Originally and chiefly American English, the rhetorical questions Is the Pope (a) Catholic? and Does a bear shit, or live, etc., in the woods? are each used ironically as a response to a question or statement felt to be blatantly obvious.
They have given rise to the humorous questions Is a bear Catholic? and Does the Pope shit, or live, etc., in the woods?.
Bob Rosenbaum used both Is a bear Catholic? and Does the Pope — in the woods? in Choosing NU asap with pdq Q&A, published on Friday 20th April 1984 in The Daily Northwestern, the student newspaper of Northwestern University (NU), Evanston, Illinois:
So you’re a high school senior and you wanted to visit Northwestern. […]
[…] So, you’d better ask some questions and find out if you really want to come here next year. […] So ask your questions now. We’re not scared. Make them as hard as you like.
Okay. Is it fun here?
Is it fun? Is it fun? Does the Pope go in the woods? Of course it’s fun […].
Is it hard?
Is a bear Catholic? Of course it’s hard.
The U.S. novelist, short-story writer and essayist Stanley Elkin (1930-1995) made Queen Elizabeth II utter Does the pope shit in the woods? in The Magic Kingdom (New York: E. P. Dutton Co., 1985):
—Context: Eddie Bale conceives a plan to take seven terminally ill children to Florida’s Disney World. Pursuing funding for his project, he secures an interview with Elizabeth II. Rummaging through her purse, the queen takes out a chequebook and a gold pen:
She is writing his name on a check. “You will be wondering why I am never without my handbag. Very well, Mister Bale, I will tell you. You having shared so much with us,” she says slyly, barely glancing at him. “We clutch it this way because of the muggers,” she says, and tears the check out of the book and hands it to him. It is for fifty pounds. “Don’t cash it,” she says. “Show it round. The money ought to come pouring in. When you have what you think you need you may send the check back. You needn’t deliver it personally. Just put it in the post.”
“It isn’t for keeps, Your Majesty?”
“Nothing is for keeps, Mister Bale.”
“You want it back? Fifty quid? You want it back?”
“Does the pope shit in the woods?” asked the Queen of England.
—as reprinted by Open Road Integrated Media, New York, 2010
The following is from When in Russia, don’t be bugged by a flowerpot, by Lewis Grizzard, published in The Atlanta Constitution (Atlanta, Georgia) of Wednesday 15th April 1987:
My stepbrother, Ludlow Porch of WSB radio, who happens to be an ex-Marine and quite the patriot, was along with me on a trip to the Soviet Union a couple of years ago and we often carried on sensitive conversations in our respective hotel rooms.
We certainly took for granted our rooms were bugged, especially after one day when Ludlow’s “maid” asked him, “How are you enjoying your stay in Soviet Union?”
Before Ludlow could answer, she said, “Please speak directly into flowerpot.”
After that, Ludlow and I devised a brilliant code to use each time we knew somebody out there was listening.
Now that we are both safely out of the country, and plan never to go back, here is one of our typical conversations while in the Soviet Union, followed by the translation:
LUDLOW: “‘Rosebud’ in the third race at Pimlico.” (I’m so tired of Russian food, I could eat a horse.)
ME: “This little piggy went to market.” (Before I left home, I went by the Piggly-Wiggly supermarket and picked up a couple of cans of pork and beans for the trip. Want some?)
LUDLOW: “Is a bear Catholic?” (In the name of God, yes.)
LA Weekly (Los Angeles, California) for Friday 15th–Thursday 21st May 1987 announced the following concert:
THE PALACE, 1735 N. Vine St., Hlywd. […]
Wed., May 20—Wow! Wotta show! A pre-Doobies concert […], with four of your psychedelic favorites from the ’60s, including […] Iron Butterfly, San Diegans who were definitely one of the hardest rock bands of the acid-rock era. Will they play “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida”? Is the bear Catholic? You bet they will.
Clark DeLeon wrote the following in his column The Scene in Philadelphia and its suburbs, published in The Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) of Wednesday 7th October 1987:
You wonder if professional baseball players can hit a ball that sits on a tee in a sport where you can take as long as you want to hit the thing and where it is considered rude to make noise while a player is swinging. Can they play golf? Hah! Is a bear Catholic?
