It has been an iconoclastic summer in the U.S. and across the world, particularly societies such as Britain that once commanded racist empires and still benefit from that fact. Statues honoring historical figures – Confederate generals, U.S. presidents, Christopher Columbus, to name but a few – have been brought down both by groups of protesters and voluntarily by local governments. Sports team names have come up for reconsideration. This iconoclasm has extended to the Church, particularly as figures such as St. Junipero Serra, whose accomplishments spanned church and state, have come under rightful criticism for promoting racist ideas and practices. How are we to interpret these events? Are they a victory for social justice or “cancel culture” run amok?
Such conversations often benefit from proper distinctions. My teacher, the philosopher Jean-Luc Marion, has drawn a very useful distinction between what he calls the idol and the icon. The idol, for Marion, is something that is venerated out of proportion with what it is, and thus violates the Biblical commandment against worship of graven images over and against God. The icon, meanwhile, leads us through itself to a true worship of God – it communicates something that it is not. Thus, an image or statue in a church is not idolatrous for Catholicism because it sacramentally helps bring us to the divine through matter.
How does this distinction help us through our present predicament? Clearly, some figures venerated by statuary have no business being honored as they portray symbols of hate – these are inevitably idolatrous rather than iconographic. Confederate generals, regardless of whatever personal qualities they may have possessed, took up arms against the United States in a war waged with the continuance of slavery as its goal. Their names and images should not be honored anywhere in our nation. Other figures from United States history, such as the “Founding Fathers,” are in a more ambiguous position. Many were slaveholders, though the ideals they expressed in founding the United States – while expressing personal hypocrisy – ultimately led to the undoing of slavery as an institution. In other cases, such as the statue of Theodore Roosevelt that has been removed from the American Museum of Natural History in New York, the blatant racism of the particular image overshadows the question of whether the historical figure ought to be honored.
This brings us, then, to the intersection of this discourse around statues and images and Catholicism. While the United States was founded as a Protestant nation and Catholics (particularly recent immigrants) remain “other” to aspects of our national identity (though certainly not to power and its abuses), a number of Catholics have been publicly honored with such statues. Most notably, images of Christopher Columbus (not a saint but a symbol for many Italian-American Catholics), St. Junipero Serra, and St. Louis IX of France (namesake of the city) have become increasingly controversial. This criticism and at times destruction (such as the statue of Columbus that was thrown into Baltimore’s harbor) have been met by some Catholics with defensive cries that such attacks are anti-Catholic. In St. Louis particularly, some Catholics put on pious displays positioning the French king as a great patron of Western civilization and downplaying any controversies around his actions toward French Jews.
What, we must ask, are we venerating when we honor historical figures such as this? In the case of saints such as Serra and Louis IX, we must consider in particular how our honoring of them as saints might differ from honoring them in the public square as part of a kind of “civil religion” in a pluralist democracy. Saints were not perfect people; indeed, we ought to hope they were not if our own aspirations to sainthood have any hopes of being realized. Their veneration even within the Church changes over time; saints are routinely moved on and off the calendar precisely because the relevance of their veneration to the faithful has changed. Before we become defensive about their images, then, much less those of figures such as Columbus, we ought to ask why we are doing so and in support of what goal.
Catholics, then, need not be afraid of this twilight of the idols. While there are surely historical precedents of protest movements becoming excessive, we are not at that place right now; our nation is still too far from collectively admitting that black lives matter to argue that protesters have achieved their goals. We ought to rather ask ourselves if, when we defend images of saints who were complicit or worse with evils done to people of color and other oppressed groups, we are defending their sanctity or precisely their actions that are least demonstrative of it. God is on the side of the poor and the oppressed, and we show God no favor by excusing oppression for our own comfort and that of our supposed civilizational heritage. “God is not in strength but in truth,” says the monk Zosima in The Brothers Karamazov, and that ought to be our motto as Catholics and as Americans during this reckoning.
Daniel A. Rober is a systematic theologian and Catholic studies professor at Sacred Heart University.