The Catholic-themed Met Gala wasn’t well received by actual Catholics. Granted, a leather bondage mask draped in rosary beads isn’t exactly edifying. Nor was Rihanna’s sexy bishop costume.
The Gala also falls perilously close to a particularly large kerfuffle over “cultural appropriation”, when a student was set upon by a Twitter mob for wearing a Chinese qipao to prom. There’s certainly a double-standard at work here. As others have pointed out, it’s inconceivable that the Met would throw a Muslim-themed soirée.
Maybe, as some have claimed, this all indicates some kind of latent anti-Catholicism in American society. But I’m not so sure.
Mainstream culture is absolutely fascinated by Catholic tradition, and not always in an irreverent way. Think of The Young Pope. Jude Law plays a pontiff in a white Armani cassock and red velvet slippers. Having taken the name Pius XIII, Lenny Belardo promptly moves to defrock all gay priests and refuse absolution to women who have abortions.
Catholics as well as non-Catholics may well flinch at Pius XIII. But he is a wildly successful pope. The world waits in rapt anticipation for every new homily execrating them for their vileness and impiety; he refuses to show his face in public, his voice booming from the unlit balcony of St Peter’s. The Italian prime minister is so afraid of the young pontiff’s influence over the voting public that he allows Pius to dictate his party’s campaign manifesto.
This is the vision of papal achievement offered by HBO, which millions of Americans tuned in to watch. Non-Catholics can barely disguise their pining for a more reactionary, decadent Romanism.
That’s not surprising, either. “There is nothing beautiful, pleasing, or grand in life, but that which is more or less mysterious,” Chateaubriand observed. And the Church, when it’s closest to its roots, is terribly mysterious to our contemporaries.
To modern eyes, Sarah Jessica Parker’s Nativity Scene hat isn’t nearly as strange as an ordinary biretta. Chastity and fasting are incomprehensible to a society that values self-gratification above all. Our contemporaries are peeved if they have to wait more than three minutes at the drive-through window, but we might spend hours on a Eucharistic procession. To those schmaltzy “Coexist” bumper stickers, Rome replies: Extra Ecclesiam nulla salus.
Ross Douthat picks up these themes in his latest New York Times column, “Make Catholicism Weird Again”. He laments that
elements of the Catholic tradition have turned into archaic curiosities to be rediscovered by aesthetes and donned lewdly by Rihanna, [and] the choices made by the church’s own leaders have played as much of a role as the anticlericalism of Proust’s era… When a living faith gets treated like a museum piece, it’s hard for its adherents to know whether to treat the moment as an opportunity for outreach or for outrage.
The answer, I think, is neither. Don’t dignify any perceived irreverence by getting angry, but don’t debase the Church by playing along too readily, either. Just keep being weird. Scandalise them with truth, goodness, and beauty. A self-possessed and unyielding Catholicism – one loftily indifferent to the rise and fall of popular opinion – is what our contemporaries secretly crave. So give it to them.