The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s exhibition Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination, which opened this past spring and will soon close, comes in the middle of the worst crisis in the history of modern Catholicism. As is now widely known, for decades, hundreds of Catholic priests, mostly, but also nuns and religious brothers, sexually abused thousands of children, often the most vulnerable in their care, and also young men and women, seminarians and novices around the world. This sexual violence occurred in parishes, missions, and orphanages, in residences for the disabled, in convents, rectories, mother and baby homes—basically everywhere. The bishops and religious superiors with authority over these priests protected them, almost always in ways that put others at risk. Yet, nowhere in the exhibition is any of this acknowledged. The exhibition’s curator, Andrew Bolton, seems to have wanted to quarantine Heavenly Bodies from the crisis raging around it. “There will always be viewers,” he preemptively cautioned readers of the New York Times, “who want to reduce [an exhibition] to a political polemic.”

It is not surprising, then, that Catholic authorities, in Rome and New York, supported the project. The Vatican sent to the Metropolitan some spectacular specimens of papal ceremonial garments adorned with sumptuously textured needlework depicting scenes from Scripture, along with a number of ritual objects made of precious metals and decorated with jewels. (Stephen Schloesser’s contribution to this series explains the particular imagery on display.) New York’s Rabelaisian Cardinal Timothy Dolan joked after the Met Gala 2018, that Rihanna had borrowed his miter for the event (she hadn’t), a genial white lie indicative surely of the cardinal’s impish joy and excitement about the soon-to-open exhibition and his desire to be associated with it. “The Church and ‘the Catholic imagination,’” the cardinal wrote on his blog the day the exhibition opened, “are all about truth, goodness, and beauty.”

Cardinal Dolan’s comment here has roughly the same relation to the world as it really is as Andrew Bolton’s explanation in the introduction to the catalog that the supple red leather of ex-Pope Benedict XVI’s loafers (made not by Prada, but especially for the former Cardinal Ratzinger by a cobbler from Novara) “signifies the blood of Christ’s Passion.” They cast lots for his garments, indeed. The exhibition is not merely silent about the abuse crisis; it actively represses awareness of it. How else are we to understand Bolton’s maladroit celebration in this context of Catholicism’s “essential carnality”? Or his thoughtlessly ironic observation about Catholicism’s “engagement with the physical body”? Is he simply unaware of how these words are heard at this moment in time, or does he mean them to do the work of denial? Extolling Catholicism’s “propensities for storytelling,” Bolton concludes that the fashions on display, “as expressions of the Catholic imagination . . . sing with distinctly enchanted and enchanting voices.” I think they are meant to do the work of denial.

Gallery View, Medieval Sculpture Hall. Image: © The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Fig. 1 | Gallery View, Medieval Sculpture Hall.
Image: © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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For many years now I have been studying the religious and social consequences in the lives of men and women who were sexually abused by priests, most of them as children or adolescents, some as adults.1 They describe difficult histories. Many have contended for some part of their lives with substance abuse. Victims were often rejected by their families, who refused to believe that a priest was capable of doing what their son or daughter was telling them a priest did. Most of the survivors I know kept the abuse secret, even from their spouses, for decades, living with the torment of split and secret selves. Many were violent, mostly against themselves, sometimes against others. The number of suicides among victims of clerical sexual abuse are high. Many survivors also talk about their struggles with God and their Catholic upbringing, and describe efforts to create religious pathways for themselves on new terms. Survivors of clerical sexual abuse do not tell a single story. This is the point of my research.

I am sure it was as a result of the disorientation of having heard these stories and then encountering the repressive silence of the exhibition that ninety minutes into my visit to the Metropolitan Museum in late May I was overwhelmed by a sensation of death in the room. I was standing at the time at the end of one of the two long rows of austere-looking androgynous mannequins—in her contribution to this symposium, Emma Anderson refers to their “emotional frigidity”—in clerical soutanes positioned at either side of the Medieval Sculpture Hall. The soutanes were the work of fashion designers represented throughout the exhibition, among them Demna Gvasalia (for the house of Balenciaga), le Sorelle Fontana, and Raf Simons (see Fig. 1). This feeling of being among the dead in a dead place haunted me throughout my visit. Is this what couture is, I wondered, the death of the real? I heard no enchanting voices.

