Thursday, March 6, 2008

Bodies are in Kansas City and I'm Ambivalent

Archbishop Naumann of Kansas City in Kansas and Bishop Finn of Kansas City- St. Joseph (Missouri) have issued a joint statement against the latest exhibition of plasticized bodies.

Todd in Kansas City has noted a parallel between this exhibit and certain elements of the veneration of relics in the Catholic Church. I was a bit disappointed that he didn't mention the 1996 reformation in the use of relics - which have been aimed specifically at respect for the body (but then again, he might not have heard). Indeed, the Church has struggled (and not always perfectly) to maintain a proper balance between veneration and abuse.

My first response to this comparison is that it is mainly a structural parallel. Yes, the practices are similar on the surface, but the meaning, the heart of what is done is totally different.

And then I was talking with some other Confirmation teachers after class last night. One of her students brought a question asked the same day by her public school teacher: why do the Catholic bishops discourage this display? The other question raised was: can I go? The bishops guide us and we listen to them, but we also have the responsibility of making a prudential judgment. We agreed that if a student goes, they do so keeping in mind the bishop's guidance; they are responsible for maintaining a reverent attitude; and they must judge what they see.

In this conversation, I brought up Todd's parallels. Todd mentions in particular a process just applied to the body of St. Padre Pio (Thanks Todd, you really made me think!). But Saints' relics are treated with deep respect and the identity of the individual is heightened. For example, a bone chip of St. Anthony of Padua may not look like much, but people kiss the glass of its reliquary (as I have), in order to honor a particular man who lived for Christ.

No, what occurred to me in this conversation was the Capuchin Ossuary in Italy. And here's the Sedlec ossuary of the Czech Republic. Anonymous bones arranged in decorative patterns, some even imitating the poses of life. Now that sounds familiar.

So what's the difference between these medieval ossuaries and the plasticized body exhibits? The entire culture is what's different. The ossuaries expressed a culture in which everything was a sign of the truth made flesh. Plasticized bodies express a culture in which nothing is a sign, everything is a stimulas, an entertainment. What's the difference? The difference is in the heart of the beholder to some degree. One could walk through plasticized bodies marveling at the wonder of the human body (as Sharon did at an exhibit near her) or one could see it all as a freak show, a novelty. Of course, that's what goes on in the medieval ossuaries today, I would think (a commentator over at Todd's Catholic Sensibility saw this happen in European cathedral. There is a difference, however. In the medieval ossuaries, the Christians who built them couldn't help but testify to the truth that they recognized: what you are we once were; what we are you will become. If I go to see the plasticized bodies, I'll have to bring that lesson in with me.


clairity said...

I don't care much for the chandelier. :) And what about those skulls kept on monk's desks? Did a brother donate his head? I can understand that the bishops did not want the seeming endorsement of having Catholic school groups attend the exhibit.

Freder1ck said...

I would think the monastic vow of poverty would cover the disposal of their bones...