Emboldened NM Catholics Lash Out

By Floyd Vasquez, 5/8/2001

By now most of you have heard about the "Our Lady" controversy here in New Mexico. The International Museum of Folk Art in Santa Fe is exhibiting Cyber Arte with "computer-inspired work by contemporary Hispana/Chicana/Latina artists, all of who intentionally combine elements traditionally defined as 'folk' with current computer technology to create a new aesthetic."

This is Our Lady by Alma Lopez. It's the Virgin standing tall with her hands on her hips. She's wearing what resembles a two-piece bathing suit covered with flowers, and a cape. The Virgin's demeanor is what.. Strong? Confident? Natural? Athletic? Friendly?

Not so says Archbishop Michael Sheehan and other indignant Catholic leaders here in NM. They are outraged and have undertaken an ambitious effort to shame the museum, to demand that the work be removed and to force the state's museum curators to apologize. No joke.

If there was actual or implied sexual content or some other obvious viciously anti-Catholic subtext then we might have a community standards debate. But that's not the case here. The artist herself is a practicing Catholic who apparently chooses to believe that Our Lady was a real woman with an extraordinary purpose and likely imbued by the Creator with the personal, moral and intellectual resources to raise the son of God. Is showing this woman in a non-traditional garment, standing upright with her hands on her hips and a confident visage so morally repugnant no NM tax payer should be permitted to view it and think about its meaning in a public museum? You would think the answer was obviously "No." But that hasn't stopped numerous indignant, self-righteous protesters from reacting like the image was a money-shot from a hardcore porno movie produced by the Devil himself.

The issue here is perspective. Is this so-called "offense" commensurate with the public response of the church? When the Vatican released information recently confirming that some number of Priests throughout the world have been raping nuns, and in some cases, forcing them to have abortions, did Archbishop Michael Sheehan and every local church leader in NM issue a press releases to signal their disapproval? Did they demand apologies from the sexual offender/priests? When James Porter, a former NM priest serving a prison term for sexual crimes against NM children came before a parole board recently, did the NM Catholic leadership request all public records, notes and emails concerning opinions expressed in the case? New Mexicans can remember for themselves how the church dealt with the situation concerning the former NM Archbishop when he resigned over allegations of inappropriate sexual relationships with parishoners who went to him for spiritual guidance. Suffice it to say the church made no public demands for an apology from the former Archbishop nor organized any photo opportunities in support of the abused women.

My question is why do major (not to mention blashphemous) problems affecting the church and society at large go unmentioned by the Catholic leadership and yet when something as tame as Our Lady enters the scene they declare a Holy War? Is the church responding to a perceived new national climate where local religious groups are emboldened to seize control of public institutions? Is it an attempt to rally the flock against a common "enemy"? To divert attention from internal problems? Or maybe its simply a case of misguided hubris.

If you are a Catholic and still reading this, please accept my apology if this article is making you uncomfortable. It is difficult for all of us to question our beliefs and our leaders. It is not my view that Catholics and other religious groups can't believe what they want. I'm just trying to point out that some folks here in NM are getting wildly ambitious about imposing their views on others. If it pains ANYONE to see a non-traditional artistic portrayal of the Virgin Mary where the heavenly mother is not in an officially sanctioned pose nor garment, they should not drive to the International Folk Art Museum in Santa Fe, pay the admission price, and then walk to the clearly marked area where it is displayed.

Let's hope this impudent public display of religious zealotry is not a sign of things to come here in New Mexico or anywhere where religious leaders currently do not set nor control the public agenda.