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Contention over Catholic University icon grows after it’s stolen again

WASHINGTON, D.C. — A second icon of Mary holding Jesus has been stolen from outside a chapel at The Catholic University of America following complaints that the image of Christ resembled George Floyd, a Black man killed by a white police officer in Minneapolis in May 2020.

No one has been arrested for the theft, but the university said authorities are investigating the crime, which some also view as a sacrilege — a violation of a sacred object.

In a Dec. 20 letter to the university community, the institution’s president John Garvey said the wall outside the law school chapel, where the icon was located, will remain empty while a replacement, a different artwork, is mulled over.

The second icon replaced a larger one stolen in late November. It had sparked a substantial number of emails and phone calls telling the university that the image was “blasphemous because they saw it as deifying or canonizing George Floyd,” Garvey wrote in a Nov. 24 letter to the school’s community.

But the school had always seen the figure as Jesus, Garvey wrote.

In a Dec. 20 letter, Garvey said that the different interpretations of the artwork “created needless controversy and confusion, for which I am sorry,” adding that “there are many examples of artwork that reflect the cultural richness and diversity of the Catholic Church, and that do so without creating confusion for faithful Catholics. We will keep that aim in mind as we consider a replacement.”

The icon, depicting a dark-skinned Mary holding a dark-skinned Jesus, had been at the entrance of the Mary Mirror of Justice Chapel at the university’s Columbus School of Law since February. Just before Thanksgiving some groups began calling attention to it on social media, sparking petitions to have it removed.

“Some comments that we received were thoughtful and reasonable. Some were offensive and racist. Much of the criticism came from people unconnected to the university,” Garvey wrote in the November letter.

The icon depicted a scene similar to Michelangelo’s La Pietà, a sculpture carved in marble from the Renaissance-era, which is at St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican.

Garvey said that the school’s policy was not to cancel speakers or prevent speech by members of the community. That’s why the second icon was replaced with a smaller copy.

But some saw the decision to go with a different work of art after the second theft as caving in to pressure from intolerant groups.

“The irate are so trapped by their disgust for George Floyd that they cannot see Christ. A review of responses to this story on social media sadly makes this plain,” wrote Gloria Purvis, a Catholic journalist and speaker in a Dec. 21 article accompanying a podcast at America magazine. “These respondents ignore the plain evidence of the icon’s symbols for Christ. They justify their disgust instead of lamenting their blindness.”

To critics who said the image was blasphemous she asked: “Isn’t the theft of a blessed object from a sacred space an act of sacrilege?”

Responding to critics who said the image confused students, she said it was “a good thing the confused are at a university that can provide guidance and answers on Christ’s perfection and divinity.”

“The image is not a reduction of Christ’s perfection and divinity. It is a reminder that we are made in God’s image and likeness and that by serving the ‘controversial troubled figure,’ one of the least among us, we serve Christ,” she wrote.

Garvey said the incident presented an opportunity to dialogue about an important issue.

“How we depict Christ in art matters,” he wrote. “It should reflect what we believe about God, and our relationship with Him.”

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