this out of ignorance; and, as such should provide a teachable moment for those who are offended.  If the offer of a donation could be made as a part of an apology, then Catholic Charities should publicly accept both the apology and the money. 

Jean, recently I have attended several Buddhist memorial services for the mother of an Asian friend.  The main purpose seems to be offering food to the deceased once a week.  The family brings food and sets up a table.  The chief mourners hold food with chop sticks against their foreheads in front of the table with a picture of the deceased in the middle of the food offerings.  One daughter told me about an incident from her childhood when an aunt died and the family neglected to hold services.  The deceased appeared to a sibling and said "I am hungry, why don't you feed me?" 

No one can say for certain that Jean's friend was not aware of or did not enjoy the offering of coffee.  But, it was the remembrance of times past that counted.  Remembrance is very important in the Kingdom of God....."Remember me, O Lord, when thou comest into thy Kingdom." 

Satire serves a purpose if it makes a person examine their beliefs and practices, habits and rituals.  If satire is an ignorant attack,  there should be a teachable moment response. 

Is anyone familiar with the satire of Paris Arrow whose columns regularly appear on Abuse Tracker?  She says the same things over and over again, and it seems pretty far out sometimes.  I don't know what to make of her writings; but she does make me laugh.  Has anyone ever  challenged her in print? 


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