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One of the major themes of the Heavenly Bodies exhibition is that aesthetics provides access to the sacred in Catholicism. But the connection between beauty and the sacred in Catholic culture is not a direct one. It is always mediated by and implicated in power, gender, and sexuality. As Jessica Delgado points out in her essay in this series, in the modern era, such sumptuous ecclesiastical raiment came to be worn exclusively by male church officials. It was a mark and a privilege of their sacramental role as mediators between God and humans. The more self-enthralled a prelate is with his own unassailable magnificence, the more enraptured he is with his power to loosen and to bind, the more likely he is to fill his closets with gorgeous garments, and the more time he will spend before his baroque mirrors. (Cardinal Raymond Burke is a case in point.) A gaggle of seminarians known playfully as “the Spice Girls” provided an appreciative audience for Australia’s Cardinal George Pell’s ecclesiastical fashion shows. Pell is now on trial in Melbourne for sexual crimes.

The grandiose raiment and multitiered tiaras on display in the Anna Wintour Center are examples not of the love of God, who as I recall is said to be happy with a pure heart, nor do they reveal the proximity of beauty to the sacred, as the texts on the walls suggest. Rather, they are media of Vatican greed, ambition, and grandiosity. The popes for whom these objects were fashioned were the most authoritarian and reactionary in the modern history of Catholicism, as Stephen Schloesser explains in his essay. This was not the principled rejection of the horrors of modernity, about which the Vatican (as distinct from ordinary Catholics) is usually silent unless Catholic prerogatives and property are at stake. The garments and objects in the Wintour Center were intended to amplify and advertise the claims of the modern papacy and its handlers to absolute power and control, on heaven and preferably on earth too, and to render celestial their most mundane ambitions by aligning these aesthetically with the divine. (For a glimpse of the ethics of Vatican bureaucrats, see this article.) The garments mask power, including sexual power, as they display it; they are intended as much to humble other humans as they are to glorify the sacred. To speak either of Catholic beauty or the sacred without acknowledging the inextricability of these realities is irresponsible.

Gallery View, Glass Gallery. Image: © The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Fig. 2 | Gallery View, Glass Gallery.
Image: © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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Contributors to this symposium on Heavenly Bodies come to diverse aesthetic judgments about the haute couture on display. Brenna Moore speaks of the garments’ “transcendence and beauty.” Jessica Delgado writes that the fashions “all render the female body splendidly visible through forms that were meant in their original context . . . for male clerics.” As a result, Delgado observes, the “exhibit challenges viewers to recognize the innovative theological possibilities of fashion design.” Anderson likewise notes the provocative and subversive femininity of the exhibition. Moore writes appreciatively of “Schiaparelli and Gaultier’s sexy, feminine pieces.” These “poke a little fun at the Church’s masculinity and silence on sexuality,” while at the same time “their art is so beautiful it stops you in your tracks.”

There is a consensus among the contributors that the exhibition lifts up and discloses the distinctive sexual queerness of Catholic culture in the modern era. Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, as is well known, secular sexuality was being constructed and cataloged, monitored and supervised by the practitioners of new scientific disciplines. The boundary between the normal and the perverse was more clearly identified and policed over time by psychoanalysis, criminology, and sexology. Modern political regimes maintained a rigid hierarchy of the sexes, inflected by class and race, as Joan Wallach Scott has recently argued.

Meanwhile, Catholicism offered ample opportunities, mostly for its elites, but also for lay people, for gender bending, cross-dressing, and queering, and for the most fluid eroticism, gay and straight and in-between. There was about modern Catholicism, one scholar writes, “the fragrant essence of decadence.” But this is from the perspective of secular modernity; from the perspective of Catholic modernity, it was the fragrant essence of the holy. Not surprisingly, moderns who are not Catholic have been scandalized and outraged by glimpses they caught of this, as Michael Bronski describes in his contribution. While Protestant clergy, freed to marry by Martin Luther, settled into placid domesticity idealized by Luther’s own happy marriage to the ex-nun Katarina von Bora, Catholic authorities doubled-down on clerical celibacy in the sixteenth century. Celibacy was to be a visible sign of clerical superiority, and more generally, sexual control and submission is what would distinguish Catholics from other moderns, religious and secular.

