We have Met the problem—and it is ancient, secular, and us

The Gala at the Met was a sad attempt to pretend, to think (or feel, more likely) that colorful celebration and rampant symbolism can capture or reveal the essence of Catholicism.

Singer Rihanna arrives at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York May 7 for the exhibit "Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination." (CNS photo/Carlo Allegri, Reuters)

“They want to hold it, but they don’t want to be bound by it.”

That observation, made by a close friend, aptly sums up the much discussed and hotly debated Met Gala, which took place on Monday, previewing a new exhibition called “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination”. The exhibit opens to the public tomorrow and, as USA Today reports, “spreads across 25 galleries and 60,000 square feet from the Met Fifth Avenue to the Met Cloisters uptown. It contains 40 liturgical garments and accessories from the Sistine Chapel Sacristy, many of which have never left the Vatican.”

While many of the liturgical garments and accessories have never before left the Vatican, “the majority of the designers showcased grew up in the church” but “many of them no longer practice.” The Catholic imagination is presented as a mysterious entity consisting of a “shared mindset” and  “reliance on storytelling” and “the trope of metaphor.” Much of the approach taken with the exhibit was inspired by the late Fr. Andrew Greeley, who wrote a book titled The Catholic Imagination and who stated that Catholics live in “a world of statues and holy water, stained glass and votive candles, saints and religious medals, rosary beads and holy pictures”. Andrew Bolton, curator of the exhibit, says “these Catholic paraphernalia are only hints at the deeper and more pervasive Catholic sensibilities, which require Catholics to see the holy lurking in creation.” And, as Matthew Schmitz writes at First Things, the exhibition insists on taking a rather vague and fuzzy road:

In the exhibition catalogue, David Tracy dilates on this idea. “It has become increasingly difficult for persons outside or even inside Catholicism to describe, much less define, what distinguishes Catholic Christianity.” Unwilling to refer to traditional ecclesiological and dogmatic claims, Tracy decides that Catholics are united by a set of clichés. They “believe (like Albert Camus) that there is more to admire in human beings than to despise.” They believe that “humanity is on the whole trustworthy.”

But such a vague sense of spirituality is not only not a distinctive feature of Catholicism, it is quite opposed to it. Catholicism is rooted in history, facts, and events—especially the event of The Incarnation, which took place in a specific place and time. And imagination, contrary to popular misuse of the term, is not about daydreaming, whim, or “making stuff up”. As Holly Ordway explains so well in Apologetics and the Catholic Imagination (Emmaus Road, 2017), imagination “is the human faculty that assimilates sensory data into images, upon which the intellect can then act; it is the basis for all reasoned thought as well as all artistic … exercise.” Reason, she emphasizes, is closely related to imagination; in fact, reason is dependent on imagination, which is that paradoxical act of seeing the reality of what is unseen. And so imagination is also vital to making judgments about what it true and false, good and bad, beautiful and ugly.

The “imagination” presented at the Gala had little to do with truth and more than a little to do with bad taste. Much of the negative response to the Gala, understandably, has focused on celebrities such as singer Rihanna, actress Sarah Jessica Parker, and (of course) “Madonna” parading about with faux papal tiaras and miters, wearing dresses covered with images of saints. The impression from afar is of a bunch of spoiled children trying to impress the cool crowd, who are only too happy to fall into the predictable line. Some Catholics even insisted that the nonsensical display of lapsed and former Catholics misusing Catholic symbols and images for the sake of secular hipness was a step forward in “church-world” relationships. Eloise Blondiau, a producer at America magazine, opined:

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?”

Is, like, that awesome, or what? No, it really isn’t. But as annoying, or even offensive, as the Gala was, it does reveal or highlight some important truths.

First, attempts by Catholics to be liked and embraced by the elites are not just problematic, they are downright embarrassing and counterproductive. While there are a number of intertwined and complicated reasons why the Catholic Church in the West has steadily suffered, for decades now, a loss of authority and numbers, there’s no denying that the desire to be liked, included, assimilated, and otherwise fit in has played a huge role. Ross Douthat examines this fact in relation to the Gala, stating:

The secular culture welcomed the church’s Protestantization and demystification and even secularization, praised the bishops and theologians who pursued it, and then simply pocketed the concessions and ignored the religious ideas those concessions were supposed to advance. Meanwhile, that same secular world maintained a consistent fascination, from “The Exorcist” down to, well, the Met Gala, with all the weirder parts of Catholicism that were supposedly a stumbling block to modernity’s conversion. … Thus the only plausible approach for Catholicism is to offer itself, not as a chaplaincy within modern liberalism, but as a full alternative culture in its own right — one that reclaims the inheritance on display at the Met, glories in its own weirdness and supernaturalism, and spurns both accommodations and entangling alliances …

