Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Camauros and Crotch-Enhanced Flight Uniforms: The Spectacle of World Youth Day and Manly Christianity

People have been seeing red lately—well, it seems the Vatican has—over media reports of Pope Benedict XVI’s fascination with the latest-old fashions in papal attire. As an article on today’s Clerical Whispers blog entitled “‘Vintage’ Pope Benedict XVI: Media Victim" notes, Benedict has made a name for himself by re-introducing such arcane articles of papal attire as a red woolen cap with ermine trim (the camauro) that dates to the 12th century; the ombrellino, a small parasol used to symbolise the pope's temporal powers; a higher-than-high miter; and lacier and more richly embroidered surplices than the Catholic world has seen in lo these many years (see

Benedict’s fixation on these latest-old papal and liturgical accessories seems to go hand in hand with his fashion sense regarding plain old clothes like shoes and sunglasses. European media have deemed his smart red leather shoes a Prada product, though the Vatican hotly denies this—and has, indeed, issued an explanation for them in an issue of Osservatore Romano last week.

The scarlet pumps and sporty Gucci and Serengeti sunglasses in which Benedict has been seen as he scoots around Rome in his spiffy little sportscar outfitted with white-leather furnishings by Natuzzi earned the pope a place in Esquire magazine’s list of the world’s best-dressed men last year. His title? Accessorizer of the Year.

As I have noted above, media interest in Benedict’s sartorial nattiness has evoked some, well, downright cattiness on the part of the official Vatican newspaper Osservatore Romano recently. In a 26 June article in that paper, Spanish novelist Juan Manuel de Prada reproaches the media for "trivializing" Benedict’s sartorial styles (see “Vatican: Pope’s Designer ‘Not Prada, but Christ,’” 28 June Whispers in the Loggia blog at

Prada offers an . . . interesting . . . theological defense of Benedict’s concern with style. The revolving door of newly retrieved old liturgical fashions is apparently all about putting on Christ, "dressing oneself anew in Christ," becoming one with Christ through a transcending of one’s regular identity. In a word, Benedict is accessorizing for Christ. Prada concludes, "The pope, in short, does not wear Prada, but Christ."

Well. This is a theological tactic already floated in the media by the pope’s liturgical advisor Msgr. Guido Marini (no, I am not making this up; and no, I am not hallucinating “Saturday Night Live” episodes). According to Clerical Whispers, Msgr. Marini has informed the press that that “the use of age-old liturgical accessories was aimed at reinforcing a ‘sense of mystery’ and ‘the sacred’.”

Oh, my goodness gracious, yes! Anytime I see a man in a red-wool, ermine-trimmed cap carrying around a tiny parasol I certainly do tend to think: “Why, there goes sacred mystery walking down my street.” Who would be blind or heartless enough not to see the nimbus of a mysterium tremendum et fascinans in such splendid sartorial-liturgical displays?

Somehow, in my own perverted little mind, all this talk of the pope’s latest finery blends together with a picture I am sorry I had to see again yesterday, in Brad Reed’s Alternet article “The Ten Most Awesomely Bad Moments of the Bush Presidency” (see This is a picture of our current president stepping out of a fighter jet onto an aircraft carrier in 2004 to announce that we had “accomplished” our “mission” in Iraq—in short, that we had won the war there.

As commentators (including Irish Catholic Chris Matthews, ever sensitive to sartorial displays of manly power) noted with blowsy rhetoric on the occasion, Bush issued from the fighter plane as the veritable man’s man, swaggering and strutting to the cheers of the (staged and under-orders) military personnel aboard the carrier.

It may not have hurt that the president was wearing a specially designed crotch-enhanced uniform that, well, um, enhanced. It made visible. It made the president’s manly equipment appear large and strong, in need of specialized v-shaped padding that draws the eye right to said equipment.

The connection between Bush’s crotch and the pope’s red shoes and ombrellino? Am I the only one who sees more than a tiny bit of defensive image-manipulation in all this shifting of guises, enhancing of uniforms? And where all is about image, can it simultaneously be about substance?

