Harry Potter, who as you may have heard about a thousand times by now turned 20 last week, is among the rare fictional heroes whose unofficial condemnation by Vatican officials did not result in a big boost in sales.
Of course, that’s only because J.K. Rowling’s work was selling like gelato in July well before the Vatican’s longtime chief exorcist, Father Gabriele Amorth, told reporters that “Harry Potter hides the signature of the king of the darkness.” And before the future Pope Benedict XVI himself called the Potter books one of the “subtle seductions” that can corrupt the young.
Though the Catholic Church will never make peace with much of popular culture, the Vatican’s current approach is more “dialogical” than condemnatory. That’s not because Pope Francis is any less orthodox than his predecessor or more open to the world. But the dialogue is easier these days because the world is undeniably more open to him.
The outfit that kept Western civilization alive during the Dark Ages, commissioned the most important art of the Renaissance and decided that the tartest answer to the Protestant Reformation was Bernini and Titian hasn’t survived this long by failing to adapt and, eventually, adopt.
Which is how Bishop Paul Tighe, the 59-year-old Irish prelate who first got Pope Benedict on Twitter in 2012, has in the last year wound up speaking in Lisbon at the Burning Man arts festival and in Austin, Texas, at the South by Southwest Festival, where he discussed the “disruptive mercy” in our wildly competitive culture of a God who loves us even when we fail.
“Being able to see goodness, beauty and truth in places that might surprise us maybe earns us the right to express question marks” later, says Tighe, a moral theologian who’s now adjunct secretary of the Pontifical Council for Culture. “The thing people expect is, ‘Vatican condemns.’ But if you want to dialogue, start with what you can speak well of.”
Like what? In an interview in his spartan office off St. Peter’s Square, Tighe says some of the most interesting artists working with Catholic themes in recent decades surely include Bruce Springsteen, novelists Donna Tartt, who is a convert to Catholicism, and Jonathan Franzen, who the New York Times notes “even went to Catholic Church” for a time. Both Franzen and Dave Eggers, Tighe says approvingly, are in their fiction raising serious moral questions about “what it is to live in a digital world.”
He also cites John Boyne’s “A History of Loneliness,” about the cover-up of child sex abuse by an Irish priest, installation artist Bill Viola’s work on martyrs and “a powerful photographical image of bread that clearly had a Eucharistic (echo) that I was surprised to see came from” the late Robert Mapplethorpe.
“You have to be careful” when you talk about these things, Tighe knows, because “people are so literal” that “in some environments, any engagement is seen as a form of betrayal.”
It’s not, though; on the contrary. Most of what goes on here in the Roman Curia — on human trafficking, refugees, diplomacy and attempting to reform the bureaucracy that invented the slow-walk — is unseen and unrewarded. But paradoxically, Francis has charmed the world into a little more openness to his tiny team of cultural ambassadors because he doesn’t come across like a traditional culture warrior.
Of course the church remains in tension with, as Tighe puts it, a culture in which sex is seen as a pleasant form of recreation that’s “perhaps more pleasant if you know the person.” Yet you don’t win the day, the argument or the internet by retreating from the culture. And it’s worth noting, as Francis has, that his own favorite movie, the 1987 Danish film “Babette’s Feast,” is a meditation on the transformative power of art in everyday life.
In it, an uptight community of joyless believers learns that one way to God is through the enjoyment of their lottery-winning French housekeeper’s unexpected gift — the preparation of a feast so fine that it’s a foretaste of heaven. “In paradise you will be the great artist God meant you to be,” a woman moved by the meal tells Babette. “Oh, how you will enchant the angels!”