What do we do when our heroes let us down
My wife took Christ off our living room wall the other day. It was a postcard image of a mosaic created by Jesuit Father Marko Rupnik. She couldn't bear to have it up.
Rupnik is a remarkably gifted artist. His mosaics adorn chapels and buildings from the St. John Paul II National Shrine in Washington to the Basilica of Our Lady of the Rosary in Lourdes, France. And until now, our living room wall.
Father Rupnik stands "accused of spiritual, psychological or sexual abuse by multiple adult women over the course of almost 40 years," according to a report by Paulina Guzik at OSV News. Many of the cases involved women under his spiritual direction. Three years ago, he was even briefly excommunicated for granting absolution to a consecrated woman with whom he had sex, though the excommunication was lifted when he confessed and repented.
The recent allegations are so serious that the bishop responsible for the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes, which includes the basilica, has appointed a reflection group to consider whether the towering mosaics installed on the faÇade of the lower basilica in 2008 should be removed.
A few months ago, I visited the Lourdes for the first time, and when I saw the mosaics, I groaned out loud. Rupnik's style is immediately recognizable, and my first thought was that the art would forever be tainted by his crimes. Certainly, for anyone who was abused by Rupnik, but also by people who had been abused by other priests or religious leaders, the art would never be just art.
What is the proper response when our heroes, our leaders, our artists, let us down?
Picasso was a misogynistic creep who drove lovers to suicide. How do we look at his painting "Guernica" now? Woody Allen abandoned Mia Farrow for her 21-year-old daughter. How do we look at his film "Manhattan?"
What about Roman Polanski? Jean Vanier? Bill Cosby? Theodore McCarrick? Marcial Maciel? Michael Jackson?
In the age of #Metoo and tell-all bios, we have grown adept at maneuvering around the moral disasters of famous lives, but it is far less easy when the scandals involve someone we admired, perhaps even revered.
We can ignore Bill Cosby's comedy routines or skip Woody's latest flick. We can take the picture down from the living room wall. But do we strip the mosaics from a church?
One response may be simply to recognize that once completed, the art stands on its own, regardless of its creator's bad behavior.
Newspaper correspondent William Shirer recounted in his memoirs the time he met a very drunk F. Scott Fitzgerald, who had been a hero of his. He called it "a rather disillusioning evening." Yet time gave him a different perspective.
"I was not yet grown up enough to realize, I guess, that it mattered not a damn how much of a nuisance a writer could make of himself, especially when drunk. The only thing that counted was how well he wrote," Shirer concluded.
Yet when talking about sexual abuse, not drunkenness, it is not so easy to divorce artist from art.
The other perspective is to allow time to make a more lasting judgment. One of my wife's favorite artists is Caravaggio. His art is also on our walls. When alive, he was both rogue and genius. He ended up killing a man in a bar brawl. He frequented prostitutes, sometimes using them as models. Yet time has given us some distance, and his art is treasured now, even by popes.
The only caution to add is that the last resort would be to destroy the art. We are lucky that Caravaggio's "The Calling of Matthew" was not destroyed for the artist's sins. If Rupnik is guilty of abuse, he should be punished, but perhaps we need more time before we condemn his mosaics as well.
- Greg Erlandson is director and editor-in-chief of Catholic News Service.