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'Needless controversy and confusion': CUA president cancels George Floyd icon following second theft

CUA's president John Garvey has changed course, all but precluding the possibility of a third George Floyd icon being installed at the school following right-wing controversy.

President John Garvey of the Catholic University of America has responded to the latest theft of an icon on campus evoking George Floyd, the latest in a string of racist incidents at America's national Catholic University.

His correspondence came via email to the university community on Monday morning, directly addressing criticisms of the Mama icon created by NYC-based artist Kelly Latimore.

“Unfortunately, as the campus community was debating the merits and meaning of this particular work, the original version and a subsequent smaller version were stolen,” Garvey said, calling the act “unacceptable” without referring to it as a crime or racially-motivated act.

He did, however, apologize for the icon being installed at all, referring to its recent fallout as “needless controversy and confusion”.

Criticism of the icon—installed in February at CUA’s Columbus School of Law—emerged late last month after conservative media reports stoked fears of idolatry and liberalization, quoting students and alumni who opposed the idea that George Floyd, a Black man, should be in any way equated with Christ.

As the controversy raged online and elsewhere, the university removed from its website the details of the piece’s installation, just hours before the icon was stolen from its place outside the law school chapel. A replacement image was also stolen earlier this month.

The crimes have yet to be solved, per Garvey’s latest letter, and he confirmed therein that the university is working with local police. (The second icon had been guarded by campus security, but it is not clear if security camera footage of either theft was captured.)

Mama (Kelly Latimore)

A student government resolution passed on December 6th, masterminded by students opposed to the icon, had demanded that the icon be removed and replaced with “non-political and uncontroversial” African-American art.

Subsequent reports have indicated that the resolution was originally drafted before the second theft (alleged to have occurred on December 5th), but later modified after the crime, before a vote was taken. The extant copy of the resolution, however, reflects no such changes.

In any case, the SGA’s constituency does not include the law school, and Garvey stated as early as November 24th—after the first theft—that his administration's “no cancellation” policy precludes its censoring of the icon on ideological grounds.

His letter this week, however, displays a markedly different sentiment, echoing the language of the undergraduates’ resolution and suggesting that a different, milder image will be the next to grace the outer wall of the Mary, Mirror of Justice Chapel.

“Man cannot aspire to become God,” it reads in its opening lines, referring to the idea that George Floyd should be represented in any way through an icon of Jesus Christ.

“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.”

His newly theological take on the icon has brought criticism from at least one prominent CUA graduate student, who studies in the School of Canon Law.

Garvey says the place of the former icon “will remain blank” for the time being, and that more details can be expected in the coming weeks.

He also says that the university’s School of Theology and Religious Studies—an all-White department containing a number of controversially conservative figures—will organize a conference on “sacred art and inculturation” to be held during the spring semester.

“We will invite experts to discuss with our community the issues surrounding the creation of artwork that is both culturally relevant and faithful to tenets of our faith.”

For students opposed to the new line of reasoning from Garvey, it appears that such a conference will not be enough to address the underlying issues at a university not even 70 years removed from segregation.

Nate Tinner-Williams is co-founder and editor of Black Catholic Messenger, a seminarian with the Josephites, and a ThM student with the Institute for Black Catholic Studies at Xavier University of Louisiana (XULA).

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