The ‘naked pope’ and Catholic outrage

Carsten Koall / Getty Images What does it mean when Catholics take offense? That, for me at any rate, is … Continued


Carsten Koall / Getty Images

What does it mean when Catholics take offense?

That, for me at any rate, is the most interesting question raised by how some Catholics have reacted to an incident at Carnegie-Mellon University on April 19.

During the school’s 4th annual Anti-Gravity Downhill Derby, an undergraduate woman reportedly passed out condoms, dressed in mock papal regalia. She was naked from the waist down and her pubic hair was shaved in the shape of a cross. The Carnegie-Mellon student was “the naked pope.”

Academics love this kind of stuff.

If I were so inclined, I could submit a peer-reviewed article about the whole incident. I could write about the semiotics of mockery and the body claimed as a political entity, shaped and reshaped through acts of resistance. I could even use FEMEN’s “topless jihad” as a comparative frame of reference, a point of intellectual orientation, for considering the new poetics of blasphemy.

The use of specialized academic terms, the mentioning of themes developed exclusively for and by academics, would also indicate my intellectual solidarity with the young artist who made a very concerted effort to look like an ecclesiastic dignitary, at least from the waist up. I think my proposed article would actually get accepted, especially because an editor at an academic journal would surely perceive the article itself as an act of resistance–after all I am a Catholic who teaches at a Catholic college.

For some Catholics, however, outrage is the necessary response to the “Naked Pope” and other acts that criticize Catholicism by using some of its most potent, and cherished, symbols. Bill Donohue, who is often the go-to person when it comes to Catholic rage, was especially concerned that Carnegie-Mellon might apply a double standard since a fraternity had recently been suspended for distributing sex videos and no discipline seemed to be forthcoming regarding “the naked pope.”

Pittsburgh’s Catholic Bishop, David Zubik had a more measured response. He first contacted Carnegie Mellon’s president and after that he went public. Bishop Zubik said that it might be tempting “to point our finger at the young lady,” but he did want the event to prompt reflections on how we respect “the differences amongst us.” Extending from this, we could also say that there is an ethics of offense that comes from a careful consideration of context and content, as well as tone and intent.

As I reflected on the Carnegie Mellon incident, I found myself experiencing a variety of reactions—some of them quite disconcerting. My first response was not to be offended at all, especially when I reflected on my own behavior as high school student and a college undergrad. I was a high priest of offensiveness at that time in my life.

In any case, disciplining people for forms of political and intellectual speech is a slippery slope. And, ironically perhaps, some forms of traditionalist Catholic speech are considered highly offensive by others in this day and age.

But, as I thought about things more fully, I did recognize that I was feeling vulnerable. The “naked pope” costume didn’t make me feel vulnerable, but the initial, rather blas , reaction to it did.

Catholics in America do carry a feeling of being suspect. In academic contexts, in interpersonal relations, in looking at culture as a whole, I’m always aware of how I carry a particular Catholic narrative with me: a narrative that emphasizes how Catholics are perceived to be different and distinctive in all the wrong ways. It’s not a narrative of oppression in a conventional sense, but it is a story of exclusions and insensitivities, as well as very real feelings of vulnerability.

This feeling of vulnerability lies at the heart of why some Catholics have taken offense at the “Naked Pope.” The whole incident does reveal precisely how certain Catholic sensibilities are easily dismissed in some quarters where other acts of “offense” would be taken very seriously indeed. Faced with evidence of the dwindling cultural power of Catholicism, the reflexive reaction is to assert the power that is readily available: the power of rage coupled with demands that power be exerted in the form of punishment or exclusion.

But there are other ways for Catholics to think about offense. In his most celebrated work, Silence, the Japanese Catholic author Shusaku Endo writes about a priest who is given the opportunity to save others from torture by stamping on a picture of Jesus. In doing so, the priest would not only be effectively renouncing his faith, he would be committing an act of violence against the person he loved most: Jesus. Martyrdom is also one of the highest callings of a Christian.

The priest’s choice raises questions about the purpose of human suffering and especially God’s apparent “silence” within it. But the priest’s choice also points to a Christian disposition to offensiveness, and a way to reflect on deeper acts of symbolic violence. Vulnerable and broken, torn between two impossible courses of action, the priest hears a voice: “Trample! Trample! It is to be trampled upon by you that I am here.”

