What Is the Vatican Trying to Say About Father Rupnik’s Art?

EDITORIAL: The Dicastery for Communication’s conspicuous use of the priest’s art, and its recent defense by the dicastery’s prefect, appears as shockingly tone-deaf.

Dr. Paolo Ruffini speaks during a Synod briefing on October 11, 2023. The Prefect of the Holy See's Dicastery for Communication spoke last week during the Catholic Media Association conference on June 21, 2024.
Dr. Paolo Ruffini speaks during a Synod briefing on October 11, 2023. The Prefect of the Holy See's Dicastery for Communication spoke last week during the Catholic Media Association conference on June 21, 2024. (photo: Daniel Ibáñez / EWTN News)

It was quite a coup for the Catholic Media Association to land the head of the Vatican’s communications office to deliver a keynote address during the organization’s annual conference in Atlanta last week.

In hindsight, Paolo Ruffini may wish he had stayed in Rome.

Speaking at a luncheon on June 21 sponsored by EWTN, the prefect of the Dicastery for Communication offered a well-received reflection on using Catholic media as a tool for accompanying others, building bridges and fostering communion.

“Changing the narrative towards hope, recognizing the dynamism of good, setting hearts ablaze and orienting them towards communion, witnessing a different type of storytelling, which is generative and creative,” he said, “this is the way to spread the Good News and to give a Christian interpretation to anything that happens in the world.”

Afterward, though, Ruffini opened the floor to questions, and the atmosphere in the room turned decidedly less congenial.

Ruffini seemed caught off guard when journalists from America magazine and OSV News began asking pointed questions about why his office repeatedly features the artwork of disgraced mosaic creator Father Marko Rupnik on its website and in its social-media posts. 

What message, they asked, does this send to Father Rupnik’s alleged victims?

Ruffini offered a variety of answers, all of which fell flat.

He said, for instance, that the dicastery hadn’t featured any “new” works by Father Rupnik, only those it already had in its files. But what difference does that make?

He mentioned Caravaggio (1571-1610), who killed a man. But Caravaggio is long dead, and his crime had nothing to do with his art. In contrast, Father Rupnik’s alleged victims say his artistic creations are intrinsically linked to his manipulations.

Father Rupnik, who has been excommunicated once and dismissed from the Jesuit order, has been accused by some 30 women of serial sexual and psychological abuse in his role as the spiritual director for a community of women religious in his native Slovenia. Ruffini suggested the “Christian” thing to do was to withhold judgment on Father Rupnik and his art until the Vatican’s Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith concludes its investigation. 

“Who am I to judge?” Ruffini said to the disbelief of scores of journalists in the room.

Lastly, Ruffini pushed back on the suggestion that not featuring Father Rupnik’s art would be of any benefit to his alleged victims.

“I think that, as Christians, we have to understand that the closeness to the victims is important, but I don’t know that this is the way of healing: again and again talking about this problem of art that is healing others maybe, I don’t know, but maybe, yes. Maybe yes. There are people that are praying in sanctuaries of many churches all around the world” in front of Father Rupnik’s mosaics.

“I don’t think we have to throw stones thinking that this is the way of healing something,” he continued. “This is not the way to be close to the victims. Do you think that if I pull away a photo of art from my website, our website, I would be more close to victims? Do you think so? Really, do you think so?”

When the reporter from OSV News said she did think so, Ruffini responded, “Well, I think you’re wrong. I think you are wrong. I really think you are wrong.”

“Removing, deleting, destroying art does not ever mean a good choice,” he said. “This is not a Christian response.”

In all due respect to Ruffini, who is a veteran journalist and communications expert, we disagree with his view of the situation.

The dicastery’s conspicuous use of Father Rupnik’s art, whatever the motivations inside the Vatican, appears to the outside world as shockingly tone-deaf and indefensible in light of the Church’s long struggle with the sexual-abuse crisis, including the abuse of adults.

We have editorialized here that churches, shrines and other Catholic institutions that possess Father Rupnik’s art needn’t wait for his case to be adjudicated to render a judgment on his art. Do his mosaics lift hearts and minds to God, as they may once have done, or not? If it’s the latter, then why publicly display them if doing so gives rise to scandal?

Not everyone agrees with that view, but that part of the debate over Father Rupnik’s public installations has little bearing on the questions Ruffini was asked.

After all, it’s no great logistical hardship for the communications dicastery to stop using Father Rupnik’s works. As record numbers of American tourists are discovering for themselves this summer, one thing the Catholic Church does not lack is a treasury of magnificent sacred art. With the click of a mouse, Ruffini’s staff can presumably access masterpieces by Michelangelo, Raphael, Bernini, da Vinci — the list goes on and on.

Deciding to feature other artists communicates nothing whatsoever about Father Rupnik’s guilt or innocence. Repeatedly choosing to promote his art, on the other hand, suggests to many that the dicastery is trying to send some kind of message.

This begs another pointed question: Can the Vatican get anything right when it comes to Father Marko Rupnik?