So, was the Met Gala sacrilegious?

Rihanna attends The Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute benefit gala celebrating the opening of the Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination exhibition on Monday, May 7, 2018, in New York. (Photo by Evan Agostini/Invision/AP)

Against my better judgment, I trawled Catholic Twitter last night during the Met Gala.

The cause célèbre was the the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s exhibitionHeavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination.” All the hissing had less to do with the exhibition itself than it did with last night’s gala designed to promote it. Formally, the Met Gala is an annual fundraising effort benefiting its Costume Institute. Popularly, though, the gala serves a deliciously confected dish of couture. None other of our holy days—the Golden Globes, the Oscars—approach its sartorial solemnity. There is little wonder why: It promises us greasy, workaday proles a glimpse of our local gods in their terrible majesty. Behold Aphrodite, her robe glowing brighter than flame, her breasts glistering beneath it, her earrings blossoming like so many wildflowers. What choice have we but to fall irretrievably under her spell?

Such spectacle may have invited an intramural contretemps among Catholics, regardless of theme. But this year’s theme didn’t help matters. Neither did the photos. Visions like Blake Lively’s coquettish, Caravaggio-esque Madonna or Rihanna’s gemstone pontiff were not difficult to anticipate (they’ll prove rather more difficult to forget, I expect).

Still easier to anticipate, however, was how Catholic reactions to the gala moved along two tracks—those of the cheerers and the weepers.

The cheerers seemed to receive head curator Andrew Bolton’s word exactly as he gave it. “We know it could be controversial for right wing or conservative Catholics and for liberal Catholics,” he told The New York Times.Still, the exhibition assays “what we call the Catholic imagination and the way it has engaged artists and designers and shaped their approach to creativity, as opposed to any kind of theology or sociology.” Cheerers were likely to think the gala a celebration, a veneration of Catholicism’s rich aesthetic archive. Among the loudest and most visible of the cheerers was Timothy Cardinal Dolan, Archbishop of New York City, who told the Hollywood Reporter: “In the Catholic imagination, truth, goodness and the beauty of God is reflected all over the place, even in fashion.” “The world,” Dolan explained, “is shot through with His glory and His presence. That’s why I’m here, and that’s why the church is here.”

“In the Catholic imagination, truth, goodness and the beauty of God is reflected all over the place, even in fashion.”

But well before any photos emerged, the mere prospect of scandal seemed enough to provoke the pious. Some weepers registered discomfort. Others seethed anger: “My culture isn’t your prom dress,” several tweets read—a recycled meme targeting illicit cultural appropriation. Still others wondered why New York’s Catholic faithful didn’t riot in the streets.

Predictable, all. The way each camp received the gala told a parable about how each receives American culture in general—the traditionalist with bile, the bourgeois with glossy amusement.

But suppose the weepers are right. Suppose, as they do, that in donning of gilded vestments, the glitterati have mockery as their principal aim. If true this would, so far as I can tell and St. Thomas thinks, weigh the gala heavily in the direction of sacrilege: irreverence for or misuse of sacred things. It’s a serious offense, Thomas thinks, among whose just deserts number sanction or excommunication. Even death. That may be an extreme way to think about a mostly frivolous event, but the question remains. If not with flame and stake, how ought Catholics to receive the Met Gala and its supposed sacrilege?

As a scene of instruction, perhaps—a tableau that recalls the deep parody of the Catholic aesthetic.

By parody, I mean the ironic troping of an event, person or narrative for the purpose of subversion. Parody is threaded deeply and garishly across the New Testament, especially in the Gospels. Take Mark: After a blind man sees the Christ his very disciples cannot, Jesus parades into his kingdom on an ass. He, Son of David and King of the Jews, is then anointed with spittle, crowned with thorns and enthroned on a cross.

How ought Catholics to receive the Met Gala and its supposed sacrilege?

It is here, I think, in the crown of thorns the soldiers twist into Christ’s skull and in the purple mantle they lay across his scourged shoulders, that the Catholic aesthetic finds its archetype. John’s Apocalypse intensifies the image. There it is a slain lamb around whose throne creation constellates, casts its crowns and trills the eternal hymn. We Catholics recall the parody when we embellish our crucifixes and their corpora with gold-leaf. Or when we bejewel the relics of our holy dead. The irony here traffics in the logic of apocalyptic. The Roman soldiers got it right when they crowned Christ the King. Only they failed to mock the real wretch: death.

