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Low liturgy and high camp: the Met Gala fiasco

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | May 11, 2018

Without exception, the people with whom I spoke on the issue agreed that it was spectacularly foolish for the Vatican to become involved with the Met Gala. They all saw the problem coming, long before the headlines and photo-spreads appeared.

So how did it happen? Why didn’t Vatican officials anticipate the problem that my friends saw?

Well, apparently the people with whom I speak regularly do not have the same perspective on these things as the decision-makers at the Vatican.

Let’s be honest: The Catholic clergy, and thus the Vatican, is heavily populated with men who are fascinated with the world of fashion, the world of entertainment, the world that flaunts its own self-indulgence at glittery events such as the Oscars and the Met Gala. So the liturgical vestments on loan from the Vatican collection became the backdrop for a celebration of hedonism. Celebrities vied for the attention of photographers, garbed in mock-episcopal regalia, competing to be seen in the most outrageous costumes. Madonna was there, singing “Like a Prayer,” which was deemed appropriate because the song is about… prayer, they tell me; it’s about prayer (although those who hear the song, or watch the video, generally think about another topic, more closely associated with Madonna). Rihanna was there, rocking pimped-out pontifical vestments and showing plenty of skin. Dozens of lesser celebrities came in costumes which, in one way or another, hinted simultaneously at Catholic liturgy and kinky sexuality.

Matthew Schmitz described the surrealistic scene for First Things: “Men in Thom Browne suits and women with Chanel handbags admired a bondage mask draped in rosaries and gawked at mannequins dressed in papal drag, before going to view the sacred clothes worn by the successors of St. Peter.”

Some Catholics understandably saw this display as blasphemous. Others, less outraged, still recognized that the celebrities were mocking the faith— or, at the very least, exploiting religious symbols for their own amusement. But some Catholics saw the event as good fun— not good clean fun, certainly, yet even more titillating because of its edgy, sex-charged atmosphere.

Apparently the Pontifical Council for Culture, which made the decision to loan vestments to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, thought that the exhibit would explore Catholic liturgical arts. Neither the fact that the project was driven by the editor of a fashion magazine, nor the title chosen for the summer exhibit (“Heavenly Bodies”), with its leaden double-entendre, was enough to shake the confidence of the Vatican planners.

Nevertheless, even those complacent Vatican officials were caught off guard, Edward Pentin reports in the National Catholic Register, when they realized that their Vatican collection would be the backdrop for the Met Gala. Having liturgical vestments on display in a famous museum is one thing; inviting the Hollywood crowd to a costume party is something else entirely.

Still there are plenty of influential Catholic clerics delighted with any opportunity to rub shoulders with entertainers, to show their willingness to welcome alternative approaches to human sexuality. The ubiquitous Father James Martin, SJ, was reportedly instrumental in arranging the event, and of course he was on hand for the Gala, happily announcing to his Twitter audience that one party-goer had complimented him on his sexy-priest costume. Yeah, I bet.

New York’s Cardinal Timothy Dolan was caught in the spotlight, and a lesser prelate might have squirmed uneasily. But the irrepressibly jolly Cardinal Dolan was delighted with the attention heaped on him. He told Sirius Radio: “I didn’t really see anything sacrilegious. I may have seen some things in poor taste, but I didn’t detect anybody out to offend the Church.”

What did the cardinal detect, then? He said that the people with whom he spoke were “sure good to me, they were sure kind to me, and a number of people came up and spoke about their Catholic upbringing.” From this evidence, the cardinal deduced that the event was helping to bring party-goers back in touch with their Catholic roots. And if that was the case, then surely the exhibit could be counted as a form of evangelization, couldn’t it?

But did the lapsed-Catholic celebrities show any interest in returning to the active practice of their faith? Or were they just making polite conversation, regaling the affable prelate with stories from their early years? Sure, George Clooney might have fond memories of serving as an altar boy. And I have fond memories of summers spent playing Wiffleball in the backyard. But that’s ancient history now.

