Defining deviancy down: Andy Warhol refashioned as an “intentionally celibate” Catholic


My Patheos colleague Marc Barnes asserts on his Bad Catholic blog that Andy Warhol was not only “gay and Catholic,” but was also “intentionally celibate” in a manner that reveals “an effort at communion with the teachings of the Catholic Church”:

Whether his understanding of the amoral nature of art (by which recording and artistically expressing a sinful thing not necessarily sinful in itself) is some sort exoneration is not important. It’d be a fool who’d make him a Saint — it’s difficult to get people who flirt with cocaine on the Calendar — but it’d be the greater fool who’d make Andy Warhol a proud sinner.

For the Church Andy Warhol loves did not and does not teach that it is a sin to be gay, to carry with oneself same-sex attraction. The Catholic Church teaches that homosexual actions are detrimental to the human person, and thus sinful. For Andy Warhol to be openly gay (he mentions he’d “always had a lot of fun with that — just watching the expression on people’s faces…) and at the same time intentionally celibate seems to represent a certain peace about the man, an intellectual separation of the sinless same-sex attraction and the sinful homosexual action, and an effort at communion with the teachings of the Catholic Church. If it is sinful from the Catholic perspective, it is only sinful in that he may have lead others astray, those who did not know of his intentional celibacy. [Marc Barnes, "Andy Warhol, Gay and Catholic"]

I wonder if such assertions stem in part from a misunderstanding of Blessed John Paul II’s Catechesis on Human Love (aka theology of the body). John Paul’s catechesis, which is often cited by those wishing to defend nudity in photographic media as a form of “art,” in fact draws a bright line between the depiction of the naked body in fine arts and in photographic media. Whereas the fine artist has the means at his disposal to depict the nude in a manner that is faithful to the truth of the human person, the photographer, filmmaker, or videographer, regardless of intention, is at a very high risk of turning the subject into “an anonymous object”:

It should be added at once that when artistic reproduction becomes the content of representation and transmission (on television or in films), it loses, in a way, its fundamental contact with the human body, of which it is a reproduction. It often becomes an anonymous object, just like an anonymous photographic document published in illustrated magazines, or an image diffused on the screens of the whole world [John Paul II, General Audience of April 15, 1981, "The Human Body, Subject of Works of Art"].

Another very important point of John Paul’s catechesis that is often missed by those doing apologetics on behalf of images of nudity is that the pope’s entire teaching on the theology of the body is about how the body enables communion of persons—and that “communion of persons” for John Paul, whether human-with-human or human-with-God, is never defined as being “body to body.” Rather, the late Holy Father always describes communion of persons as “face to face.”

What, then would John Paul II have made of Warhol works of “art” such as the notorious “Torsos and Sex Parts” series? Or the artist’s euphemistically titled “Blue Movie”? Or his enthusiastic (and sadly prophetic) promotion of home video as a means for individuals to “make the best pornography movies“? (“It’s going to be so great,” he enthused in a 1966 interview.) Or his constant public display of his fascination with transsexuals, voyeurism, sadism, and sexual exploitation? Or his putting on his payroll Paul Morrissey, whose claim to fame was a film that sadistically exploited a 14-year-old boy? Can anyone truly believe that the pope who approved a document equating pornography with media depictions of “sadistic violence” would have considered such actions to reflect “intentionally celibate” mindset?

Here is what the Catechism of the Catholic Church, a product of John Paul’s pontificate, has to say about pornography:

Pornography consists in removing real or simulated sexual acts from the intimacy of the partners, in order to display them deliberately to third parties. It offends against chastity because it perverts the conjugal act, the intimate giving of spouses to each other. It does grave injury to the dignity of its participants (actors, vendors, the public), since each one becomes an object of base pleasure and illicit profit for others. It immerses all who are involved in the illusion of a fantasy world. It is a grave offense. Civil authorities should prevent the production and distribution of pornographic materials. [CCC 2354]

