Catholicism and Celebrity Culture at the Met

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Catholicism and haute couture made a gauche fashion statement at the recent Met Gala, a major fundraising event for The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute.

The event, celebrated annually on the first Monday in the Blessed Mother’s month of May, is the hottest ticket in New York City’s world of fashion. This year’s Met Gala celebrated the opening of the museum’s “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination” exhibit, which runs May 10 through October 8. It is the Costume Institute’s most extensive show ever.

In keeping with the show’s theme, the Vatican loaned some 40 precious items, including papal robes and accessories from the Sistine Chapel Sacristy, to serve as the Met exhibition’s “cornerstone.” These pieces of sacred art are juxtaposed alongside fashion creations inspired by spiritual elements of the Catholic faith in the exhibit. Church interiors, monastic orders, the sacraments and more motivated designers to create the fashion items on display.

While the exhibition of “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination” might be in good taste in its treatment of Catholic devotions and traditions, as information on The Met’s website suggests, the Met Gala that pays for it was not.

The opulent spectacle opens with a parade of celebrities sashaying along the red carpet and posing for the cameras while wearing haute couture masterpieces and monstrosities.

Like many women, I enjoy putting together an outfit in hopes that it makes fashion sense. Fashion can be fun. Yet, when I viewed Met Gala pictures and videos online, even exquisite ensembles in fine fabrics and lush colors looked like monstrosities to me.

These Catholic chic creations reduced symbols of the deeply held beliefs of my faith to mere fashion frivolity. Celebrities wore items with holy symbolism as nothing more than theatrical props for a red carpet performance. Props included: an elaborate crown featuring the nativity sceneprovocatively positioned crucifixes or rosary beads as accessories to compliment cleavagecrosses strategically placed on bodices of gowns, a hot little cocktail dress in “Virgin Mary-blue,” haloes and at least one set of masterfully designed angel wings, reported the magazines VogueElleUsPeopleAllure and Harper’s Bazaar among others.

While ignorance of Catholicism’s hallowed tenets might have been the source of disrespect in some cases, it was not in others. Madonna—the pop singer, entertainer, actress and talented dancer who made a fortune by building a career on mockery of Catholicism—was born Madonna Louise Veronica Ciccone and raised quite Catholic.

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Her parents’ strict observation of the Catholic faith played a large role in Madonna’s childhood. “My mother was a religious zealot,” Madonna explains. “There were always priests and nuns in my house growing up.” Many elements of Catholic iconography—including her mother’s statues of the Sacred Heart, the habits of the nuns at her Catholic elementary school, and the Catholic altar at which she and her family prayed daily—later became the subject of Madonna’s most controversial works.

Sadly, the songstress lost her mother, Madonna Fortin Ciccone, to breast cancer that was diagnosed during the pregnancy of the youngest of the Ciccone’s six children. Madonna senior was 30-years-old and her daughter Madonna only 5-years-old at the time of this tragic death.

More sadly still, that loss appears to have wounded Madonna junior internally. For rather than spiritually embrace the motherhood and protection of her namesake, Jesus’ mother, young Madonna Louise Veronica Ciccone rebelled and continues to rebel against the Blessed Mother professionally and personally. The insolent song “Like a Virgin,” released in 1985, was one of her first hits. When the entertainer’s first child was born in 1996, Madonna named her Lourdes.

While on the red carpet at the Met Gala, Madonna, acted other worldly in her black gown with a cross cut out across her chest, mock rosary bead neckwear and veiled crown of bejeweled crucifixes, as seen in Time magazine. Later, the 59-year-old pop star performed her 1989 hit song “Like a Prayer” in a white filmy outfit with a gartered bustier, as Vanity Fair reported.

The Sistine Chapel Choir, composed of 35 boys ages nine to 13, and 20 professional singers from around the world, also sang at the Gala. Bet those boys got an eyeful!

Not only that, New York’s jovial archbishop Cardinal Timothy Dolan brought new meaning to the expression “meeting the people where they are” by attending and applauding the event. In his remarks promoting “Heavenly Bodies,” Cardinal Dolan said that he and the church were there “because the Church and ‘the Catholic imagination,’ are all about truth, goodness, and beauty…,” as noted on the cardinal’s website.

Either the limelight has become blinding or there’s a method to the archbishop’s madness in using religious icons to court cultural icons. Maybe hearts longing for more than the shallowness sometimes associated with being glitterati will be touched by the beauty of sacrosanct items on display in “Heavenly Bodies…,” or the sweet voices of the Sistine Chapel Choir members, or Cardinal Dolan’s friendliness.

Nevertheless, as the Met Gala crowd attests, appearances count. So even the appearance of an archbishop condoning disrespect for holy symbols of Catholicism, as he mingles with fashionistas at a fundraiser for a costume museum, makes Catholics like me wonder.

Not to open old wounds, but in that spirit of truth mentioned by Cardinal Dolan, Church leaders did enough damage by disgracefully mishandling the sex abuse scandal in the past. Do they really want to do more damage by selling the Church’s soul to secularization?

Catholicism does not need to be made chic. It needs to be held sacred.