Secondly, the Gala provides a marker of how far we’ve come—or, rather, how far we’ve fallen, not only as Catholics but as a society as a whole. Kyle Smith of National Review Online writes:

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. … 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 approach, Smith argues, “is a recipe for self-destruction. Serially removing each of the characteristics that make Catholicism unique will hollow out the Church until it collapses.” He is correct. And it’s not a matter of morals, as important as they are, but of authentic identity. Which, again, comes back to an authentic imagination, formed and guided by the teaching and truths of Christ and his Church.

Thirdly, continuing that thought, Schmitz writes:

What the sacramental imagination should mean, first of all, is actual belief in the sacraments: Marriage is indissoluble and ordained by God; Christ is present in the Eucharist and must be revered. My Catholic grandparents, who feared for my soul because I was not baptized as a child, were better exemplars of the sacramental imagination than every ex-Catholic designer combined. The Catholic imagination only really exists where it expresses, affirms, conforms to sacramental reality and dogmatic truth.

Very true. And that brings me to my own modest observation. Whether by chance or Providence, several books I am currently reading have made a point that has been a part of me since reading it in Fr. Alexander Schmemann’s 1963 book For the Life of the World: Sacraments and Orthodoxy (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1963, 1973). In an Appendix titled “Worship in a Secular Age,” Schmemann argues that although it has been approached and analyzed from many angles, the core of secularism

is above all a negation of worship. I stress:—not of God’s existence, not of some kind of transcendence and therefore of some kind of religion. If secularism in theological terms is a heresy, it is primarily a heresy about man. It is the negation of man as a worshipping being, as homo adorans: the one for whom worship is the essential act which both “posits” his humanity and fulfills it. [emphasis in original]

Schmemann builds on this point for a number of pages, emphasizing the centrality of the Incarnation and the Resurrection, and then makes this applicable remark: “For paradoxical as it may sounds, the secularist in a way is truly obsessed with worship. … Celebration is in fact very fashionable today.” Man remains a “worshipping being” who is “forever nostalgic for rites and rituals no matter how empty and artificial is the ersatz offered to him.” And then this: “And on the other hand, by proving the inability of secularism to create genuine worship, this phenomenon reveals secularism’s ultimate and tragic incompatibility with the essential Christian world view.”

This point comes up in David Fagerberg’s excellent new study Liturgy outside Liturgy: The Liturgical Theology of Fr. Alexander Schmemann (see CWR’s interview about the book), which delves deeply into these particular waters. And the same point is found in George Weigel’s new book The Fragility of Order (Ignatius Press, 2018), in a chapter on the end of “the secular project.” That project, Weigel asserts, involved “the effort, extending over the past two centuries or more, to erect an empty shrine at the heart of political modernity.” Weigel connects this back to the story in the Book of Daniel of the Babylonian king Belshazzar, who had been throwing a great feast using the “vessels of gold and silver” taken from the temple in Jerusalem. Having drunk wine from the sacred vessels, the king and his guests—who “praised the gods of gold and silver, bronze, iron, wood, and stone”—witnessed a mysterious hand writing words on the palace wall. And those divine words, translated by Daniel, prophesied the destruction of Belshazzar’s kingdom—which began with the king’s being slain that very night. Belshazzar’s blasphemous use of the sacred vessels, Weigel writes, was a “negation of worship”—a “deconstruction” that has been part and parcel of the secular project since the time of the French Revolution. But this “false worship of the Self” cannot last; it cannot provide the basis for thriving culture, real virtues, and sacrificial living, all of which are necessary for order and the common good.

And, finally, the brilliant historian Glenn W. Olsen, in The Turn to Transcendence (CUA Press, 2010), quotes Schemann’s observation about the negation of worship and then observes:

A sacramental view of life, an understanding that God is love and that therefore love is at the center of all created being, can only be recovered by attending to the liturgy, that is, by recovery of those dimensions of life most neglected in the busy “external” life of secular liberal man.

