The news is coursing around the web that cassocks are optional at the Amazon Synod, and clergy may wear suits henceforth .
With this announcement, the policy that was firmed up in the final months of Pope Benedict’s papacy is rendered obsolete. As Sandro Magister then reported, in November 2012, the cassock with cape (“abito piano”) was considered obligatory for clerics at meetings in the presence of the pope, and this at the behest of Benedict XVI.
But no more. Does it matter?
My thoughts on today’s development hover between not wanting to dwell on superficialities on the one hand – “Jesus came preaching the Kingdom and we’re worried about dress codes?” – and wanting to give appropriate attention to the very real power of symbols on the other. On the latter point, see the brilliant post by Jonathan Day, “Reading the Language of Papal Clothing,” which employs anthropologist Mary Douglas to show that clothing directly reflects social location and and relational dynamics such as inclusion and isolation. (Day suggested that Pope Francis’s changes in clothing practice express his embeddedness within the episcopate rather than his isolation as pope.)
To the extent that it does matter, what do you suppose today’s development means? I’d enjoy hearing your thoughts.
As a discussion starter, I’ll put out some of my various reactions:
Suit coats rather than cassocks for clergy reads more egalitarian, slightly less distinct from lay people, less elegant, less sacral, an understanding of ministry less monasticized (I support habits for monks, btw, but don’t think monks are the model for all clergy), less medieval (or Renaissance) European, more in touch with the contemporary world, potentially less countercultural, but potentially more evangelical and hence countercultural about the things that most matter.
To go back to Jonathan Day’s piece, if bishops wear suits but Francis retains the white cassock, today’s change will ironically serve to isolate the pope symbolically from the episcopate. Or do you suppose we’ll ever see a pope in the black suit coat of a parish priest?
Making cassocks optional presents a choice to each synod father, and individual choices could be read as making statements, which could become divisive. It’s probably a good idea not to read too much into dress choices. Nor take the issue too seriously.
My attempt at a bit of humor at Facebook: