bioethics, pop culture

Pope Art

Local philanthropist Joseph Pabst purchased a $25,000 piece of artwork by Wisconsin-native Niki Johnson and donated the piece to the Milwaukee Art Museum. It was recently unveiled to the fury of 14,000 petitioners who signed a petition for it not be on display. “I did not buy it because I thought it was beautiful,” he said in an interview to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “I bought it because I thought it was provocative and I thought it was important.”

The piece is called “Eggs Benedict” and is a likeness of Pope Benedict XVI made out of approximately 17,000 colored condoms. Johnson spent 3 years creating the piece after Pope Benedict’s 2009 visit to Africa, and she disagreed with his answer to solving the AIDS crisis.

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel writer Jim Stingl visited the piece on Monday, August 3, 2015. He wrote of the visit, “When Pope Benedict XVI visited Africa in 2009 and said condoms, a no-no for Catholics, were not helping stop the spread of AIDS and actually could be making it worse, he became fair game for commentary and criticism. He’s a man, not a god.” Contrary to Stingl’s assumption that “people inclined to get their brise soleil in a bundle over a pope’s image created by condoms would stay away,” I visited on August 6th, 2015.

My heart dropped as I saw the portrait. I did not find it provocative.  I was not stirred into a blind rage where I wanted to spray paint over the piece. I did not beg my fellow onlookers to join a prayer circle or sign a petition. On the contrary, I found it somberly beautiful.

I stood in silence, looking carefully at the condom face of Pope Benedict XVI. I ached inside as I thought of that humble servant of God. Pope Benedict XVI was preaching nothing new. Pope Benedict XVI said nothing wrong. Pope Benedict XVI was serving and loving the flock of God as best he could, and all he received was scorn.

What a beautiful example of the risks of authentic discipleship, the risks of truly rejecting the world and following the narrow path of faith.

All I could think of was Christ’s somber message about conditions of discipleship:

Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. What profit would there be for one to gain the whole world and forfeit his life? Or what can one give in exchange for his life? For the Son of Man will come with his angels in his Father’s glory, and then he will repay each according to his conduct. Amen, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in his Kingdom.

Matthew 16:24-28

Here was the mocking portrait of a humble man whose message was twisted and spit back in his face. Let’s not kid ourselves. The piece was never meant to spark a conversation. The piece is a direct insult, a sarcastic jeer, a slap in the face, an obvious attempt at humiliation.

Yet, I think it’s beautiful. The piece’s beauty did not lie in itself, however. No, the beauty of that piece of art is perfectly encapsulates Pope Benedict XVI as a disciple of Jesus, willingly bearing the insults, jeers, and humiliations that Christ Himself suffered throughout His ministry.

While Saint Pope John Paul II often enjoyed the the praises of secular media, Pope Benedict XVI bore its scorn. The media loves Pope Francis where it hated Pope Benedict XVI.

Yet, Pope Francis and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI share some commonalities (aside from, you know, their entire belief system and doctrine). It appears both Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis are horribly misquoted on planes. Remember Pope Francis’s famous, “Who am I to judge?” Misquote. Actual full quote?

“I think that when one meets a person like this, one must distinguish the fact of being a gay person from the fact of doing a lobby, because not all lobbies are good. That’s bad. If a person is gay and seeks the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge him? The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains this in such a beautiful way, it says, Wait a bit, as is said and says: “these persons must not be marginalized because of this; they must be integrated in society.” The problem isn’t having this tendency, no. We must be brothers, because this is one, but there are others, others. The problem is the lobbying of this tendency: lobby of the avaricious, lobby of politicians, lobby of Masons, so many lobbies. This, for me, is the more serious problem.”

– August 2, 2013, with full interview transcript found here

I think the two popes bond over bad plane journalism when they meet up from time to time. Oh, yes, that does happen. Papa Frank and retired Papa Benny hang out from time to time.

The media painted Benedict as pompous, inflexible, estranged from reality, dogmatic, and insensible (though many a person insist his media portrayal is inaccurate). Yet did you know that in that same famously misquoted August 2, 2013, interview, Pope Francis refers to Pope Benedict XVI as like a “grandfather,” and praises his humility, wisdom, prayerfulness, prudence, and obedience? Bit different from that media portrayal, eh?

I digress. Back to this condom portrait.

During the visit to Cameroon and Angola in 2009, Pope Benedict XVI visited with bishops, religious, churches, representatives of the Muslim community, civil authorities, youths, and the sick. He addressed many of the region’s issues including social welfare, corruption, the credit crisis, and the delicate relationship between the developing world and developed world.

During the flight to Cameroon, the first leg of the journey, Benedict addressed the questions of reporters around the world. A French reporter asked about AIDS. Benedict cited the ways the Church is assisting those sick with AIDS through the work of various Catholic communities. He said “the problem cannot be overcome by the distribution of prophylactics: on the contrary, they increase it.” He then exhorted the need for a human dimension to solve the problem of AIDS, namely, compassionately loving those who are stricken with AIDS and a greater responsibility to the body, especially when engaging in sexual relations.

