Thursday, 2 September 2010

Religious Treasure and Papal Trash

Cleveland: The Vatican Treasures show at the Cleveland Museum of Art (until April 12) was with certain marvelous exceptions a big bust for my eyes and heart. I should divulge that I am a lapsed Roman Catholic who got into trouble with the Chancelery when I began my graduate studies in American Culture in 1949 for writing Marxist editorials for the Newman Club newspaper.

My uncle, The Reverend Aloysius M. Fitzpatrick, also happened to be the editor of the Catholic Universe Bulletin and Bishop John Krol (who was just beginning his uncritical career as a Commie basher) chastised my uncle for not disciplining his nephew. But one of the great heroes of my life (whose biography I am now researching) was the late Archbishop of Atlanta, Paul J. Hallinan, then the Newman Club chaplain. He explained to Krol what you shouldn’t have to explain to a future cardinal, “It’s a university, gentlemen, we’re seeking the truth.” Paul did his own seeking with a fine Ph.D. dissertation in American History (1962) on Richard Gilmour, the second bishop of Cleveland.
And pagan though I am, I love religious art, especially the Romanesque period. Last week in Payerne, Switzerland I went to see a Felix Vallotton exhibition, and was delighted to see that “the museum” was a Cluniac abbey built in 976. I could hardly concentrate on the paintings, the Romanesque ambiance was so delicious. And last Sunday in Stockholm, early for a breakfast appointment with Sigurd Persson, the greatest artist designer in the world today, I discovered next door to the apartment the Swedish government had given him for his gifted career, The Crafts Guild, and a display of three luminous chasubles by a leading textile artist.

A knitting teacher with her class just happened by and revealed that these weren’t Roman Catholic liturgical vestments as I had wrongly inferred but reflected a trend since the beginning of the twentieth century in the established church of Sweden to more medieval ways.
So I was eager to see the Vatican show, pleasantly surprised to discover that it was a sesquicentennial effort, and that Paul would have loved the historical consciousness involved. But, alas, apart from the stunning Romanesque artifacts in the first room, it unwittingly illustrates why the Church has had so much trouble adjusting to the modern world, which is to say, Reality.

The bloat and bluster of the go for Baroque popes, Urban VIII especially, illustrate all too painfully for all those not immunized by theological certainties that the Counter Reformation was a false start by trying to outshout the new Protestant by building bigger and better monuments than the opposition, the better to intimidate the faithful into acquiescence.

Sadly, this delaying tactic seemed to work for about four centuries until Popes like Leo XIII started a belated tradition of social encyclicals which translated Christ’s sacred messages (which I cherish above all else, even Walt Whitman) into terms relevant to the abused poor in the new industrial democracies.
The simple eloquently religious objects in the first chamber—reliquaries protecting sacred objects (though based on superstitious veneration of objects rather than the worship of the Risen Christ) speak directly to my eye and heart of the simple Christian messages, “Love thy neighbor as thyself,” and the Sermon on the Mount, still the best guidelines to decent behavior in all religious history.

Compare their Christlike lineaments with the arrogant hyperobjects of the Popes as papal power brokers. My first clue that something went wrong in Catholic history was when I first visited St. Peters, and there were lines drawn on the floor to show how much longer St. Peter’s was than, say, St. Paul’s, that perfidious hotbed of Anglicanism.

And there were the herds, not to say hordes, of parochial students being intimidated by this bluster, indoctrinated not encouraged to live an autonomous religious life. My pal Paul would not have approved as I learned from Chancelery xeroxes of his articulate advocacies at Vatican II, for more power for women, better vernacular liturgies, opposition to obscene wars like Vietnam.
If you don’t believe me, go back and ask yourself if the simple Christ would have relished the pomposities of the power mad Italian hierarchy that prevails in the Baroque rooms—always excluding singular exceptions like Caravaggio’s “The Entombment of Christ.” Not also Michelangelo’s angry letter about how contractors were delivering bad lime to the construction site of St. Peter and were in general sounding more like corrupt boodlers than pious Christians. The Church is back on track again, thanks to tough minded John Paul II, who shows by his visit to Cuba and his apology for passivity during the Holocaust that he knows how to read the Gospel.

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