The Catechism sums all of this up in a blunt, beautiful way: “God’s first call and just demand is that man accept him and worship him” (CCC, 2084). If we are going to talk about “the Catholic imagination” and fixate on splendid dress, brilliant wonder, and awesome mystery, then we must contemplate The Apocalypse, which describes the heavenly throne room filled with heavenly and earthly creatures; and the latter, it must be noted,

fall down before him who is seated on the throne and worship him who lives for ever and ever; they cast their crowns before the throne, singing,  “Worthy art thou, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for thou didst create all things, and by thy will they existed and were created.” (Rev 4:10-11)

The Gala at the Met was a sad attempt to pretend, to think (or feel, more likely) that colorful celebration and rampant symbolism can capture or reveal the essence of Catholicism.

Yet, again, as Fr. Richard Janowicz, the priest of the Ukrainian Catholic parish we’ve attended for nearly twenty years, rightly remarked to me earlier today: “They want to hold it, but they don’t want to be bound by it.” They want to be enveloped in spirituality, but without acknowledging the Triune God; they wish to touch what is holy, but without being set apart; they desire the spotlight, but have no room for Christ, Our Light; they want glory, but will not give Him glory; they love to preen and strut, but will not bow or kneel.

But, really, how much of that is their fault? Enough, of course. More importantly, how much of it is the fault of Catholics who are embarrassed by the scandal of particularity, the “weirdness” (as Douthat describes it) of Catholicism, the daunting dogmas, the exacting demands, and the crushing love of the Lover of mankind? Are we willing to be bound? Are we willing to say, as we do in the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom: “Come let us worship and bow before Christ”?

About Carl E. Olson 1077 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind", co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Word on Fire. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications.

30 Comments

  1. “They want to hold it, but they don’t want to be bound by it”. Fr Janowicz touches on the mysterious attraction the holy pure and beautiful has for the reprobate, sensual, and ugly. Their human nature reflecting God compels them. Their evil charade “counterfeit art” alluded to by Matthew Schmitz is meant to lampoon it. What’s worse isn’t former altar boys Colbert Clooney Fallon but who I formerly knew as a man of faith Cardinal Dolan. A good man at heart susceptible to pollyannish lightheartedness. I remember him when he was rector at the NAC and regularly visited the Casa Santa Maria smiling back slapping handing out Macanudos sharing a scotch. He lectured at the Angelicum and spoke at the Casa his knowledge and faith outstanding. Solid. He’s changed. I hope not irrevocably. He seems swept by away by this Papacy promoting abomination at the gala and abominations on St Patrick’s Days parading with Gays flying offensive banners. He appears to want to hold on to what he is but doesn’t want to be bound by it.

  2. I cannot believe that Cardinal Dolan lent countenance to this, by attending and then by making jokes about the disgusting exhibition that Rihanna made of herself in a mock Papal mitre.

  3. As a catholic i see the mitre as a symbol of our Lord’s plan for my salvation. After two thousand years He wanted His authority to be available to me, to guide me during turbulent times, to be my rock, my bark upon the sea of discord. The mitre. The mockery. The Cardinal.

  4. I can’t say that I’m a perfect practicing Catholic. I’ve failed many times and struggle with trusting God’s will. I even question if I love God and if he really loves me. However, it does not blind me from the truth. That event was vulgar and trashy. None those attendees exemplify modesty, obedience, or chastity. How do you look at yourself in the mirror when you blaspheme the Blessed Mother and Christ and feel no shame? I feel sorry for the world. Whatever chastisement we receive from God will be just.

    • Amen on all counts, except the lack of certainty about God’s love for you.

      We see the cross. We know the truth. We have His Church.

      We have it all, and we could not possibly deserve any of it.

      What conclusion can we possible come to other than God loves us — infinitely, unreasonably, even insanely?

  5. Mr. Olson, you have faced that scandalous, gutter-crawling spectacle that the Vatican has subjected us to and somehow managed to capture the essence of the Church in the world.

    And you’re right: while the world, rejects us and mocks us and points and leers and spits at us, they cannot turn away. They cannot leave us alone.

    To them, the truth is a scandal, an accusation. And while it exists anywhere, they are torn. They are naturally drawn to it, but also fearsomely antagonistic toward it.

    Thank you for the brilliant insight. I will never look at the culture — or the unfortunate Bishop Dolan — in the same way again.

  6. Great article and assessment of a very sad situation that highlights why our Church is suffering so much. I think the people who think the Met Gala was a good thing need to be reminded of the words of St. Paul in Romans 12:2, “Do not be conformed to the thinking of this world but be transformed by the renewal of your minds that you may know what is good and pleasing to God.” I don’t see how this event was pleasing to God.

