On April 18th, the “Naked Pope” made a parade appearance at Carnegie Mellon University’s carnival. The “naked pope”, if you have not heard, was “a female student dressed as the pope, appeared naked from the waist down and distributed condoms.” She also shaved her pubic hair into the shape of a cross. Bishops Zubik brought the matter to the attention of Carnegie Mellon officials and asked that they review the matter. The Catholic League demanded “severe” punishment for the student, equal to other campus violations of discrimination. Others demanded a rebuke of the school, and still others sought to explain the latent anti-Catholic in our country. What should be done about the incident?
Protest it? In his Consuming Religion, Vince Miller explains how controversy gets commodified in our culture. In a market awash with goods, controversies sell. Typically, this approach surrounds a product or movie (remember The Da Vinci Code?), and more controversy means more attention and more attention means more money. The “naked pope” incident might draw attention to the cause the student was promoting, but the student has not publicly expressed one. It might draw attention to the Catholic Church, but, of course, the attention will look like “angry, old men, fixated on sexual issues.” It is not an image that needs promoting nor should we wish to promote it. A heightened controversy—with its pageantry of protests, outrage, and name calling—would primarily draw attention to the story itself and make money for those selling the story to media outlets.
What about analyzing it? In his op/ed piece, Mathew Schmalz mocks this approach. For him, the problem is that analysis in academia is so esoteric and anti-Catholic that it would inevitably oppose the church and pander to like minded individuals who control academia. I am not quite this cynical about the academy (although this is probably because of the generosity of mind and spirit of the monks who have governed Saint Vincent College over the decades). My concern is slightly different. Careful assessment requires a setting like a classroom. Reading, studying, thinking, discussing, and writing are essential for the pursuit of understanding and truth, but these actions require time and space. In the 24-hour news cycle and the multiple types of media outlets, time and space are short and small. Whatever their format, news mediums favor quick, attention grabbing stories. Sound bites are seven seconds long. People read headlines, maybe the first paragraph of an article. It is the way attention is drawn to a particular topic. It is the way products are sold. It piques people’s interest just for a moment or two, enough, hopefully, to not click on a new link or turn the channel. Communicating a nuanced message or sustaining an informed discuss is practically impossible via media outlets.
Why not ignore it? It is a tempting approach for protesting and analyzing would, I think, fair so poorly. Yet, it is also a kind of a giving up on people. People are formed by their surrounding culture. Catholics have long known this. Ignoring “the naked pope”, and phenomenon like it, is akin to abandoning people to a skewed understanding of the Church and saying that those who are formed by it are not worth caring about.
Bless it? The only option left is to take Jesus’ words in Luke literally: “Do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you.” I am not saying to speak good things about the incident, but rather, that there is some obvious anger toward the Church expressed here. What is the cause? What seems to be motivating the student? Is there a peaceful way to find out? Is there some failure or wrong that we could discover about ourselves that could be repented of and fixed? Is there a way to help the student out? Is there something that we as a church might do so that we might love more like God and less like people who just “love those who love them” (Luke 6:32-33)? This approach has none of the failings of the others. It does not generate controversy and thus draw more attention to the incident. It avoids being constrained by the short time allotted for comments in popular mediums. It does not reinforce any anti-Catholicism. Also, most importantly, it is called for by the gospel.