“When a living faith gets treated like a museum piece,” wrote Ross Douthat for the New York Times, “it’s hard for its adherents to know whether to treat the moment as an opportunity for outreach or for outrage.” The Vatican had made it very easy to treat the faith as a museum piece, by taking part in an exhibit— a glorified fashion show, in fact— at a museum.

Liturgical vestments are not, and never have been, fashionable. They may (and should) be beautiful, but these vestments are properly designed to achieve an effect quite the opposite of what fashion designers seek. Priestly vestments are intended to show that the celebrant is set apart from everyday life, acting as the Eternal High Priest, far beyond the realm of shifting trends and superficial appearances.

Cardinal Dolan told Sirius that he saw the Met exhibit as a celebration of the Catholic imagination. To which Matthew Schmitz rightly replied, in First Things: “What the sacramental imagination should mean, first of all, is actual belief in the sacraments.” That essential— religious faith— was manifestly missing from the ambience of the Met Gala. And sadly, not just from the Gala.

My wife Leila made the point in a Facebook post:

The beautiful objects made for worship and the glory of God, on display at the Metropolitan Museum, were the artistic overflowing of an abundance of love—specifically and particularly liturgical love: love of Our Lord in the Liturgy.
Think of this: Any poor person could have seen these things at any time, for free, by going to Mass where such things were. Their beauty literally drew everyone to “seeing” God’s presence… Now we are manifestly not able to produce even one such object—for the simple reason that the Liturgy has been reduced to its barest skeleton by stripping its interior magnificence. It sadly has no abundance from which such beauty might flow to make known its splendor.

The Eucharistic liturgy is the fullest expression of the faith, the “source and summit” of Catholic spiritual life, the heavenly banquet made present on earth, and so the desire to make the liturgy beautiful— now, every Sunday, every day— is a natural outgrowth of an active faith. If the beautiful vestments are seen only in a museum, while the experience of Sunday liturgy in a typical parish is deliberately pedestrian— then, yes, the beauty of the Catholic faith, made manifest in the old Vatican collection, has been reduced to an artifact.

The treasures of the Vatican collection should reflect something more than art done for art’s sake. Taken by themselves these artistic objects do not command respect; it is their proper use that gives them value. Sacred art points us toward the holy, the other. Without a recognition of that “other,” as Ross Douthat observed in his perceptive New York Times column, the products of the Catholic imagination can easily be perceived as simply weird. So they were perceived, I suspect, by most of those who attended the gala. And so they were embraced, because many of these folks revel in the world of the weird.

For believing Catholics, however, Douthat argues that “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.” Catholicism cannot thrive by accommodating itself to the reigning materialistic culture; the faith will prosper only when the world recognizes in the Church the portal to the “other,” the sacred, the eternal.

Vestments and rituals, by themselves, cannot achieve that end. The “way of beauty” is a tried-and-true path to the faith, but it only leads as far as the doorway. Entry into the Catholic faith, and thus the Catholic imagination, requires acceptance of a system of belief, a lifelong commitment, a joyous affirmation of a faith that is at odds with the hedonism on display at the Met Gala.

Without an unapologetic expression of faith, what could possibly have come out of this collaboration between the Vatican and the fashion industry? Wasn’t this event always destined to promote a sort of cultural appropriation? The Sistine Chapel choir sang for New York’s cultural elite: an audience that has no use for the Catholic faith, but seized another opportunity for amusement.

Cardinal Dolan told Sirius that as he went to bed after the Gala, he prayerfully asked, “would one person return to the faith after tonight, dear Lord? Because of just some fascination or something?” No doubt it’s possible; the Spirit moves in unpredictable ways. But…

At the Gala the Catholic Church encountered the world of fashion, the world of the ephemeral, the world of self-promotion and self-indulgence. The fashion world showed itself for what it truly is. The Church did not. I join Cardinal Dolan in praying that at least one person came back to the Catholic faith. But I also pray that not too many lost souls wandered even further away. And I wonder when Catholic leaders will recognize that evangelization means not seeking affirmation from a decadent culture, but offering an alternative.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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