Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Red Shoe Diaries

So it seems that some Roman Catholics of a highly traditional bent are ... concerned ... about their new pope's sartorial choices.

Zuhlsdorf posted something about the red shoes, and then something about the rumor that Gamarelli, the papal tailor, was sending over a new mozzetta, and his readers freaked.  It's a little confusing to outsiders, but the gist seems to be a concern that Pope Francis may adopt a less emphatically old-fashioned style of dress than his immediate predecessor.  This means, as a couple of readers put it, that "the man chosen to be a living symbol of tradition is disregarding tradition."

Worse yet, they are afraid that by doing this, the new pontiff may give aid and comfort to priests who don't want to wear collars, and so forth and so on.  Next thing you  know, we all singing Kum Ba Yah at the folk Mass.

The silly side of this is obvious to most people, so let's try to take it seriously for a moment.  Honestly, there is much to be said for the idea that religious officials are the bearers of tradition, and are well served by dressing in a manner that makes this clear.  We ourselves are great advocates for the collar, and have previously posted about the virtues of cassocks, amices, birettas and maniples.  (Did we ever get around to the maniple post?  We forget; suffice it to say we own one, but don't actually wear it.)  We have never mentioned our hatred of varicolored clerical shirts, but readers can probably guess how deep it runs.

But let us also remember that "tradition" is a complex thing.  Clerical togs, both within worship and without, are particularly complex; their history is long and winding, tending to disappear down rabbit holes and then double back on itself.  Whether one likes it or not, the clerical suit has replaced the cassock as street garb, so that wearing a cassock on the street today -- which some people certainly do -- is semiotically quite far removed from what it was a century and more ago.  Wearing it then didn't mean what it does now.  Likewise the flat-brimmed hat, the white cravat, and we suppose the fur lining in the cassock.  At some point in history, somebody gave up on each of those things, and somebody else cried out "Heretic!  Modernist!  Liberal!"

Popes happen to have a highly specialized closet of historic garments from which to choose.  Shawn Tribe helpfully lists several:  the fanon, the falda, the mantum; the ever-popular subcinctorium and -- above all -- the tiara.  Some popes wear them,  some -- particularly John Paul II -- don't.   The Red Shoe Brigade seems to have a strange emotional investment in such seemingly trivial items.  We expect that the cause is a sense that the paraphernalia makes a pope look old-fashioned, and old-fashioned -- meaning older-fashioned than John XXIII -- is something these guys want very badly.

And by the way, there are probably a few lefties out there, reading the symbols precisely the same way, and hoping for the opposites.  So every time Francis doesn't wear a red slipper or an ermine-trimmed cape, they do a fist pump and cry "Man of the people!"  Or whatever.

We can't help thinking that this is a load of -- well, something that gets loaded and then spread on the crops.  We agree that a pope's attire -- like that of a parish priest -- is not merely a matter of whim.  It is the result of a critical assessment of tradition, and the more-or-less deliberate decision to send a message.  But "more or less" covers a lot of area, and a lifetime of personal style is going to have an impact on what a man thinks he ought to wear.  It doesn't, in and of itself, say anything very clear about his theology in general or his position on matters of dispute in particular.

Clothes don't make the man.  They really don't.  John Paul II was a pretty plain dresser, and nobody would have mistaken him for a wild-eyed radical.  Francis seems to lean plain; this does not mean that the folk Masses are coming back.

Still, we'll check in on this periodically.  Just in case.

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