Schmalz writes and teaches in the fields of Comparative Religions and South Asian Studies at the College of the Holy Cross. He also writes on Catholic spirituality.

Mathew N. Schmalz
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  • Mary370

    Most people would find the same depiction of the Dalai Lama, an Iman or a Rabbi offensive. Somehow, when it comes to Catholicism, the gloves come off and the tolerant become intolerant.

  • di89

    Tasteless, yup. End of the world, nope.

    And as tacky as I think that was, it’s always fun to watch Bill Donohue have a conniption.

  • Truth & Justice

    I don’t see what the big deal is.

    This is no more offensive than a man, naked from the waste down, dressed as Bella Abzug or Gloria Steinem, walking around passing out chastity belts at a college party.

  • Truth & Justice

    I don’t see what the big deal is.

    This is no more offensive than a man, naked from the waste down, dressed as Bella Abzug or Gloria Steinem, walking around passing out chastity belts at a college party.

  • SimonTemplar

    SHOCK and OFFENSE are the ‘rosetta stones” for understanding the debate language of many of those under the age of, say, 30.

  • leibowde84

    Until the RCC comes out, admits it’s aggregious crimes that have been prevelant over the past 50 years, and apologizes to the countless victims it has created, it doesn’t have a food to stand on in regards to being “offended.” I am a Catholic who is seriously considering completely separating myself from the corrupt hierarchy. I can’t get past the hiding of child molesters/abusers, and I sinerely believe that it would be against my religion and the lessons expressed in the New Testament to ignore it, taking part in an institution/organization that has actively hurt children all over the world.

    And, btw, the good doesn’t outweigh or erase the bad. Just because they have done a lot of good in the world, doesn’t effect in any way the damage that they, as an organization, have done to countless young people.

  • J. Davis

    Please feel free to leave. No one will miss you. Try to put it behind you.

    In the meantime, get your facts straight.

  • leibowde84

    I don’t think young people are going to ever take the RCC seriously until they turn over any person who failed to notify the authorities when child abuse was even alleged. How can you expect young people, who don’t have this overwhelming trust in organized religion, to trust any organization who would keep child molesters hidden and able to hurt more children?

  • videoguy

    I would be really, really surprised if that man were not suspended from the college…or expelled…or arrested for indecent exposure to the women at the party.

  • videoguy

    The same depiction of Mohammed would not only be “offensive,” but it would also be the cause of violence (and maybe death). And, we would bend over backwards to apologize for our “offense.”

  • leibowde84

    What facts do I have wrong? Have people not made allegations of child abuse? Because that is the only thing I have claimed. And, your reaction pretty much sums up my point. “Hey, if you don’t want to support a religious organization that hides pedophiles, you can leave!”

  • leibowde84

    Not surprised though. The response of “get your facts straight” without any further explanation is pretty much an admission that you can’t explain why you would support an organization guilty of not turning over those ALLEGED of commiting a crime.

  • leibowde84

    J. Davis, you seem like a very good Catholic though. Ready to just ditch a fellow follower simply because you disagree with them on a controvercial issue. Very understanding of you. Bravo!

  • leibowde84

    “Please feel free to leave. No one will miss you.” Response from a Catholic who is tired of talking about the hiding of pedophiles in the church. Is this an appropriate response from someone who follows the teachings of Jesus Christ?! Don’t think so. Seems like a Cop-Out to me.

  • JimShoesa

    As a Catholic I never get outraged, after all, someone has to go to hell.

  • LawyerNotLiar

    And our government would undoubtedly blame the resultant violence and death, not on its perpetrators, but on those who created the depiction, even if our government knew that excuse was a mere pretext.

  • SimonTemplar

    I don’t think a woman who is willing to publicly expose herself (I wonder if there were children present) is a person who is overly concerned with moral issues. It was probably just an opportunity for her to…expose herself.

    Besides, I don’t believe she was protesting child molestation. After all, she was passing out condoms. If she was protesting child molestation, that would be an odd way to do it.

  • SimonTemplar

    So, leibowde84, are you saying that because of the cover up by some in the RCC, then NO Catholic has a right to be offended by this young woman’s alleged protest?

