City beautiful (and religious): DC statues include Catholics

August 9, 2010

Artfully

A statue of Cardinal James Gibbons is seen through the trees in a small public plaza in Washington Aug. 6. The son of Irish immigrants, Cardinal Gibbons served as archbishop of Baltimore from 1877 until his death in 1921. He wrote the popular treatise "T he Faith of Our Fathers," a defense of the Catholic faith. (CNS photo/Nancy Wiechec)

A statue of Cardinal James Gibbons is seen through the trees in a small public plaza in Washington Aug. 6. The son of Irish immigrants, Cardinal Gibbons served as archbishop of Baltimore from 1877 until his death in 1921. He wrote the popular treatise "T he Faith of Our Fathers," a defense of the Catholic faith. (CNS photo/Nancy Wiechec)

Funny today, when, after spending my weekend paging through stacks of books on the relationship between two American Catholic monuments and their role in their civic societies that Catholic New Service would feature this story.

It looks at the statues and symbols of Catholicism scattered around Washington, D.C., like the statues of St. Damien de Veuster and Blessed Junipero Serra, who symbolize Hawaii and California, respectfully, in the Capitol’s National Statuary Hall.

The story focuses on the role of Knights of Columbus played in creating Catholic institutions of learning and worship, like Catholic University of America’s Columbus School of Law and the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.

However it also addresses the role of religious art in DC broadly. The writer interviewed Father Eugene Hemirck, who published “One Nation Under God” in 2001 on the religious symbolism found in Washington, D.C. (It’s already on my Amazon wish list.) The story goes on to say:

There are all kinds of religious symbols integrated in the art, architecture and statues in the capital, according to Father Hemrick.

“They are inscribed in halls, painted on ceilings, represented in wall panels, enshrined in lunettes, and pieced together in mosaics,” he wrote in his book.

When asked the motives people have for contributing to public memorials, he said sometimes it is to reconcile America’s past mistakes or to honor influential people who have helped shape our nation.

While this is certainly true, and it is also the case that many of America’s founders held Christian beliefs, and that the artists were Christians as well, this also points to the idea of civil religion, a sociological phenomenon best explained by Robert Bellah. In one of his famous essays, Bellah points out that although our nation’s founders often referred to God, or Providence, or the Creator, they never refer to Jesus Christ, even if they themselves were Christian. Unlike today, when such a generic term might be used so that Americans of non-Christian faiths do not feel discrimination, this was not the purpose of this rhetoric. Rather, the god described by our nation’s leaders from President Washington through JFK to this present day is one concerned with virtue, social action, and abiding by right law — and not so interested in mercy, compassion and meditative prayer. In sum, it’s a god who fits America’s progressive, active vision, which may be a distortion of the God who actually Is. Whether you buy it or not, Bellah’s a fascinating read.

Anyway, I’ve been spending quite a bit of time in D.C. these past months, and I plan be spending quite a bit more in the future, so I’ll have to be on the lookout for these religious representations as I go about town. The city was a forerunner in the City Beautiful movement, which promoted the building of classically inspired (European like) monuments as a means for encouraging citizens to act in a virtuous manner.

About Maria Wiering

Maria Wiering is editor of The Catholic Spirit.

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