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Dear Fr Rutler: what should I do when my family trash-talk the Pope?

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Our resident Agony Priest answers your questions on papal criticism, priestly gifts and nudity in art

Dear Father Rutler,

Pope Francis isn’t my favourite Vicar of Christ of the last couple of millennia, but I don’t like the way some of my friends and family trash-talk him. Should I say something? If so, how do I put it without sounding cloyingly pious?
Roger S, Reading, MA

With the best of intentions, people may forget that at the heart of piety is “reverence for the fathers”. That does not mean indulging the extravagant and unfounded notion that the Holy Spirit chooses each pope. It does mean that the Holy Spirit can pick up the pieces of whatever mere mortals may break, and it also means taking seriously the prayers at Mass for a pope. Our Lord had the most righteous anger, but our anger may not always be altogether righteous, losing temper rather than using it. Arguments about such things usually are cathartic rather than constructive. If friends and family rant, just quietly ask: “When the apostles remembered Psalm 69:9 about being consumed by zeal, what do you think was meant by the Septuagint’s use of katesthio?” If that doesn’t silence them, gently ask, “Do you want to be Shem and Japheth, or just Ham?” It is unlikely that they will continue the conversation.

Should I buy my priest something for Christmas? Is there a customary gift?
Nancy K, Sherman, TX

The best gift is a spiritual bouquet of prayers for his special intentions. But since the degradation of clerical garb is a sorry fact these days, you might also give him a good clerical vest (rabat) with some real clerical collars. This might discourage the egregious “tab collars” which are little bits of white plastic stuck in the neck of a shirt. These are the equivalent of a T-shirt with a necktie painted on it.

My husband and I are expecting our first child – a son – and we both like the name Becket. There are already two at our parish, and it seems to be popular with a certain kind of young Catholic couple. (We met at Christendom College.) Is that name in good taste?
Julie M, Huntsville, AL

Nothing is in better taste than invoking a saint. The parents of St Thomas of Canterbury spelled it Beket, but that may have had something to with being Norman. The addition of an “à” before “Becket” was just a 19th-century affectation. Giving a child a solid saint’s name can counter the unfortunate fad of appropriating names from shops and places, such as Tiffany and Chelsea. That can only lead to naming children Walmart and Bronx. Names are important, which is why popes and monarchs take care when they exercise the unique option of renaming themselves. You can be sure that if a pope chose to be named Attila, it would cause a stir in the Roman Curia and the editorial offices of the New York Times.

Your mention of Christendom College reminds me that it gratuitously gave me an honorary doctorate in Humane Letters, even though my penmanship is rather inhumane.

I’m a big fan of Bouguereau, but sometimes I wonder if that doesn’t owe more to just his exquisite technique. How much nudity in art is too much, Christianly speaking?
Andrew B, Florence, SC

As an amateur painter, I confine myself to landscapes and still lifes whose only déshabillé consists of bare branches and peeled fruit. The technique of Bouguereau is breathtaking, as is that of Alma-Tadema. In their generation, borderline eroticism was acceptable so long as the scenes were classical – so, for instance, a naked duchess would not have been acceptable unless she was posed as Cleopatra. Bouguereau’s religious paintings tend to the sentimentality for which the brilliant Norman Rockwell was later criticised.

But as with some famous preachers, one can learn a lot from their method while ignoring their content. Great Victorian art will long outlast our expressionism and nihilism. Queen Victoria was not a Victorian in the caricatured sense. In 1841 she commissioned Emil Wolff’s statue of Prince Albert, half naked in strategically arranged Greek armour. She thought it was “very beautiful” when it arrived in 1844, but “we know not yet where to place it”. Multiple nudes followed, beginning with William Dyce’s fresco for Osborne House, showing naked Neptune rising from the sea with nymphs lacking bathing suits.

But there is also another kind of tastelessness: the saccharine religious art to which many self-styled conservative Catholics are addicted. There are images of Our Lady of Fatima that resemble the Empress Eugénie in a depressed state, and Divine Mercy pictures that make our Lord look like Rita Hayworth having a heart attack. I expect that you share with me the suffering of someone with perfect taste living in a vulgar world.

Fr George Rutler is the pastor of St Michael’s Church in New York City. To seek his advice, write to [email protected]