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Catholics can cope with ‘cultural appropriation’

The Met Gala is among the most iconic nights of the fashion calendar. Every year, A-list celebrities flock to New York City to attend the annual fundraiser for the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute. There’s always a theme. This year it was, ‘Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination.’

Getting into the spirit of things, Rihanna took to the red carpet with a jewel-encrusted papal hat and robe, showing off lots of boob and leg. Olivia Munn wore a gold and sparkly ‘chainmail dress’ – inspired by the crusades, naturally. Actress Lena Waithe (don’t worry, I hadn’t heard of her either) showed up in a rainbow pride cape; a statement which, I’m sure, is considered quite radical in certain circles.

All this apparently sparked outrage among some Catholics who felt this was ‘religious appropriation’. The term is an extension of ‘cultural appropriation’, the idea of stealing or exploiting the intellectual property of another, usually minority, group. Indeed ‘cultural appropriation’ has been in the headlines recently, after a teenager from Utah came under heavy fire for wearing a Chinese-style dress to prom despite not being Chinese herself.

As a Catholic myself, I am in two minds about how to react to the Met Gala’s supposed ‘religious appropriation.’


On the one hand, the hierarchy of our protected cultures often feels strangely hypocritical. With some groups we must take great care not to offend; while others, it seems, don’t matter. Being in the latter category, it’s easy to feel starved of sympathy.

But on the other hand, it’s patently silly. Catholicism has long been a source of cultural fascination. It is featured in countless films — the Godfather, In Bruges, Hail Caesar — in art, and in music. And why not? It’s attractive and vibrant. Beautiful, even. Surely it’s flattering that others recognise this? Albeit sometimes in silly, ignorant, and oh-so-provocative ways.

The problem with ‘appropriation’, be it religious or cultural, is that it enshrines a certain type of touchiness while doing away with common sense distinctions. It goes hand-in-hand with the psychology of ‘microaggressions’ — the belief that unintended insults are in some way threatening.

The other morning, for example, I was at Mass in Westminster Cathedral when an Asian tourist sat down in the congregation, pulled out a camera, and started noisily taking pictures. It was disrespectful of him, I thought. But I couldn’t help feeling, as he was being frog-marched out, that someone could have just kindly explained the expectations. He didn’t mean any harm. He was probably just curious.

All cultures and religions are right to feel offended when they’re unfairly attacked and misrepresented. They should stand up for themselves publicly — and point out double standards where they exist. But religious/cultural appropriation is not a manifestation of this. It’s a counter-productive, ideological dead-end; a festival of victim culture.

As far as I’m concerned, if people want to dress up as the Pope, or drape rosary beads over their car mirrors — why ever not? It starts a conversation about a culture I’m proud of.


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