The New York Times conservative columnist Ross Douthat offers his take on the controversial Met Gala, and what it says about the state of the Catholic Church, which he feels has done too much to accommodate itself to the world and lost something in the process:
Like Proust’s “caravans of swells” attending liturgical performances, the attendees at the Met were paying a cultural homage to the aesthetic riches of the Roman Church — when, of course, they weren’t sexing them up for shock value. But the spectacle was not exactly Proust’s prophecy come to life, because unlike in his thought experiment, Catholicism today remains a living faith — weakened but hardly gone, with as complicated a relationship to its own traditions as any lapsed-Catholic museum curator or celebrity dressing up as the Maid of Orleans.
This complication is apparent in the Catholic response to the Met Gala itself, which consisted of an institutional blessing for the spectacle — not just Cardinal Timothy Dolan opening the museum exhibit, but the Sistine Chapel Choir performing for the swells and starlets in the evening — followed by an angry Catholic social-media backlash against the evening’s various impieties. When a living faith gets treated like a museum piece, it’s hard for its adherents to know whether to treat the moment as an opportunity for outreach or for outrage…
…Francis has won admiring press. But as with the last wave of Catholic revolution, there is little evidence that the modernizing project makes moderns into Catholics. (The latest Gallup data, for instance, shows American Mass attendance declining faster in the Francis era.)
Instead, the quest for accommodation seems to encourage moderns to divide their sense of what Catholicism represents in two — into an Old Church that’s frightening and fascinating in equal measure, and a New Church that’s a little more liked but much more easily ignored.
Francis and other would-be modernizers are right, and have always been right, that Catholic Christianity should not trade on fear. But a religion that claims to be divinely established cannot persuade without a lot of fascination, and far too much of that has been given up, consigned to the museum, as Western Catholicism has traced its slow decline.
Here the Met Gala should offer the faith from which it took its theme a little bit of inspiration. The path forward for the Catholic Church in the modern world is extraordinarily uncertain. But there is no plausible path that does not involve more of what was displayed and appropriated and blasphemed against in New York City Monday night, more of what once made Catholicism both great and weird, and could yet make it both again.
UPDATE: For another take, here’s Jessica Mesman Griffith, a.k.a. “Sick Pilgrim” at Patheos:
When the pictures of the opening Gala started circulating on the web, Internet Catholics immediately commenced freaking out. And not in a good way. My reaction to their reaction: sadness. Brothers, Sisters, Gender Nonconforming siblings, this is a moment to celebrate the unstoppable supernatural power and enduring allure of the Catholic symbol system–not to circle the church lady wagons and call the orthodoxy police.
Cardinal Dolan understands this. The Vatican understands this. Even Ross Douthat, for God’s sake, appears to understand this, and that in itself is proof of the miraculous nature of this moment in art history–though I disagree that decadence is a sign that the Church is dead. Decadence is the Catholic way, and can be a powerful tool of conversion. (See Brideshead Revisited.)
The designer who dressed Rihanna also understands this. People are freaking out because she wore a mitre with her dress? The man I call my “spiritual father”– a pillar of my native parish and the former mayor of my hometown outside of New Orleans — wore a mitre every damn Christmas while he pours Ancient Age into the punch bowl and his had a crawfish on it. Come on, Catholics. We’re funnier than this. Even Cardinal Dolan cracked wise about Rihanna’s head gear, saying he’d lent it to her. Are you more Catholic than the good Cardinal?
Y’all. Settle down. You’re missing a very rare chance to be proud of our tradition, to feel blessed indeed to share a heritage of beauty that can move even the most secular heart to awe. This is what Catholic culture–which is endlessly bemoaned as in its death throes if not dead altogether–is. When you let the people at it, you’re gonna lose control of it. And that can be a very good thing. Some of us wouldn’t have found Jesus without Mardi Gras.