Andy Warhol spent a lifetime creating works of “art” that consisted in “removing real or simulated sexual acts from the intimacy of the partners, in order to display them deliberately to third parties.” And now he is a role model of intentional celibacy? Is this where promoting the “gay Catholic” label leads? If so, I can’t help but believe that Daniel Mattson is right when he writes that the claim for such a thing as “gay Catholic” identity does not do justice to the Church’s teaching of the fundamental identity of the human person as a child of God in Jesus Christ. Mattson writes:

I too am a Roman Catholic, living with a homosexual inclination and committed to chastity. But I do not identify as “gay.” Rather, I say that “I live with same-sex attraction.” Like “consubstantial,” it is an awkward phrase, nearly absent from common usage. I refuse to identify myself as gay because the label “gay” does not accurately describe who (or what) I am. More fundamentally, I refuse to use that label because I desire to be faithful to the theological anthropology of the Church. [Daniel Mattson, "Why I Don't Call Myself a Gay Christian"]

If you want to praise Andy Warhol for his daily Mass attendance, or for anything else he did to practice or show respect for Catholic faith, I will gladly join you. But don’t tell me that Andy Warhol was not “a proud sinner,” as Barnes seems to say, let alone that he was “intentionally celibate.” To make such a claim goes against the Church’s constant teaching, in the words of Augustine, that “the virtue which makes the life good has its throne in the soul, and thence rules the members of the body, which becomes holy in virtue of the holiness of the will” (City of God, I.16). A “celibate” person who encourages others to commit sexual violations is no celibate at all.

“Being hopeful doesn’t mean being ‘Little Mary Sunshine’ all the time”
Jack Nicholson as you’ve never seen him–playing a Franciscan friar
Moving on
  • kenneth

    So you can know definitively the state of a man’s conscience and soul, and posthumously, no less? Someone should tell God that you’ve got the whole sin and judgment thing covered, so he get out of the office and finally get down to that fly fishing trip He’s always wanted….

    • Lisa Graas

      You are completely missing Dawn’s point. None of us can judge the hearts of others. I pray people will wake up on this and understand that there is a difference between acknowleding that you are a sinner and glorying in the sin.

    • Manny

      No Kenneth, she’s talking about his art and what he put out in the public square. Those are hard facts, not based on any conclusion as to his conscience. It is quite possible that Warhol confessed and asked for forgiveness at some point before he died. I hope he did. But particular elements of his art lead people to sin. I don’t think that is in question.

      • pagansister

        Manny, you said that some elements of Warhol’s art led people to sin. People have free will to do as they wish….and one can’t be “led” into something unless they agree to it, IMO.

    • RSMaxwell

      I think that you missed the point. It was not judging his soul; it was celebrating/promoting an aspect of his life when it can objectively be shown to be contrary to what is being praised.

    • Howard

      Well, kenneth, how can you make such judgments about Dawn Eden? Why, by her public works, you will say, and a pinch of common sense. That is precisely what Dawn Eden is using here.

      If you want to tell me that we cannot be sure of the subjective state of anyone’s soul, even, for example, Jack the Ripper in the midst of one of his gory crimes, I will point out that we don’t really know most people are really people, do we? Maybe they are cleverly constructed robots with no souls! Maybe Andy Warhol was just an android!! Once we give up on using the sense that God gave geese, this can only end in the madhouse or a faculty lounge.

  • Kirt Higdon

    I’m no fan of either Warhol or his art, but I question the sharp distinction which Blessed John-Paul makes between photography and the “fine arts”. The fine arts can be very rude indeed and an occasion of sin while photography can be extremely refined and uplifting. It’s not hard to find examples of pornographic nude painting or sculpture or photographic nudes which are quite chaste.

  • srocha

    I’ve liked Warhol for a while now. I don’t think the literal, linear ways of “seeing” his work really has much to do with they are. I read his work as a running commentary on the almost liturgical iconography of the brokenness of the late modern condition. Plus, he had a sense of wit and irony. I’d gladly welcome him into the ranks of New Evangelization!

  • Lisa Graas

    Amen. Also amen.

  • Thomas R

    I don’t know enough to say. I thought I had read somewhere that in his last years he had become more devout. If that’s so both could be true. That he supported some weird deviant stuff in his life and also that he at least rose above that to some extent. But I could be misremembering.

