Madonna's Love/Hate Relationship With Catholicism

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Madonna
Mert Alas and Marcus Piggot

Last month, I found myself, along with the rest of America, gripped by a strong case of papal fever.

Pope Francis’ messages of love and mercy are so stunningly different than previous pontiffs that it’s difficult not to like the 78-year-old Argentinian church leader. Yet when he made his trip though America last month, the big question that ran through my mind was: “What does Madonna think about him?”

The 57-year-old Michigan native and musical icon has a complicated relationship with the Vatican. At the Philadelphia stop of the superstar’s Rebel Heart tour, which took place days before the heavily robed leader of the Catholic Church was scheduled to arrive, she dedicated a lovely rendition of “La Vie En Rose” to Pope Francis. Before strapping on her ukulele, she non-ironically praised him for being a “very open-minded” Pope.

If Pope Francis can soften the heart of pop music’s sexiest sinner, then he must be doing something right, but why are Catholicism and the Queen of Pop synonymous with each other? She summed up her history with Catholicism with Billboard.com back in February as she was promoting the release of her latest album Rebel Heart:

“Catholicism feels like my alma mater. It's the school I used to go to, and I can go back any time I want and take whatever I want from it because I suffered all the oppression, and all the abuse — and also enjoyed all the pomp and circumstance, the drama and the confusion and the hypocrisy and the craziness," she says. "I feel like I can say whatever I want and do whatever I want. I've been ex-communicated by the Catholic Church a few times. But I also feel like this new pope is kind of groovy, and I think we might be able to get together and have a chat about sex.”

Like many great artists, she has used her art to talk about the hurt she suffered in her religious upbringing in the hopes of bringing about change and healing. “Like A Virgin" cemented her as an pop culture icon to be reckoned with, but she began to frustrate the ears of the cloth when she released “Papa Don’t Preach.” Family values groups saw the single, which follows a teenage girl telling her father she’s pregnant, as encouragement for young girls to go out and get knocked up. When she dedicated it to the Pope during her 1987 tour, the Vatican began requesting that Italian fans boycott Madonna’s concerts. 

I remember watching the Pepsi ad at the end of a 1989 episode of The Cosby Show that featured “Like A Prayer.” The advertisement, which was seen by tens of millions of viewers, didn’t really rustle any feathers, but the video I rushed home to see on MTV the next day sure did. There were burning crosses and an interracial kiss. The word “blasphemous” was used to describe the video, and the lyrics “I’m down on my knees/I want to take you there” had a whole new connotation, especially to Pope John Paul II (and my parents, both of whom were raised Catholic). The song and video seem so tame now. She even performed it during the Super Bowl in 2012 without America batting an eye.

The Vatican also requested that the public shun Madonna’s coffee-table book Sex in 1992. The controversial release, which features the pictures of the singer and a smattering of her celebrity friends in sexually explicit photographs, became one of the fastest-selling books as a result of the social debate the book and her concurrently released album Erotica caused. The Catholic League also expressed outrage over the religious symbolism and videos that played during Madonna’s MDNA Tour in France, which tied Pope Benedict to anti-gay hate speech.

People tend to forget that Madonna came up through the late-’70s/early-’80s New York City art scene. She slept on artist Keith Haring’s couch, dated Jean-Michel Basquiat, and rubbed elbows with Andy Warhol, a practicing Catholic, when he was producing his late-period religious-themed work. She saw firsthand how religion can inspire love, art, misunderstanding, and sadly, bias and hate. Haring was diagnosed with AIDS, when many people and religious groups still carried the misconception that the disease was solely associated with a homosexual lifestyle. The Catholic church still doesn't promote condom use as a means for prevention.

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After Haring passed away in 1990, Madonna dedicated the first New York date of her that year’s tour as a benefit to her dear friend. It’s fair to say that these early influences on Mags’ career, along with her strict upbringing, has transformed her into the pop culture icon she continues to be. Her love-hate relationship with Catholicism continues. That mid-concert dedication to Pope Francis shows that the oppression that the religion caused in her childhood continues to inspire her in the over three decades since she released her self-titled debut.

New leadership proves that the Catholic Church can also change with the times—just not as quickly as Madonna can.

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