Jim McDermottSeptember 16, 2021
Lorde attends The Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute benefit gala celebrating the opening of the "In America: A Lexicon of Fashion" exhibition on Monday, Sept. 13, 2021, in New York. (Photo by Evan Agostini/Invision/AP)

The Met Gala was on Monday night, so of course I spent the better part of the next day looking through photos of celebrities, athletes and others dressed like they were headed out for dinner in a Dali painting. In truth, most of the men looked like they were groomsmen in their best bud’s wedding—Billy Porter, where are you when we need you?—but the women more than made up for it with outfits that involved not only elegant silhouettes and gorgeous trains but swords, horse heads and face spiders.

Some might have questioned the logic of having the gala when the pandemic continues to surge across our country. (Singer Nicki Minaj explaining that she was not participating because the event required vaccination—while also promoting untrue stories about the vaccines causing impotence—highlighted once again the problems our country faces.)

But the main question I had reading about the Met Gala was, How can we get the Catholic Church to sponsor something like this? Because we absolutely should.

The main question I had reading about the Met Gala was, How can we get the Catholic Church to sponsor something like this? Because we absolutely should.

I know what you are thinking—a decadent spectacle of wealth, really, that’s what the church needs right now? I seem to remember something about Jesus and some moneychangers. Here’s an idea: Why not use some of that wealth and privilege to do some real good?

To which I would respond, first of all, Jesus attacked the moneylenders for doing business in the Jews’ holiest of places, not for wearing a gorgeously tattered American flag as a skirt (and looking amazing, Debbie Harry). And second, did you not see Regina King’s incredible boss outfit or Lorde’s halo-like crown? Because they were the very definition of “real good.”

I’m kidding. Except I’m also not. High fashion certainly can find its way into decadence and grotesquerie; it can represent a radical disconnection with the hardship of real life, a sort of Marie Antoinette in couture.

I know what you are thinking—a decadent spectacle of wealth, really, that’s what the church needs right now? I

But at its foundation fashion is a celebration of life, of beauty and of the human form, all of which is eminently Catholic. So often we hear the incarnation of Christ talked about in hostile-to-the-world language—Christ “lowering himself to our humanity.” In fact, as Catholics we believe that Christ’s choice to be human is a validation of our existence, not only an invitation to see the physical beauty of the world as blessed but an emphatic insistence that this is the case. We can no more dismiss fashion as a legitimate expression of our faith than we would dismiss the Renaissance or Midnight Mass.

Billie Eilish might not think of herself as giving glory to God as she walks up the steps like Cinderella in her peach Oscar de la Renta princess gown, but from our Catholic point of view that is absolutely an element of what is happening there.

It is also why having the church sponsor its own galas is such a great opportunity. We are able to point to those deeper, often otherwise inchoate instincts within such a celebration—the impulse toward the divine, the celebration of the human.

At its foundation fashion is a celebration of life, of beauty and of the human form, all of which is eminently Catholic.

As a church we are also able to contextualize a fashion event in a way that a secular group cannot so easily do. We can craft a gala that celebrates orphans or refugees from around the world, medical professionals, hurricane victims or essential workers. And what is more, we can use the occasion to help them, just as Pope Francis has so often turned his papal visits and audiences into new opportunities for people to see and love the least among us.

We can ask Balenciaga not only to design dresses for refugees, but train them; request Chanel contribute not just hats or jewelry but funds to support vacation or spa time for exhausted nurses; ask feuding hip-hop artists Kanye and Drake to walk in together and donate to a restorative justice organization; give mainstream media and its audiences new paradigms for thinking about immigrants, the disabled, the elderly.

I also yearn for an event like a Catholic Gala because of its possible impact on our community. So much of public life in the church today seems to exist in the form of argument—leaders and others debating about doctrine.

A lot of that is fine, even important. But what lies at the heart of our faith is not quarrels or even discourse but experience, the personal encounter with the divine that humbles us, delights us and changes our hearts. At times it feels like we have relegated ourselves to dining on ashes while Jesus sits nearby waiting with a feast.

So give me a night sponsored by the Archdiocese of New York, Denver or San Francisco filled with glorious sculptural pieces designed by Prada and Valentino and worn by Malala Yousafzai and Beyoncé, Dr. Fauci and Rihanna, Iman and the refugee Olympic team. Let them know us by whom we embrace and our zeal for praise and delight.

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