A Tale of Two Sinners

I grew up in the Catholic church. Somewhere in my grandmother’s house is a picture of me at my First Communion. I went through confirmation and I went to a Catholic high school. But I had already started to doubt everything I was ever told before I even started my freshman year.

Years after leaving the church, I would be sitting in my Southwest apartment in Washington,DC, clutching the edge of my couch in anger while watching The Keepers, disgusted that the Church creates guilty among the flock, but casually and systematically sweeps sexual abuse under the rug.

On Monday, May 7th, the Metropolitan Museum of Art hosted the Met Gala, with a rather questionable theme: Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination.  This would fit right in on an episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race. But in the context of another institution that practices complicity in sexual abuse, I found myself wondering, is this some kind of joke? I knew what was was coming next, and it wouldn’t be about mutual sins.

Just a day later, Daniella Greenbaum would call the public hypocritical for praising Rihanna, but criticizing an 18-year-old high-schooler, Keziah Daum, who wore a qipao for her prom dress. Greenbaum concedes Rihanna looked beautiful but thought religious Catholics would find her outfit immodest and offensive. She closes by saying she feels it is unfair that “social justice warriors. . .left Catholics out to dry.”

Greenbaum’s take on the Met Gala strikes me as pointless. She makes it very clear that Catholic officials gave the Gala the green light this year. She points out that the church says that “truth, goodness, and beauty” is what the Catholic church is all about. She also concedes that neither Rihanna, nor the high schooler, are worthy of criticism. In fact, she thinks the idea–her idea– of cultural appropriation is silly because “because it ignores the reality that ultimately, every culture, tradition, or religion borrows slightly from those that surround it.” If that’s the case, what purpose did her article serve? If cultural appropriation is misguided, does it even matter that traditional Catholics are “left out to dry?”  

While Greenbaum is right that cultures and traditions borrow from each other, she clearly misunderstands the concept of cultural appropriation. Greenbaum is describing acculturation. Cultural appropriation is the concept of adopting elements of a minority cultural by members of a dominant culture. It is different from assimilation and acculturation because there is an imbalance of power involved. This causes the meaning of such elements to be lost or distorted.

In the case of the Met Gala, cultural appropriation cannot occur in this instance. Christianity is the largest religious group in the world, with over 2.4 billion followers. Within Christianity, the Catholic church is the largest denomination, with more than 1.29 billion members worldwide. In the United States, Christianity still dominates at 69% percent, roughly 21% of which, are Catholic.

The Catholic Church even played a role in colonialism in the United States during the Age of Discovery, where they made an extensive effort to convert Native Americans and other indigenous peoples to Catholicism.

Sure, it can be argued that some of the looks were boring or oversimplified, but the Catholic Church influenced history more than any other institution, and it is reflected in our music, our art and our architecture. As Vox puts it: its reach is so broad, it’s like pornography: you know it when you see it.

For these two reasons, cultural appropriation cannot take place in this instance. Not only did the Vatican actually donate pieces to the Gala–thus triggering an exchange– but Catholicism is far too dominant to be culturally dominated. In fact, Catholics don’t exactly have a culture in the terms we think of when it comes to Jews and Muslims. Rihanna’s dress and mitre shouldn’t be likened to a Plains Indian War Bonnet, which is often used to grossly oversimplified Native Americans at large.

The real problem here isn’t the left’s failure to coddle the Church, but the media’s complicity with the two institutions’ biggest problem: systematic sexual abuse. Even an article that pointed out this connection severely buried the lede.

In fact, the media’s willingness to massively overlook such an issue is rather telling. In this same week, the New York State Attorney General resigned after news broke that he was abusive with girlfriends and staffers. Just last month, the New Yorker and the New York Times won Pulitzer prizes for their coverage of Harvey Weinstein’s patterns of abuse, and yet, few organizations took it upon themselves to dig deeper into their troubling commonalities beyond a brief mention amongst the pageantry.

This allowed the media to coo over our favorite celebrities and forget that this week, Chilean bishops met with Pope Francis, following the Chilean Church’s sex abuse scandal. Abuse so serious, it’s causing a rift between the church and the traditionally Catholic country.

For all the shaming the media has set out against Babe.net for their messy coverage of Aziz Ansari and how sexual abuse should be treated seriously, the media failed massively to examine why the Vatican approved the exhibit when they have a serious scandal on their hands and a history of abuse not unlike Hollywood.

The Met Gala could have been used to frame the scandal. Of course, the Catholic Church can do two things at once, but isn’t the media circus of the Gala rather convenient? The Keepers highlighted efforts the Church has made in order to keep victims from speaking out about abuse, often giving them money or gifts while they shuffled priests to another congregation.  

The real problem with the Met Gala isn’t that it was sacrilegious, but that it was insultingly distracting. It revealed that the entertainment industry isn’t going to change and the Catholic Church will go to lengths to hide their own scandals. The media missed out on an opportunity to keep the Church’s systemic abuse in the spotlight. But apparently, fanning the flames of a tired internet flame war is an easier path to generate clicks.

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