A reader is concerned that Patti Smith will do a concert at the Vatican

A reader is concerned that Patti Smith will do a concert at the Vatican November 20, 2014

She writes:

Now I know this is written from a charmingly anti-Catholic perspective–and that indeed the whole intent of this piece is to smear Catholicism–but I have to point this out as a tiny smidge of why certain Catholics are reacting to the Pope the way they are. There’s just no reason to have Patti Smith performing at the Vatican….although the facts on this should be checked to see if this really is a Vatican sponsored concert.

It’s a prudential and aesthetic call, not a moral one. A tradition that has room to honor a great artist like Caravaggio, even though he was a murderer, is a tradition that has room for Patti Smith.

I, for one, am glad that we don’t have to have our tastes dictated by American Puritans whose highest achievements in the arts are Precious Moment figurines.

Beyond that, I think two things are important to keep in mind:

1. This really is an actual, real prudential judgment that people can disagree about. I’m not especially big on punk and Smith has never been my cup of tea. But at the same time, I recognize that many people consider her a great artist. Given that prudential judgment is precisely that place where Catholics can differ without questioning the quality of their faith, I operate on the principle “In essential things, unity; in doubtful things, liberty; in all things, charity.” After wrestling for years with Catholics who tried to argue that torture was a “prudential judgment” when in fact it is and always will be a mortal sin, I’m rather enjoying the sensation of having a genuine bona fide prudential judgment to argue about. And though my reader, whom I know, absolutely would not stand for a second for the torture excuse-making, I am very well aware that many who thought nothing of blowing off the use of torture as something we should all agree to disagree about would also treat this completely prudential judgment as though it is somehow indicative of heresy. Such gnat/camel inversions are increasingly common in conservative spheres. They should stop.

2. I again regard this as a net win from the perspective of evangelism. Smith famously once sang that Jesus did not die for her sins. Now she sings “O Holy Night” with conviction and does so in the presence of the Successor of Peter. I see that as an opportunity, not a problem; a step forward for her, not a step back for the Church; a softening of her heart, not a softening of the Church’s head.

Update: A reader sends along this interview with Smith. I’m impressed. Clearly, she is a seeker:

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  • Dave G.

    I didn’t know puritans were responsible for precious moments figures.

    • Jonk

      Yeah, I think their contributions to material popular culture began and ended with hat buckles.

  • Chatsworth

    Dave G — you can learn a lot from reading Mark Shea. Unfortunately, most of what you learn will be untrue.

    • antigon

      Dear Msgrs. Richardson & Chatsworth:

      Your nonsense very helpful no doubt, but even as I join many in being dismayed by the current pontificate & know little of Dr. Smith beyond the referenced articles in Mr. Shea’s post & by Mr. Mad, both of those would seem to indicate she is far from unserious, about serious things.
      In fact, not even sure what the objection is. Could somebody who does object post a reason or two?

    • Allan B

      I find it hilarious that people keep reading a website run by someone they despise. Do you and Donald Richardson not realize how pathetic you both look? If Mark Shea is not your cup of tea, I suspect there may be a couple other blogs on the internet. Perhaps one of those will make you happy. Or maybe nothing will.

  • James H, London

    “a step forward for her, not a step back for the Church; a softening of her heart, not a softening of the Church’s head”

    – just perfect! She’s mellowed with age, people. Chill out.

  • ivan_the_mad

    Found this article with some quotes from Ms. Smith. Seems like she’s searching for Him. She needs prayers, not scorn or condemnation.

    I entertain the hopeful notion that simply saying the words might prove efficacious enough to eventually move one’s heart and mind into the act, as it were.

    • Karen Wilkin Powers

      It would be better if she recanted her abortion support before giving her the stage at a Vatican Christmas event. More poor judgement from our pope, I’m afraid.

      • chezami

        And prostitutes and tax collectors were still prostitutes and tax collectors when Jesus dined with them. More poor judgment from our Pharisees, I’m afraid.

        • HornOrSilk

          And Caesar was still Caesar when Jesus said to render what is Caesar what is Caesars, which transcends even being with prostitutes. There is a reason why it made many authorities upset!

  • Donald Richardson


    If the Pope said catholics should start using BCE/CE you’d find a way to justify it.


    • Cypressclimber

      That may be; but how is your jibe even relevant?

      • chezami

        Methinks Donald is a Protestant Fundamentalist. They have odd hangups about stuff like that. Note his rejection of the Perpetual Virginity of Mary too.

        • Donald Richardson

          I am a Catholic and believe in the PVM. My point is that when someone quotes a line from Scripture and says “not difficult to understand” we need to compare it with other Scripture and Church teaching. Prooftesting is Protestant not Catholic.

    • Alma Peregrina

      BCE/CE – Before Christian Era / Christian Era.
      Boom! Justified!

  • cheekypinkgirl

    I hope you know that you are serving a real purpose in learning, thought and discussion in the realm of Catholic thought and politics, etc. I remind you of this for those times when you’re banging your head against the wall wondering if anyone is listening? I’m glad you run with topics like this for the exact reason that cooler, wiser discourse will flow and be considered. Remind me to send you something blessed by Pope Francis from our private audience with him.

  • Ed Mechmann

    Isn’t it odd that Protestants would object to her line that “Jesus died for someone’s sins but not mine”? Isn’t limited atonement a basic precept of Calvinism?

  • KyPerson

    I’m not a fan of Patti Smith, but I LOVE rock and some punk rock in particular (Clash, Ramones, Cheap Trick’s first album). People mellow, people change and God never gives up on anyone.

