Why the Met Gala is a good thing for Catholicism

Rihanna and Frances McDormand

Last night’s gala at the Metropolitan Museum of Art presented us with several Joans of Arc in chainmail dresses; a crusader or two; a plethora of angels; a few cardinals (only one genuine!); a mother of sorrows and many other Marys; and lots of men in their “Sunday best” suits. And one pope: that being Rihanna, of course.

As part of the .00000001 percent of the population who interned at Vogue magazine while attending divinity school and now works in Catholic media, this year’s Met Gala felt meant for me. I watched the red carpet unfold on social media from my couch, decked out in a floor-length black velvet dress emblazoned with stained-glass crosses (why not?), gasping at Chadwick Boseman’s pristine, white-and-gold messianic cape, and admiring Cardi B, a welcome vision of a pregnant Mary, Queen of Heaven.

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It was thrilling to watch so many other people engage with the faith and religion with such zeal.

But the most exciting part of the Met Gala for the “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination” exhibition was not that it aligned with my own, admittedly niche, interests. What was thrilling was to watch so many other people—Catholic and non-Catholic, believers and nonbelievers—engage with the faith and, more broadly, religion with such zeal. Such a theme would have been unthinkable in the early 2000s, when New Atheism reared its head and Catholicism was primarily discussed in relation to the sexual abuse crisis. If nothing else, the theme of this year’s exhibition and gala shows a willingness to engage with religion that is healthy and promising in a climate where polarization is rife.

Cardi B in Moschino
Cardi B in Moschino

Of course, not all engagement is high quality. When the exhibition was announced, some Catholics worried about being made fun of or of having their traditions trivialized. At the gala, Anne Hathaway’s afterthought crown of thorns (or “spikey halo”!) and Sarah Jessica Parker’s kitschy headpiece—a confounding replica of a Neapolitan nativity scene—might fall into this camp.

But Catholics, while entitled to offense, should not complain about cultural appropriation in the same way that other groups might because they are so well-represented in popular culture. The stakes would be much higher, for example, if the “Islamic imagination” were taken as the exhibition and gala’s theme. For every shallow engagement with the faith that a Catholic must endure, there is an abundance of better examples (“The Young Pope,” “Lady Bird”) to look to, and the consequence of misrepresentations are less dire.

The exhibition of garments and vestments on display at the Met (from May 10 to Oct. 8) anticipated critiques of blasphemy and insensitivity. Andrew Bolton, who curated the exhibition and coordinated the loan of approximately 40 ecclesiastical masterworks from the Sistine Chapel sacristy, was very deferential in his choices of garment and staging, and achieved a stunning feat.

Sarah Jessica Parker in Dolce & Gabbana
Sarah Jessica Parker in Dolce & Gabbana

This deference is evident in that the collection was essentially divided in two. Vatican-loaned objects were housed in the Anna Wintour Costume Center, a staircase apart from the fashion exhibition, which showcased a vest made of crucifixes (Chanel); a bedazzled, silk papal gown (Dior); and an ethereal blue-and-white Madonna ensemble (Mugler) suspended from the ceiling.

The separation of the “religious” and the “secular” by the exhibition organizers appears to be informed by Canon 1171 of the Code of Canon Law, which says: “Sacred objects, set aside for divine worship by dedication or blessing, are to be treated with reverence. They are not to be made over to secular or inappropriate use, even though they may belong to private persons.”

However, the proximity of vestments and couture fashion could serve as an invitation for reverence. Perhaps because the museum is itself a reconstruction of religious spaces, the part of the exhibition being shown at the Met’s Cloisters, in northern Manhattan’s Fort Tryon Park, is a more satisfying representation of the richness of the Catholic imagination. In one room, the devotional function of fashion is conveyed by a mannequin in a wedding dress (House of Balenciaga), turned toward Christ on the crucifix (Castile-León, ca. 1150 -1200) as if in prayer.

There is something abstract and unhelpful about the separation of “the religious” and the “religious-inspired.”

There is something abstract and unhelpful about the separation of “the religious” and the “religious-inspired.” From both a religious studies perspective and a faith perspective, the secular and the religious are not wholly separate. Religion is a dimension of culture, politics, art and economics—it can’t be separated in its own category. And as people of faith who see God in all things, who ourselves embody the integration of religious and secular, how can we even begin to separate the two?

