How a Nun's Tomato Split the Church

How a Nun's Tomato Split the Church
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It's a strange but seminal episode in the history of the Christianity: the moment when the Catholic Church abandoned modern art because of a tomato.

It was 1964. Sister Mary Corita Kent, a nun, artists and teacher at the Immaculate Heart College in Los Angeles, produced a serigraph called The Juiciest Tomato of All. Kent (1918-1986) was a nun of the Immaculate Heart of Mary and a noted artist specializing in lithographs and Pop Art inspired by Andy Warhol and James Rosenquist, as well as Los Angeles Pop artists Ed Rushca, Robert Dowd, and Philip Hefferton.

"Corita," as she liked to be called, used everyday objects as inspiration. Corita used printmaking to turn advertising slogans, magazine covers, Wonder Bread labels and other common consumer objects into works of Pop Art that brought fresh new interpretations to ancient Christian themes.

Sister Kent also knew pop music. As a recent NPR story noted, "According to Doris Donnelly, who taught in the religious education department at Immaculate Heart College while Kent was there, the artist was also tuned into the Top 40. This is the early '60s. In general, nuns wouldn't know the Beatles, Donnelly says. 'She knew the Beatles. She understood the lyrics of the Beatles.'" Corita quoted the Beatles song "Things We Said Today" in a 1965 piece called look, which uses the logo from Look magazine and the Beatles lyrics "Love is here to stay/And that's enough."

The Juiciest Tomato of All was a tribute to the Virgin Mary. According to Sister Kent and Sam Eisenstein, an English professor at Los Angeles City College who provided text for the art, tomatoes were once connected to the "Mystical Rose," the name given to the Blessed Mother during apparitions in Northern Italy. This was too much for James Cardinal McIntyre, the Archbishop of Los Angeles at the time. Cardinal McIntyre, who was not a fan of Vatican II, had earlier written a letter denouncing Sister Kent's art: "the Christmas cards designed by you and your department are an affront to me and a scandal to the archdiocese."

Under pressure, in 1968 Sister Kent left her order and Immaculate Heart College. Corita moved to Cape Cod, where she opened up a small studio. Dozens of sisters also left, and Immaculate Heart closed in 1980. Corita Kent died in 1986.

Some could explain what happened to Sister Kent in simple terms. To conservatives it was a blasphemous violation by the dippy left of the 1960s. There is some truth to that; the left in the 1960s was as often about provocation as genuine art. "Tomato" can be slang for a saucy woman, so Cardinal McIntyre may not have been completely off-base in his concern, even if Corita's real intent was to honor the Mystical Rose. Furthermore, as Richard John Neuhaus once noted, Corita Kent, her friends the Berrigan brothers and other 1960s anti-war protestors had no petitions to circulate when Communist atrocities began to occur in postwar Vietnam. A lot of 1960s art and rebellion was just childish posturing.

Yet the left was on to something, and from the advantage point of 2015, they may have been right.

God can endlessly reveal and renew himself in fresh and creative ways -- "Behold, I am making all things new." There were genuinely exciting and revolutionary art movements taking place sin the 1960s, with Kent favorites like the Beatles and Andy Warhol at the forefront. There was no need for the Catholic Church to erode its beautiful tradition by adopting silly folk masses or replacing stained glass windows with Pop Art. But there should have been more engagement with the new popular culture. The church should have offered magazines, television shows, sermons and pamphlets that explored rock and roll, modern art and the New Wave in cinema. After all, Andy Warhol himself was Catholic.

The Catholic Church is still paying for the schism that happened when it lost Corita Kent.

It lost a chance to interpret and even bless the best of the new emerging culture of the 1960s, to baptize it the way St. Augustine baptized the best elements of paganism. It was in the late 1960s that the Catholic genius Dietrich Von Hildebrand encouraged the Church to talk openly and honestly about sex, "the most dynamic experience in a man's life." A similar dynamism was occurring in music art, film, and literature, and the Church was divided between those like the Berrigans who mindlessly called for revolution, and conservatives who wanted to close their eyes and go back to the 1950s.

But there was a third way.

The Catholic Church, an institution that has always had its share of towering intellectuals, could have interpreted and engaged the new culture, and done so without becoming a slave to what was pop. The church could have seen the Catholicism of artists like Van Morrison, Andy Warhol, Bruce Springsteen and director Martin Scorsese.

Instead, Catholicism simply ceded these things to the liberals. The left had plenty of passion, but not much common sense.

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