    As I said below, the young lady was not protesting child molestation but the Catholic Church’s position on Birth control. She was passing out condoms. That would be an extremely tasteless, clumsy, thoughtless, insensitive, even brutal statement to make about such an issue.

  • SimonTemplar

    The young lady was not protesting child molestation but the Catholic Church’s position on Birth control. She was passing out condoms and that would be an extremely tasteless, clumsy, thoughtless, insensitive, even brutal statement to make about such an issue as molestation.

  • SimonTemplar

    In fact, it seems rare that groups protesting the Catholic Church do so over the molestation issue. There are plenty of protests against the Catholic Church’s position on gays, on birth control, on women priests and even on drones.

  • SongOfSappho

    I don’t think Catholics are “outraged” at this incident. Frankly, the ones I work with couldn’t care less. I think this author is just inventing the outrage so that he can have something to write about and get into the newspaper.

    I mean, if some bottomless bimbo wants to strut around dressed up like a pope, then, so what. It’s more a reflection on her character (or lack thereof) than it is on anything else.

  • SongOfSappho

    These comments have nothing to do with child molesting or protecting children.

    The comments about child molesting are comments by a handful of people who “troll” every article about Catholics and post comments about the publicity over (the relatively few) priests who have been accused of molesting children.

    The mainstream media has an axe to grind with the RCC because of its stance on abortion, birth control and LBGT. Few of the people in the media understand what the church’s position actually is on these subjects, but, they have declared war on the Church nonetheless.

    Consequently, you will see many articles in the media proclaiming that the RCC is full of pedophiles (implying that they are gay priests) in order to disgrace the RCC.

    Then, there are two industries that make money from the Church by accusing it further of hiding pedophiles. The two industries are the victim’s rights group (which rake in a small fortune for arranging publicity attacking the Church), and, the plaintiffs’ lawyers who arrange for publicity against the Church so that they can demand more money from the Church in settlements.

    When you actually look behind these articles, you find that there is no evidence supporting the headlines or the innuendo in the articles. They are mostly articles written about what is said in other articles.

  • dfoster2

    What I don’t get is if it’s OK for a woman to shave her beaver into a cross and parade around in pope outfit, why doesn’t The Post run a picture of her?

  • newsreader60

    I hope she will show these precious pictures to her grandchildren.

  • scottycamp

    I am a devout Catholic.

    I would defend to the death the right of this young woman to make fun of my Church and its leadership.

    Like all human institutions – and I would argue that multinational corporations are the modern equivalent of the politically powerful (hence, quite dangerous) Church of the medieval epoque – the Catholic Church as bequeathed its members a history rife with atrocities (religious bigotry, even genocide), abuse, scandal and endless cover-ups.

    The Catholic Church also gave us Bartolomé de Las Casas, St. Francis, Mother Theresa, monasticism (St. Benedict, St Bernard, etc) and Father Mychal Judge (among the first casualties among first responders on 9/11.

    The United States is similar – an institution (in this case a nation-state) guilty of the genocide of American Indians and the enslavement of generations of Africans . . . and responsible for the evolution of a form of Republican Democracy that has been a model for the world; for the defense of the world from fascism and communism; and for an economic model that has yielded the freedom to innovate around the world – a model so successful that it, too, is overstepping its bounds where the notion of profit has outstripped the humanity it is supposed to serve.

    Yes, all religions, all nation-states, all corporations, all communities, all individuals are guilty of egregious error AND responsible for some (even a great deal) substantial good.

    And like all institutions the Catholic Church can only benefit from self-examination and change in light of criticism – even criticism like that which occurred in this case; worthy criticism, I believe, of a Church that has often been unwilling to reflect on its frequent reliance on archaic notions of social roles and obligations in a Biblical context.

    And, as we legitimately critique the Catholic Church, we would do well to remember Francis (the saint and the pope) and her advocacy for the Poor, the sick, the homeless, the imprisoned, etc . . .

  • Daryl Atamanyk

    I feel sorry for her. She best thank her lucky stars that Catholicism championed freedom long ago, enough so that she is not treated in a Christian descendant society in the manner that an Islamic society would treat her if she behaved in that manner towards Islam… [and the same with respect to many other religions]. Freedom gives her time to learn that maybe she doesn’t “know it all.”

  • XVIIHailSkins

    You have to love the thinly veiled implications in comments like these. The subtext is: If my religion had not been domesticated by hundreds of years of painstaking secular progress, I would be free to burn you alive for your insolence.