    And I’m not sure on the photography thing either. It would seem to me a photograph could be used to convey the humanity of a nude subject more or at least as much. That both depend on context and intent or what have you. Before photography the Japanese had plenty of pornographic paintings, some of them rather perverse. While National Geographic has had some nude pictures that, I grant, teen boys maybe “use” but which are not intended as pornography.

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  • Faith

    I heard the rumor that Warhol was a devout Catholic years ago from someone who came from the same area of PA and knew his family. I scoffed but maybe it is true. I do think his playing with the edges of what was acceptable in society and encouraging others to deviancy looks awfully sinful to me, but I am glad there was a glimmer of hope maybe. People are complex and he seems problematically so. Still, I am glad to hear that he had a faith life and tried to do good in the world, too! It is heartening.

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  • SDG

    FWIW, the discussion is somewhat muddled by the imprecise phrase “intentionally celibate” (“celibacy” properly referring to abstention from marriage, not abstention from sexual relations). I suspect Marc used the term to mean “abstinent”; Dawn seems to be taking it in the sense of “chaste.”

    • Dawn Eden

      SDG, I agree that there is imprecision in the term. But if we’re talking about “celibate” in connection with the Catholic faith, which is the context in which Marc uses the term, the word is used in connection with people who live in a manner which “enables them to give themselves to God alone with an undivided heart in a remarkable manner.” If we are just speaking of celibacy in terms of abstinence, there is nothing distinctively Catholic about that.

      From the Catechism:

      2349 “People should cultivate [chastity] in the way that is suited to their state of life. Some profess virginity or consecrated celibacy which enables them to give themselves to God alone with an undivided heart in a remarkable manner. Others live in the way prescribed for all by the moral law, whether they are married or single.” Married people are called to live conjugal chastity; others practice chastity in continence:

      There are three forms of the virtue of chastity: the first is that of spouses, the second that of widows, and the third that of virgins. We do not praise any one of them to the exclusion of the others. . . . This is what makes for the richness of the discipline of the Church.

      If you start to read about Andy Warhol’s life, you find that his friends understood him to seek sexual gratification through sins against chastity such as masturbation. Again, as I say above, Warhol may have had laudable qualities, but he is no model of “intentional celibacy.”

      • Lisa Graas

        Dawn wrote: “If we are just speaking of celibacy in terms of abstinence, there is nothing distinctively Catholic about that.”

        Thanks, Dawn. Catholic celibacy is not mere abstinence.

        • SDG

          Abstinence FROM MARRIAGE (not sexual relations) is precisely what celibacy is. CHASTE celibacy is, of course, much more than that.

  • Bill

    There are a lot of confused people in this world. Andy Warhol might have only been another example, poor man. In my opinion, it would be good to, once in a while, to offer a prayer for the repose of his soul and the souls of others like him, and for all those still living who struggle with the same confusion concerning their lives, their faith, and their same-sex attraction. We don’t know how God sees any of us, or what the state of anyone’s soul at the moment of death (or before that moment) may be. It seems to me that it is a work of mercy to pray for those folks and those souls. Let God handle the judgment, and let us do our best to conform our lives to his will and our behavior to his commandments. Every one of us is in need of God’s mercy, and in that way we are no different from Warhol or anyone else.

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    • Tancred

      He just might be a space alien too.

  • Dawn Eden

    Just checked in (my studies keep me away from the computer for much of the day) and am glad to see there is a healthy discussion going on. Thanks to commenters for being patient while your comments are in the moderation queue. Those who have already had comments approved are now able to comment without your comments being held up for moderation.

  • terry nelson

    You nail it Dawn! Warhol is no role model – I wish I wrote this. There is a scene in Trash that I believe is autobiographical to Warhol – right now I forget the character’s name but he is in an apartment, the guy he’s with has a neon-bright-flashy shrine to the Sacred heart ‘aflame’ which he turns on for the guest and then the scene ends in voyeuristic sex and a bit more. It’s been decades since I saw it. Warhol had huge issues – voyeurism, fetishism, and so on. His motto ‘look but don’t touch’ doesn’t mean he was virginal by any means. He is not an example to be imitated, although in some odd quirky way, he is an example of someone who remained Catholic at heart and understood the moral teaching of the Church – thus he knew the behavior and lifestyle he celebrated was sinful and from all accounts, though he attended Mass, he didn’t communicate. But he kept coming back, and hopefully he died a good death. I’m not aware of his ever repudiating the gay lifestyle, and as you say, ‘A “celibate” person who encourages others to commit sexual violations is no celibate at all.’ His daily Mass attendance was the flicker of hope, the smoldering wick of fidelity that was not quenched. Only in that way does his example mean anything.