    It is truly sad when our leaders who are supposed to guard and protect us fall into this secular way of thinking. So many people have an acquaintance with the Catholic Church but cannot say they know Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior. There is no profound conversion experience of being led by the anointing of the Holy Spirit and the Truth that sets us free. There are just nostalgic remembrances of “cute” First Communion photos or phrases like, “I used to be an altar boy.” No references to life in the Spirit, living one’s life in the Truth and beauty of our Catholic faith and experiencing life as a new creation in Christ.” This is very sad.

    St. Paul’s warning about the danger of the last days reads like a contemporary commentary on where we are at right now:

    But understand this: there will be terrifying times in the last days. 2 People will be self-centered and lovers of money, proud, haughty, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, irreligious, 3 callous, implacable, slanderous, licentious, brutal, hating what is good, 4 traitors, reckless, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, 5 as they make a pretense of religion but deny its power. Reject them. (2 Timothy 3:1-5)

    To quote the late Fr. Emile LaFranz, a great evangelist and priest, “This is what we call cultural Christianity. All foam — no beer!”

  7. All I can say is:

    “Gala-gate” shows the pathetic, worn out, and utterly counterfeit “imagination” of America mag, Rev. Martin, Cardinal Dolan, Cardinal Ravasi, and the current pontifical cult.

    Just “cult functionaries” performing “heavenly theater” for the jet set.

  8. But wait! There’s more! Check out the items the Met gift shop is selling to go along with the show. (Metmuseum.org) Doesn’t everyone need an entirely black “rosary necklace” or one with a skull attached? The Vatican may well never have heard of the Met Gala, but what’s Cardinal Dolan’s excuse?

    • Certainly rosaries shouldn’t be worn as necklaces (though this is hardly a phenomenon unique to the Met exhibit or gala), but is there something inherently problematic about a rosary with a skull?

      • I’ve seen Rosaries with skulls – memento mori Rosaries – at The Cloisters. It’s an old tradition in the Church albeit not a current practiced one.

        • For the last 5 or 6 years I have worn a ‘combat Rosary’. It is a replica of the Rosary which was initially issued to troops in WW1. I wear it around ,my neck just like dogtags and am on my 2nd one.
          They cost about $40 and if you google ‘church militant’ or ‘combat Rosary’ you should be able to get one.

  9. The secular equivalent to the Met Gala would be an event to honor “President Obama in the imagination”, and they all came in blackface and big fake ears.

  10. I didn’t like the vile Met gala event either, however we MUST write to Cardinal Dolan (we did already), pray for him and all priests/bishops, and pray to Jesus for his priests/bishops who err.

    Jesus did say to a mystic:
    “One should never attack a priest, even when he’s in error, rather one should pray and do penance that I’ll grant him My grace again. He alone fully represents Me, even when he doesn’t live after My example. When a priest falls we should extend him a helping hand through prayer and not through attacks! I myself will be his judge, NO ONE BUT I! Whoever voices judgement over a priest has voiced it over Me; never let a priest be attacked, take up his defense. Never again accept an out of the way word about a priest, and speak no unkind word about them, even if it were true. Every priest is My Vicar and My heart will be sickened and insulted because of it!”

      • Thanks Leslie,
        You’re correct, private revelation is not binding, however, a cease and desist of uncharitable words about prelates is not encouraged! Write to Cardinal Dolan like we did…otherwise, forum gossip goes nowhere.

    • TITLE I : THE OBLIGATIONS AND RIGHTS OF ALL CHRIST’S FAITHFUL

      Canon 212 §3 They have the right, indeed at times the duty, in keeping with their knowledge, competence and position, to manifest to the sacred Pastors their views on matters which concern the good of the Church. They have the right also to make their views known to others of Christ’s faithful, but in doing so they must always respect the integrity of faith and morals, show due reverence to the Pastors and take into account both the common good and the dignity of individuals.

      Correctio filialis de haeresibus propagatis

      • All over the internet, here and at other websites, I do NOT see due reverence to Pastors, Cardinals, Bishops and most importantly our Holy Father, the chosen Vicar of Christ on earth, by the Holy Spirit. I do NOT see the spirit of St. Catherine of Siena. I see it mostly at LifeNews, EWTN, and the Knights of Columbus. St. Catherine of Siena would not make the comments you are making here. She would make comments just like the one Chris made above. Pray very much and with great love for our prelates, speak about them with great reverence, and if there is great error, go see them and talk with them and /or write a letter to them. Gossip is that which seeks to rail on a person behind their back without doing anything to solve the problem with that person. Pope Francis said to stop the gossip! But are our hearts so black towards him from internet gossip that we dont have the desire to listen to him as Christ Himself wants us to?

