This is a guest post, written by Charles D. Beard.
“For the whole modern world is absolutely based on the assumption, not that the rich are necessary (which is tenable), but that the rich are trustworthy, which (for a Christian) is not tenable.” —G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, 1908
Defending the Met Gala, as I did in my previous post, is distasteful to me. I feel out of my comfort zone as I know nothing about fashion and little about celebrities. I had never heard of Cardi B until I read that her dress was inspired by the Virgin Mary.
I have never been invited to the Met Gala. I never will be invited to the Met Gala. And if I were invited to the Met Gala, I probably wouldn’t attend. It’s just not my scene.
Why in the world would I talk about this? Why should I criticize my fellow Catholics who may be oversensitive but nevertheless have a good point?
The Real Problem
The reason is I care about the Catholic imagination. Some of my fellow Catholics didn’t see the Catholic imagination on display at the Met Gala. Immodesty of dress and perceived mockery of the faith obscured it.
I think they are wrong. Something much more sinister restrains the Catholic imagination: obscene wealth.
Our cultural polarization means few have directly addressed this problem. When liberal celebrities dress up like saints, the Catholic right opposes it because they think Zendaya is mocking Joan of Arc. The Catholic left keeps silent because they think Zendaya looks badass as Joan of Arc. Neither side points out that the common people Joan of Arc protected can’t get anywhere near Zendaya.
The Catholic imagination can be playful. It can be fun. It can be tragic. It can even be—as it was at the Met Gala—gauche. But it must never be elite.
Jesus said we must never hide a lamp under a bushel (Matt. 5:15). The Catholic Church has a diffusive—one might even say promiscuous—relationship with beauty.
The most devout monk and the most clueless tourist can both walk into St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Manhattan and see the Catholic imagination writ large. Even a homeless person can sleep in its shadow. Beauty knows no income or class.
We wouldn’t know that from the Met Gala. Whatever beauty was on display, no one saw or heard it without a ticket. And each ticket set you back $30,000.
That’s not a typo. The 2018 Met Gala cost thirty thousand dollars per ticket.
It doesn’t end there. The dinner menu included lobster with gold leaves. Mercifully, Cardinal Dolan paid a waiter to leave and bring him street vendor hot dogs. (God bless that man’s working class instincts.)
I understand that running museums costs money and it was a fundraiser. That’s fair enough. But the risk the event posed to the Catholic imagination wasn’t an overabundance of cleavage. It was giving the impression that the Catholic imagination is only for people who can spend a third of the value of my house so they can—literally—poop gold.
A Sword That Doesn’t Pierce the Heart
When the Catholic imagination is associated with this sort of decadence, it loses touch with the joy and sorrow that underlie all good art and worthy spirituality.
The Seven Sorrows of Mary speak to the pain of a woman losing her Son, even though His death is for the salvation of the world. Any parent who has lost a child can relate to that pain. And no matter how much cleavage it hid, Lana del Rey’s Our Lady of Sorrows dress expressed nothing of that pain.
Del Rey’s dress may have been a lot of things: beautiful, disrespectful, classy, weird. But it did not express the pain of love. In short, it was unimaginative.
The Catholic imagination means nothing if it does not point to Christ. And the pain of love is exactly where Christ meets so many of us—especially among the poor who hardly make $30,000 in a decade.
I don’t want to overstate my case. I said in my last post that it’s fundamentally a good thing for secular people to hear the Sistine Chapel Choir. It’s a good thing that people who haven’t been to Mass in years can approach Cardinal Dolan and talk about how much they loved (or hated) their Catholic upbringing.
I stand by all of that. When you hide the Catholic imagination behind the walls of wealth, the wealthy do benefit. The problem is that only the wealthy benefit.
We need a Catholic imagination that is, well, catholic: universal, with a preferential option for the poor.
We must be cautious when the wealthy make any sort of ode to the Catholic imagination. It quickly becomes less about Catholicism and more about their wealth. Lena Waithe’s red carpet quote put it succinctly: “The theme—to me—is to be yourself.”
In Which I Attempt to Avoid Hypocrisy
Here I run into a problem. My last post said we shouldn’t complain about things that aren’t to our liking. Instead, we should look for the good. But here I am complaining about what I see as a big problem.
The Met Gala presents an opportunity for evangelization if we think about it correctly. We do have to look at it with eyes wide open, but—as I said in my previous post—we must look for opportunities for grace to break in.
I will admit: it is very difficult for me to think of grace breaking in places where they serve lobster and gold flakes. But stranger things have happened. I heard a virgin gave birth to a Son once.
With that in mind, I will attempt to apply the three rules from my last post:
1. Think the best in what others do, even (or especially) if we distrust them.
Cardinal Dolan said that when Anna Wintour, the editor-in-chief at Vogue, reached out to him about the event, he was “apprehensive.” And with good reason. Catholicism isn’t exactly culturally popular right now.
But she assured him that the gala would be sensitive. She let the cardinal skip the red carpet, and she said she let a priest review clothing designs. We can talk a lot about how effective her steps were or what her blind spots elsewhere in the event—seriously gold flakes?!—but Wintour didn’t have to do that. I say good on her.
2. Look for an opportunity to talk about the True, the Good, and the Beautiful, even (or especially) when the examples we have are imperfect.
Here I can point to a specific example. I am not a fan of Selena Gomez. My kids liked her when they were younger but I always found her music vaguely annoying. I was edified to see her purse was embroidered with what was called her favorite Bible verse: “A woman who fears the Lord is a woman who shall be praised” (Prov. 31:30).
Last year, Gomez’ purse embroidery said: “Love yourself first.”
I’d call this year’s version a substantial improvement! I may even listen to one of her songs to celebrate. Maybe. (Probably not.)
3. Know when to keep silent, even (or especially) when we see something that bothers us.
What does silence look like here? It may mean passing over what we regard as immodest dress. In my case, it means trying to see past my anger at the decadence when it’s not immediately relevant.
Above I mentioned Zendaya’s Joan of Arc outfit. My son is a fan of Zendaya. He has been watching The Greatest Showman on repeat for … it feels like months. When I show him pictures of Zendaya at the Met Gala, my first instinct will be to complain about how much she spent on her ticket. But that wouldn’t be helpful.
Let him enjoy the pictures. The designer really did do a good job. And St. Joan is certainly an inspiring figure.
None of these things resolves the problem of confining the Catholic imagination to a gathering of the rich and beautiful. But it may help us—or help me—bring it out of there and into the real world. Maybe, in some small way, this can make the Catholic imagination catholic again.
Charles D. Beard is a Catholic Worker and deacon candidate near Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Image: Giotto – Legend of St Francis, St Francis Giving his Mantle to a Poor Man, 1294.