Catholicism and Culture

Today I shall be discussing fashion as it is a topic in which I am very knowledgable on the grounds that once in the late 1980s I owned a scruffy flannel shirt and scruffy jeans and I was still wearing them a few years later* when Grunge was a definite fashion trend and so once, like a stopped-clock predicting future time, I was briefly fashion-forward.

The Met Gala is an event about which I know nothing other than what social media was telling me yesterday. Famous people went to it and it had some sort of Catholicism theme and some people really got into it. So basically cos-play for celebrities. Which is nice.

However, there has been some pushback from people not usually concerned about cultural appropriation who are suggesting that said costumes are cultural appropriation or, at the very least, people are either being hypocritical about the term or that the term itself is confused or that the ‘rules’ of what is or isn’t cultural appropriation is unclear.

Sometimes there are so many counter arguments that it is hard to pick which one is clearest:

  • Catholic organisations were actually involved in the event.
  • ‘Catholicism’ itself claims a degree of universality (sort of like you can’t moan about people copying your work if you published it using a Creative Commons liscence that said people could copy it).
  • Catholicism is expressed culturally across a very wide range of cultures.
  • Catholicism itself has been culturally appropriative.
  • The Catholic Church is a great big powerful and rich thing – culutural appropriation is about cases of the wealthy or hegomonic taking from the poor or marginalised (to varying degrees).
  • Unlike more broad religious terms ‘Catholicism’ applies to an actual organisation that actually can legally own property and own intellectual property and has the capacity to defend such claims in courts.
  • Almost the reverse of that last point (but not actually contradictory) Catholicism has impacted on many cultures over many hundreds of years such that it is quite reasonable for non-Catholics of various cultures to make reference to the Catholic aspects of their own culture.

There’s a different argument as to whether some of the costumes were religiously disrespectful but here again we have a difference when considering such questions that parallel many of the points above.

Put another way. Catholicism has been around for over a thousand years organisationally and been present on all continents for about 500 years. You can’t appropriate what has been actively disseminated, sometimes at sword point.

Personally it is a weird thing. I grew up as a Catholic in what is an officially non-Catholic country with a Catholic past. Catholicism was also tied up with ethnicity in that it was often a central part of the identity of Irish immigrants in England and the descendants of those immigrants. In the UK as a whole sectarian divisions have not entirely gone (Northern Ireland most obviously) but in England they largely faded in the 1960s. So there is a sense in which I can see ‘Catholicism’ as a cultural thing that exists independent of the religion. There’s probably many elements in my cultural perspective that are shaped by Catholicism.

Looking further afield, the way many cultures (in particular indigenous cultures) have encountered and adapted to Catholicism via colonisation and European expansion is yet another dimension to what could be called ‘Catholic culture’ but here there is a clearer sense in ways something could be ‘cluturally appropriative’. Exploiting how one culture has adpated to such external influences and then stripping it of its meaning and context without respect to that culture would be an issue. Making a fashion statement by wearing a mitre is not.

*[Had I been wearing said clothes CONTINUOUSLY in that time period? It’s not impossible and would prefer not to comment on my laundry habits of that time period.]


14 responses to “Catholicism and Culture”

  1. The theme of the Met Gala was the same as that of an exhibition currently showing at the Met: “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination”. This exhibition has the official support of the Catholic Church. Claiming that the celebrity costumes, which were in conjunction with a church-sanctioned event, are “cultural appropriation” is, to say the least, ridiculous.

    Liked by 4 people

    • What I found impressive was how many multitudinous ways it was ridiculous. It wasn’t quite at the level of ‘well looking who thinks its suddenly OK to wear hats now’ but it was very close.

      Liked by 1 person

      • The outfits were ever so slightly less ridiculous* than usual; it was toned down a smidge in deference to a major religion.

        *Speaking overall and on average, of course.

        Liked by 2 people

  2. I’m not sure I agree with “You can’t appropriate what has been actively disseminated, sometimes at sword point.”

    Try to imagine a magical girl anime, in which one of the magical girls obtains the Holy Grail and is hailed as the Messiah…but the Grail and the title are treated as nothing more than a power-up. There is no spiritual dimension, nothing of the numinous about it: it just means that you add a rainbow to your sparkly attack, and monsters that previously could shrug it off are now destroyed. I feel fairly comfortable calling that an act of cultural appropriation.

    In fact you don’t have to imagine it, you can just watch the third series of Sailor Moon.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Well, the Portuguese (amongst others) have been trying to convert Japan to Christianity since the ~late 1500s, so plenty of time for stories of Jesus and his various mcguffins to disseminate into parts of Japanese culture, even with Christians largely being hidden for ~200 years in Japan. I don’t particularly think that example is any worse than, say, the Indiana Jones films.


  3. Too funny.

    Liked by 3 people

  4. Stephen Colbert was there too (being famously Catholic) and showed some photos of the event. He really enjoyed it. I think he said Rhianna was the Bishop of Bling and Chadwick Boseman was the Pope of Wakanda.

    I see Madonna (whose fashion and music has been heavily informed by her obvious Catholicism) sang her song “Like a Prayer” and covered “Hallelujah”.

    The Met Ball is always themed around a current Met exhibit; funny how that works. It’s like they’re connected!

    Liked by 2 people

  5. This post really surprised me. I hadn’t read your background as Catholic at all. My ancestors were Ulster Scots, so …sorry about the historical oppression.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. The Met Gala and the resultant debate actually made the German language cultural program “kulturzeit”, which is unusual, since “kulturzeit” normally does not report about celebrity laden gala events, unless it’s the Cannes or Venice film festival or the annual opening of the Bayreuth opera festival. “kulturzeit” also reported about the actual exhibition the gala is supposed to promote, which turns out to be a fashion exibition as well.

    The clip is here:

    Liked by 1 person

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