    • Dawn Eden

      “His daily Mass attendance was the flicker of hope, the smoldering wick of fidelity that was not quenched. Only in that way does his example mean anything.”

      Completely agree! Thanks, Terry.

  • Joseph Sciambra

    Ever since my days at Berkeley, I have loathed Warhol’s influence on art; he made anything into “art.” Now we all live with the ramifications: porn is art. I think as men with homosexual tendencies, we always are on the look out for new heroes, I see that Barnes is no exception. This was, in fact, the main impetus for myself getting into the gay world, and eventually gay porn. Warhol, unfortunately is just another false gay idol. You have to look back to the Michelangelo, who was truly a celibate artist monk work-horse who faithfully glorified God.

    • Dawn Eden

      Joseph, just for the record, I in no way intended to align Barnes among those with such tendencies (I think you are wrong on that point, based on his blog), though I understand your more general point about false idols.

      • Joseph Sciambra

        Oops. I am new to his blog as well. I just thought that those who are usually heavily invested in queer-deconstruction have personal motivations. Here I am woefully tainted by the years at Berkeley were all sorts of historical revisionism went on; I began to think that everyone was gay; or at least bi.
        Although Warhol did not have a big influence on my aesthetic, as his high-days had passed by the 90s, one of his offspring did: Robert Mapplethorpe. I was so dumbstruck that I thought by being in porn I was actually doing avant-garde art. Thanks again for the article.

  • Coast Ranger

    It is certainly wrong in our relationships with actual persons to treat them in a depersonalized way. However, art may depersonalize persons in order to re-personalize them. I don’t know Warhol’s work well enough to judge it morally, but watching the first part of the PBS American Masters documentary on him, that seemed a big thrust of his work: How the modern world objectifies or commodifies human beings.

  • M. Swaim

    Is it time yet to reference moral awakenings regarding African male prostitutes and condom usage?

  • RJH

    Any superficial study of Andy Warhol would quickly reveal that he was a very deviant man. His favorite pass times included filming people doing debaucherous acts and tape recording famous people saying filthy things. He got off on using and exploiting people, finding how far he could push their moral boundaries and if he pushed them too far, even to the point of death, he washed his hands of them.
    It can hardly be claimed that Andy Warhol was celibate. He had 2 well known lovers, interior decorator, Jed Johnson and Paramount executive, Jon Gould, who died of AIDS in the 1980s. The latter he spent intimate weekends with at his home in Aspen throughout the mid-80s before Gould was diagnosed. Warhol frequently went to Mass, but also practiced crystals and other New Age practices, anything that momentarily promised to take the pain away. One could hardly argue that he was a model Catholic, although I remember reading in his diaries that he switched New Age practitioners at one point because he wanted a doctor who “believed in Christ.” It is most likely that Warhol did indeed die of AIDS, but that fact was most likely covered up to protect the Warhol estate. There was a lot of money to still be made off of Warhol and revealing that fact in the midst of the AIDS panic could have potentially damaged the Warhol image and brand, as happened to Robert Mapplethorpe several years later. I recommend reading, Holy Terror, by Bob Colacello for more on Warhol.

  • Br. Timothy

    Kenneth is quite incorrect to equate Dawn’s analysis with being judgmental. It is an ignorant idea–all too common today–that the admonition not to judge others prohibits Christians from assessing the objective moral character of actions. The morality (or immorality) of actions must be assessed rationally, and to observe that making what amounts to pornography is evil is not at all the same thing as judging the state of the person’s soul. It is rather simply to call a spade a spade.
    Good and evil must be called by their proper names, and it is high time that people stop using the ‘don’t judge’ precept as an excuse for pretending that good and evil cannot be named for what they are. The fact is, if a Christian fails to name good and evil actions as such, he or she is guilty of neglecting the prophetic responsibility of Baptism, which requires all of us to bear witness to the truth.

