This is a guest post, written by Charles D. Beard.
The reaction to the 2018 Met Gala has been harsh, if a bit predictable. Fox News quoted tweets—apparently from Catholics—calling the event “lowkey disrespectful,” “offensive” and even “disgusting.”
It was called a mockery of Catholicism. Women in low-cut dresses were unfavorably compared to the modest and chaste Virgin Mary. Ross Douthat published a lengthy thinkpiece in the New York Times that—like most things Douthat writes—I liked despite my best efforts. Father Z called the whole thing “Satanic”—a very serious charge indeed.
Then there was the reaction to the reaction.
Jessica Mesman Griffith of Sick Pilgrim said the horror at the Met Gala filled her with sadness. “[T]his 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.”
And then you have people like me, who use controversy to make jokes about coleslaw. I regret nothing.
But I do think both the Met Gala and the reaction to it revealed there are serious problems with a Met Gala inspired by the Catholic imagination. Specifically, we need to talk about what we talk about when we talk about modesty.
Beauty on Display
I want to start with the good. When Cardinal Dolan explained to reporters why the Church sponsored the Gala, he said: “[T]he church and the Catholic imagination—the theme of this exhibit—are all about three things: truth, goodness and beauty. That’s why we’re into things such as art, culture, music, literature and, yes, even fashion.”
And there was certainly beauty on display.
How often do celebrities—Catholics, secular people, secular people who were raised Catholic—get to hear the Sistine Chapel Choir sing liturgical music? The experience apparently moved normally jaded celebrities. After they sang, host Anna Wintour was quoted as saying, “[T]his is the quietest I’ve ever seen for this gala.”
That’s what beauty does. It reduces us to silence, and in the silence we can meet God. Anything that does that is OK by me—no matter how people are dressed.
What Measure Modesty?
But much of the controversy focuses on how people (well, mostly the women) were dressed. Specifically, some claimed that it is inappropriate or even blasphemous to wear a dress inspired by the Virgin Mary when the same dress is cut to mid-chest.
That’s not necessarily wrong. Catholic art has a long tradition of displaying Mary’s breasts to symbolize spiritual nourishment, but that’s probably not what the designer of Cardi B’s Mary-dress had in mind.
That we can abuse human sexuality is probably the least controversial assertion ever, and caution about modesty in dress is always warranted.
But caution shouldn’t give way to hysteria. I am not a woman and I do not have breasts (moobs don’t count!) I am not in the best position to judge how much cleavage is “too much” in a given situation. The Catechism itself says that such judgements are partly subjective and depend on culture (CCC 2524).
Some of the clothing probably—I would say almost certainly—went over the line. (Cardi B’s dress looks fine to me, for what it’s worth.) But clothes that go over the line provide an opportunity for Christians. We don’t need to focus—as some seem to have done—on immodest dress. But we can focus on the good that immodest dress tries to express. Both Cardi B and the Virgin Mary have bodies—bodies which are, in St. John Paul’s language, endowed with spousal meaning. At the Met Gala, the Church had a public opportunity to talk about that. That’s fundamentally a good thing.
Worth Doing Badly
It’s unreasonable to expect a secular designer or a non-Catholic celebrity to know about theology of the body when they put on a dress with a plunging neckline. Sometimes people will go over the line. But we need to think broadly about the Catholic imagination. When the Church puts her imagination on display, we run the risk—we accept the certainty—that some people will use it badly.
That has always been the case. As G.K. Chesterton said, “Anything worth doing is worth doing badly.”
Sin and sinners are part of the Catholic imagination because they are—this side of heaven—part of spiritual life. Infamously, at the end of his life, Geoffrey Chaucer denounced much of his writing because it was so bawdy. Tom More, Walker Percy’s Catholic hero in Love in the Ruins, lived with three women in an alcoholic haze. Whatever the artistic and spiritual demerits in Billy Joel’s “Only the Good Die Young” (and they are many), no Baptist could have written it.
The only way to ensure that the Catholic imagination is never abused is to never use it at all. But then we would have to treat the Catholic imagination the same way C.S. Lewis describes a heart in The Four Loves: “If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable.”
Three Rules for Evangelizing Culture
I don’t think any of us want to take the Catholic imagination that direction. So how should we respond when—for whatever reason—art inspired by Catholicism rubs us the wrong way?
The key is to keep a proper perspective. We shouldn’t expect perfection—either in taste or spirituality—of any person. Instead we look for any opportunity we can for grace to break in.
Once again, Cardinal Dolan provides a good example of this approach. He told a reporter after the gala: “I didn’t really see anything sacrilegious, I may have seen some things in poor taste, but I didn’t detect anybody out to offend the church. … “A number of people came up and spoke about their Catholic upbringing and things they remembered and it was a powerful evening.”
We also need to remember that the virtue of modesty influences what we say as well as how we dress: “Modesty is decency. It inspires one’s choice of clothing. It keeps silence or reserve where there is evident risk of unhealthy curiosity. It is discreet” (CCC 2522).
I would distill three rules from Cardinal Dolan and the Catechism:
Think the best in what others do, even (or especially) if we distrust them.
- Think the best in what others do, even (or especially) if we distrust them.
- Look for an opportunity to talk about the True, the Good, and the Beautiful, even (or especially) when the examples we have are imperfect.
- Know when to keep silent, even (or especially) when we see something that bothers us.
Following those rules, we can let the Catholic imagination preach the Gospel for us.
Of course, this raises the question of whether I am following my own rules—particularly the need to keep silent. I will discuss this more in my next post, when I take a look at a much deeper problem with the Met Gala.
Charles D. Beard is a Catholic Worker and deacon candidate near Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Image: Saint Luke Drawing the Virgin, Rogier van der Weyden