In Dialogue With Father Dwight Longnecker on the Vatican Crèche

In Dialogue With Father Dwight Longnecker on the Vatican Crèche December 18, 2017



I recently read an article by my former fellow Patheosi, Father Dwight Longnecker, where he details his objection to the Vatican’s Nativity scene. It’s a thoughtful piece, and I agree with him on some of it. However, some of his notions seemed so strange that I’ve decided to examine his piece paragraph by paragraph in the form of a dialogue.

Far be it from me to join the Catholic prudes who are being negative about the Vatican nativity scene. People are grumbling about the naked man who is being clothed as an act of mercy.  Some are also creeped out by the dead person being prepared for burial because it looks like a scene from a horror film.

Like most things in the Catholic Church, we’ve been there before. Folks were not pleased at all the naked bodies in Michelangelo’s Sistine chapel paintings, and you’ll see lots of partial nudity or gruesome scenes in plenty of Catholic arworks. David holding Goliath’s severed head? Jael nailing Sisera’s head to the ground with tent stake? For goodness sake, the central image of our faith is that of a naked man tortured, exposed and nailed to an execution tree.

On this we agree 100%, Father. There is nothing scandalous about a naked figure in devotional art, or just about any other art. I’m squinting at the photo and confused as to why the naked figure looks like he’s wearing some kind of gold anklet, but that’s another story.

I don’t mind the nudity and gore. I sort of mind that it is bad art–schmaltzy and poorly executed. The figures are stilted and awkward. It looks like one of those tableaus in a third rate wax museum. You could say, “C’mon. This is Catholicism. We’re used to kitsch.” OK, but the Vatican should do better.

Eh, I’ve seen a lot worse. It kind of reminds me of the Pirates of the Caribbean ride, but it’s colorful and fun. There’s an icon-looking thing on the wall there, and I like icons. I don’t know why the Holy Family is camped out in an ancient ruin. I don’t know why the Wise men are there in the first place, nor do I know why they’re dressed up like Prince Ali from Aladdin. I don’t know why so many of the figures are dressed like the Three Musketeers… you know, on second thought, I’ll give you this one, Father Dwight. It’s kitschy. Not my cup of tea at all.

Father continues:

One of the main problems in the church today is what I call neo-Pelagianism. Pelagianism is the idea that you can earn your way to heaven with good works. Neo-Pelagianism is what is otherwise called “the social gospel”. It is reducing the supernatural Christian message to “Let’s all make the world a better place and be kind to one another and give peace a chance.”

Pope Francis himself has warned many times against the dangers of Pelagianism.  I’m not really into putting “Neo” in front of heresies and trying to re-brand them as a new danger to the Church; I think we should just call the Pelagianism we see today “Pelagianism” and leave it at that.  Some people do engage in the works of mercy thinking that they can buy their way into Heaven with them, and that’s a heresy. But in my experience, most of the boots on the ground fighting to improve the world through kindness and peace do it because they honestly care about people and want to help. Many more do it specifically because they take the teachings of Christ seriously.

Christ Himself did warn us that the works of mercy are not optional. Matthew 25 is explicit on that point. We can’t buy our way into Heaven with good works. Only the Mercy of God can open the gates of Heaven. But it is absolutely the case that those who refuse to respond to Christ in the disguise of their neighbors in need will not be able to receive Christ in His coming kingdom. Jesus said so. James 2:18 is also explicit: good works are the evidence of our faith. We as Catholics are not really supposed to separate the two the way some Protestant denominations do. Faith and works go together.

The corporal works of mercy are important, yes, and theologically it can be said that they flow directly from the nativity of Christ. Because Christ took corporeal form we are engaged in the corporal acts of mercy. Because he took a human body we care for the human bodies around us. Because he entered this world of matter–matter matters.

…I never really thought about it this way. It doesn’t gel with the fact that the works of mercy were actually expected of us by God long before the incarnation. Isaiah 58:7 comes to mind. Not to mention, most other religions I can think of, religions where the Deity is not believed to have ever been incarnate, command that their followers meet the physical needs of their neighbors as well. I guess I would re-phrase what you’ve said as that Christians have an extra obligation to perform the works of mercy because Christ became incarnate. Nearly everyone has a sense that they should be done, but Christians have less excuse than anybody not to do them.

I get all that, but a Nativity scene is not a tableau of the corporal works of mercy. The Vatican Nativity worries me because it is placing good works front and center rather than the incarnation.

No, it’s not. Yes, some of the figures in the tableau are closer to the audience than the baby Jesus, but that’s not because they’re given more prominence. Here, take a look at this Nativity icon:


Saint Joseph being tempted by the Devil, and the midwives bathing Jesus, are right at the front in the audience’s faces, but they’re not the central figure of the Nativity. Theotokos and Christ in the manger are. The other stories depicted in the icon are happening in a circle around the Virgin and Child, setting them off as of most importance. This technique of drawing the audience’s eye to the figure of veneration is hardly unique to iconography; it happens throughout art history. The artist draws the eye in a circle, ending at where she or he expects it to linger. That’s what the Vatican nativity is trying to do. Jesus is in the center, elevated on the tacky stone ruin, framed by His Mother and foster-father. The other figures are arranged at a slight distance, drawing the eye in a circle. I’m not saying the artist did it perfectly, but they did place the Incarnation at the center. The center of a work of art isn’t necessarily the front.

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