  • Tancred

    I don’t think anyone who would regard someone’s suicide as a photo-op for self-promotion is a candidate for either canonization or emulation in any respect.

    Warhol who was a notable figure who happened to take his mother to Mass. I think he admitted that his collective oeuvre was calculated to degrade, not to elevate.

    I challenge anyone to show me how his “art” had any moral or artistic values whatsoever.

    • kenneth

      If it had no artistic value, we would not be talking about his work a quarter century after his death and almost half a century after his best known works.

      • Tancred

        You’re confusing popular acclaim with artistic merit.

        • kenneth

          Not at all. Warhol’s work is engaged as much by his detractors as his admirers. Probably even more so. His work certainly isn’t being carried anymore by his personal celebrity buzz or presence as a “rebel.” He’s been dead for 25 years, and in today’s pop culture reality show Twitter of the second fame cycle, 25 years ago might as well be Tudor England.

          Artistic value has nothing to do with whether the establishment elites think the artist’s work is uplifting or vulgar. Art has value if it challenges us at a deep level to examine our own assumptions and constructs of how we see ourselves and the world we live in. That can happen through imagery that is soothing and idyllic, nightmarish, lewd or pious, because human existence has all of these elements.

          Often we assume an artist is celebrating or promoting at face value whatever is in the painting or text etc. More often than not, great art poses questions, not answers. I would bet my last dime that Warhol himself struggled with the answers he posed in his work to his last day. His work, like all others, can easily be dismissed as trite images if one is unwilling to consider the underlying questions it poses. It’s also quite easy to dismiss an artist work because we find the artist to be a disagreeable person. Artists very often are eccentric, even bizarre, misanthropic people. So were most saints.

          I don’t think Barnes was trying at all to Canonize Warhol or hold him up as a model Catholic. He does point out one of the great truths of biography, which is that humans are incredibly complex and contradictory. Whether Warhol was a model Catholic or not, the faith clearly in the mix of influences that shaped him and his struggles to find the meaning of life as a man and artist.

      • pagansister

        Amen, Kenneth! If he hadn’t made a dent in the art world, no one would even mention his name any more.

  • DeaconJR

    Hi, Dawn–glad to see this post as reply to what Marc had written–as I commented on his blog post, I simply could not see a point in the piece. Just google some Warhol quotes on sex and marriage and one will see that much of his energy is spent in the de-construction of sexuality and marriage.

    God bless you,

    Deacon JR

  • Craig

    Wrong is wrong. We should revisit St. Paul and “judgement”; we make judgements daily. The sin can be judging someone personally. We should judge actions: despite Mass attendance, etc., Mr. Warhol’s “art” was perverse and evil at times.

    We Catholics need to throw off the weakness of society and bring back true Catholic virtues such as fortitude and call evil “Evil”. Say a prayer for him and all who have passed.

  • Craig

    TRUE STORY: A coworker just made a joke that “we don’t judge” here in the office! Ugh. We have such a long way to go. Our Lady, ora pro nobis!

    • Diane

      just respond: ‘You are right…God will judge. We discern right from wrong’.

  • Sheldon

    Thank you for this article. Warhol was a pornographer, there is no doubt about that for anyone who knows a shred about his work.

  • tz

    If you read the definition strictly, “Fifty Shades of Gray” cannot be considered “pornography”. I’m not sure how people deal with intrusive TSA searches [graphic content removed - DE]. But that is completely acceptable and no violation of religious freedom – I guess if it is a DHS mandate anything goes.

    As to Warhol, you posted no links to what you’ve considered pornographic. [And for good reason - DE] I’m open, but a lot of art is context. Sometimes evil is beautiful, and the innocent will not see the evil, only the beauty.

    There are plenty of Catholic “proud sinners”, it is just that their sins happen to be popular. Supporting atrocities that are war crimes under treaties against Muslims seems to be a big one. The TSA or other evils are another one. Being silent in the face of the Usury (or isn’t that a sin anymore) of Wall Street – that #Occupy points out – is another. A famous priest honored the rabid pro-abort Margaret Thatcher, but on her free enterprise position, her enabling of the Abortion Holocaust in the UK apparently doesn’t matter.