The juxtaposition of objects belonging to the Vatican and made by contemporary designers—both of which are attempts at the religious made by human hands—is as good as any representation of the church as it exists. (Some of the designers, like Lanvin and Thom Browne, were raised Catholic.) The church’s scope goes far beyond those who attend Mass every week.

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.”

Religion, Catholicism included, does not exist in a pure form. It is messy business, practiced by imperfect people in an imperfect world. The gala reminded us of that.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Christopher Lochner
1 month 1 week ago

Great.... Sort of like Jesus leaving Jerusalem and traveling to Rome to hobnob and, of course, with the powerful and very well connected. "Lord??"...."You think I actually enjoy the company of sinners in their hovels? Get with modern times. It's about causes and not nearly so much people!" And the crowd cheered with deafening shouts of hurrah and and an infinite number of selfies. And the Prosperity Gospel was brought to fruition.

Henry George
1 month 1 week ago

I know I am old, but this "Gala" was obscene and why the Vatican
loaned anything to the Met is beyond me.

John Walton
1 month 1 week ago

A parenthetical: Cardinal Dolan was reported to have said (via WOR-AM): "The portions were so small that I was required to find a hot-dog cart after the event."
My belief -- Phillipe would have kicked this one into the ash-can. Thomas Hoving (famously complained of Walter Wriston's crass Christmas display opposite 399 Park Avenue) would have let the offending trustees to the metaphysical gallows (i.e.no name on wall of Grand Staircase), James Rorimer, came close to taking a bullet for his country, would have been mortified.
Where the Met excels in exemplifying religiousity -- think back to "The Glory of Byzantium".

Carol Goodson
1 month 1 week ago

Judging from the photos, it was gross and disgusting.

Leonard Go
1 month 1 week ago

Thank you. While perhaps even less representative of the lives of "real people" than Catholicism in the US, the Met Gala is nonetheless a forum of engagement, and as such having that attention focused on the faith, even if truly superficially, is at least a form of dialogue.

Bill Niermeyer
1 month 1 week ago

Are the Bishops and Cardinals and Pope dressing in the Vatican Ensemble cloths after working hours? No wonder why they have sexual abuse. It was a drag queen race.

Janis Barnard
1 month 1 week ago

Not charitable

Janis Barnard
1 month 1 week ago

Eloise, I’m with you. Hollywood has always, and still does, relied heavily on the sights, sounds and symbols of the Catholic Church. And rightly so; there is no other church that so engages our all of senses in such glorious ways. Could any other church have been chosen to so “inspire the imagination”? The say that imitation is the highest form of flattery. Speaking as a Catholic, I’m flattered!

Janis Barnard
1 month 1 week ago

Ok, I’m embarrassed. I used the edit tool to add to my comment. My first post and second then appeared. Then I tried to delete my first post and three posts appeared. Please forgive

Eric Sundrup
1 month 1 week ago

No worries Janis. I deleted the duplicates for you.

Laurence Ringo
1 month 1 week ago

One is left to wonder what would have happened if those dedicated purveyors of sex,sin,and worldly pleasures had actually sought to imitate Christ the Lord in their real lives....Just saying. 😎

Catherine MacNeil
1 month 1 week ago

A great presentation of the need for our Catholic Church to simplify vestments, habits, "costumes", etc. I'm reminded of discusssions of "the body as symbol" and the importance of understanding the meaning expressed by a symbol and the contemporary loss of meaning with the result of "empty or meaningless" symbols. Most Christian holidays and symbols have lost meaning in USA, e.g., Halloween, St. Valentines, Easter especially (bunnies, eggs, new clothes). This exhibit seems to be an example of "empty symbols" cut off from meaning rather than influence of Catholic imagination. I found Cardi B. wearing thigh high slit especially offensive to my concept of "Queen of the Universe".

Stuart Meisenzahl
1 month 1 week ago

Gosh....all that is is missing is a breathy commentary on the "goings on" and "who is who" at the inevitable Vanity Fair After Party.

Carlo Lancellotti
1 month 1 week ago

I have seen no evidence whatsoever that anybody at the Met Gala "engaged with the faith."

Vince Killoran
1 month 1 week ago

Let's put it this way: it's not the worst thing for Catholicism. But you have to squint really hard to see any potential value in this caper.

Here's the criteria church officials should have employed when they mulled over the proposal for the "gala": could this be staged at a Catholic Worker house? If not, then maybe they should have passed.