But prohibition and denial created an environment of hypersexual stimulation within Catholicism. A potent sexual tension runs through modern Catholicism; it implicates almost all aspects of Catholic practice and Catholic doctrine. Catholicism in the modern era became a turbulent landscape of secret and hidden desires, of innocence and corruption inextricably twinned. Carly Daniel-Hughes writes of the juxtaposition of “modesty and lasciviousness” in the clothing of priests and nuns. “A virgin should be identifiably feminine and beautiful, thus desirable,” Daniel-Hughes summarizes the Catholic ethos, “but also sexually chaste, thus unavailable.” Modern Catholic moral teaching and confessional practice elicited and evoked in exquisite detail what they explicitly forbade. Devotional practices in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries took on a quality of intense emotional and physical intimacy; relationships between figures in heaven and human beings were often experienced in explicitly erotic terms. Modern priests, exalted into quasi-divine beings, were turned into objects of male and female desire. A number of Catholic seminaries in the United States today print up full-color posters of the young men enrolled in them, by way of encouraging vocations, that then become hot items in local gay communities.

All of this made modern Catholicism a dark and troubled sexual environment, a prurient extravaganza of hidden and not-so-hidden desires, and a domain of pleasure heightened by transgression and violence.

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The queering of modern Catholicism, not a bad thing in itself when it is not reserved for the elite (as it mostly was), becomes horrific when the insistence on repression and secrecy, in defense of the fantasy of Catholic sexual virtue, facilitates the sexual exploitation of children, young people, and women, and renders them silent, by canonical decree and public shaming. In grand jury reports and victim testimonies, the characteristically Catholic interplay between ordination and sexual privilege, between clerical permission and lay prohibition, and between a pervasive internal sexual anarchy and the public determination to control sexuality, is on display for all to see.

The most apposite image in the exhibition is Rick Owens’s 2015 “Ensemble,” a monastic robe of light brown broadcloth, cotton jersey, and nylon canvas, with a big hole right at the level of the wearer’s genitals. Given that the Catholic Church has entered the twenty-first century with the private parts of priests and prelates on such relentless display in the public sphere, this ought to have been the centerpiece (the centerfold?) of the exhibition.

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Catholic sexuality ended in the Middle Ages, as the story of modernity has it. Then, secular modernity and sexuality take over, and Catholics disappear except as sexual jokes (patent leather shoes . . .). But now we know that Catholics have been practicing ways of being sexual in the modern world that were at variance with emergent modern norms. This does not mean Catholics can be written out of the history of modern sexuality; it means modern sexuality must be reimagined with Catholic practices and understandings fully in view. Catholic sexuality is a component of modern sexuality. Putting Catholic sex fully into the frame of modern sexuality, there are new chapters to be written in the history of sexual violence; of modern women’s sexuality; of the relationship between holiness and sexual pleasure; of the sexual nature of the sacred; of the relationship between sexual pleasure and sexual violence; of sexuality and the real presences of the gods; sexuality and Christian missions; and of the sexual destinies of children in modernity. The study of Catholic sexuality will facilitate the abandonment of the myth of modern secular sexual progress. Coming when it does, alongside the greatest crisis in Catholicism since the sixteenth century, which is a sexual crisis, Heavenly Bodies, in both what it reveals and conceals of the Catholic engagement with the physical body, may contribute to a new attentiveness to the history of modern Catholic sexuality and, by extension, to the history of sexual modernity.


  1. See my chapter “Events of Abundant Evil” in History and Presence (Harvard University Press, 2016) and “What is Catholic about the Clergy Sex Abuse Crisis?” in The Anthropology of Catholicism: A Reader, ed. Kristin Norget, Valentina Napolitano, and Maya Mayblin (University of California Press, 2017).