Not long after I became a Catholic in 1996, a non-Catholic friend asked me for a favor. She was going to a Halloween party dressed as a “sexy Catholic schoolgirl,” and wanted to borrow my rosary to complete her costume. I wasn’t yet an apologist, but the answer seemed clear enough to me.
“I’m sorry, I just can’t do that,” I replied, meaning that I couldn’t lend her my rosary for that purpose. It wasn’t an easy conversation, but my friend understood my reluctance and accepted my refusal without hard feelings.
I was reminded of this discussion when I read reports of this year’s Met Gala, an annual formal ball thrown to benefit the Costume Institute of New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. The gala also serves as the opening event for a months-long costume exhibit at the Met. Celebrities and other guests are invited to don formal wear inspired by the theme of the exhibit. This year’s theme was “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination.”
Photos circulated in social media of the glitterati decked out in such Catholic-inspired fashions as a beaded bishop’s miter, a clutch purse emblazoned with a sequined Sacred Heart, a headdress with the Holy Family, and a gown with a cross-shaped cutout across the bodice and midriff. And it wasn’t just the women who drew on Catholic iconography for their evening wear. Actor Jared Leto dressed up as Jesus, wearing an embroidered floor-length stole and a gilded circlet reminiscent of Christ’s crown of thorns.
Many Catholics expressed outrage at the spectacle. Ross Douthat in the New York Times criticized the attendees for taking the “the aesthetic riches of the Roman Church” and “sexing them up for shock value.” Matthew Schmitz of First Things focused his attention on the exhibit itself, which featured both authentic papal liturgical vestments on loan from the Vatican and Catholic-themed costumes created by designers that Schmitz described as “tasteless, indecent, and blasphemous fashion items.” Some Catholics were also scandalized by a joke made after the event by a prominent Catholic prelate, who told an interviewer that he had lent his own episcopal miter to Rihanna, the singer who wore the miter-inspired beaded headdress.
In the wake of events like this, many people use adjectives such as blasphemous and sacrilegious to describe the profanation of the sacred. What do these terms entail?
Blasphemy “consists in uttering against God—inwardly or outwardly—words of hatred, reproach, or defiance; in speaking ill of God; in failing in respect toward him in one’s speech; in misusing God’s name” (CCC 2148). Blasphemy, then, is a direct assault against God himself, primarily in the language used to address him or to refer to him.
Sacrilege, on the other hand, “consists in profaning or treating unworthily the sacraments and other liturgical actions, as well as persons, things, or places consecrated to God” (CCC 2120). Sacrilege is also an assault on God, yes, but it is more indirect—the act of profaning those persons, things, or places set apart for God.
Blasphemy and sacrilege are both acts that constitute grave matter. When done together with full knowledge and deliberate consent, they are mortal sins (CCC 1857). In the case of the Met Gala, there were no reports of anyone speaking hatefully about God (blasphemy). But there were questionable designs in the costume exhibits (such as a fanciful reimagining of nuns’ habits), and there were all those celebrities wearing fashions festooned with Catholic imagery.
Defenders of the event point to the fact that the Vatican cooperated with the Met in offering access to artifacts that have never before been made available for display outside the Vatican. They also note that the Met separated the Church’s vestments from the fashion designers’ costumes, and that organizers of the celebrity gala assured the Archdiocese of New York “that outfits deemed too provocative would not be permitted.” (Some of the fashions worn by celebrities that night, such as the gown with the peekaboo cross cut across the front, make one wonder what exactly would have constituted “too provocative” for the organizers.)
Are the good intentions of the officials at the Met and the Vatican, and the best efforts of the gala organizers to discourage “provocative” evening wear by the celebrities, enough to deflect concerns about sacrilege?
I think it is safe to say that there is nothing wrong, in and of itself, with Vatican officials choosing to lend papal vestments for display to an art museum. The Vatican has long considered its artifacts to be part of the cultural patrimony of mankind and has lent them on occasion to museums around the world. In 1964, the Vatican lent Michelangelo’s Pietà to the United States for display at a World’s Fair in New York. In 2003–2004, numerous papal artifacts were sent on tour to museums throughout the US. I visited the exhibit when it was in San Diego, and the artifacts were arranged beautifully and respectfully. It’s possible for exhibits of this kind to be both culturally engaging and educational.
In this case though, the Vatican’s artifacts are part of a larger exhibit featuring Catholic-themed costumes of questionable taste. It may not be a clear-cut case of sacrilege, but it could well be a case of scandal, which the Catechism defines as “an attitude or behavior which leads another to do evil. . . . Scandal is grave when given by those who by nature or office are obliged to teach and educate others” (CCC 2284–2285). When papal vestments are used as an enticement to draw in the public to view tawdry fashions, then I think it’s fair to consider that to be potentially scandalous.
And the celebrities strutting on the red carpet covered in “Catholicana”? Canon law states that “Sacred objects, set aside for divine worship by dedication or blessing, are to be treated with reverence. They are not to be made over to secular or inappropriate use, even though they may belong to private persons” (canon 1171). Even representations of devotional objects, such as the Sacred Heart design, which was used to decorate a clutch purse at the gala, act as reminders of the sacred and should be treated with respect.
Perhaps these celebrities should have been given the same answer I gave my non-Catholic friend who wanted to borrow my rosary for her Halloween costume: No, you must not use the symbols and sacramentals of the Catholic religion either as a secular costume or as a fashion statement. Holy things are set apart for God and belong to him alone.