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"When I was a kid, the nuns drove it into us about the body and blood of Jesus Christ," recalls Serrano, who was raised a Catholic in Brooklyn. "Dealing with blood and piss as I do is not unlike some of the images you have in Christian iconography."
Serrano acknowledges that, growing up as a Catholic, one is routinely asked to swallow some major whoppers that Mary conceived a child without sexual intercourse; that the Communion wafer isn't merely a symbol of the body of Christ but his real flesh; that condoms, masturbation, and eating meat on Fridays are grave moral errors. "It's hard to believe that Mary was really a virgin," he says. "But ordinary Catholics don't really care one way or the other to them it's some abstract theological point, like how many angels can fit on the head of a pin. There are a lot of holes in the religion. To be a Catholic, you have to have a 'suspension of disbelief,' like going to a movie or reading a book."
A religion so based on complex and mysterious symbols is manna from heaven to the creatively inclined. Serrano sees artists like Chris Ofili and himself as being "in the tradition of lapsed Catholics like Buñuel and Salvador Dali artists struggling with their Catholic upbringing but still trying to reaffirm their faith." For centuries the Catholic church controlled the bulk of Western art. How ironic, then, that Catholics now appear as ignorant philistines unwilling to acknowledge that art can mean different things to different people.
"The language of Catholicism is a very visual one," says Serrano. "The church has inspired a lot of great art." He pauses before adding wryly: "Perhaps they're still inspiring it."
But the furor over 'anti-Catholicism' isn't really about art and theology; it's more about politics and publicity. The public image of American Catholicism in the '90s is largely shaped by high-profile conservative media figures like O'Connor, Donohue, and Pat Buchanan. Borrowing the techniques of left-wing grassroots activists, ultrasensitive conservative Catholics now regularly fire off volleys of letters and flurries of faxes, threatening boycotts of major corporations at the slightest insult to the one and true faith. With the extensive press coverage given their efforts, it's easy to get the impression they speak for all Catholics.
Nevertheless, survey after survey shows that on political and social issues, Catholics are generally more liberal than Protestants. Only Jews are more left-leaning even right-wing Catholics like Buchanan often espouse economic views that, by contemporary American standards, are practically socialist.
Conservatives believe rigid compliance with papal doctrine is the touchstone of true Catholicism, but the era when Catholics were servants in thought and imagination to the Vatican is long gone. In a time when even priests question basic teachings about divorce, birth control, and homosexuality, it's unreasonable to expect lay Catholics especially artists to strictly toe the party line. The last thing regular Catholics want is a return to the days of the Index of Forbidden Books and the Legion of Decency the most obvious precursor of the Catholic League when the church told you what movies to see and what literature to read.
"The Catholic League is not there to protect ordinary Catholics from outside attack," says Irish novelist Emer Martin (Breakfast in Babylon; More Bread or I'll Appear). "It's a thinly disguised effort to censor its own artistic community. We who were raised as Catholics, the Catholic imagery embedded deep in our psyches, have an absolute right to explore these images."
Research assistance by RuiBing Zheng