Opinion: Clothes Make the Pope II

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It’s not disrespectful to observe that Pope Benedict XVI’s comments on Christmas were (with the exception of a possible allusion to global warming) familiar. After all, the Christian message is supposed to be timeless. That’s why the headline “Pope Prays for Peace” is endlessly recycled, along with “Mideast Talks Break Down” and “Americans Are Getting Fatter.”

Given the predictability of the pope’s appeals for peace and brotherhood, it’s not surprising that Vatican-watchers in the blogosphere seemed to be more interested in what Benedict was wearing at Christmas midnight Mass and during his later address “Urbi et Orbi” (to the city and the world). On both occasions the pope was wearing an ornate miter of the style called “Roman,” which went out of fashion — even for popes — after the Second Vatican Council.

The pope’s retro wardrobe has cheered conservative Catholics, for whom the old-style “Roman” vestments are not just a fashion statement but an expression of theology. (By contrast, liberal Catholic bishops — and their Anglican counterparts — tend to favor miters of the shortish “Gothic” style that hark back to the medieval period.) As I noted a while ago, Benedict has been seen wearing a Roman miter that belonged to the arch-conservative Pope Pius IX.

But one Catholic blogger notes that at least one of Benedict’s Christmas miters originally belonged to Pope John Paul I, the one-month-wonder who preceded John Paul II. Many Catholic liberals believe (on pretty threadbare evidence) that JP I was one of them. So is Benedict engaging in some subtle triangulation, wearing a conservative predecessor’s miter on one occasion and a liberal predecessor’s on another?


Or maybe he just likes fancy hats.