Desire, Body, and Catholicism

It is not news to have a Catholic art scandal — this goes all the way back to the medieval times.  But Catholic art scandals, for me, bring up questions about body and sexuality in teachings of Catholicism.  In addition, I wonder how much those teachings have influenced non-practicing Catholics.

This recent scandal includes a sexologist named Goedele Liekens who posed with a habit on the cover of her magazine.  In addition, a bag comes with each issue with a candied host, her picture, and text that read:  Take, Eat, This is My Body.  Understandably, Catholics are upset (by clicking this link, you understand that I no way condone the terrible secular tone of the article therein).

I am very conscientious about the host.  In fact, I went to the Easter Vigil with an agnostic friend and she went up in the communion line (long story) — and then threw the host in the garbage.  “In the garbage?” I asked her.  “Do you know what the host means to me?”  Yeah, she didn’t.  The people who know my conscientious dedication to the host may wonder why I’m not writing an angry letter right now.  I’m fascinated by this kind of Catholic art, even if it was made in a displeasing manner, because it gets at teachings about body and sexuality in Catholicism.

You know, the fact that she might have done it to increase sales speaks for the link between religion, sex, and politics. Money, money…..

I asked her to do an interview; maybe that way she can communicate what she meant by this image — because if you look at themes in Liekens’ work, they are very Catholic.  In the meantime, what’s the big deal about God and body anyway? How does it relate to the Eucharist?  How has it played out in art?  And who are these star-studded Catholic or raised Catholic players?

When a Catholic eats the body and blood of Christ, they become one with those elements — and become food for God.  The chalice and the ciborium are veiled on the alter — the idea behind this was so that one did not see the sacrifice that was taking place.  Catholicism is a visceral religion — the body and blood of Jesus poured out in the Eucharist, the flesh of Jesus on the cross, an emphasis on nails, incorruptable corpses, martyr deaths, flagellations…..

This visceral religion plays into the mind of 20th and 21st century writers and artists in unusual ways.  For example, the late Robert Mapplethorpe was influenced by the Church’s ideas about God transformed into flesh for his work in human form.  This is what Eleanor Heartney calls “incarnational consciousness. . . . [Catholic] imaginative sensibilities.”  Let’s not get completely graphic here.  But Mapplethorpe’s BDSM photographs are, undeniably, influenced by bodily Catholicism and Catholic guilt — in some sense, he got off on his guilt.

Karen Finely is another artist who was raised Catholic and uses Catholic themes in her work (even though it is anti-Catholic in tone).    By smearing different items on her body, Karen Finely uses her own body for a tool — much like the saints who consumed pus and vomit to get closer to God.  She is a sense performing a flagellation.

My favorite Catholic artist to be de-railed by the Catholic church was….a practicing Catholic! Felix Gonzalez-Torrez could invoke (and still does invoke) spirituality with a string of lights.  He also had these stacks of paper and piles of candy (spills).  When people take away a piece of candy or a piece of paper, it is replenished.  He remarked to the curator of a spills exhibit in a way that reminds one of the Eucharist:  “It’s a metaphor.  I’ m giving you this sugary thing; you put it in your mouth and you suck on someone else’s body.  And in this way, my work becomes a part of so many other people’s bodies.”

I think these Catholic artists have tapped into a kind of Catholic sensibility.  I use this with caution, because there is not just one Catholic sensibility.  But I think it speaks to a kind of desire that is beyond sex — because sex isn’t the only emotion to happen with your body.   God happens on your body.  The Eucharist happens on your body.  In that kind of sensibility, we channel medieval saints.  (Caroline Walker Bynum has great work on his stuff, so talk to her.)

I’m interested to know more about her reasons for creating the image.   I am still puzzling over how I feel personally about the whole thing.  I do know that I have been upset at the comments from secular people over this, too.  Comments have been running along the lines of “censored like the Danish cartoons,” and “she might have well just appeared in a burqa,” and “well, there won’t be a Catholic fatwa.”  Seriously, secular people.   When the bishop said that the host should be treated with respect just like the Prophet Muhammad should be treated with respect; that is something to heed.

Even though I took the time to spell out why I feel contradicted about this image, it is o.k. to feel offended.  I respect that.  I am offended by the Da Vinci Code, so yes, I get why this would be offensive.   I recognize that many of you might feel offended  about this, and I welcome your comments.  My gut is that even if it is an anti-Catholic statement, it’s coming from someone who has got the “in” on Catholicism.  As usual, I welcome your thoughts.

Postmodern Heretics by Eleanor Heartney has provided a lot of fuel for this post is a great place to start on the NEA and Catholic art…..Caroline Walker Bynum’s works also has provided inspiration….

1 thought on “Desire, Body, and Catholicism

  1. Wow! although a lack of reverence is appalling, it isn’t really surprising to me. I suspect that the more distant that Catholicism becomes from common-culture, the more it could be misunderstood and mocked. The challenge for me is that there is a great truth in mockery. Many mystics have written about the sexuality of communion and eucharist. I can’t quote any off the top of my head, but I am pretty sure that St. Teresa of Avila is one of them… And, all things sacramental are physical, and sex is one of the most holy acts given to us by God. Eucharist is all about union and giving and taking, like sex. My sacraments professor used to proclaim something like “a husband and wife must be use their bed like an altar, their union there is an expansion of the communion with the whole church.”
    As a celibate sister in my prime baby-making-years I think about these things a lot, and I am grateful for the discourse.

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