A Misplaced Grief: The Vatican and David Bowie

Bowie (Brian Rasic:Rex Features)

In proof of Chesterton’s dictum that if a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly, I pound away at the piano playing the easier Chopin Nocturnes and I grind on my violin with a confidence only an amateur can flaunt. So I am not innocent of music.  I appreciate the emotive post-war French singers, and have a soft spot for the idiomatic form called “Doo-Wop” and its highly skilled harmonization and lyricism, along with some of the more whimsical Motown singers. But the world of rock and roll is to me a bewilderment, to the amazement of the same coterie who find it hard to believe that I have never had a cellular phone. It is a fact in witness to which I am willing to swear on a Douai Bible, that I have never been able to listen to an entire rock and roll song. This is not to say that I lack curiosity. In the South Pacific, I have listened to tunes on the aboriginal eucalyptus didgeridoo and the Polynesian nose flute, but what has developed as rock and roll music and metastasized into more raucous forms, remains an anthropological enigma and I leave restaurants and public gatherings where they are played.

Consequently, it was no surprise that news of the death of David Bowie was the first time I knew that he had been alive. If you find that hard to believe, you must remember that my instinctive taste for “pop music” is encoded by Gilbert and Sullivan and eclipsed by John Phillip Souza. What did surprise me was that the Vatican, just wiping up from its Climate Change light show on the façade of the Basilica of St. Peter’s, plunged into mourning for this man. At least the president of the Pontifical Council for Culture, Gianfranco Cardinal Ravasi, issued a statement quoting from some lyrics of Mr. Bowie: “Ground Control to Major Tom / Commencing countdown, engines on / Check ignition and may God’s love be with you.” What I found most intimidating, and indeed frightening, was the assumption that others would recognize the reference.

Born in 1942, Cardinal Ravisi is older than I and yet surpasses my information of pop culture, unless a junior staff member penned the elegy. His Eminence is an accomplished archeologist and was prefect of the Ambrosian Library, whose patron had musical tastes antecedent to and, dare I say, superior to, those of David Bowie.

A “celebrity psychic” named Uri Geller said of Bowie: “I was profoundly impressed by his deep understanding of mysticism, the mysterious and the universe. There is no doubt in my mind that David believed in Heaven.” I am not impressed by this, especially in light of the fact that three years ago Bowie produced an adult-rated video impersonating Jesus in pornographic positions. A statement of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Righteous said: “The switch-hitting, bisexual, senior citizen from London has resurfaced, this time playing a Jesus-like character who hangs out in a nightclub dump frequented by priests, cardinals and half-naked women.” But when Bowie died, L’Osservatore Romano, aching to be the Church of What’s Happening Now, eulogized the genius of Bowie, excusing his “ambiguous image” as one of his “excesses” but then remarking his “personal sobriety, even in his dry, almost thread-like body.”

The impulsive effusions of grief from the Holy See remind one of an extravagant tribute that the editor of L’Osservatore Romano paid to the crooner Michael Jackson when he died of acute Propofol and Benzodiazepine intoxication. The headline asked as if it were Holy Saturday: “But will he actually be dead?” Ignoring the epicene Jackson’s mockery of Jesus in his video “Thriller,” the Vatican newspaper lauded the star as a “great dancer” (“grande ballerina”) and declared that he would “never die in the imagination of his fans.” According to L’Osservatore, Jackson’s transgenderizing surgeries were “a process of self definition that was beyond race.” As for Jackson’s piroquettes with young boys, the unofficial voice of the Holy See commented: “Everybody knows his problems with the law after the pedophilia accusations. But no accusation, however serious or shameful, is enough to tarnish his myth among his millions of fans throughout the entire world.”

In his Republic, Plato said that music

is a more potent instrument than any other, because rhythm and harmony find their way into the inward places of the soul, on which they mightily fasten, imparting grace, and making the soul of him who is rightly educated graceful, or of him who is ill-educated ungraceful; and also because he who has received this true education of the inner being will most shrewdly perceive omissions or faults in art and nature, and with a true taste, while he praises and rejoices over and receives into his soul the good, and becomes noble and good, he will justify blame and hate the bad, now in the days of his youth, even before he will recognize and salute the friend with whom his education has made him long familiar.