  • Andy

    From a Rolling Stone interview 10/15/14:

    “I left organized religion at 12 or 13, because I was brought up a Jehovah’s Witness. I have a very strong biblical background. I studied the bible quite a bit when I was young and continue to study it, independent of any religion, but I still study it.
    My sister is still Jehovah’s Witness. We talk all the time. I like to keep abreast of what she’s doing and what she believes in. I believe there is good in in all religions. But religion, politics and business, all of these things, have been so
    corrupted and so infused with power that I really don’t have interest in any of
    it – governments, religion, corporations. But I do have interest in the human

    She sounds like many people searching – her search is more public because of her notoriety, but she deserves the opportunity to search. And if perhaps singing for the VaticanChristmas Concert helps on that search why should any of us care other than to
    say welcome?

    • Marthe Lépine

      Not only does she “deserve the opportunity to search”, but sharing this search with her public as she seems to do (I knew nothing about her until 1/2 hour ago!) can bring blessings to many other searching people, and provide maybe the little light that many need to find in order to begin to see the Way…

  • dabhidh

    “I again regard this as a net win from the perspective of evangelism. Smith famously once sang that Jesus did not die for her sins. Now she sings “O Holy Night” with conviction and does so in the presence of the Successor of Peter. I see that as an opportunity, not a problem; a step forward for her, not a step back for the Church; a softening of her heart, not a softening of the Church’s head.”

    Brilliant! I’ve enjoyed Patti Smith’s music for many years (in spite of her occasional irreverence and otherwise off-putting tendencies) and I’ve always believed her to be an artist strangely haunted by Christianity and by Catholicism in particular. Perhaps it comes from her enduring fascination with Rimbaud. What’s even more interesting is that her background is not Catholic, but rather Jehovah’s Witness. And yet Catholic imagery, some of it quite striking and visionary, permeates much of her music.

    That clip was beautiful. Thanks for sharing it.

    • chezami

      Yep. When you make an entire album called “Easter” it’s a safe bet you are wrestling with Christ.

      • dabhidh

        The title track of her album Wave is a tribute to Pope John Paul I. She really felt kindly toward him.

        • chezami

          She strikes me as the sort of person who resonates with authenticity wherever she sees it. Exactly what a true artist is supposed to do.

  • Alex Edezhath

    She is very close to Catholicism. This is a great interview:

  • David Naas

    Alas, some cannot see the difference between a problem (which must be crushed) and an opportunity (which must be exploited.)

  • KM

    I love Patti Smith. I wasn’t drawn to her punk music but became aware of her due to her beautiful, melancholy album, “Gone Again.” The lyrics on that album are very poetic. And indeed, many consider her a poet, very much like Bob Dylan. “Gone Again” has some absolutely beautiful songs and lyrics which are indicative of her depth.

    I had never heard the Jesus didn’t die for her sins line. To me, that line doesn’t appear to be making a condemnation but instead reveals the anguished modern cry of those who are seeking meaning in our nihilistic age.

    With the musical arts, I ask: if we’re going to disallow people who are impure from associating with the pure, should we then exclude Mozart, Bob Dylan, and pretty much everyone for all their past sins, with no possible mercy for any redeeming qualities?

  • KM

    Follow-up to my post below:

    The line “Jesus died from somebody’s sins but not mine” comes from her 1975 song “Gloria” on her Horses album. The song is famous and popular, but it’s from 1975. (I had forgotten that song since I haven’t listened to it in decades.) Like Bob Dylan, she’s written some controversial lyrics.

    Patti Smith has written a lot since 1975, and much of it very soul-searching, poetic and beautiful. For example, “Wing” and “Beneath the Southern Cross” from her Gone Again album written after the deaths of so many of her friends.

    • KM

      Correction: “for” not “from” in the lyrics “Jesus die for somebody’s sins but not mine.”

  • Mark S. (not for Shea)
    • Marthe Lépine

      I just read this and I really, really liked it. Thank you for the link. Athough I had never heard of Patti Smith before.

  • Charles E Flynn

    Jesus Died for Someone’s Sins, But Not For Hers, by Russell E. Saltzman, for First Things.

  • Dave G.

    Don’t know her. For my part, things like this are usually a matter of personal preference, and in an celebrity culture, it’s likely we all have our reasons for being understanding, and reasons for not. Reasons for looking the other way when it comes to things we might not tolerate in other cases, and not looking the other way. Anyway, I suppose everyone is searching, even if they don’t know it. Perhaps worth remembering.

  • Charles E Flynn

    For those of you who have a scholarly interest in the subject of kitsch (inspired by our host’s reference to Precious Moments figurines):

    Kitsch: The World Of Bad Taste, by Gillo Dorfles, et al. Caution: contains an image of a jet-propelled Virgin Mary and one of Pope John XXIII that involves a dubious use of seashells.

  • LFM

    In this case, I’m willing to consider the possibility that Smith really is, as you say, a “seeker.” (Elton John was a different matter). She didn’t exploit her early celebrity and dropped out of the music business (as I recall) to bring up her children. Also “punk rockers” have had a history of connection with Catholicism, and not always of a purely cafeteria kind, so there’s that too.

  • Don Grant

    Well said Mark. It would be great to have Patti in our camp We sinners should always be able to make room for one more

  • Karen Wilkin Powers

    She’s still an LGBT and abortion rights supporter. Her interviews mainly show her to be confused (check YouTube), rather than profound, thoughtful or coming to the Catholic point of view. Supporting the *killing* of unborn children contradicts the Nativity message.This is a scandal.

    • talkstoomuchtoo

      You’re gross and I can’t wait for the Church to purge itself of your kind.