Let’s look at the actual question and answer (which is found here):

Q. (Philippe Visseyrias from France) – Your Holiness, among the many ills that beset Africa, one of the most pressing is the spread of Aids. The position of the Catholic Church on the way to fight it is often considered unrealistic and ineffective. Will you address this theme during the journey? Holy Father, would you be able to respond in French to this question?

Leading question much there, Phillipe? “Your ideas are reportedly antiquated, old man. Tell me about that.” It’s like making a condom portrait of someone and then expecting to have a civil conversation about contraception and AIDS/HIV prevention.  (Oh, wait…)

Yet, Pope Benedict XVI responded with grace:

A. (Pope Benedict XVI) – I would say the opposite. I think that the most efficient, most truly present player in the fight against Aids is the Catholic Church herself, with her movements and her various organizations. I think of the Sant’Egidio community that does so much, visibly and also behind the scenes, in the struggle against Aids, I think of the Camillians, and so much more besides, I think of all the Sisters who take care of the sick. I would say that this problem of Aids cannot be overcome merely with money, necessary though it is. If there is no human dimension, if Africans do not help [by responsible behaviour], the problem cannot be overcome by the distribution of prophylactics: on the contrary, they increase it. The solution must have two elements: firstly, bringing out the human dimension of sexuality, that is to say a spiritual and human renewal that would bring with it a new way of behaving towards others, and secondly, true friendship offered above all to those who are suffering, a willingness to make sacrifices and to practise self-denial, to be alongside the suffering. And so these are the factors that help and that lead to real progress: our twofold effort to renew humanity inwardly, to give spiritual and human strength for proper conduct towards our bodies and those of others, and this capacity to suffer with those who are suffering, to remain present in situations of trial. It seems to me that this is the proper response, and the Church does this, thereby offering an enormous and important contribution. We thank all who do so.

I take away from this answer that the Church takes AIDS very seriously and is working to help the situation.

The media said otherwise and had a field day. The Guardian screamed “Pope claims condoms could make African Aids crisis worse.” CNN hailed “Pope visits Africa, reaffirms ban on condoms.” BBC headlined “Pope tells Africa ‘condoms wrong.’ “ I imagine Niki Johnson stewed as she read about an old man judgmentally waving his arthritic better-than-thou finger at the 35 million people who suffer from AIDS. 

I understand. I too am stewing as I write, thinking of how someone I deeply admire and respect has been humiliated, thinking of how my own beliefs are being mocked second hand, thinking of how little authentic religious belief is respected.

Ok, Stingl, Johnson, Pabst, and people who think making a condom portrait out of someone many people deeply respect is a great way to spark a civil conversation about AIDS, let’s talk. I’ll try to keep my sarcasm to a minimum. I apologize in advance. I don’t have the grace and wisdom of my dear Papa Benny.

First of all, let’s examine the science a little.

Behavior modification is a legitimate and proven strategy in HIV/AIDS prevention.

Delay of age of first intercourse and reduction in the number of partners has been repeatedly proven in reducing the likelihood of contracting HIV/AIDS. UNAIDS estimates Zimbabwe’s prevalence of AIDS among the general population was 15.6% in 2007. A large amount of the population, yes, but that’s down from 26.5% in 2001 in part due to mortality (people dying of the disease) but also in part due to behavior modification.

Ok, ok. Zimbabwe’s behavior modification also included condom use. But what about Uganda? Uganda saw a huge decrease in the prevalence of AIDS after programs aimed at just reducing casual sexual relationships. Casual sex rates dropped by 60%. AIDS prevalence fell by 70% since the early 1990s. Condom use was not promoted and not even a main pillar of the program.

Too, condoms are highly effective, but they’re not perfect. According to a Cochrane review from the World Health Organization (basically the best of the best available), in HIV/AIDS transmission prevention in heterosexual couples, condoms reduced the prevalence of transmission by 80%. Only 80% when consistently using a condom. And the WHO suggests using condoms in addition to behavior modifications such as reducing the number of sexual partners and delaying age of first intercourse in preventing the transmission of HIV/AIDS.

OK, ok, but that’s Africa. What about the developed world? Surely, our condoms are better and our education programs more thorough!

So glad you asked. In the January 2008 edition of the British Medical Journal (a very well-regarded medical journal), Clinical Professor in the Faculty of Medicine and Dentistry at the University of Alberta Stephen J. Genuis said,

“The relentless rise of sexually transmitted infection in the face of unprecedented education about and promotion of condoms is testament to the lack of success of this approach. In numerous large studies, concerted efforts to promote use of condoms has consistently failed to control rates of sexually transmitted infection—even in countries with advanced sex education programmes such as Canada, Sweden, and Switzerland. In my home province of Alberta, rates of chlamydia and gonorrhoea have tripled since 1998 despite ubiquitous “safer sex” education. The ongoing assertion that condoms are “the” answer to this escalating pandemic reminds me of Einstein’s words, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” ”

– Stephen J. Genuis, “Are condoms the answer to rising rates of non-HIV sexually transmitted infection? No.”

