Rupnik’s Art: A Response to Ruffini

Rome’s reputation is more important than promoting the works of a questionable artist

Catholic World Report carries an article about Paolo Ruffini, the Prefect of the Dicastery for Communications, who recently made a spirited defense of the Vatican’s ongoing use of Marko Rupnik’s art. His apologia came in remarks to press at the Catholic Media Conference in Atlanta June 21. According to the report (June 22, by Christopher R. Altieri; article link here), Ruffini differentiated l’affaire Rupnik by saying, “We’re not talking about abuse of minors.” He questioned — seemingly thrice — whether not using Rupnik’s art would make us “more close [sic] to the victims.” He noted that the Jesuits had not removed Rupnik’s works from their generalate’s chapel, something he supposedly thinks is “inspiring.” He then appeared to invoke the Francis dodge: “Who am I to judge the Rupnik stories?”

Assuming the remarks are authentic, where does one start in response?

It wasn’t minors. Regarding the sexual behavior of a professed member of a religious order, that’s a particularly low bar. Does one have to attain to pederasty to trigger Ruffini’s reaction? “Well, X didn’t bugger a little boy, after all!” doesn’t seem much of an argument.

The alleged victims were female religious. It is the Church’s responsibility to protect its religious, especially women religious and seminarians. It needs especially to guard them in subordinate relationships, such as those involving a confessor or spiritual director. Rupnik’s “trinitarian” trysts were supposedly part of  his spiritual “guidance.” Rupnik was already convicted by Rome of abusing his role as a confessor by absolving someone he victimized. Who waived that penalty? The Church’s job is to protect its religious from wolves, even when the wolves happen to be papal jesuitical pets. Francesco, unlike his namesake, seems to be less about taming wolves than exporting them.

Does anybody in Rome wonder why vocations are plummeting? If this is how Rome would protect my daughter if she entered a religious order, you can understand why I would tell her to reconsider entering religious life, at least as long as Rome’s current “shepherds guarding the sheepfold” are in place. If I say that as a Catholic theologian, what does Signor Ruffini think ordinary Catholic parents are telling their children?

Closer to victims? Would not using Rupnik’s art signal empathy, if not solidarity, with his victims? Do we really have to ask and answer that question — apparently three times over — for Dr. Ruffini? Yes, it would. Yes, it would send the message that what these women allege is taken very seriously and, pending that outcome, we stand with victims. Rupnik has his defense counsel. Earth to Ruffini: it’s not you.

It’s not, after all, that without Rupnik Rome would be lacking in artwork and have to resort to crayon doodles (like, for example, Synod organizers). Last time I checked, Rome has a pretty ample collection of sacred art, even modern sacred art. There are other modern Catholic artists to whom Ruffini’s people could offer exposure.

Let me give an example. From 2020-23 I wrote a weekly column, the “Gospels and Art,” for the U.S. National Catholic Register. While the primary purpose of the series was theological commentary, I illustrated each week’s Gospel with a work of art about which I included remarks. Most of the artwork was classic, but I did include examples of modern art I found relevant (see here, here, and here). Feature those instead!

If you want Eastern influences, take a trip to Poland, where you’ll find Catholic artists breathing with both lungs of the Church. The Academic Church of the Catholic University of Lublin illustrates that. (Note the side walls, shown here) Eastern influences in Christian art are not limited to Marko Rupnik and his depicted figures with dilated ET eyes.

Still in the Jesuit’s chapel. Well, Rupnik’s art may still be in the Jesuits’ chapel, but Rupnik isn’t in the Jesuits. And please don’t engage in jesuitical argumentation that he was not dismissed over his sexual crimes. They weren’t addressed because Rome at first did not want to waive the statute of limitations, then did. So, as far as that matter is concerned, who are you to judge what tomorrow’s motu proprio of the day might bring?

Back to the chapel: Obviously, removing art permanently affixed somewhere is a more involved and expensive job than not reproducing it further in publications or digital media. And, despite the costs, there are chapels and churches planning on its removal. By the way, speaking of costs: Is the Vatican paying any honoraria or other fees to Rupnik for use or reproduction of his work? To the Centro Aletti?

One of the issues not addressed here is contemporaneity. Yes, Caravaggio was a murderer. But, after half a millennium, his work and his person have become somewhat separate. Furthermore, none of his victims are visiting the Vatican Museum or subscribing to digital liturgical calendars. If, after 500 years, people find Rupnik’s art still lasting, Ruffini’s and my great (times 20) grandchildren can talk. Until then, solidarity with today’s victims should take “inspiring” priority.

Who am I to judge? The current global bout of sexual abuse on the part of churchmen has changed the equation. The Church needs to stand with victims, not victimizers. The Church also needs to appear to stand with victims, not victimizers. A real “expert” in communications and public relations would understand that without being told.

In any event, this is not so much about “judging” as about recognizing there is a grave issue at stake here where Rome’s reputation is more important than promoting the works of a questionable artist when it has alternatives. To pretend otherwise is to feign a naivete hardly becoming of an adult.

Rome has shown an uncanny ability to pursue “expedited” canonical processes when it wants to (albeit at 3:30 pm, after waking up from sancta siesta). Why is it dragging its feet on l’affaire Rupnik? Justice delayed is justice denied. With this kind of approach to victims, does signor Ruffini think non-Catholics are going to be swimming the Tiber to the Church? More likely they’ll be jumping its bridges to drown.


John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) was former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. All views expressed herein are exclusively his.

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