Iconoclasm

09-03-2017Fr. John LettersFr. John Bonavitacola

Dear Friends,

Iconoclasm – the destruction of images or hostility towards visual representations in general - has come to Marin County. San Domenico Catholic School in San Anselmo, CA, has decided to remove many of the statues that graced its campus so as to create a less “in-your-face” Catholic environment. Now to be fair, you can make a case for toning things down in service of a subtler evangelization effort. This can be a workable strategy, especially if the clientele is not familiar with Catholic devotional practices, and you want to gently begin the process of evangelization. But that does not seem to be the case here. The school also removed the word “Catholic” from its mission statement and made the school uniforms “less Catholic” in appearance. The school has simply lost its reason for being. It apparently wants to be a high end (tuition is $30k+) all-inclusive school “in the Catholic tradition.” So be it. But the school should be honest to its students and families that it is no longer part of the educational ministry of the Church and that it is not interested in forming young minds and hearts to be faithful followers of Jesus Christ.

Speaking of Iconoclasm, we are seeing lots of it lately. The Church went through its own iconoclastic controversies in the 7th and 8th centuries. Iconoclasm rocked the Church for about one hundred years at the time of the Byzantine Empire. The exact causes of it are unclear, but the consequences were tremendous social, cultural, and political upheaval. The Emperor at the time, Leo III, took a position against icons and other images, which resulted in their removal from churches. The end result was pretty much civil war, with the Emperor and his supporters fighting against many patriarchs, bishops, and clergy who defended icons. Two of the more stalwart defenders of icons were St. John Damascene and St. Theodore the Studite. Eventually, things calmed down, and the theological foundation for icons was firmed up, and icons were restored to Churches. St. John Damascene taught that an icon was a visible representation of a concrete person, in this case, Jesus Christ. God becomes visible as a person, and thus an icon is proof of his incarnation (as St. Paul stated: Jesus Christ is the visible image of the invisible God). We cannot depict divinity since it is invisible, and any attempt to do so would be a false image of a false god and this idolatry. But the fact that Christ can be depicted witnesses to God’s incarnation.

In the meantime, we are currently engaged in our own secular iconoclastic controversy as we see Confederate Civil War monuments torn down. The fact is that during times of civil unrest and political turmoil, statues and symbols of the past become targets. It is really not all that surprising. Remember how we all cheered when we watched the Iraqi’s tear down a statue of Saddam Hussein? Or Russians pull down the figure of Stalin? Or Berliners tear down the wall? It is all part of the way in which a society works out its tensions and, hopefully with good leadership, restores its balance. Having been born north of the Mason-Dixon Line, I admit I have always been a bit perplexed by Confederate symbols. I recall the first time as a boy I went South on a family vacation. I remember seeing the Confederate flag flying and asked my father why they were flying it and not the US flag. He simply said, “because it means something to these people.” And because they carry meaning, both positive and negative, these symbols also carry with them intense emotions and, as we are currently seeing, rather explosive confrontations.

But as the Iconoclastic Controversies of the 7th and 8th centuries show, things can get rather nasty for a time. It does look like we are engaged in a cultural civil war of sorts. The issue, of course, in the end, is not the statue or monument but what we want our society (or Catholic School) to look like going forward. Now that is something to give serious consideration and prayer.

For now, each of us is being given an opportunity to be a sign of hope to those around. That hope is represented by the image of Jesus Christ who heals every division and brings peace which the world cannot give.

Love, Fr. John B.

PS Texas needs our help. You can donate to: Catholic Charities: www.CatholicCharities.org/helpforharvey  or St. Vincent de Paul: www.svdphouston.org/services/disaster-relief 

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