Chill, Catholics! It’s Just a Minajerie

I was watching (and falling asleep during, after a working weekend) Downton Abbey, so I missed Nicki Minaj’s Grammy performance last night. This morning the Catholic blogosphere is alight with outrage, and letter-writing campaigns have been organized. Anti-Catholic bias in the media! is the outcry.

Nuh-uh, says I. And I’m an expert.

In another lifetime, I served on the national Communications Committee of the US Catholic Bishops. We laypeople advised the episcopal members of the Committee on policy issues, and made recommendations for grants to promote diocesan and independent Catholic media initiatives. During my four-year stint, I was appointed to an ad hoc Subcommittee on Pornography, Anti-Catholic Bias, and Low Moral Tone in the Media. I was always afraid to ask the chair of the Committee, Bishop Anthony Bosco (now emeritus of Greensburg, PA), what qualities he saw in me that prompted the appointment. Possibly he believed low moral tone could use a devil’s advocate.

What I’m saying is that I’ve had official experience looking into anti-Catholic bias in the media, and I just can’t get as worked up over things like the Nicki Minaj Grammy charade as Bill Donohue does. (Frankly, I can’t get as worked up about anything as Bill Donohue can. Few mere mortals can match him in the zero-to-60 moral outrage sweepstakes.) When celebrities like Nicki Minaj–or Kevin Smith in Dogma, or Madonna with “Like a Prayer,” or Sinead O’Connor ripping up the pope’s picture on Saturday Night Live, or Fellini featuring a swishy ecclesiastical fashion show in in Roma, or San Francisco’s notorious performance artists, the Sisters of Divine Indulgence, or any of a hundred other examples you can mention–draw on Catholic ritual and aesthetics to shock or titillate or simply to get into the news cycle, I think they’re actually paying us a backhanded compliment.

Who we are as Catholics, what we look like in the world, what we believe–these tap into deeply powerful streams of consciousness. People who ask whether the Recording Academy would have allowed Nicki Minaj to dress like an Orthodox Jewish woman accompanied by a rabbi, or in a burqa accompanied by an ayatollah, are missing the point. In the West (and that includes even the puritanized US), the Church of Rome is the archetype of the numinous, the mysterious, the authoritative, the divine. Plugging into that alternating current of tremendum et fascinosum is irresistible for artists whose reputation depends on being edgy, as well as for anyone who’s still stuck at the fifth-grade-boy level of irreverent humor (as most of us are, a lot of the time).

The Nicki Minajes of the world may gain a momentary power surge from stunts like last night’s Grammy appearance. What they can’t do–and this is where I differ with a lot of my fellow Catholics–is diminish us or our faith or the rich deposit of truth and art and culture we carry. We should be bigger than that, not in some proud triumphalistic way, but in the serene knowledge that who we are and what we possess can withstand any mockery or imitation. I’d so much rather, at times like this, that instead of rushing to release statements of how appalled we are, we’d do the collective equivalent of what my mother told me to do when someone made a stupid or untrue comment: “Consider the source.” And let it roll right off us, as unworthy of the fuss.

This is not to say that anti-Catholic bias in the media does not exist. I think we’ve seen quite clearly, over the last month, that official Catholic positions on any number of issues in the news are regularly unreported or misrepresented. I’m not sure I’d go as far in the conspiratorial direction with regard to that bias as do many of my sisters and brothers, but it’s a definite blind spot. Yelling about it, being insulted by it, writing letters and organizing boycotts to fight it, however, will never be as successful a response as addressing the media confidently and authoritatively and non-defensively in their own language. That’s why I give thanks for folks like Deacon Greg Kandra, who brings a wealth of experience as a CBS news producer to his blog The Deacon’s Bench. It’s why we should all give thanks for Cardinal-designate Timothy Dolan, who is so exactly the leader the US Bishops need right now, and the voice Catholics need to represent us, that I have done a 180 on my initial doubts, and acknowledge humbly that the Holy Spirit was indeed in charge when Dolan was elected President of the Conference.

My wanting us to take a chill pill on Nicki Minaj is also not to say that I am in any way actively promoting pornography, anti-Catholic bias, and low moral tone in the media or anywhere else. I’m just making the case that these things cheapen the practitioner, not the Church. In the end, having what we believe in made fun of can only hurt us if, deep down, we don’t really believe it, and suspect that the mockers may be right. The only anti-Catholic bias that can do us any real damage is the kind we wield against ourselves.

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