In What’s in a hoodlum’s nickname? Plenty!, published in The Miami News (Miami, Florida) of Wednesday 29th June 1988, John Keasler related the story of “a young hood” named Antonio Raviolli:
He was approached by a major league crime scout who walked up to him one day and said, “Kid, duh big guys been keeping an eye on you and we think youse is ready. You interested?”
“Am I interested?” shouted the kid. “Is a bear Catholic? Youse ain’t just whistling Dixie.”
The following is from Answers solve deficit puzzle, by Bill Campbell, published in The Daily Dispatch (Moline, Illinois) of Sunday 8th July 1990:
Today, I’m going to perform a public service by answering some of the most most [sic] commonly asked questions about the federal budget deficit crisis.
Q: Is this federal budget deficit crisis going to end up costing me money?
A: Is a bear Catholic? Does the Pope… uh, well, you get the drift.
This is from The Post-Star (Glens Falls, New York) of Thursday 13th June 1991:
Does Arnold Schwarzenegger have clout? Is the bear Catholic? The muscled movie star leaked his desire, during the Persian Gulf War, that he wouldn’t mind having one of those Army-jeep type wheels known as Humvee for his very own. At the time the Army said that their High Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle wasn’t for sale to civvies. They still aren’t—except to Schwarzenegger.
The following is from All Things Reconsidered, by Christopher Corbett, published in The Boston Globe (Boston, Massachusetts) of Sunday 16th February 1992:
People to this day still ask, what ever happened to Noah and Lenny, those two madmen? Where are they now? Are they still in radio?
Are they still in radio?
Does the pope sleep in the woods?
You know those two guys on Car Talk? Who do you think they are? Laurel and Hardy?
In the review of Love Symbol #2, an album by the U.S. singer, songwriter and musician Prince (Prince Rogers Nelson – 1958-2016), published in LA Weekly (Los Angeles, California) for Friday 23rd–Thursday 29th October 1992, Howard Hampton used both Are the three bears Catholic? (i.e., with reference to the fairy tale Goldilocks and the Three Bears) and Does the pope shit in the woods?:
“Is wrestling fixed?” Prince the unstoppable sex machine naturally answers in the negative. Every grunt on this record is 100 percent genuine, every falsetto direct to your ear from heaven above. Is Prince fixed? Are you kidding? Are the three bears Catholic? Does the pope shit in the woods? Are the dead dug up fresh daily to be born again and again and again?
In Shaken, not stirred, published in The Age (Melbourne, Victoria) of Friday 2nd July 1993, Simon Goss used both phrases—with the as the determiner of bear and a as the determiner of Pope:
We don’t want Tinkerbell to die, do we boys and girls? If we all believe, then fairies won’t die. I’m going to expose it all. Get a Pulitzer. Are they going to buy my concept for the book? Is religion the opiate of the masses? Is the bear Catholic? Does a Pope do it in the woods?
The following music review was published in The Guardian (London and Manchester, England) of Saturday 9th May 1998:
Crocketts Flower Girl (Blue Dog/V2).
On V2. Full of hard-driving guitars and guitars that drive hard and big heavy bassy bass and incendiary power chords and riffing riffola and percussiony percussion. The vocal is racked and riven and riven and racked and full of meaningful meaningfulness that means an awful lot, in a meaningful kind of way. So is it any good? Good? Good? Does the Pope shit in the woods? Is a bear Catholic?
In Spirit: Clergy recall their most memorable Christmas, published in the Star-Gazette (Elmira, New York) of Saturday 25th December 1999, the Rev. Tracy Wilder III, rector of St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church in Horseheads, remembered using a surprising version of the phrase Does the Pope — in the woods?:
After leading three Christmas Eve services 10 years ago, including one at midnight, he arrived home between 1:30 and 2 a.m. He couldn’t go to sleep right away because he had to finish preparations for his own family’s celebration. After bustling around assembling toys and putting presents under the tree, he finally toddled off to bed at about 3 a.m.
“About 7 a.m., the children bound into the bedroom and say ‘Daddy, can you get up so we can open our presents?’ And in my stupor—all I could see was fog—I said something like ‘Does the pope take a Reader’s Digest into the woods?’” he said. “They both kind of said ‘Oh,’ and I heard them walking down the hall, saying, ‘What did he mean by that?’”