Profaning The Sacred At The Met Gala
In the autumn of 1989, or maybe 1990, I was looking for a Halloween costume. I had it in my head to costume as a cleric for some reason. I was nominally Christian, and curious about Roman Catholicism, but not religious in any real sense. I decided to go to a rectory at an older inner city parish, to see if they had any old cassocks they weren’t using. Maybe they’ll sell me one.
The old man who received me at the rectory door might have been a priest. He wasn’t dressed as one, but I assume he was one. He was visibly shocked by my request. “You can’t wear those as costumes,” he said. “They’re sacred. They’re only for church.”
He was polite, no doubt seeing in me what I was: an ignorant man in his early 20s who meant no harm. I apologized to the old man, said I didn’t realize this, and told him goodbye. I was so embarrassed by it, though, that I hand-wrote a letter of apology, and sent it to the rectory. I remember in the letter, thanking the old man (whose name I never knew) for teaching me something about sacredness, and how the Roman Catholic church treats garments used in religious life. I told him that this sense of the sacred is something I, as an outsider, admired about Catholicism, and that, to be honest, drew me to it.
Within three or four years, I would be a Catholic.
I thought about that old man — surely he was a priest — this morning when Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the Catholic archbishop of New York, joked that he allowed the pop star Rihanna to borrow one of his mitres for the big Metropolitan Museum gala this week:
To top it all off, Rihanna wore a bejeweled headpiece that was similar to the papal crowns of the middle ages, prompting Cardinal Timothy Dolan to joke on Tuesday that she had borrowed one of his mitres for the evening.
Mitres can only be worn by individuals who have achieved the rank of bishop or abbot in the church.
He spoke about the evening on SiriusXM’s The Catholic Channel and brought up the look when someone mentioned Rihanna’s showstopping coronet, saying: ‘Yes, in fact the news said she was wearing a tiara, which no she was wearing a mitre and she gave it back to me this morning.’
Cardinal Dolan’s announcement led to much laughter, and he did not stop there, revealing that the pop star had also made him a sacred promise.
‘I was teasing my auxiliaries, bishops, who were teasing me about Rihanna and I said, “hey you guys should not complain because she’s volunteered to do some confirmation,”‘ said Cardinal Dolan.
‘She was very gracious, everybody was I couldn’t believe it.’
Dolan was kidding. The mitre worn by the pop star was a creation of the fashion designer John Galliano. Rihanna, a pop superstar, is known for her, um, forward lyrics. For example, this excerpt from her 2016 single “Sex With Me”:
You know I got the sauce (sauce)
You know I’m saucy
And it’s always wet
A bitch never ever had to use lip gloss on it
I’ma need you deeper than six, not a coffin
We’re not making love, tryna get nasty
Grab up your drugs, that make me happy
Sex with me is amazing, with her it’ll feel alright
The sex doesn’t get any better, make it long, let it be all night
I know, I know, I make it hard to let go
Tonight, all night, I’ma roll
Even if I’m alone
And there’s this charming verse from her 2010 ditty, “S&M”:
‘Cause I may be bad but I’m perfectly good at it
Sex in the air, I don’t care, I love the smell of it
Sticks and stones may break my bones
But chains and whips excite me
Cardinal Dolan’s big friend. “She’s volunteered to do some confirmation.” Bwahahahahaha!
A prince of the Church. The Jesuits were represented too.
Actually said to me at the #MetGala tonight:
“I love your costume.”
“Is that, like, for real?”
“You’re the best dressed dude here, bro.” (High fives me.)
“You look just like the real thing.”
And, truly: “I love that you got dressed up as a sexy priest.”
— James Martin, SJ (@JamesMartinSJ) May 8, 2018
The occasion was the formal opening of a new exhibit, “Heavenly Bodies,” which concerns clothing and accoutrements in Catholicism. A writer for America magazine said that Catholics shouldn’t waste their time being offended. Excerpts:
In that sense, the gala achieved what the exhibition could not, since there was no separation of “church” and “world” there. Cardinal Dolan attended, as did America’s James Martin, S.J., and they roamed among Catholics like Stephen Colbert and former altar boys Jimmy Fallon and George Clooney, in addition to celebrities of all sorts of viewpoints and faith traditions showing their interpretations (and celebrations) of the faith. Lena Waithe donned a rainbow cape, explaining: “The theme to me is like be yourself. You were made in God’s image, right?”
For many attendees, meeting Cardinal Dolan and Father Martin was a rare interaction with clergy. “There were a quarter of people who had no clue, seemingly, what a priest was,” said Father Martin, “and said all sorts of crazy things to me like like, ‘Hey bro, you’ve got the best costume of the night! Are you a real priest?’”
“I don’t think they were trying to be offensive,” Father Martin told America. “[As] Pope Francis likes to say, you try to meet people where they are, right? And that night they were at the Met Gala. So you meet them there.”
Presumably he said that with a straight face. The Times‘s coverage appeared under this headline:
Which tells you something.
Backslapping Cardinal Dolan embarrassed himself, at least according to Kyle Smith:
“The basic unseriousness of modern life is exemplified by the fact that New York Catholics are not rioting to shut down the Met Gala,” tweeted the conservative Harvard Law School professor Adrian Vermeule. I wouldn’t go that far. How about a little light condemnation, though? Failing that, how about senior Catholics at least declining to cooperate? Yet the Church’s senior official in the area, the archbishop of New York, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, effectively blessed the event.
“You may be asking what is the Church doing, why is the Church part of all of this?” Dolan said during a press conference before attending the gala. “You may be asking, what is the cardinal archbishop of New York doing here?”