Plato also knew the dangers of “anti-music” or Corybanticism, which perverted rhythms to stimulate the bodily humors in defiance of the good purposes of the muses. Its consequence would be a moral chain reaction, dissonant music deranging society and inverting virtue. The Corybants were priests of the Phrygian goddess Cybele, and their music was atonal, ecstatic, and dissolute. It was inimical to the ideal republic. But it incubated the ethereal realms of David Bowie and Michael Jackson and their sort.

In speaking of the rock and roll genre, I certainly do not want to be lumped with those preachers who once condemned Ragtime music, or even Chesterton who in an unmeasured moment called Jazz “the song of the treadmill.” But I am a pastor of a section of Manhattan called Hell’s Kitchen. I recently had the funeral of a young man who died of a drug overdose, and whose musical world was Corybantic. His cousin, a client of the rock and drug scene, is in prison for murder. So I speak not only as an aesthete who publicly avows that he prefers Mozart and Chopin to Jackson and Bowie, but as a priest who has to pick up the pieces of those who never knew they had a choice. And I object to comfortable prelates in a higher realm, penning panegyrics for the doyens of a culture that destroys my children.

Like a new Plato, Pope Benedict XVI said in his Spirit of the Liturgy:

On the one hand, there is pop music, which is certainly no longer supported by the people in the ancient senses (populous). It’s aimed at the phenomenon of the masses, is industrially produced, and ultimately has to be described as a cult of the banal. “Rock,” on the other hand, is the expression of elemental passions, and at rock festivals it assumed a cultic character, a form of worship, in fact, in opposition to Christian worship. People are, so to speak, released from themselves by the experience of being part of a crowd and by the emotional shock of rhythm, noise, and special lighting effects. However, in the ecstasy of having all their defenses torn down, the participants sink, as it were, beneath the elemental force of the universe. The music of the Holy Spirit’s sober inebriation seems to have little chance when self has become a prison, the mind is a shackle, and breaking out from both appears as a true promise of redemption that can be tasted at least for a few moments.

Young people are embarrassed when their mothers try to be “cool.” These youths may tread wrong paths unadvisedly on occasion, for such is the indiscretion of nascent years, but they want their mothers to be mature and not adolescent. Mother Church appears ridiculous as Adolescent Church, as in the case of the Holy See lamenting David Bowie. The insatiable desire for approval by pop culture is beneath the dignity of the Church as the Mother of Nations.

One thinks of the breathless Catholic News Service commentary in 2009 on the murder of the fashion designer Gianni Versace, whose obsequies in a Miami church were attended by men dressed as women, and whose final Requiem in the Duomo of Milan featured Elton John and “Sting” sobbing on each other’s shoulders: “ Versace was noted for his sensual lines and eye-catching combinations of textural shades.” This simply is the diction of political correctness and it compromises the prophetic charism of the Church; for, as sages have observed one way or another, political correctness is the speech of those who are terrified by what might happen if they spoke the truth. Perhaps the next nervous surrender to fashion will be a declaration of Bruce/Caitlin Jenner as “Person of the Year” by the editors of the gender-neutral New American Bible. Asserting his prophetic, priestly, and regal credentials as the Rock, Saint Peter warned the Christians in Rome against the celebrities of the Forum:

For, talking empty bombast, they seduce with licentious desires of the flesh those who have barely escaped from people who live in error. They promise them freedom, though they themselves are slaves of corruption, for a man is a slave of whatever overcomes him. For if they, having escaped the defilements of the world through the knowledge of our Lord and savior Jesus Christ, again become entangled and overcome by them, their last condition is worse than their first. (2 Peter 2: 18-20)

Christ was a carpenter and his apostles were mostly fishermen and none of them was what is called today a “metrosexual.” I am not sure what that term fully means, but it embraces anyone who weeps for paragons of degeneracy and paladins of vice.

(Photo credit: Brian Rasic / Rex Features)

Fr. George W. Rutler


Fr. George W. Rutler is pastor of St. Michael's church in New York City. He is the author of many books including Principalities and Powers: Spiritual Combat 1942-1943 (South Bend, IN: St. Augustine’s Press) and Hints of Heaven (Sophia Institute Press). His latest book is He Spoke To Us (Ignatius, 2016).