Down with the “Icon”!

The painting, “Mama,” by Kelly Latimore – an “icon” of a black Virgin holding a black Jesus (resembling George Floyd) – should not have been displayed at The Catholic University of America, not even as a painting in a museum, because it’s blasphemous. And it’s certainly not a religious object, because it’s not a fit object of devotion for the Catholic faithful.

Please go to Lattimore’s website (here) and examine some of his other paintings. As you will see, he places first in his gallery a painting of Fred Rogers depicted as a saint with an aureole. And it only gets worse from there.

So here is a first preliminary point, involving what economists call “opportunity costs.” There are many wonderful Catholic artists producing work of the highest quality today, whose artistic sentiments are guided from first to last by a sound grasp of the Catholic faith and sound ideas of devotion.  I will mention, simply because I can vouch for them personally: Cornelius Sullivan, Andrew DeSa, and Veronica Royal (a real iconographer).

I invite you to peruse the galleries of these fine Catholic artists and note the startling contrast. We grant that it’s a laudable goal for a campus minister or university administrator to look for icons that foster racial healing in our country. But on that good premise, why would you think it a good idea to buy or accept a painting from Kelly Latimore rather than commissioning a work from Sullivan, de Sa, or Veronica Royal?

A second preliminary point involves justice. To buy or commission a painting, or even to accept it as a gift and display it prominently, raises a question of distributive justice, because one must ask whether such preference should not, with greater merit, rather be shown to some more worthy candidate.

Here is an analogy. With the tiniest of investigations, one can discover dozens of cases of really fine scholars and scientists, who sacrificed much to stand firm in their Catholic faith while also making a mark in the academy, who have been passed over for an appointment or some honor – by a supposedly Catholic institution – in favor of others, atheists and public critics of the faith, regarded as trendier, or more highly sought after by others.

Lives, careers, income, the genuine merits of someone’s work, and the true contribution to the future life of the Church are all at stake in such decisions. If the decision is egregiously wrong, then, materially, the decision is egregiously unjust – no matter what past injustices motivate the decision.

A third preliminary point involves formal cooperation in impiety.  I personally would recommend that no Catholic do business with Kelly Latimore, and certainly not appear to promote his work, because such an action risks either cooperating with, or appearing to cooperate with, gross impiety – namely, the lack of good judgment and proper regard for the sacred, which permeates Latimore’s work.

It’s against good religious sense, and against Church law (in my understanding), to display for public devotion anyone who has not been approved for public devotion by competent authority (through formal beatification or canonization). Yet Lattimore throws an aureole on any left-leaning progressive activist he favors, in addition to Mister Rogers.

So, on grounds of opportunity cost, distributive justice, and caution over formal cooperation with impiety, The Catholic University of America (and certainly so, for an institution which lately has liked to identify itself using the definite article, part of its legal name!) should never have come close to acquiring a Kelly Latimore painting. It should have looked elsewhere from the start, if it wanted a suitable religious image to advance the laudable goal of racial harmony in the Catholic community.

But now let’s, for the purpose of argument, assume that the university has, for whatever reasons, acquired “Mama.” Furthermore, that it has blessed the image in a public ceremony, and has displayed it prominently, thereby teaching students and others that it is good Catholic piety to have recourse to “Mama” as an “icon.” Should it take it down immediately?

The relevant point of fact is that Lattimore painted the image at the time of George Floyd’s horrific death; he wanted the Jesus figure to remind people of George Floyd; and he deliberately fostered ambiguity as to whether it was an image of Floyd, saying that it was “both” Floyd and Christ.

This point of fact underlies the sole argument in favor of the image: that, as Jesus through his Incarnation has identified himself with each of us, then it’s not improper to see Jesus in each person without exception; therefore, we should use images of the most despised and most rejected persons in our society to teach and remind us of this fact.

I agree with this argument – for an image that’s not an icon – and where it’s clear that that despised person is not of his nature God, but is so only by Christ’s identification with him – for example, a painting where Jesus himself, looking a bit like George Floyd, cradles an other-self, Floyd-like figure.

But to see how misguided the argument is in the present case, consider the strict application of its logic. As a matter of plain assessment, who is more despised and rejected in our society currently, George Floyd or Derek Chauvin (the policeman who caused his death)? I don’t think that there’s any doubt that it’s Chauvin. But what sane person would agree that it would be a good idea to display, bless, and approve an icon of Jesus in prison, which has the appearance “ambiguously” of Derek Chauvin, at the Law School of “The Catholic University of America”?

The main argument against the image is so obvious that it hardly needs stating: to depict an image of a mere human being with an aureole whose letters mean “I am who am” is deliberate blasphemy. And anyone who won’t disclaim that it’s a mere human being won’t disclaim blasphemy. And to promote “ambiguous” blasphemy, not disclaimed, is to promote blasphemy.

Michael Pakaluk, an Aristotle scholar and Ordinarius of the Pontifical Academy of St. Thomas Aquinas, is a professor in the Busch School of Business at the Catholic University of America. He lives in Hyattsville, MD with his wife Catherine, also a professor at the Busch School, and their eight children. His acclaimed book on the Gospel of Mark is The Memoirs of St Peter. His new book, Mary's Voice in the Gospel of John: A New Translation with Commentary, is now available. Prof. Pakaluk was appointed to the Pontifical Academy of St Thomas Aquinas by Pope Benedict XVI.