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Debate: Does Catholic merchandising trivialise the faith?

Some see it as a bit of light-hearted fun, others as a serious distraction from the Gospel

By on Wednesday, 4 August 2010

The famous Flashing Candle in honour of the Pope's visit to Britain

The famous Flashing Candle in honour of the Pope's visit to Britain

Glow-in-the-dark rosaries, alarm clocks shaped like Our Lady of Lourdes which sing Aves, T-shirts sporting saints and Madonna-shaped USB-sticks are but a few of the worst examples of Catholic-themed tat. We Catholics, it seems, have the best kitsch.

This week, the merchandise for Pope Benedict XVI’s visit went on sale. It ranges from the classical (a rosary featuring the Pope and saints) to the bizarre (a flickering electric plastic candle adorned with the papal tiara and crossed keys). The collection of items on sale includes a T-shirt emblazoned with the face of John Henry Newman and commemorative plates.

For some, these objects serve as souvenirs to pass on to future generations or devotional aids. For others, they are a light-hearted expressions of their faith.

But they are also seen as frivolous fripperies, embarrassing vestiges of a less enlightened time or tacky and almost blasphemous objects which distract from Christ’s message.

So, does Catholic merchandising trivialise the faith?

  • Terence Utley

    Do “souvenirs” cheapen Catholicism? Not really, but it would help if it was less tasteless and a bit less overpriced. What it does do is provide easy ammunition for the Church's enemies.

  • Diamante1286

    No, it's a harmless expression of popular devotion. Far more disturbing is the aesthetic banality of our churches, vestments and so on. Only the best is good enough for God in our public worship. But, in private, it doesn't matter whether we are praying with a glow-in-the-dark rosary or one with diamond beads.

  • kerygma91

    Evidently you know nothing about the faith. Moron.

  • http://twitter.com/AndrewMBrow Andrew M Brown

    No it doesn't trivialise the faith in my view. The vital thing is not to allow our English snobbery about anything we see as 'bad taste' to pollute our thinking. What's important is the underlying feelings – if the motive underneath the object is sincere, that's ok. If the intention, however, is to belittle or trivialise then that is to be deplored. Any religion that attracts supporters in their millions, and encourages them to gather in one place, is going to also attract commercial forces. That's inescapable. If catching sight of some tasteless souvenir is enough to blow your faith off course then perhaps you could benefit from trying to deepen your faith and look beyond the superficial appearance of things.

  • kerygma91

    I bet you're an atheist troll.

  • http://twitter.com/thechurchmouse The Church Mouse

    Andrew – can't help thinking there is a little self justification in that, given the Guardian's T-Shirt competition!

  • Joel Pinheiro

    Merchandising in itself does not trivialize the faith. It is a great thing to have products geared specifically at Catholics. Rosaries, books, t-shirts, images, music. What gets to me is the tackiness of it all. Do Catholics really have a lower aesthetic sense than the rest of the population? This is not restricted to the UK and US; I'm from Brazil and it's the same thing here; and I well remember on my trip to Mexico seeing t-shirts on sale with the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe and a red sports car underneath.

    All in all, I think their effect, if negative, is rather slight. The one negative consequence I can think of is the awkwardness when a non-Catholic is confronted with it; very few people will be more interested in the Church on the aesthetic front, and that's a shame. I believe that one's aesthetic sensibilities play a role in shaping the persons we are, and we therefore should try always to develop them together with the rest of our personalities. Fake plastic candles certainly won't help us. At the same time, it's just a bit of fun during the pope's visit, so why care too much?

  • Raoul3456

    Yes, unfortunately it does. Many Muslims, for example, see our statues and conclude (falsely, of course) that we are idol worshippers. Anything that prevents people seeing what lies at the heart of Christianity is, by definition, a trivial distraction.

  • Josh Marquis

    I've thought about this before, and I think the idea doesn't trivialize the faith but sometimes the execution does. What's the point of an Our Lady depicted with a sports car? I would hope not for any kind of devotion, although some might buy it for that purpose. Catholic media in general suffers from a lack of “taste” to put it bluntly. We tend to either push to the extreme in poor visual execution in terms of advertising and design or we fall into the “looks great in a church but isn't appealing in my home or workplace”. Of course, marketers also like to prey on fanaticism and when you're thrilled about your faith, you're probably going to buy stuff to support the cause whether it looks good, is functional or is just a piece of junk.

    Other thoughts?