Yes, that is exactly what I’m asking. With each passing year, the Catholic Church becomes more of a target of derision and scorn from Western elites. There used to be pushback from the Church itself. As recently as 1989, Madonna’s profanation of Christian imagery in her “Like a Prayer” video caused so much disgust that Pepsi canceled a commercial starring her and backed out of sponsoring her tour. Gradually, as Madonna moved on to provocations like the disco-crucifixion act in her 2006 tour, the Church began to sense that any attention it paid to such matters would amount to free publicity and grew less vocal about pop culture.
For the Met Gala, though, the Church took the side of its enemies. In his press conference, Dolan made a cringe-inducing attempt to declare common ground with the gala’s ethos of gaudy, narcissistic, sin-loving materialism. “The church and the Catholic imagination — the theme of this exhibit — are all about three things: truth, goodness and beauty,” Dolan said. “That’s why we’re into things such as art, culture, music, literature, and, yes, even fashion.”
Being “into” modern things seems to be the new party line as set by the Vatican, which threw open its doors to New York curators to create the new Met exhibit associated with the gala, “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination.” The Monday-night blowout was just the latest worrying sign that the current pontificate is trying to ingratiate itself with outsiders who reject the Church’s goals. Eager to be “welcoming” and not “judgmental,” Pope Francis is reforming it according to its enemies’ vision.
This is a recipe for self-destruction. Serially removing each of the characteristics that make Catholicism unique will hollow out the Church until it collapses. This is entirely the goal for those who hate the Catholic Church. They want to extinguish the last bits of its influence and twerk on the remains. Do I really have to explain that Kim Kardashian’s path is not the path forward for the Church? Why encourage mixing enduring symbols with the shallow ostentation of Katy Perry or RiRi
There is very little that is less appealing than a clergyman trying to be hip.
Ross Douthat’s take on the Met gala in interesting. Douthat points out that in the Vatican II era, the Roman church tossed out the aesthetics that made it distinctly Catholic, and instead stripped down its liturgy and everything else to accommodate modernity. It has been a failure, aesthetically and otherwise. Douthat:
Instead, the quest for accommodation seems to encourage moderns to divide their sense of what Catholicism represents in two — into an Old Church that’s frightening and fascinating in equal measure, and a New Church that’s a little more liked but much more easily ignored.
Francis and other would-be modernizers are right, and have always been right, that Catholic Christianity should not trade on fear. But a religion that claims to be divinely established cannot persuade without a lot of fascination, and far too much of that has been given up, consigned to the museum, as Western Catholicism has traced its slow decline.
Here the Met Gala should offer the faith from which it took its theme a little bit of inspiration. The path forward for the Catholic Church in the modern world is extraordinarily uncertain. But there is no plausible path that does not involve more of what was displayed and appropriated and blasphemed against in New York City Monday night, more of what once made Catholicism both great and weird, and could yet make it both again.
This is an astute column. Douthat — who is Catholic, as you will recall — acknowledges that the gala was to some degree blasphemous, but the fact that it existed at all is a backhanded tribute to the power of traditional Catholic culture. The Metropolitan Museum will not have an exhibit or a gala to celebrate Protestant adornments, or to celebrate post-Vatican II Catholic aesthetics. There’s not enough there to blaspheme against.
Philosophy begins in wonder, said Aristotle. It’s even more true of religion. That’s what Douthat is getting at. In Christianity, the material culture produced by historic Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Christianity evokes that kind of wonder. In the year 987, Vladimir, pagan Prince of the Kievan Rus, sent out ambassadors to investigate the religions of nearby lands, to see if there was something in those faiths for his own people. They found the Christianity of the Germans to be too dour. Islam wasn’t appealing either. But then they went to Constantinople, to the Hagia Sophia, and reported back:
“And we went into the Greek lands, and we were led into a place where they serve their God, and we did not know where we were, on heaven or on earth; and do not know how to tell about this. All we know is that God lives there with people and their service is better than in any other country. We cannot forget that beauty since each person, if he eats something sweet, will not take something bitter afterwards; so we cannot remain any more in paganism.”
That is why Russia is Orthodox today. Beauty matters.
Speaking of wonder, I do wonder what the hell a cardinal archbishop of the Catholic Church was doing giving his imprimatur to that mockery of the sacred, and even gushing on Catholic radio about how cool it is that Miss Chains-And-Whips-Excite-Me was nice to him.
I can see wanting to be part of the religion that, in the guise of that little old unknown Catholic priest, refused to let a heathen like me wear its cassock as a party costume, because that would be sacrilegious. I can’t see wanting to be part of a religion whose priests encourage that kind of sacrilege as a blessing from the world that in fact hates it.
UPDATE: What the gala-goers gorged on:
In celebration of this year’s #MetGala and the Costume Institute exhibit, @maayanzilberman has paired up with @Versace to create a collection of champagne-flavored rosary necklaces and rings for the big event. https://t.co/IuQOhft7OL
— Vogue Magazine (@voguemagazine) May 4, 2018
UPDATE.2: Erin Manning:
Thank you for this, Rod. I made the mistake of talking about this on Facebook, and have been sternly corrected by my Catholic betters for not looking at this like Jesus, since He would apparently have been totally cool with the whole thing.
Lest anybody think I’m talking about liberal Catholics–nope. A couple of deacons, self-described “orthodox” lay people, all of them rushing to Facebook to tell everybody that, why, they have NO opinion about this whatsoever and can’t understand why anybody else cares about it at all, because really it’s no big deal or anything for Catholicism to be mocked like this, and after all Cardinal Dolan and Father Martin were there and clearly the Church has no problem with this sort of thing, so all of us who do care are Pharisees.
I’m at the point where I think that if somebody put a fumie down in front of this crowd, their main concerns would be 1. Was it ethically sourced? 2. Does everybody have a helmet to wear while stepping on it? and 3. Have we already clapped for the visitors and those celebrating birthdays? Then everybody’d be good to go.