    If you are on “our team”, you have no sins. If you are not, every peccadillo is considered grave.

    • Kirt Higdon

      What does any of that have to do with Warhol or his art? As I mentioned earlier, I’m no fan of Warhol or his art. I’ve also never read 50 Shades of Gray and don’t intend to, I regard TSA groping as an indignity which I have to prayerfully endure because I occasionally need to travel by air, I strongly object to wars and war crimes against Moslems and others and I don’t support usury, although nominal interest rates are so low right now that real return is in negative territory, which is hardly usurious. Aside from the Catholic Church, I don’t have a team.

  • Greg

    I am so glad you wrote this article. I was an artist who is from Pittsburgh and has studied Andy Warhol during my master degree studies. This article tells the truths so much more so than other articles that I have recently read on-line. THANK YOU FOR TELLING THE TRUTH!

  • Proteios1

    A couple of thoughts…
    1. I’ve never been able to separate faith from works. When my faith grows, the things I think and do reflect that. When it contracts…and it has at times in my life….I noticed my works decreased and other little sins encroach upon me. For me, I find it hard to be deep in faith, yet harbor a vice I know without a doubt is sinful.

    2. There’s something about causing others to sin that isn’t good to be doing. All the pornography he did and his contemporaries have played a key role in what we see today. I don’t think he bears no responsibility.

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  • Greg Graham

    I think the important part of Marc’s post is not that Warhol was a model of celibacy, but that he doesn’t fit the mold of the “Gays vs. Hate world”. Maybe Warhol misunderstood the boundaries of chastity and thought that if he abstained from actual sexual acts with another man, he could engage in these other outlets and be ok. I don’t know. However, it does appear that he recognized some version of Catholic sexual morality and attempted to live it.

    Marc’s article does not define deviancy down, but glorifies the mercy of God and shows how the Church is a refuge for sinners. This is an important message for those who think the Church is full of “haters”. The Church calls us to the perfection of Christ, but it accepts us the way we are, giving grace to sinners so that we can eventually be conformed to his image.

  • the egyptian

    I prefer to give the man some credit, from article

    “He deliberately concealed who he was to the public — famously answering questions with “uh, no” or “uh, yes” — and he certainly concealed the fact that he wore a cross on a chain around his neck, carried with him a missal and a rosary, and volunteered at the soup kitchen at the Church of Heavenly Rest in New York. He went to Mass — often to daily Mass — sitting at the back, unnoticed, awkwardly embarrassed lest anyone should see he crossed himself in “the Orthodox way” — from right shoulder to left instead of left to right. He financed his nephew’s studies for the priesthood, and — according to his eulogy — was responsible for at least one person’s conversion to the Catholic faith.

  • Dave G.

    I read Marc’s article and I admit I was somewhat gobsmacked by it. I love to read Marc’s articles, though he is young, and such sudden off the rails approaches to topics can be expected. Plus, there is a somewhat strange, perhaps unintentional movement across the blogosphere by Catholics who rightly try to separate non-heterosexual attraction from the sinful indulging in non-heterosexual attraction that can, at times, go too far the opposite way. It’s important to remember whenever doing apologetics, if one is attempting to point out the extreme approach to something, make sure not to go to the extreme opposite of that same something.

    Though I’m not sure how far I would praise any Catholic who attended Mass regularly and was a proud sinner. A repentant, struggling, groveling, sinner sure – praise away! But one who wears a particular sin in a proud way? Not so much.

  • pagansister

    If a member of the Church is given “forgiveness” by going to confession on a regular basis, then perhaps IF Andy thought he was actually promoting, as some here think, improper behavior (as defined by the Church) then “confessing” and saying his prescribed “Hail Mary’s”, “Our Father’s” or whatever prayers etc. given to him by the priest, then he could have felt he was in good standing in the eyes of God. :o)

  • Michael Demers

    Hi Dawn, I think you’re right. I appreciate your point about how nudity is portrayed differently in different media. Thank you for enlightening me.

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