I have told the story before in NZ Catholic of how I once tried to find the Catholic basilica in Geneva, only to arrive at St Peter’s Cathedral in the old city. One of the giveaways that this is now a Calvinist church was the absence of statues. Walk into most Catholic churches and there are statues here and there. Some, of the Virgin Mary, might have little votive candles burning in front of them.
According to The Catechism of the Catholic Church, the seventh ecumenical council at Nicaea (787AD) justified . . . the veneration of icons — of Christ, but also of the Mother of God, the angels, and all the saints. By becoming incarnate, the Son of God introduced a new ‘economy’ of images” (CCC 2131).
The catechism also notes that “Christian veneration of images is not contrary to the first commandment which proscribes idols”.
It states that “the honour rendered to an image passes to its prototype”, and “whoever venerates an image venerates the person portrayed in it”. The honour paid to sacred images is a “respectful veneration”, not the adoration due to God alone. (CCC 2132).
Statues have been in the news of late. Some significant statues in public places throughout the world have been subject to vandalism and/or removal, as strength of feeling about historic slave trading and colonialism and their ongoing impacts escalates.
Even the statue of Sir Winston Churchill outside the UK Houses of Parliament has had to be boarded up, so as to prevent damage. Churchill, some protestors state, was an imperialist racist and it is claimed his decisions led to millions of deaths in the Bengal famine in 1943.
But Churchill was also the man who emboldened Britain to stand alone in the dark days of 1940 and 1941 against Hitler and the Nazis. He played a large part in ensuring that names of infamy like Auschwitz-Birkenau, Chelmno, Sobibor, Majdanek, Treblinka and so on do not have English-sounding equivalents.
Churchill’s significance is not lost on historians like Sir Simon Schama, who is English and Jewish. This can be seen in the latter’s History of Britain series.
But even Sir Simon has recently argued that statues in public places do not serve the historical purpose often claimed for them.
In a June article in The Financial Times, he wrote that “statues are not history; rather, its opposite. History is argument; statues brook none”.
He said that opponents of the “de-pedestalisations” that have taken place argue that such actions “erase history”.
“But the contrary is true,” Sir Simon wrote. “It is more usually statues, lording it over civic space, which shut off debate, through their invitation to reverence.”
“Let them disappear, then,” he argued, “but not into canals, ponds or rubbish dumps, since arbitrary acts of destruction shut down debate quite as much as uncritical reverence.”
“Better, surely, to relocate them to museums where, properly curated, they can trigger genuine debate and historical education.”
Such actions have taken place in New Zealand. As historian Buddy Mikaere pointed out recently on Radio Waatea, the solution found by Gisborne artist Nick Tupara to get a statue of Captain Cook moved to the Tairawhiti Museum where it can be surrounded with explanatory material is to be applauded.
Mr Mikaere also noted that, in Tauranga Moana, mana whenua got around the problem by placing a depiction of General Duncan Cameron at the start of a line of pou in Pukehinahina at the site of the Battle of Gate Pa, where it could stimulate people to discover more.
I recall coming up from the underground station at Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate a few years ago and immediately seeing a display explaining the evils of the National Socialist era. Displays that put history in context – on whatever scale is appropriate – can be in civic spaces. But they can also be in other spaces if communities feel that is a better solution.
While debate is ongoing about statuary in civic spaces, are there any lessons for Catholic parishes and communities which do venerate statues? Well maybe one idea could be to have more extensive explanatory material in churches where there are statues – this could be on display or in pamphlets or even in QR codes linking to videos. And in this material, the fact that the saints had weaknesses and sinned – Our Lady, of course, excepted – should be included. That would really show the power of God’s grace and love in their lives – and would serve as an encouragement to us all.