Like many observers of liturgy, I have been trying to make sense of Pope Francis’s choices – especially in the realm of vesture. It has somehow become highly significant to progressives and traditionalists alike that Francis wears ordinary brown or black shoes while his predecessor wore red ones.
Where Benedict XVI often wore elaborate, jewelled mitres, Francis seems to have chosen relatively simple ones, both as cardinal and as pope.
Pope Benedict, from time to time, wore an ermine-trimmed mozzetta and restored the fanon to use; thus far, at least, Pope Francis has worn neither.
Both popes made choices different from those of their predecessors. What were they trying to say? How does the language of papal vesture operate?
In this post I want to use a model derived from the work of Mary Douglas, the British anthropologist, to shed some light on this difficult question. To be clear, it is nothing more than a model. But I have found it helpful in thinking about the way people use symbols.
I will say, from the start, that I am no expert on fashion – liturgical, clerical or lay. I invite comments from those who know more about this topic, whether as clothing mavens or thinkers on social anthropology or keen observers of popes and their habits.
I find Douglas’s work particularly useful for looking at clothing, because her model revolves around the ways in which people accept or reject constraints on their behaviour. And the clothing choices we make each day reflect acceptance or rejection of behavioural constraint. She distinguished two types of social constraint, which she termed grid and group.
Grid, for Douglas, showed how peoples’ actions are limited or constrained by externally observable factors – for example, gender, class, age, military or ecclesiastical rank. A woman, no matter how intelligent or devout or learned, cannot currently act as a priest in the Roman Catholic Church. A sergeant in the armed forces must obey commands of a captain, whether or not the sergeant thinks they are right. Blacks in an apartheid regime were forbidden from attending schools reserved for whites. Grid operates in families, as well; in a high-grid family, each member might have a prescribed place at the diner table, perhaps with the father at the head of the table.
She referred to the second constraint as group: the requirement that individuals display loyalty or solidarity to the collective in which they operate. One can formally be a member of a parish simply by showing up to Mass once a year (low group); a monk in a monastery may submit to a lifetime of promoting the interests of the community and subordinating his preferences to those of the whole (high group).
We can put grid and group into a matrix, resulting in four modes of social organisation. All four will be operative in a complex society, but in different degrees.
Douglas called the high group and high grid system a hierarchy. The Catholic Church, taken over many centuries, exemplifies this mode. So does the Army. Leaders in hierarchies often attain their roles less through charisma than through seniority. Douglas herself was a conservative ; the relevance and usefulness of hierarchy was a recurring theme in her work. Readers often reacted negatively to the term, and in some of her later writing she changed the term to a ‘positional’ system.
A second mode is the enclave. Here, group solidarity is high, but externally visible positioning (grid) is more fluid. Leadership is about gaining the trust of a smaller group or tribe. Individual tribes tend to distrust other tribes, and solidarity in one group often arises from rejecting other groups. Enclave groups tend to be egalitarian and to resist internal structures that would change them into hierarchies. Small businesses and non-profit organisations tend to organise themselves in this way. Entrepreneurs tend to form enclaves.
If we relax the constraints both of external positioning and of group solidarity, we have the individualist mode of social organisation. Here, the group is a group of one – and the individual has to make her or his way based on merit or achievement. Traders in large banks typically operate as individualists, even though they are temporarily part of larger structures.
Finally, an individual operating in a system where grid is powerful but where group is weak can become an isolate, one who must submit to social control but who is a member of no enclave. Cities, according to Douglas, attracted such isolates.
The grid-group system can be used for many purposes – the security services, for example, have used it to model the formation of terrorist groups and the recruitment of vulnerable isolates. Here, however, I want to focus on clothing.
The individualist – in the lower-left corner of the matrix – will wear what he or she chooses; in fact, clothing may be a way of standing out from the crowd.
An enclave member, typically wears clothes that proclaim, above all else, membership of the dominant group or tribe. The thobe or thawb, worn by men in the GCC and Iraq, will tell a knowledgeable observer whether the wearer is from the UAE, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, etc. There may be variance depending on wealth or royal status, but the immediate and strong messages are that the wearer is an Arab, and within that a member of a specific subgroup.
How will someone dress within a hierarchy? Clothing in a true hierarchy will reflect grid, first of all. In the police, in the army, much can depend on someone knowing whether she is speaking with a sergeant, a lieutenant or a captain. Clothing is an easy way of signalling rank.
Cutting across ranks, clothing within a hierarchy signals membership in the group that is the hierarchy itself: uniforms for the police, clericals for priests, white coats or surgical garb for doctors. The following picture, taken from a “career planning” site, shows students how to choose conservative business suits.
Hierarchies can contain groups, of course, and these can be reflected in clothing. Army uniforms signal whether the wearer is a member of the infantry, artillery, corps of engineers, etc. But the dominant messages are, first, that the wearer is in the army; second, that she or he holds a specific rank. Something similar holds for the Church: a Franciscan will have a different habit than a Dominican. On the other hand, within the liturgy the differences in order (subgroup) will be weaker than the differences in rank (bishop, priest, deacon, etc.).
Finally, there are the isolates – those who are operating within a strict hierarchy but are not bound by loyalty to it. Here, I would expect to see eccentricities in clothing but not the complete freedom of the individualist. Perhaps the “urban grunge” style speaks to the city isolate.
What does Douglas’s model imply for liturgical vesture? Once again, we can begin with the individualist. For the most part, an evangelical preacher will wear what he or she wants to – even if the preacher is a member of a denomination, it is unlikely to prescribe clerical dress. You wear what works, especially for television.
Enclavists will dress to signal membership in a group. I defer to those more knowledgeable about Anglican clergy, but my sense is that, especially in the Anglican world, the dominant signal in clerical dress is the subgroup rather than the rank of the wearer: low church, Anglo-Catholic, moderate, etc. A 2006 photo of the Anglican bishops of Ontario, Canada shows a wide range of styles.
It would be good to know more about Orthodox vesture, too. Syrian, Russian and Greek Orthodox clergy, to name three groups, strike me as having distinctive clothing in each group, but I welcome comments here.
This brings us, at long last, to the clothing choices of popes Benedict and Francis.
Francis’s clothing choices place him firmly within the hierarchy. The vast majority of Jesuits deliberately avoid any distinctive habit; from the start of the order, their Constitutions instructed them to conform to local usage. Hence, as in the military, he would use his vesture to signal his membership in the clergy, his rank, and perhaps his role in a particular liturgical celebration. And no more. If a mitre is good enough for a papal Mass within a parish, why not reuse it for an inaugural Mass?
What about Pope Benedict XVI? My guess is that he would speak of a hierarchy that extends over time, Chesterton’s “democracy of the dead”. He was keen to maintain a connection with tradition, and also to bring beautiful things into the liturgy – music, architecture, vestments. As pope, he sought to set an example that many would follow.
And yet it is difficult not to place Benedict in the “isolates” quadrant of Douglas’s matrix. To some extent, the person at the top of any hierarchy is isolated from the rest, and from subgroups within the hierarchy. Nonetheless, with few exceptions, Pope Benedict’s choices for liturgical vesture don’t seem to have been reflected by most cardinals, bishops or priests.
Isolates can be trendsetters. Pope Francis’s choices of clothing would not have seemed distinctive had he followed John Paul II or John Paul I. Time will tell whether Benedict XVI has introduced a durable new “language of clothing” into the Church … or whether Francis’s example will change his predecessor’s discourse.