Thursday, May 10, 2018

Pearls, swine, and the Via Pulchritudinis at the Met Gala

Belshazzar punished for his profane use of the Temple's sacred vessels.
Reflecting on the business of the A-lister fund-raising banquet at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, a number of apparently contradictory thoughts spring to mind. In no special order, here are some quotations which may, to a greater or lesser extent, be relevant.

Pope John Paul II Ecclesia in Europa (2003) 60. ‘Nor should we overlook the positive contribution made by the wise use of the cultural treasures of the Church. These can be a special element in the rekindling of a humanism of Christian inspiration. When properly preserved and intelligently used, these living testimonies of the faith as professed down the ages can prove a useful resource for the new evangelization and for catechesis, and lead to a rediscovery of the sense of mystery. … artistic beauty, as a sort of echo of the Spirit of God, is a symbol pointing to the mystery, an invitation to seek out the face of God made visible in Jesus of Nazareth.’ (link to where I quoted this before)


The Congregation for Divine Worship: 'Any performance of sacred music which takes place during a celebration, should be fully in harmony with that celebration. This often means that musical compositions which date from a period when the active participation of the faithful was not emphasized as the source of the authentic Christian spirit are no longer to be considered suitable for inclusion within liturgical celebrations.' (Concerts in Churches, 1987).

Louis Bouyer, on the liturgy: 'What shall we give others if we have nothing left ourselves?'

Matthew 7:6: 'Give not that which is holy to dogs; neither cast ye your pearls before swine, lest perhaps they trample them under their feet, and turning upon you, they tear you.'
('nolite dare sanctum canibus neque mittatis margaritas vestras ante porcos ne forte conculcent eas pedibus suis et conversi disrumpant vos.')

The cultural treasures of the Church obviously include vestments, even if Pope John Paul II did not have them uppermost in mind. The Vatican museums are stuffed with impressive vestments, and vestments are found also in the other great museums of the world, of which (let us not forget) the 'Met' is one of the greatest. There is more than a little irony is attempting to use these treasures as a form of evangelisation after having removed them, for practical purposes, from the daily life of the Church, as Ross Douthat has pointed out. But this irony is a well-established one, as the quotation from the Congregation for Divine Worship document shows. Yes, it says, the great treasures of Catholic art--in this case, music--of some of which, indeed the world is in justified awe, are no longer suitable for use in the liturgy, and for that very reason it makes sense to show them off in a desacralised context: in this case, in concerts in churches; in other contexts, in museums.

Actually, this argument is not really coherent. If the Church's patrimony of music and other art is unsuitable for the liturgy, because it fails to foster genuine participation or gives rise to an unhelpful or theologically misguided impression of God and our relationship with Him, then it will not succeed any better outside the liturgical context which, presumably, added a great deal of context to it. In point of fact the late Cardinal Mayer, under whom that CDW document was produced, was a liturgical conservative and a great friend of the Traditional Mass. What he, and later Pope John Paul II, was trying to do was to scrabble out some conceptual space for the preservation of the Church's cultural patrimony about whose intrinsic value he was in no doubt, without undertaking a suicidal frontal assault on the assumptions of the entire liturgical reform. This approach, which was anticipated also by Pope Paul VI, was the argument of the 'Via pulchritudinis', the 'way of beauty'.

It is no surprise, in this context, that it was the two biggest liturgical conservatives of the Papal household, Archbishop Ganswein and Mgr Marini the Papal MC, who were key to the organisation of the Met's special exhibition of Vatican vestments. Did they have misgivings, in advance, about these items becoming the backdrop for a get-together of the American cultural elite and the inspiration of costumes which included some in poor taste, and others which were downright scandalous? I do not know, but I am sure they were thinking, like Cardinal Mayer, that if these items were not going to see much, if any, liturgical use, they might as well be allowed to exercise their considerable evangelising power as museum pieces on a fresh audience. This was not a project of liturgical progressives, for all the involvement, at a later stage, of Fr James Martin SJ and Cardinal Dolan.

That is not to say that we are obliged to agree with Ganswein and Marini. The Gala dinner aspect of the event puts it into a somewhat different context from the usual lending of items by one museum to another for a special exhibition. The consternation of Catholic conservatives at seeing Rihanna and others desporting themselves in what could be described as mocking mimicries of liturgical vestments has been huge. It is little comfort to remind ourselves that it could have been much worse, and that the celebrities, with a very few exceptions, did not take the opportunity to engage in calculated defilement of the sacred. The general tone of the event, and the presence of Cardinal Dolan as a guest of honour, was no doubt helpful. But the question remains whether allowing this use of these vestments was an instance of casting pearls before swine.

What does this idea mean? What Christ is talking about is the separation of the sacred and the profane which is intrinsic to the very idea of the sacred. The sacred is what is set apart: God is sacred because he is set apart from us, and items used in His worship are set apart from profane use. Catholics at the coal-face of the kind of liturgical restoration of which Ganswein and Marini approve become uncomfortable about the idea of trade in sacred things, which indeed is in some cases ruled out by Canon Law, even if in other cases it is a necessary fact of life. It's not that they wouldn't want people to see them; it is rather that they are set apart for a sacred purpose, and should be used for that purpose and not for profane purposes. It is necessary for us to recover this instinctive discomfort about seeing, say, real vestments being used in a theatrical performance, or even in a museum, if we are to recover the sense of the sacred as a whole. You can't nurture the sense of the sacred without doing the spadework of the conceptual and practical separation of the putatively sacred from the profane.

Liturgical conservatives will naturally recognise the subtle evangelising power of the liturgical items displayed in the Met and the V&A, but wouldn't necessarily want these collections to exist at all, in an ideal world. It's not appropriate: this stuff should be in churches, and it should be being used, if it is in a condition to be used. Then we would see, what of course to some extent we do see, the far greater evangelising power it has when plugged into its proper liturgical context.

He loved to kneel down on the cold marble pavement, and watch the priest, in his stiff flowered vestment, slowly and with white hands moving aside the veil of the tabernacle, or raising aloft the jewelled lantern-shaped monstrance with that pallid wafer that at times, one would fain think, is indeed the "panem caelestis," the bread of angels, or, robed in the garments of the Passion of Christ, breaking the Host into the chalice, and smiting his breast for his sins. The fuming censers, that the grave boys, in their lace and scarlet, tossed into the air like great gilt flowers, had their subtle fascination for him. 
Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Grey.

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