The red carpet was already rolled up, most of the demonstrators dispersed, and the celebrities and paparazzi had decamped across town to an after-screening party when a bearded figure wearing a baseball cap strolled out of Lincoln Center toward the small gathering of earnestly praying protesters kneeling on the rain-soaked sidewalk. as the stocky character approached the makeshift shrine to the Virgin Mary, he paused briefly and made the sign of the cross before slipping away quietly into the night.
Though his fellow Catholics didn’t recognize him, New Jersey native Kevin Smith— director of the controversial new religious comedy Dogma they’d come to voice outrage against— had briefly walked among them. Smith, a lifetime adherent of the Church of Rome, has defended Dogma as “a love letter to both faith and God,” albeit filtered through a sensibility combining National Lampoon’s Animal House with Monty Python.
Nonetheless, a couple of hours earlier, hundreds of angry but peaceful protesters— fired up by a description of a movie featuring a female descendant of Jesus who works in an abortion clinic and a jive-talking 13th apostle (played by Chris Rock) who claims Christ was black— besieged the glittery premiere of his new picture, singing hymns, chanting prayers, and giving speeches denouncing “the dominant culture of impiety and blasphemy.”
“Dogma is a blasphemous movie that mocks and scorns everything that is holy to Catholics,” protest leader Raymond Drake, president of the Protestant-sounding American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family, and Property, told the Voice outside the cinema. “If (Kevin Smith) is a good Catholic, he wouldn’t make a movie like this.”
Ask most ordinary Catholics, and they’ll tell you anti-Catholicism as a significant factor in American life ended around the time John F. Kennedy got elected. But if you trust the assorted wisdom of Cardinal O’Connor, the New York Post, and the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, there’s a resurgent wave of anti-Catholicism sweeping the nation— “the only fashionable bigotry left,” according to Senator Bob Smith of New Hampshire. Catholic League president Bill Donohue— who orchestrated the highly successful campaigns against both Dogma and the “Sensation” exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum— is particularly tenacious lately in tracking down what he calls “Catholic bashing,” a phenomenon the League likens to anti-Semitism and antiblack racism. Each year he puts out a report cataloguing the sins of the cultural elite— which in his terms includes everybody from Levi Strauss to New York magazine, from the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence to South Park and Ally McBeal— and its perceived bias against the faith.
Yet, it’s hardly a coincidence that the examples of so-called anti-Catholic culture that most upset activists like Donohue— Smith’s Dogma, Chris Ofili’s The Holy Virgin Mary, John Cornwell’s Pope Pius XII exposé Hitler’s Pope, Terrence McNally’s gay-themed play Corpus Christi, Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ, Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ— were perpetrated not by outsiders but by Catholics, or former Catholics. (Ofili and Donohue are both erstwhile altar boys.) Which suggests that what’s actually going on here is a heated debate over Catholic identity— a nasty civil war of ideas among conservatives and liberals, hard-line literalists and relativist semibelievers, about who is a genuine Catholic and who isn’t.
“The most disgusting thing about the Catholic League is the way they’ve turned a faith into a political party,” says Kevin Smith. “Bill Donohue isn’t a religious leader; he’s a demagogue. It’s ludicrous to portray Catholics as an oppressed minority in this country. It’s an insult to genuine minorities.”
“I don’t care if Kevin Smith goes to mass every day. He’s a self-hating Catholic who probably had a bad experience in the sixth grade when Sister Mary rapped him over the knuckles, and he’s never gotten over it. My advice to him is to seek therapy and to stop living in the past,” replies Donohue. “I don’t take on people for criticizing the Catholic church. I take them on when they cross over the line, from dissent to disdain.”
Maybe the real problem with sincere and highly personal works of art like Dogma, The Holy Virgin Mary, Piss Christ, et al., isn’t that they’re anti-Catholic, but that they’re too Catholic— too obscure to fully appreciate unless one is steeped in the sacraments and rituals of the church. As Roger Ebert quipped about the Smith movie: “Non-Catholics should be issued a Catechism at the theater door.”
Anybody brought up in the bosom of the Catholic church, however, knows the overpowering atmosphere of aestheticism permeating the religion— the smell of incense and candles, the exquisitely rendered wounds of Jesus on the cross, the saints who weep tears of blood— which ends up, not surprisingly, influencing generation after generation of Catholic artists. Long after the typical Catholic has rejected specific points of the church teaching, the raw emotional power of the imagery remains, often for a lifetime.
From the blood of Christ to Piss Christ to a dung-decorated Virgin Mary is not that huge an imaginative leap, according to Andres Serrano, whose infamous piece— a photo of a crucifix submerged in a vat of the artist’s own bodily fluid— touched off the current moral crusade against blasphemous art. Twelve years after the work was created, Piss Christ has lately achieved a level of respectability. It’s currently being shown at the Whitney as part of the “American Century” retrospective, which suggests that, over time, this seminal symbol of divisiveness may be perceived as originally intended— as a protest against the commercialization of sacred imagery.
“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