In our Catholic faith, some images — crucifixes, icons, and statues — are sacramentals. They are intended to assist us in deepening our prayer and often arise from the piety and devotion of the faithful in a particular place. One thinks of a statue of a parish’s patron saint or of the image of St. Kateri at Sts. Mary and Joseph in Sawyer, and countless other examples.
In secular life, public monuments aren’t exactly like that, but they’re often something akin to it. They are a public expression of what some community values, whether that community be a city or state or a sports team or some other entity. The processes may be murky and full of mixed motives, but despite that, it’s difficult to put one up without broad support and the investment of treasure and talent. It’s done with thought and care. They don’t go up by accident.
Such decisions are manifestly not always right. Sometimes monuments are divisive even before they’re erected. Sometimes in the history of fallen humanity they are erected in honor of odious causes or individuals, and we look back at them with shame and wish to make reparation for past evils. Sometimes communities simply change or forget and no longer find a monument meaningful any more.
For these reasons and more, communities may decide to take a monument down, replace it, modify it, or move it.
But that’s how it ought to be done — with the same level of reflection and through a community process, not by a mob. There is always something revolutionary about a mob tearing down a monument, even an unworthy one, because it is an expression of contempt not only for the subject of the monument but for the community that put it there.
The life of a community necessarily involves sometimes reckoning with and reevaluating the past. Certainly our nation’s tragic flaw, the grotesque evil of slavery and its legacy of pervasive racial injustice that is still with us, is a prime example. Ongoing self-critical reflection by our communities is warranted and necessary. Reconsidering public statues and place names in a true conversation can and should be part of that.
A mob arrogating to itself the right to decide what public momuments will stand is not that conversation. That’s all the more so when the monuments being destroyed involve Jesus and the saints and amount to public blasphemy and religious bigotry.