    You have a right to be eternally offended, as I imagine anyone who still defends the Catholic Church must be, but please don’t preface your statements with phrases like “I feel sorry for her.” No you don’t, you feel sorry for yourself, and you’re angry at her for having a bit of fun with the religion that you’ve chosen to organize your life around.

  • XVIIHailSkins

    This is the definition of outrage (with a dash of misplaced self-righteousness).

  • tony55398

    Those being tortured are living pictures of Christ, Christ sees Himself in those who are most vulnerable, the poor the weak, those who are suffering. A picture is a picture. It’s one way of expressing an opinion, though not the best, though the naked body is not always the most sexual, it’s your imagination that is. The robes of a Pope does not make the man a Pope, it’s merely a symbol.

  • dcrswm

    Well it might be full given how the leaders of your religion behave…or does your god not mind rape and pedophilia?

  • leibowde84

    1st of all, every person has the right to be offended at anything. My point was that the RCC shouldn’t expect people to care, given their history of failing to turn over ALLEGED pedophiles to the police. Again, whether priests are actually guilty or not is a matter for the police, and not the responsibility of the RCC, as everyone is responsible for their own actions. The problem arises when priests are accused of inappropriate conduct, but never turned over to the police for investigation. The RCC has no right to go forward with investigations of this nature, and should be penalized when failure to notify the appropriate authority persists.

    2nd, the fact that there have been accusations of inappropriate conduct with children is absolute. I know several “accusers” personally, as I grew up going to a catholic grade school and Jesuit high school. I can give merit to the argument that the liberal media has inflated the actual issue, but the fact that accusations, even if only a few, were not communicated directly to the police is unforgiveable. While the actual numbers of alleged priests might be up in the air, the fact that on even one occasion accused priests were not immediately turned over to the police is not acceptable. It gives the appearance that the Church feels as if they are better equipped with dealing with alleged criminals of this kind. This is the main reason for anger toward the Church as a whole.

    3rd, the reasoning behind this woman’s protest, although righteous in my mind, aren’t at issue. My point had nothing to do with them. On the contrary, my comments address the FACT that on more than one occasion, priests who were ACCUSED of inappropriate conduct were not handed directly to the police. Further, while Catholics are free to be offended, there is nothing criminal about what the woman did.

  • leibowde84

    Condoms are available for free in many public locations. Why is handing them out in front of a religious organization any different than handing them out at a public college, high-school, etc.? In most American’s minds, the woman was doing a public service, making it easier for young people to have safe/protected sex instead of not using any kind of contraceptive or safety device. Kids will have sex; that is unavoidable. We, as a society, must deal with it rationally, instead of relying on kids to “do the right thing.” They are kids for God’s sake. We can’t expect them to be free from mistakes.

  • leibowde84

    Finally, my comments don’t have anything to do with whether priests actually did anything wrong. In regards to my argument, actual guilt in terms of child abuse doesn’t take away from the fact that accusations were made. Any rational mind can see that the priesthood is extremely temting for pedophiles. Unlike most other jobs, they are trusted by parents to be with their children without supervision. They are all men, having no women to answer to. And, there is a history (at least created by rumor) of the Church failing to turn criminals over to the police. For these reasons, it is important that the Church is incredibly careful when pedophelia is alleged, and actions must be immediately taken without getting permission from Church higher-ups. This is the problem.

  • leibowde84

    I know a lot of “accusers” that would be extremely disapointed with members of the RCC’s reluctance to take their accusations seriously. These are real people, a few of which I know personally. I admit that the numbers might be inflated, but the insinuation that there haven’t been accusations is tatamount to a slap in the face for these victims.

  • nkri401

    Would it not be better if no one was totured and the living picture of Christ was less gruesome?

  • nkri401

    “…Catholicism championed freedom long ago…”

    When was this “long ago”?

  • Secular1

    You reallythink child molestation is not one of teh issues one could rightly protest against RCC. Which rock did you crawl out of Rip Van Winkle?

  • J. Davis

    Secular1: It is YOU who is crawling out from under a rock.

  • MiguelA

    I wonder why the left never does this with Muhammad? Seeing this woman dressed like Muhammad and naked – now that would be really cutting edge.