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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.