December 20, 2021

Dear Members of the University Community,

At Christmas we celebrate a central mystery of our faith – that God became man and dwelt among us. But the reverse is not true: man cannot aspire to become God.

This was the principal criticism of the “Mama” icon by Kelly Latimore, which had been displayed outside the chapel of our Law School since last February. A news outlet last month raised the question of whether the work sought to replace Jesus Christ with George Floyd, who was tragically murdered in Minnesota, in the artist’s version of the Pietà.

Some critics thought that the identity of the male figure was at best ambiguous. Many saw the figure in the arms of Our Lady as a divinized George Floyd. This interpretation led to accusations that the work was blasphemous, something that is contrary to the respect due God and his holy name. Defenders of the work said it was meant to provoke thought about seeing Christ in the most distressed among us. Regardless of your interpretation, it created needless controversy and confusion, for which I am sorry.

The controversy has, however, invited us to consider an important issue. How we depict Christ in art matters. It should reflect what we believe about God, and our relationship with Him.

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. This is unacceptable behavior in any community; doubly so in an academic one. We are actively investigating the thefts with the help of local authorities. Anyone with information should contact the Department of Public Safety.

In the meantime the wall outside the Law School chapel will remain blank while we think about a replacement. We will share additional details in the weeks to come, and we continue to encourage our students, faculty, and staff to engage in thoughtful dialogue about the role art plays in our faith and culture.

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.

I have also asked our School of Theology and Religious Studies to organize a conference early next spring to explore the topic of sacred art and inculturation. 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.

Despite these setbacks, our intention remains this: we are striving to be a community that makes people of all races, cultures, and nations feel welcome. The Catholic University of America is a faithfully Catholic university that is proud of its heritage, and eager to welcome all who seek a Catholic University education.


John Garvey