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It was date night for me in the early 1980s. I got to choose the film: Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life. I always liked Monty Python when I was in high school — it was hip, British, and it reflected my pseudo-intellectual pretensions at the time.
I should have done my date movie homework better, because The Meaning of Life came with an uncomfortable reminder that struck home with me and many other Catholics during that day and age:
“Every sperm is sacred, every sperm is great.”
So sang Michael Palin as he explained to his brood that he would have to send them off for medical experiments. To their credit, the members of Monty Python were equal opportunity satirists: the Catholic skit was followed by one that featured a proudly Protestant English husband proclaiming how he did not believe in that “Papist clap-trap” as he went on to describe a variety of condoms to which his Protestantism would not object:
Funny. Clever. But it made for a very uncomfortable date.
Catholics like me get a lot of sex questions — always, constantly. What is your deal with birth control? Does celibacy really make any kind of sense? Do you really believe in that stuff? Underlying these questions is an assumption hinted at in the contrast between Catholics and Protestants in Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life: Catholics have a lot of sex, but it’s not very sexy.
That Catholics are sexually repressed — uncomfortable talking about sex, unable to face their desires, hysterical when confronted with sexual imagery — is a well-worn talking-point that has become almost conventional wisdom. Much of the analysis about the sexual abuse scandal, for example, revolves around the repressive and closeted environment created by Catholic dogma — a point that was also made by Protestant reformers centuries ago.
This notion of Catholics as sexually repressed often brings with it another kind of stereotype: the sexually voracious Catholic, who indulges in pleasure once freed of the prison of Catholic belief and practice. Then, of course, there is the image of what goes on behind the convent or monastery. In the 19th century, The Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk presented wild and fanciful tales of priests entering by a secret tunnel to fulfill their carnal desires with a convent’s nuns.
Whenever I confront these kinds of Catholic stereotypes — or their academically cultured equivalents — I do have a response:
“Catholicism is actually a very sexy religion.”
I say it straight-out, unapologetically. Because it’s true.
I’m not alone in making this point. There has been a revival in Catholic discussions of sexuality brought about by John Paul II’s theology of the body. But with its heavy doses of philosophizing, that theology does not make for a light read. There are also the visions of Catholic mystics, like John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila, whose images of Jesus and the angels are wrapped in and rapt by romantic and erotic imagery.
But I usually make the point about the sexiness of Catholicism by referencing popular culture, a realm where Catholicism is often most ridiculed.
I remember the Madonna phenomenon following on the heels of Meaning of Life back in the early ‘80s. At that time, Madonna was a rock religious renegade. There was the name, the white gown, and, to top it all off, rosary beads as a kind of phallic fetish. Madonna was both celebrated and reviled, but no one could deny the heat generated by the friction of Catholic religious images juxtaposed with sexuality in her music videos. In Like a Prayer, Madonna recalls the stigmata — the wounds of the crucified Christ, famously experienced by St. Francis of Assisi. The stigmata are signs of penetration and interpenetration — a union of experience and an experience of union.
By contrast, Lady Gaga’s use of Catholic imagery is more hierarchical, more harsh. In her Alejandro video, Lady Gaga appears as a latex-clad nun. This is doubtless a playful reference not just to the varied uses of rubber products, but also to “nun camp,” which always sells. (Someone once gave me a wind-up nun as a present; sparks flew from her mouth as she mechanically waddled with a ruler in her hand._ With Lady Gaga, images of discipline and concealment — nun’s habits and the habits of nuns — become part of diagraming sex and sexuality as a play of power, and not just as power play.
When I was younger, I often struggled with whether I should be outraged as a Catholic when witnessing such things. My date for the Meaning of Life had to ask me not to walk out.
In Catholic circles, talking about the sexualizing of Catholic imagery in popular culture can be difficult. It makes Catholics feel vulnerable: it dredges up anxieties about being different and fitting in. Also, for some Catholics — though not for all — sexualizing cherished religious imagery is a kind of defilement.
But imitation — even if it is ribald and ridiculing — is also a kind of flattery. That’s how I have come to look at things, especially since I beheld the inaugural performance of “Roman Holiday” by Niki Minaj at the 2012 Grammy Awards.
Beginning with a confession and ending with an exorcism, the performance is a hodge-podge of Catholic images, including, stoles, kneelers and monk outfits, along with expectorations of smoke and flame. It made absolutely no sense — especially when compared to the fluidity of Niki Minaj’s rapping, which can be pretty good when she gets in the groove.
It was then that I realized that Niki Minaj, and many other performers, are struggling to find a visual language for sexuality and desire — a way to express sexuality that is somewhat coherent, or at least recognizable. For this, they turn to Catholicism.
Catholic religious clothing and ritual are certainly not explicitly about sexuality, but they are about physicality or incarnation: they are about appreciating how human life as it is lived and embodied has a shape and texture. Catholics have a rich resource of images, words, and gestures that speak to the range of human experiences, including sexuality, and how those experiences allow us to touch the divine. Those resources can be used foolishly or frivolously, but they are undeniably powerful and pregnant with meaning.
Catholics often fear that the use of Catholic images in popular culture is meant to demean and exclude them. But, more often than not, the use of Catholic imagery in popular culture shows that Catholicism still has much to say about human experience in all its delicious variety. As our entertainment culture is continually reminding us, Catholicism is still very sexy.