Red-Carpet Catholicism Is a Loss for the Church

Rihanna arrives at the Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute Gala in Manhattan, May 7, 2018. (Eduardo Munoz/Reuters)
The Catholic Church won’t win respect by abetting the mockery of its symbols.

A stark reminder of who has the power in our culture and who does not wafted up the stairs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art Monday night. Behold Pope Rihanna, clad in a pontifically inspired pearl-and-jewel bedizened gown topped by a matching mitre. As for the real pope? Indirectly, he abetted this calculated mockery.

Rihanna’s papal-showgirl look, on display at the annual costume ball the Met Gala, constituted the most conspicuous lampooning of Catholic symbols and regalia on an evening that was expressly dedicated to spoofing the Church’s iconography. I’ll let Page Six describe some of the notable pieces on display in the Met’s new Catholic-themed exhibit: “leather bondage mask draped in rosary beads, a jeweled bustier with its gems strategically placed and a fuschia gown inspired by cardinals’ robes — with a neckline that left its mannequin’s breasts mostly exposed.”

On the red carpet, Lily Collins said her look was “chic nun.” Sarah Jessica Parker somehow balanced a Nativity scene on her head. Jared Leto and Lana del Rey appeared as Gucci Jesus and Mary. Madonna showed up in a black Gaultier getup with a giant cross on the bodice. It was all equally divine, assuming that the Almighty inspired a previously unknown Book of Kitsch.

“The basic unseriousness of modern life is exemplified by the fact that New York Catholics are not rioting to shut down the Met Gala,” tweeted the conservative Harvard Law School professor Adrian Vermeule. I wouldn’t go that far. How about a little light condemnation, though? Failing that, how about senior Catholics at least declining to cooperate? Yet the Church’s senior official in the area, the archbishop of New York, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, effectively blessed the event.

“You may be asking what is the Church doing, why is the Church part of all of this?” Dolan said during a press conference before attending the gala. “You may be asking, what is the cardinal archbishop of New York doing here?”

Yes, that is exactly what I’m asking. With each passing year, the Catholic Church becomes more of a target of derision and scorn from Western elites. There used to be pushback from the Church itself. As recently as 1989, Madonna’s profanation of Christian imagery in her “Like a Prayer” video caused so much disgust that Pepsi canceled a commercial starring her and backed out of sponsoring her tour. Gradually, as Madonna moved on to provocations like the disco-crucifixion act in her 2006 tour, the Church began to sense that any attention it paid to such matters would amount to free publicity and grew less vocal about pop culture.

For the Met Gala, though, the Church took the side of its enemies. In his press conference, Dolan made a cringe-inducing attempt to declare common ground with the gala’s ethos of gaudy, narcissistic, sin-loving materialism. “The church and the Catholic imagination — the theme of this exhibit — are all about three things: truth, goodness and beauty,” Dolan said. “That’s why we’re into things such as art, culture, music, literature, and, yes, even fashion.”

Being “into” modern things seems to be the new party line as set by the Vatican, which threw open its doors to New York curators to create the new Met exhibit associated with the gala, “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination.” The Monday-night blowout was just the latest worrying sign that the current pontificate is trying to ingratiate itself with outsiders who reject the Church’s goals. Eager to be “welcoming” and not “judgmental,” Pope Francis is reforming it according to its enemies’ vision.

This is a recipe for self-destruction. Serially removing each of the characteristics that make Catholicism unique will hollow out the Church until it collapses. This is entirely the goal for those who hate the Catholic Church. They want to extinguish the last bits of its influence and twerk on the remains. Do I really have to explain that Kim Kardashian’s path is not the path forward for the Church? Why encourage mixing enduring symbols with the shallow ostentation of Katy Perry or RiRi?

Before you ask, I’m all in favor of cultural appropriation, and I wouldn’t necessarily demand that such borrowing be respectful. That would be good manners, but a rigorously polite culture would also be a fairly boring one. The Met costume party is entitled to send up, among others, black, Jewish, Muslim, Latino, or Christian culture as it sees fit. These days, though, only one of these cultures ever seems to come in for a jolly roasting where the swells gather.

The Met originally envisioned the new exhibit to feature many religions. Perhaps the leaders of the others feel protective of their iconography. Perhaps the others have no wish to join in their own disparagement. Perhaps the others figured out that the values of the Met Gala are not their own. The Vatican gambled that participating in Fifth Avenue’s annual salute to the golden calf would earn some cultural cachet with the cool kids. Instead it simply made Catholicism the butt of the joke.

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