A culture can grow barren when it “becomes inward-looking, and tries to perpetuate obsolete ways of living by rejecting any exchange or debate with regard to the truth about man.”
— Pope Francis
Querida Amazonia 37
(quoting St. John Paul II
in Centesimus Annus)
A culture that exists only to perpetuate itself, that desperately clings to vestiges of its former glory, is not a culture at all. Watching the Catholic Church mount a defense of the symbols of the Judeo-Christian heritage of the United States, especially those whose actions cause others pain even today, is alternately endearing and troubling. It is endearing because it suggests that there are still some people who strive to honor the examples set by the best of us: the saints. It is troubling because history shows that it is traditionally the losers of wars that see their statues brought down. Decades ago, Christians took the culture wars to the front lines of our political discourse, and we thought we would win hearts and minds; instead, we dug our trenches so deep that they collapsed in on us.
Statues are not living things, which makes the uproar over their destruction especially fascinating. Tearing them down causes us no real harm. But when we are told that the statues of saints must come down, this suggests no statue is immune from this cultural leveling, which is perpetrated by those seeking to eradicate all reminders that humanity has been infected by the evil of sin. We can begin with the obvious, those who defended evil causes, fought in unjust wars, or discriminated against others. Then, we can progress to other symbols of men and women who perpetuated, in any way, sin and privilege in society. Once we are cleansed of our collective sins, perhaps, we can begin anew.
But unfortunately, we will soon discover that the project of purification is never-ending. In the pursuit of removing even more external manifestations of sin from our society, we will eventually find ourselves removing—“canceling”—each other, as we hear and see so often today. This inevitably metastasizes into the cancellation of whole groups, whole cultures, whole races, whole religions, and—ultimately—ourselves. It won’t stop until everything has been stripped of meaning and, consequently, offense.
Statues represent many different things to people, but they always express something. This is more than we can say about the lifeless uniformity that lies at the end of iconoclasm. Nevertheless, it is unrealistic to expect that what statues represent to those who erect them will correspond to what they represent to others in a different time and culture. We put statues of ancient gods and goddesses in museums so we can admire the artistry and appreciate their historical value; we certainly don’t attach any religious feelings to them. Approached in this way, the uproar over the statues of Saint Junipero Serra and Saint Louis IX are also emblematic of the way Western culture has moved away from the timeless examples of these saints. The Apotheosis of St. Louis is only a few feet away from the St. Louis Art Museum; perhaps Catholics would be comforted if it were moved inside where it would be safe and cared for.
Statues, like architectural styles, can be used to measure the sensibilities of people in every age. The cathedrals of the Baroque era appear ostentatious and gaudy to a modern eye, while contemporary white-washed churches are abominations to traditionalists who prefer the Gothic style. The point is not that one style is better than another (though maybe the “Baroque Machine” really was a bad idea), but rather to demonstrate that all Catholics can recognize the inherent sacredness of what occurs within the “dead stones” of a church building. Much more than a metaphor, the dead stones of our churches are an image of the Church itself, God’s temple, which is built from living stones. Although they vary greatly in appearance, each Catholic church is solemnly consecrated and set aside for the celebration of the divine mysteries. No matter how strongly we Catholics might squabble over architectural styles, we respect the inherent sacredness of a church building and strive to make the style reflect the substance.
In a similar way, statues are built from “dead stones” to symbolize an aspect of our culture, while we are the living stones upon which they stand. Without living stones to support them, the dead stones bear no cultural weight. Because Christians have failed to follow in the virtues of the saints whom we memorialized when we erected these statues, it should not surprise us that our communities come to put our dead statues to rest. The substance has withered, and all that remains are stylized fossils.
What is the purpose of defending statues and lamenting their destruction if the world they watch over has no foundation for accepting and appreciating them? To defend statues properly, one must first work to build up the culture of love in aspiration of which they were originally erected. Otherwise, they become nothing but monuments to the collective failings of the Church. We deserve to have our statues torn down, if only so that the Lord can build a living house within us instead (1 Peter 2:4-6). As Pope Francis said this week in his homily on the Solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul, “Just as the Lord turned Simon into Peter, so he is calling each one of us, in order to make us living stones with which to build a renewed Church and a renewed humanity.”
In the Gospel, Jesus reminds us several times that evil co-exists with good in this world. Along these lines—and perhaps anticipating “cancel culture”— Alexander Solzhenitsyn famously said, “If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.”
The answer to the problem of evil cannot be found “out there,” as if evil were something easy to isolate and destroy, and it will not be solved by protecting or tearing down every statue of a sinful person. Each of us must respond to God’s call to holiness by tearing down the structures of sin we carry inside ourselves.
As Francis writes in Querida Amazonia, this entails caring for our roots, learning lessons from the past, and growing in the hope that sustained our ancestors. A theme he repeats throughout the exhortation is the warning that when we fail to take care of our roots and fall prey to individualism, our culture fragments. This observation seems especially poignant today in American society.
Roots are living things, in contrast to dead stones. They are what give us our identity and strength for the future. Francis warns us, however, not to confuse identity with security. The more we try to protect ourselves from “outside” influences—building upon dead stones—the more surely we put our own culture into a death spiral. Francis writes, “Identity and dialogue are not enemies. Our own cultural identity is strengthened and enriched as a result of dialogue with those unlike ourselves” (QA 37).
If we as the Church in the United States are to grow in holiness, we have an obligation to enter into dialogue with all cultures—especially those outside of the white European experience. This is the way that all can be enriched, learn from each other, ask for forgiveness and begin to forgive. By being transformed into living stones by the grace of God, we ourselves become memorials of a shared history and the foundation for future generations, rooted in faith and love of Christ.