Why the cultural elite is fascinated by Catholicism

For believers, the Catholic Church is at once transcendent and mundane — the Holy Spirit working on Earth through 2,000 years of committee meetings. For those of a more secular bent, it is simply a terrific show, and hence the Met’s current exhibit of Catholic religious garments — and the Met Gala’s Catholic-themed fancy-dress ball lampooning them.

Some Catholics complained that the gala costumes were blasphemous, with Rihanna in a miter, Zendaya as Joan of Arc as imagined by Versace (she was not the only one in faux armor), Taylor Hill wearing something that looked like it came in a Halloween-costume box labeled “Slutty Cardinal,” and Madonna as . . . something called “Madonna,” in a crown and veil. But “blasphemy” isn’t quite the right word: What was mocked and caricatured at the Met gala was not God so much as the clergy, and God knows the clergy has it coming. No less an authority than Pope Francis has from time to time put the holy verbal smackdown on prelates he regards as too ostentatious in their style. The pope himself is a notably modest dresser, as befits a man who took the name “Francis.”

Rather than take offense, Catholics ought to smile a little at the dog-and-pony show at the Met. It is a reminder that the Catholic Church matters in the wider world, far beyond Catholic circles, in a way that most other congregations do not. There is never going to be a Methodist-themed Met gala, and there are not millions of people around the world watching, rapt with anticipation, every time the Southern Baptist Convention elects a new president. With all due charity to my Protestant friends, their traditions and their foibles are rarely held up for mockery because no one can be bothered to take the time to do so, give or take the occasional joke at Joel Osteen’s expense.

The secular world may not care much for Catholic doctrine, but it remains fascinated by Catholic aesthetics, which permeate our popular culture: About half of the horror movies ever made, heavy-metal music from Black Sabbath forward, highbrow television from “The Borgias” to “The Young Pope,” cinema from “The Godfather” to “The Matrix” (If Neo’s neo-Jesuit cassock isn’t in the Met’s exhibit, it should be) and much else.

In the 1990s, Gregorian chant was briefly inescapable after the commercial success of Enigma’s “Sadeness Part I,” most recently resurrected to comical effect in “Tropic Thunder.” Even Kevin Smith’s generally misunderstood “Dogma” is, despite its wild vulgarity, a strangely sincere Catholic movie, a “Garden State of Earthly Delights,” as it were.

The Catholic Church has seen fashions come and go — empires, too

Why is it that Catholic style retains its power even as Catholic teaching is attenuated in the Catholic homelands?

For perspective, consider another controversial fashion-oriented museum exhibit, on the other side of the country: “Contemporary Muslim Fashions” at the de Young Museum in San Francisco, which will open in September. Unlike the Met show (which was blessed by the Vatican), the Muslim fashion show in San Francisco is catching hell from virtually all quarters: Feminists complain that it valorizes the repressive modesty culture that is ruthlessly enforced in much of the Middle East, some conservative Muslims complain that garments such as the hijab are religious articles and that it is improper to treat them as articles of fashion, and the people who complain about “cultural appropriation” are complaining about that. Of course, one is a little more cautious about offending Muslim sensibilities: No one seriously expected angry Italian grandmothers to stage a Charlie Hebdo scene at the Met.

Islam, like Catholicism, retains a powerful cultural charge. Like Catholicism, Islam has made some accommodations with modernity (there is much more to Islam than Afghanistan) while retaining its distinctiveness. Islam, too, has been partly absorbed by capitalism: A few years ago, Barneys was happily selling kandoras by the designer label Thamanyah at a couple thousand dollars a pop to young gentlemen of fashion — not mainly Muslims. An online retailer cleverly named The Modist sells high-end fashions for women who desire to show a bit less skin than is the contemporary norm. It is oriented toward Muslims (Ramadan fashion is the concern of the moment) but has found some appeal among non-Muslim women who desire to present themselves in a more conservative way without dressing like a character from “Little House on the Prairie.” Traditionalist Catholics, some evangelicals and Orthodox Jewish women, among others, embrace that look.

Modest dress is a bit like the Latin Mass: dismissed as a vestige and yet strangely compelling to jaded modern sensibilities. Some things really never do go out of style.

The Catholic Church has seen fashions come and go — empires, too. From time to time, its well-wishers advise it to become more “relevant” and to do more to embrace pop culture. But as it is, pop culture cannot take its eyes away from the church’s beauty and mystery, which will endure long after that funny old lady who calls herself “Madonna” has been forgotten.

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