I will say frankly that I credit John Paul II with the start of this image-management trend in the Vatican. John Paul was an actor, an adroit one. He knew just when to turn to the cameras and kiss the baby. From the time he was made pope, he was exceptionally clever about exploiting his athletic accomplishments in the media—who were only too willing to play along with the myth the church sought to develop through all this: a return to a man’s man’s church, one in which nelly priests would no longer hold sway over lavender rectories.

A return to the church as Jesus intended it to be when he chose that stalwart crew of burly workmen headed by Peter the fisherman. A return to the kind of manliness dominating the political life of the world at the same time via Ronald Reagan.

Since that period, some sectors of the Christian world—including large sectors of the Catholic church—have bought with a vengeance into the myth of the recrudescence of manly Christianity. Whole mystical superstructures of nonsense about the complementarity of males and females in their “natural” roles (which include, coincidentally and naturally, the subordination of women to men) have been erected on this myth.

The purported “natural” complementarity of males and females (with female subordination as a corollary) has translated itself into noxious political agendas in which the churches have heavily invested. These agendas include resistance to gay rights, to gay marriage, to the passage of laws prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, to the ordination of (openly) gay clergy, etc.

This past weekend’s defiant Jerusalem Statement ending the GAFCON conference and paving the way for the erection of ombrellino structures to shelter homophobic and misogynistic Anglicans within the worldwide Anglican communion relies heavily on the male-female mysticism. As do many Christians today, it seeks (without any theological justification) to read that mysticism and all the discriminations it is currently being used to promote into scripture and tradition.

How have we gotten to this point? In large point, by allowing our minds to be manipulated by easy images, rather than by thinking, reading, praying, and talking together. We have made it very easy for the media and church leaders to manipulate our consciousness. If we do not see the ridiculousness in the attempt to revive ombrellinos and higher miters, of the glozening argument that the pope puts on Christ rather than Prada, then God help us, because we are beyond human help—the help of reason.

If we let such nonsense go on and on, while resources sorely needed for substantial work and not for insubstantial image-management are diverted into the manipulation of our consciousness by crotch-enhanced uniforms and ermine-trimmed camauros, then I fear we are getting what we deserve (and paying for), and have no right to complain.

Sydney is gearing up for the big Vatican splash that will be World Youth Day—an event that was, not coincidentally, instituted by John Paul II to bring the Catholic youth of the world back to Christ and the church. Millions of dollars are being spent on this lavish media circus. The Vatican is flying—again, I am not making this up—the body of a young Italian sainthood candidate, Pier Giorgio Frassati, to Sydney for the event.

John Paul II beatified Pier Giorgio. Pier Giorgio was, like John Paul, an avid skier, an athlete. Like many of the Catholic groups and Catholic youth John Paul most avidly pursued, he was also (not coincidentally) from a wealthy family. And he was, as was John Paul in his youth, movie-star handsome.

Enough. Enough with the image-mongering. Who does the church—really—think will attend World Youth Day? Who goes to such events other than well-heeled true believers who do not need to be rescued for Christ and the church?

Would not the millions being spent on this big media splash, on flying saints to Sydney, be far better spent on, say, religious education for the vast majority of Catholics everywhere in the world whose level of religious education remains stuck somewhere around first grade? Why do youth (the ones who won’t be in Sydney, the millions who have just walked away in frustration) leave the church today?

I propose it’s because of the level of inanity permitted and supported in many parishes and many dioceses, due to a plain lack of religious education. Sermons are abysmal. Liturgical life is arid. Catholic newspapers are all too often laughable propaganda rags.

Youth are not blind to all of this. Media shows aren’t going to pull the wool over their eyes, either—even if that wool is bright red and edged with soft white ermine.


colkoch said...

"Goodness gracious, yes. Anytime I see a man in a red-wool, ermine-trimmed cap carrying around a tiny parasol I certainly do tend to think: “There goes sacred mystery.”"

Me too Bill. I also wondered what was the mysterious size of the sock stuffed down our illustrious president's flight suit, but then I thought it's more likely an adult Pamper.

I wrote about WYD and it's illustrious real saints, not the Blessed Giorgio. What a coincidence huh?

William D. Lindsey said...

Colleen, once again, it seems we're blogging right on the same channels. I will look forward to reading your posting for today.

When so much has to be "enhanced" and "accessorized," one has to wonder about the shortcomings being covered up by the enhancements and accessorizing, no?