        • Withdraw head from sand.
          Saint Catherine was not dealing with a papacy run amuck on doctrine. That you do not perceive the gross negligence of Pope Francis in regard to his primary responsibility is to conserve, promote and proclaim the perennial Magisterium of the Church. The sole role of the living Magisterium is to advance the perennial Magisterium. Hocus-pocus pandering sentimentalisms gussied up as academic insight pretending to substitute for the Gospel won’t do for those who have abandoned the Jesuit monkey-bars for Roman Catholic practice.
          As clearly stated in “Pastor Aeternus” promulgating the doctrine of papal infallibility at the First Vatican Council: “The Holy Spirit was not given to the Roman Pontiffs so that they might disclose new doctrine, but so that they might guard and set forth the Deposit of Faith handed down from the Apostles.”
          The Bergoglian debacle is a not so roundabout attempt to undermine the papacy and, once done, refigure the office to suit the purpose of the new “church” they confect – the New Paradigm.
          We are dealing with atheism in a cassock, and it is legion.

          • James, on the contrary, Saint Catherine of Siena had an issue with Pope Gregory XI (Avignon Papacy). The Avignon Papacy was from 1309 to 1376 during which seven consecutive Popes refused to return to Rome. Saint Catherine of Siena went to speak with Pope Gregory XI and convinced him to return to Rome.

  11. Cooperative effort of the decomposing hierarchy with the fembot, drag, gender bending cesspool unveils the core of corruption running viral in our Church from top to – well at least the Society of Jesus and undoubtedly further.
    From whence this came?
    Perhaps, ironically with mindless engagement with an academy, disoriented at its core since the “Enlightenment” – the term itself an illustration of the debasement of the lexicon. The lust for personal relevancy is merely the appetizer teasing for the next course, whatever that might be.
    Sacred material and crafted objects are such not in themselves but for what they refer, illuminate, amplify, and magnify. Those deeper mysteries presently consigned to the shelf of psychological projection and anthropological artifice, what is their use but to demonstrate the vacuousness of what was once known as Truth.
    Contraception, euthanasia, abortion are twenty years away from baptism lest this abomination is called out by name. The New Paradigm is not yet to be accomplished, but is here, quite well established, its countenance unveiled in gala – its character described shamelessly by David Tracy. Few appeared to notice or were willing to admit its triumph announced on March 13, 2013 let alone its conception October 13, 1962.
    Pearls thrown before swine now purposeful for what but sacrilege.

  12. GREAT article Carl – thank you for the reminder of what The Catholic Imagination is really all about. A helpful reminder!

  13. Cardinal Dolan is a weak, yucking it up cardinal. So sad he thinks acting the fool will bring people into the Catholic Faith.

  14. I object to Douthats use of the weird word without really explaining the catholic imagination as the other writers you cite do. See Exodus 28. It’s all about worshipping God, not self.

  15. Those who blaspheme – we should pray for them, for the gift of contrition for them, especially someone like Madonna, who has spent virtually her entire public life blaspheming the Church into which she was baptized.

    God will NOT be mocked.

  16. James, either discuss your concerns with your local Bishop or address Pope Francis in a letter, otherwise be quiet. That’s right, you know better….don’t you? You’re not guided by the Holy Spirit, only the Vicar of Christ on earth (the Pope) is! We all know one individual (Lucifer) who said he would not serve, and how that worked out! I will pray for you.

    • You’re not guided by the Holy Spirit, only the Vicar of Christ on earth (the Pope) is! ?????? Try reading the Bible!!!

      And God has prepared us for this very purpose and has given us the Spirit as a pledge of what is to come. 2 Cor 1:22

      Anyone, then, who rejects this command does not reject man but God, the very One who GIVES YOU His Holy Spirit. 1 Thess 4:8

  17. During the French and Communist revolutions the Church was similarly aped and reviled.
    Catholicism is much much more than this ‘camp’ fancy dress exhibitionism by Christophobes.
    The fact that the contemporary Vatican and senior clergy were involved raises a whole raft of questions. Most concerning the gravely disturbed mentality and infantilism of the participants.

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