What has Golgotha to do with the Met? The gala goer’s sacrilege parodies ecclesiastical vestments—sacred things, true enough, ordered to the worship of the Trinity. But to the extent that they trace their pattern from the regalia of Christ on Golgotha, priestly vestments already court parody. The point of vesting for Mass is, on this view, to live the great parody again and again. This pattern of thought extends to the highest reaches of church hierarchy. To be a prince of the church is, recall, to be a servant; to be her highest prince is simply to be servus servorum Dei. The bishop plays anti-prince, his cathedral anti-palace, his cassock anti-mantle.

Maybe Solange’s more-Maleficent-than-Madonna ensemble can’t be dismissed so easily by the backseat theologian. Maybe it constitutes sacrilege after all. But it might remind Catholics that our aesthetic positively thrums with apocalyptic irony—with the King who made of his throne a cross. It might well remind us, too, that we Catholics are capable of sacrilege of another sort, one that methodically removes the ironic threading from the church’s clericals. In the church’s dappled history, many princes of the church have brandished vestments and exercised dominion the way a prince of this world does. And that misuse of the sacred is sacrilege no less.

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Tazuko Arai
2 years 8 months ago

We can argue the meaning of the 2018 Met Gala until the end of days, but the real question for followers of Christ is, is this what He wants us to spend our time, passion, money, etc. on ?

Tim Donovan
2 years 8 months ago

I agree from what I read (and from the photos,of the Gala celebrities that I viewed in the Washington Post on May 9, 2018) that the event was a mixed bag; some of the costumes were indecent, some were simply outlandish and had nothing to do with the Catholic faith, which is what the Gala allegedly had as its theme. In answer to your question, does Jesus want us,to spend our time and money on such events? I think the answer is twofold: in my opinion, there are worse things that we,could spend time and money on, but I think Jesus would much prefer that we love and,care for people in need, rather than spend time and,money on something as essentially frivolous as the Gala.

Bill Mazzella
2 years 8 months ago

No question the hierarchy itself has done much worse than the gala. The Gala makes an attempt to remember the life and death of
christ with its corruption by his followers. His followers profit by his life and death in glorifying themselves. So the Gala might be reaching for the sacred. Whereas the hierarchy is defiling it from within.

Thomas Mirus
2 years 8 months ago

Many people who aren't traditionalists or Catholics described the gala as sacrilegious on Twitter. Quite a lot of them used it as a compliment. They know what they're doing. I'm sure the most sophisticated among them will find it funny that some Catholics are coming up with pseudo-intellectual and pseudo-religious rationalizations for what they themselves freely admit is sacrilege.

Jim Petkiewicz
2 years 8 months ago

As a lifelong 'catholic' who struggles, and fights against, the millennials-long misogyny of the institution, my only reading of the Met Gala is that it was a grand statement against not only the irrelevance of the Catholic Church in this day and age, but also its complicity in the #metoo era. If Rome can't find that it is right and just to ordain women- married or otherwise- as well as ordaining married men, and implementing other reforms that we know are necessary given our horrid past, then we also know the institution is toast; and maybe it should be. The writing has long been on the wall about this, and the precipitous decline of vocations verifies this. Wake up, smell the coffee, and make profound changes post-haste, Rome and Conferences of Bishops. Please...

Henry George
2 years 8 months ago

Given the Anglican Church made those changes and is still shrinking, why should the Catholic Church ?

Robert Lewis
2 years 8 months ago

Mr. George, the MET show is evidence of why it should. In its tawdriness, it advertises the irrelevance in so many lives, of what the Church does and stands for. These costumes are ugly and ridiculous, but costumes like that ARE worn by corrupt, venal, pedophile-enabling prelates. As someone said, on another thread here, all of this luxuriating should be abandoned and replaced by things more fittingly donned for a service in one of Dorothy Day's Catholic Worker houses. As Pope Francis said, when presented with Benedict XVI's ridiculous paraphernalia, "That circus is over"!

Therese Rose
2 years 8 months ago

Jim, judging by your disparaging comment about the Catholic Church and your relationship with it, it’s obvious to me that you had terrible catechesis. As a woman and a convert, I have never experienced more freedom and grace than in the Catholic Church. The typology of Christ being the bridegroom and the Church being the bride precludes a woman from being a priest as the priest is the sacramental symbol of Christ (able to absolve our sin) and as such must be male. A bride cannot marrying a bride as In God’s economy, there is no same sex marriage. Either you are ignorant of this or you choose to not agree with it. Should it be the latter, you should reconsider why you think you’re Catholic. It’s not a club but His chosen and glorious Church.

