On Vestments and Clerical Bling

The supposedly uninspiring nature of modern priestly vestments are a major concern for conservotrad and traditionalist Catholics. After Vatican II, the number of vestments that a priest was supposed to wear was greatly reduced, virtually eliminating the biretta, the maniple, and black vestments, not to mention everyday wear like the cassock. Yet, a historical survey of the development of vestments illustrates that there has long been a tension between those who favor elaborate vestments and those who favor more modest ones.

This traditionalist page about the interior of the sanctuary denounces the Roman chasuble as, “long flowing, in fact, quite effeminate…[and] conciliar presbyters wear [them] with every color in the rainbow and literally that as well, are again a rebellion against the tried and true.” (http://www.dailycatholic.org/cms46.htm) However the Gothic or fiddleback chasubles that are beloved of traditionalists are actually a relatively recent development. The chasubles worn during the Middle Ages were actually even longer and more flowing than those used today, as this other traditionalist site admits:

All these inconveniences caused liturgical “fashion” to cut down the chasuble’s length, inch by inch, until eventually, in the 18th century, we were left with the absurdity known as the fiddleback. Such chasubles are like the sleeveless t-shirt, or perhaps the g-string of vestments, and makes the gesture of the deacon pinching the sides of the priest’s chasuble pointless, if not ridiculous. That is not to say that a priest’s chasuble must be of the full conical form, but the vestment should at least be long and voluminous enough to suggest nobility, dignity, gravitas. The Gothic style attempts to do that while still allowing the priest some mobility. The fiddleback style does none (http://modernmedievalism.blogspot.com/2013/08/a-look-into-medieval-parish-churchs.html)

In the late antique and early medieval church, the primary concern was that priests have access to vestments that were clean, in good repair, and clearly distinguished them from laymen. Gregory of Tours, for example, noted that the clerics during his time dressed all in white, and Jerome emphasizes the need for priests to dress in a style that is distinctive, but not too showy (neither man gives a detailed explanation for what the priests of their time wore, presumably because they assumed that their audience already knew who was wearing what). Given the rapid de-urbanization and relatively primitive material culture that characterizes this period in time, it makes sense that simply having respectable attire would override the desire for ornate garb.  While there were controversies during this period about the propriety of priests dressing ostentatiously, they tended to be about the clothes they wore outside of the sanctuary, and not about what they wore at the altar.

Once conditions in Western Europe stabilized in the late ninth and early tenth centuries, vestments began to have more ornamentation. This trend appears to have started in the English church and gradually spread to the Continent. Maureen C. Miller, author of Clothing the Clergy: Virtue and Power in Medieval Europe, c. 800-1200, puts forth the thesis that the acceptance of ornate vestments among the clergy can be traced to the growing acceptance that priests, especially bishops, performed vital governmental services, not just in terms of interceding for the kingdom in question before god, but in many cases actually wielding temporal power. Hence, it was quite appropriate that a “prince of the church” should mimic the dress of an earthly prince.

Today, however, members of the Catholic hierarchy no longer wield temporal power, unless you count the legal fiction that is Vatican City. The model of kingship that existed during the medieval period no longer exists, and modern Western countries either have constitutional monarchies, where the king/queen is reduced to being a symbol, or secular republics where everyone is theoretically equal before the law. Cardinals may be “princes of the church” within the context of the Catholic church and wear the clothes of Renaissance prince-bishop, but to a modern eye, it just looks like a bunch of old guys wearing dresses. This explain why conservotrads and traditionalists would get super-excited when Benedict XVI would dust off some obscure piece of clerical bling (camauro, anyone?), while the response of everyone else was a collective shrug. Clerical bling may have shocked and awed the masses during the days of aristocracy and absolutism, when there was laws forbidding commoners from wearing the clothes and colors associated with their social betters, but today, when anyone can get a Gucci knockoff, it’s more of a curiosity than anything else.

All in all, I think the point of having a bunch of different vestments, each with their own prayer, was done more to improve the professionalism and piety of the priestly caste rather than for the edification of the laity. Much like today, the clerics of antiquity, the medieval period, the Renaissance, and every other time period were prone to be lax and disinterested in their duties, and the church was always trying to find new ways to improve morale and morality among them. Literally putting on the “armor of god” (i.e., vestments) was one way to remind priests of their grave responsibilities to god, the church, and the laity. While anyone can look up the meaning of an alb or a maniple on the Internet today, this is a relatively new development. I think the most important thing that the masses were supposed to take from looking at a priest in his vestments was that this was a man set apart to do godly things and that they should fear and respect his authority, not that, say, the stole represented the yoke of Christ. As with monarchism in general, the symbols that worked in the Catholic church 500, 100, or even 50 years ago won’t work today. Francis’ more simple papal style has created a more favorable on the public, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, than Benedict’s clerical bling, which suggests that at this particular juncture in time, simplicity in clerical dress may be the best course to take.