  • Mark H.

    Pope 'Soap-on-a-rope'? I love all this stuff! It is the sactification of the temporal order. Why just have a functional usb stick when you one of Our Lady or the saints? More Catholic stuff: NOW.

  • http://twitter.com/AndrewMBrow Andrew M Brown

    Whoever you are kerygma it really is deplorable if the best you can offer to Terence's considered contribution is insults like “troll” and “moron”. And the fact that you dare not use your real name makes your contribution cowardly as well as obnoxious. The pretend name suggests also that you are ashamed of yourself.

  • http://twitter.com/AndrewMBrow Andrew M Brown

    Whoever you are kerygma it really is deplorable if the best you can offer to Terence's considered contribution is insults like “troll” and “moron”. And the fact that you dare not use your real name makes your contribution cowardly as well as obnoxious. The pretend name suggests also that you are ashamed of yourself.

  • CatholilcBlogger

    £18.00 for a T-Shirt

  • hoops

    I don't think so but there is a general lack of interest among believers for formation beyond high school. I am not sure but perhaps our education system trivializes the faith. Faith seeking understanding a difficult thing to pass on.

  • David Booth

    Does Catholic merchandising trivialise the faith???

    The simple answer is yes, most of it is tat churned out in the Far East by cynical people and bought by foolish gullible people.

  • louella

    Hasn't the Church inspired the greatest works of art and music in all history?! People tend to forget that! Yes we have kitsch – but we also have mankind's finest art too. Let's remind everyone of that.

  • Michael

    Would it be rude of me to suggest that the question is a silly one? Queen Elizabeth I's progresses around England were dreaded by her noblemen for many of whom they could bring financial ruin. Papal progresses are no less opulent and extravagant and would bring financial ruin were it not for the larger numbers of Catholic laity prepared to subsidize them. Better the sale of schlock than of the church's treasures. And what a brilliant idea was Pope-on-a-rope for capturing two markets – symbolizing cleanliness for the faithful and representing the wishful thoughts of secularists.

  • http://twitter.com/thechurchmouse The Church Mouse

    Oops – looks like you're a different Andrew Brown from the one who ran the Guardian's T-Shirt competition – apologies to both Andrew Browns!

  • MJCarroll

    I always want to reel against all the Catholic tat but, to be honest I can't quite bring myself to do it. I love all that garish paraphernalia and I'm always first into the tat shops at Walsingham.

    There are a few examples of 'ridiculous' items but, on the whole Catholic merchandising does not trivialise faith. I don't have much of the stuff, I tend to stick with icons, but, I think that some people actually use it in their homes as a constant reminder of focusing on Christ and the Church and if they find it helpful then that is fine by me.

  • Ratbag

    I found the selection of official merchandise for the Pope's State Visit very disappointing and not well thought out at all. The plate and t-shirt with Pope Benedict XVI with his arms outstretched would have looked miles better on its own WITHOUT his other profiles looking as if they were coming out from either side of his chasuble – like something from a Batman movie! Compared with the more tasteful official souvenirs from Pope John Paul II 's visit to Britain in 1982 (with the exception of the fruit knife), the items on offer this time are not well designed and do not compliment the Holy Father at all. The best souvenir of all, for me, will be the packs that will be given to the pilgrims. As for the rest of the devout who will not be able to attend any of the events, they deserve better mementoes.

  • Fool for Christ

    I have a Cardinal Ratzinger fan club -shirt which I am dusting down for September. To be honest you do see some rather cringe inducing items when on pilgrimage but let's face it we're too busy trying to survive the in sults in a secular Anti-Christian metropolis to get overly concerned with 10 good reasons to be a catholic t-shirts

  • Barbara Bainbridge2

    One of the 10 Commandments clearly states “You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath……You shall not bow down to them or worship them, for I the Lord ama jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers….EXODUS 20 v 4-6. Idolatory angers God. He wants our full attention, worship and devotion to him alone. An idol is anything which we worship other than God himself, anything to which we attach more importance than we do to God himself. See also ISAIAH 44. Pagan worship of idols cannot be mixed with worshipping God.

  • Rob

    I think Catholic Merchandise is a good way to evangelize, Whenever I wear my Catholic Shirts I always get people who stop to talk to me about it. That's Why I wanted to start making my own. Art can be a form of prayer, and that's how i felt while making these designs, they are an extension of my prayers for conversion (both personal and for the world) Here's the link.