Robert Lewis
1 month 1 week ago

Usually, I agree with Fr. Martin, but I have to say, this time, I agree with you, Vince. This whole thing is tawdry.

john abrahams
1 month 1 week ago

Federico Fellini outdid everything here in a short film ridiculing papal garments worn by models in a fashion show. Always remember the sequence of the catwalk upon which strode men & woman dressed in grotesquely skewed vestments worthy of Boccaccio. Maybe the film was called "Boccaccio 70"? That was many years ago in another country where the wench is dead.

Dan Acosta
1 month 1 week ago

Apparently neither your education nor your internship at Vogue taught you the rules of grammar, unless you meant to say that the Met Gala is "part of the .00000001 percent of the population who interned at Vogue magazine while attending divinity school and now works in Catholic media..." Sloppy wiritng and/or editing.

Stephen Rifkin
1 month 1 week ago

Now do Islam. It will be hilarious

Magdalene P
1 month 1 week ago

If mockery is a good thing, then, yes, this display was okay.

Anne Danielson
1 month 1 week ago

“The theme to me is like be yourself. You were made in God’s image, right?”

True, but when, like in The Emperor's New Clothes, we choose the seamless garment of the learned, and no longer desire to be clothed in The Word of God, we find ourselves exposed and " Naked in the Public Square", The Sacred Garment, no longer held Sacred. That is why the Met Gala was not a reflection of Catholicism; Catholics worship our Creator, The Ordered Communion Of Perfect Complementary Love, The Most Holy And Undivided Blessed Trinity, The Author Of Love, of Life, and of Marriage.

howerruth@gmail.com
1 month 1 week ago

Of all the beautiful things in this world around which to build a "Gala", religion is not one of them. I'm deeply offended. Jesus and His Blessed Mother have been insulted beyond anything I can begin to imagine - those people have no idea what the Christian faith is all about, and I doubt the author of this article does either. What is Jesus thinking of all this? I'm praying for all of you who think this was Art! Modesty and chastity have flown out the window. I wish I'd never known this happened.

Peter Muller
1 month 1 week ago

While it is true that Jesus consorted with sinners, such as prostitutes and lowlifes, he did so in order to present the face of compassion and forgiveness to them, to convert them to goodness. But in his example of chasing the money changers out of the temple, he demonstrated a very clear position against corruption and perversion. And so confrontation, not accomodation, are at times indicated for Christians when circumstances arise. (Perhaps Vatican officials were lied to by the Met curator, who disingenuously assured them that the exhibit’s context would provide the utmost respect for the sacramental items loaned?)

We were admonished by the Lord to be in the world, but not of the world. What about that? Or another one, about not giving what is holy to dogs, or casting pearls before swine — how about that one? Today, in this realm of relentless self-promotion and destructive relativity, anything can be said in justification, or against in denial. However: all of this will pass, and it is as meaningless as most other temporal affairs. In the end, only what is truly good will triumph. In te Domine speravi...

dc nm
1 month 1 week ago

Other articles by by Ms. Blondiau

Why divorce is good for children
Why cell phones are great for classrooms
Why orgies are great for seminaries
Why domestic violence is good for women
Why accusations of calumny are good for sex abuse victims
Why bars are great for alcoholics
Why fawning attention is good for the vain

James Haraldson
1 month 1 week ago

Given our Orwellian times, we now live in an Orwellian Church.

Dominic Deus
1 month 1 week ago

HA! At last, an intelligent, nuanced and sensitive explanation of why the Met Gala was *perfect for the Church in time, place and transparency. Of course, it came form a woman who knows what a gala is for--to have fun and raise money for a cause. A big shout out to Eloise!!!

She also noted that breast, thighs and leg are not bad in and of themselves and are, in fact good. Women know this, men know this and Kentucky Fried Chicken knows this. That Cardinal Dolan has a sense of humor is certainly miraculous and I'm sure that Pope Francis would have given his "haut couture* blessing to Rihanna for best use of white outside the Vatican or a traditional wedding and maybe best all time,

Solange was criticized for looking like a Goth Madonna but, when you are Beyoncé's little sister, going with the classic little black dress is a smart move.

I noticed one of our fellow commentators, a woman, described the whole thing as "look[ing] gross and disgusting. Here is a tip, proper etiquette for women of certain age commenting on young women dressed their best, strutting their stuff with a little (or more) leg, cleavage and six inch heels. Never,ever, call them gross and disgusting. Not only will you get a major eye roll from your granddaughters but your own contemporaries, best friends will either wonder if you are slipping or worse, tell each other,"Betty's always been a bit off-the-dot.

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