James Haraldson
2 years 8 months ago

The idiotic evilness of this sacrilegious event reflects perfectly the idiocy of your secular ideas, obviously fortified by a prejudiced distortion of ecclesial history, of how to order God around in what he should be doing with His Church.

Richard Bell
2 years 8 months ago

Only high church, with its gilt threads and jewelry, could be the object of such an event and also treat it seriously as religion's engagement with culture.

Carol Cox
2 years 8 months ago

I was not offended by the Met Gala. I consider myself to be on the Conservative side of Catholicism and I took great joy in watching the invitees walk the grand staircase with their designers' interpretation of the "costumes" of our church. It was not meant to deride Catholicism. For Heaven's sake, with all of the rampant anti-Catholicism throughout the world (including in the US) being reported, I found it refreshing to watch what I considered a homage to our glorious Catholic history so well represented in art and culture. There are items from the Vatican's own collection which were lent to the Met that are far racier than some of the wardrobe choices of the guests. Religious art is also a significant part of the Catholic culture and this modern take on it is meant to honor that contribution, not to mock it. Art is meant to inspire and to provoke. When I saw the gown that had images from The Sistine Chapel, I was thrilled. There are multitudes who have never had the privilege to go to The Vatican and to see Michelagenlo's work in person, Some of these designs were brilliant. Some were not to my liking, but, that is exactly the response that art is meant to solicit.
I live in the Northeast. I attended Catholic schools, as did my sister and brother. When we were home bound because of blizzards, we would "play" at being the priest and altar servers at "Mass" (in Latin, of course). We would find garments around the house to recreate the "costumes" of the priest and the servers. The "landing" leading to the upper level of our home served as the altar. Are there no other Catholic children who did this as well?
This gala was sponsored by a very wealthy and generous contributor to the Diocese of New York. The curator took great care in her presentation in the Museum proper. With attendance at many churches dwindling, I would think that a positive event that presents our church in a positive light in something that is good and necessary for our survival. Blessings.
Carol Cox

Therese Rose
2 years 8 months ago

I think you fail to make the distinction between the people who lead unholy lives dressing up as a Catholic symbols vs innocent children seeking to imitate what they experience in the Mass. There is a difference and it is offensive. The survival of His Church will be because of God’s Power and grace...Hence the very gates of hell shall not prevail against it. Unholy people traipsing around in Catholic dress will have nothing to do with it. I would recommend a RCIA refresher course for you.

Joan Sheridan
2 years 8 months ago

Of course those of us of a certain age remembering "playing" Mass. We used white Necco wafers for communion. In those days we only received under one species. I think it was a sign of how important the mass was to us as children.

Robert Lewis
2 years 8 months ago

"There are items from the Vatican's own collection which were lent to the Met that are far racier than some of the wardrobe choices of the guests."
I agree, and I think that is part of the problem. The stuff is ugly; it's "kitsch," and it is NOT truly aesthetically pleasing, because it's so garish and unseemly. It doesn't appeal to the spirit and the flesh blended together; it appeals ONLY to sensuousness, and is, therefore, BAD ART.

Carol Goodson
2 years 8 months ago

A disgrace. Waste, waste, waste.

Caterina Smith
2 years 8 months ago

Astute insights, Justin. Thank you.

Andrew Strada
2 years 8 months ago

Let's set the Christian angle aside for a moment. I find it sad that so many prominent people would make a fashion statement out of an exceedingly cruel method of execution that the Romans reserved for the most powerless in their society - slaves, rebelling gladiators and other such people who didn't count. Would the people at the Met gala have been, in earlier times, cheering on the Christians or the lions?

Lisa Weber
2 years 8 months ago

Goofy would be a good word for what I see in the pictures - certainly nothing to take too seriously.

Walter Anastazievsky
2 years 8 months ago

Agreed! These kinds of events don't lend themselves to serious reflection (though they certainly seem to elicit more than their share of serious bile). I just had to see what all the outrage was about, so I flipped through all 162 photos of the Gala in the spread done by Vogue, Each photo gives three options to vote on: "Elegant," "Original," or "Daring." I really think they should have added "Ridiculous" - most of them would be in that category. And that's par for the course for this sort of event. This isn't something that should be taken seriously!

