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 exhibition“Heavenly 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.