Monday night’s Met Gala was Catholic-themed and it goes without saying that in this era of cultural appropriation and ultra-sensitivity this is the latest example of Hollywood’s hypocrisy. But after a period of reflection, and trying to show those Christian virtues of charity and patience, something far more heartening comes to the fore.
It was fact a compliment, tactless and ham-fisted but a compliment nonetheless, and testament to the enduring beauty of Catholicism and all that it has given the Western world. As the modern mind can’t help but pine for Tolkien’s tales, endued with Catholic truths, the fecundity of the Catholic imagination keeps drawing people in, even if in this case it is brash.
Cathedrals, basilicas, churches, paintings, sculptures, literature, Gregorian chant: Catholicism has provided the West with works of breathtaking splendour. Cologne Cathedral and the soon-to-be-completed Sagrada Familia in Barcelona show what mysterious beauty the human mind can produce when it is trained upwards, when it tries to honour and glorify something higher than itself.
Compare the Shard in London – an ugly thrust of metal – with Lincoln Cathedral, and the difference in thinking is stark. The Shard was built in a time of utility, materialism and crass boastfulness, whilst Lincoln Cathedral was constructed when we saw ourselves not as the centre of universe but at the service of God, glorious, terrifying and implacable.
Reading Tolkien, Chesterton or Greene, one encounters something mysterious and beguiling, a sense of hope but also the terrible tragedy of life. This paradox is at the heart of the Catholic faith, something glittering and wondrous yet fearful and humbling. Reading Camus or Nietzsche, the feeling is of hopelessness and nihilism, a dark smudge of despair. The Kafka museum in Prague features his striking drawings. Like his brilliantly written novels, they convey such dread that his underlying philosophy appears deeply unhappy and to be avoided.
Whilst Catholic art does capture the mind-numbing suffering that life can sometimes entail, there is always something hopeful because of the Resurrection. No matter what happens, if you truly believe, then the final battle was won long before you were born. This buoyancy and gratitude is present in all the great works of Catholic art, even in the Pietà as a grief-stricken Mary holds her beloved Son. Although we feel sadness at her grief, we know that it was in the ashes of this moment that our ultimate salvation was gained.
It would be easy to be offended by the Met Gala’s prancing and preening. The undeniable double standards do grate: we all know that they wouldn’t do that with Islam or Judaism and the sexualisation on display is an affront to Catholic morality.
But this age of outrage must surely come to an end. Instead, let’s thank the Met Gala for putting the beauty of the Catholic faith in the the eyes of the worldwide. The human works created in it are beautiful because the faith itself is beautiful. It encompasses the full gamut of human experience but reminds us that there is always hope when our eyes are turned skyward. This message is conveyed through baroque spires, epic tales and captivating paintings that continue to attract people, no matter how lost, broken or confused they are. And thank God for that.