While there were a few costumes that made me cringe, and most made me laugh, there were also a fair number that I tagged as "Elegant."

Magdalene P
2 years 8 months ago

It was a mockery of the faith. What saddened my heart the most was the one of Our Lady of Sorrows. All for the money, I know. And to be seen. It was worldly and secular and, yes, sacrilegious. For a cardinal and a priest to be laughing and joking about it just adds insult to injury.

Mike Theman
2 years 8 months ago

Looking forward to the Muslim and Jewish versions, as well. Won't hold my breath.

Louis Candell
2 years 8 months ago

I don't consider myself competent to pass judgment concerning whether or not the Met Gala was sacrilegious but I can say that I am saddened and bewildered by the fact that Father Martin and some highly ranked Church officials were in attendance. Their presence at this exhibit opening was at least tacit approval of the manner in which certain celebrities (most of whom I doubt can even spell Catholicism) chose to display their dismissal of religion in general and Catholicism in particular. Fr. Martin postulated that the official Church, like Christ, must go to the people. In fact, the "people" at the Met Gala a were exactly the elite that Christ would have avoided. The kind of people He sought out were people would could not possibly have afforded, much less desired, to attend such a sordid and sexualized display of disrespect to the Catholic Church. If Church officials simply wanted to respectfully exhibit the history of religious fashion to interested persons, they could have chosen to hold their own less secular opening.

alan macdonald
2 years 8 months ago

Add show biz, skimpy outfits and Jethuit James Martin, what could possibly go wrong?

Anne Danielson
2 years 8 months ago

With all due respect, "What has Golgotha to do with the Met?", is not the appropriate question.

We, who are Catholic profess Christ Crucified, a stumbling block for many. The question is, how can anyone who professes to be Catholic celebrate those who make a mockery of God's call to repentance and transformation through Salvational Love, God's Gift of Grace and Mercy?

CCC 675 Before Christ's second coming the Church must pass through a final trial that will shake the faith of many believers. The persecution that accompanies her pilgrimage on earth will unveil the "mystery of iniquity" in the form of a religious deception offering men an apparent solution to their problems at the price of apostasy from the truth. The supreme religious deception is that of the Antichrist, "a pseudo-messianism by which man glorifies himself in place of God and of his Messiah come in the flesh."

Therein lies the Crux of the matter; to glorify man, rather than God, The Most Holy And Undivided Blessed Trinity, is Sacrilegious.

Godspeed as you pursue your PhD in Theology.

An Act of Reparation to The Most Holy And Undivided Blessed Trinity:

"O Most Holy Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, I adore Thee profoundly. I offer Thee the most precious Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus Christ present in all the tabernacles of the world, in reparation for the outrages, sacrileges and indifferences by which He is offended."

Danny Collins
2 years 8 months ago

If Mr. Coyle really believes the gala wasn't sacreligious, then why didn't he show the skimpy garb that the people were wearing? The only photo we see covers up as much as a nun from the 1950's. I guess honest commentary isn't what one should look for in America Magazine.

Clearly, Coyle is hiding a key point that undermines his argument. The fact is, people were walking around in slutty costumes using religious accoutrements in clearly profane ways. Fr. James Martin even tweeted about how he was told that he had dressed up as a "sexy priest." Clearly, the talk on the red carpet was often profane and disrespectful to the Church.

Robert Lewis
2 years 8 months ago

The showing of "skin" was not what was profane about this gala. With that kind of puritanical prurience--which is clearly NOT in the Catholic tradition--you'd belong with those who'd censor the Sistine Chapel. What was "profane" or sacreligious about this "gala" was the use of religious symbols and garb to promote the most vulgar and socially irresponsible consumerism.

Dominic Deus
2 years 8 months ago

Dominic Deus here.

"Breaking News: Trump Pulls Out of Iran Nuclear Accord and Complete Twaddle Heads Respond with Met Gala Outrage."

Louis Candell
2 years 8 months ago

Actually, Catholics and sensible people of other faiths can be upset about both; that is if one has the mental capacity to think about more than one issue at a time. Can you?

Jeff Ryan
2 years 8 months ago

It's amazing in the year 2018 to see adults upset because they feel that their imaginary/invisible friend has been insulted!

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