Behavior modification, like it or not, convenient or not, is essential for reducing the spread of sexually transmitted diseases and infections.

Scientifically, Pope Benedict XVI was correct. 

Second of all, let’s examine Church teaching on contraception.

Was Pope Benedict being stubborn, inflexible, etc. like the media portrayed him? Nope. Here’s just a snapshot of others popes’ teachings on contraception:

Pope Francis:

 “We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods. The teaching of the church is clear, and I am a son of the church, but it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time.”

– September 30, 2013, in America Magazine

Pope John Paul II:

“I myself today, with the same conviction of Paul VI, ratify the teaching of this encyclical [Humanae Vitae], which was put forth by my Predecessor [Pope Paul VI] by virtue of the mandate entrusted to us by Christ.”

– October 8, 1979, to the bishops of Episcopal Conference of the U.S. in Chicago

Pope Paul VI on July 25, 1968 in Humanae Vitae describes the four essential elements of intercourse as being fully human, total, faithful, and fecund (or fruitful). Fruitful does not mean that for sex in marriage to be true, good, and beautiful that a baby has to pop out 9 months later every single time. It just means an openness to an outpouring of love in the form of children (HV 9). Too, Pope Paul VI advocates for “responsible parenthood” in being aware of natural fertility and occasionally abstaining from intercourse when both husband and wife are fertile if having additional children is not prudent (HV 10). Keep in mind, men are always fertile. Woman are fertile for a small window each cycle.

While artisti Nikki Johnson is quoted as saying that condoms are “a material of intimacy,”  “a material of love,” the Catholic Church says condoms hold partners back from one another. For intercourse to be complete, it must be total. It must be one giving herself mind, body, soul to her husband. It must be one giving himself weaknesses, failures, accomplishments, everything to his wife. It must be two people, committed to each other for life, no matter how easy or difficult that life together may be, giving their past, present, and future to each other.

Spiritually, Pope Benedict XVI was in line with what previous popes and the current pope has preached on contraception.

Church teaching on contraception is mighty clear, and the papal line has defended the Church’s teaching. Do all Catholics practice this teaching perfectly? No. Does that then mean Catholics who use contraception are not beloved children of God who and cannot call themselves Catholic? No

Newsflash: Everyone is a sinner, and we all struggle to perfectly follow Christ.

To quote Catholic writer Flannery O’Connor when she wrote her friend Cecil Dawkins.

“All your dissatisfaction with the Church seems to me to come from an incomplete understanding of sin. This will perhaps surprise you because you are very conscious of the sins of Catholics; however what you seem actually to demand is that the Church put the kingdom of heaven on earth right here now, that the Holy Ghost be translated at once into all flesh. You are asking that man return at once to the state God created him in…The Church is founded on Peter who denied Christ three times and couldn’t walk on the water by himself. You are expecting his successors to walk on the water. All human nature vigorously resists grace because grace changes us and the change is painful.”

Can I not call myself a Catholic Christian because I struggle with a particular sin? Can I not call myself a Catholic Christian because I stubbornly resist grace every stinking day? Can I not call myself a Catholic Christian because I fail? Can I not call myself a Catholic Christian because I cannot appreciate the beauty of the Church’s teachings on certain topics that I am not open to understanding yet?


The Catholic Church traces its papacy all the way back to Peter, Peter who denied Christ, Peter who sinned, Peter who ran away, Peter who almost drowned. The Catholic Church was founded by God, but it’s run by and filled with humble sinners like me.

The Catholic Church is not perfect nor are its members, but that does not mean that what it preaches is not true. 

James Madison Jr. was one of the founders of the United States and fought for freedom, yet he owned slaves at Montpelier. Martin Luther King Jr. preached an end to racism, yet he also had multiple affairs. John Lennon called for an end to violence and sang about an idealistic world without violence, yet he supported the Irish Republican Army and almost performed a show in Ireland to raise money for them.

Freedom is good. An end to racism would be good. An end to violence would also be good. Obviously the people who preached these messages were not perfect. People can be very hypocritical. I know I am! People are not perfect, but that does not mean the message of said person is not true.

The Church is full of sinners. Got it. Then why does the Church insist on this antiquated view on contraception? Don’t they know these young whippersnappers these days are just going to go with their urges? Basically, where is all this antiquated teaching coming from?

Birth control is nothing new, and the Church’s view on birth control is nothing new. What’s new is the humiliation. What’s new is the attacks. What’s new is weight of the cross of discipleship.

Remember Christ’s somber message about conditions of discipleship:

Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. 

Matthew 16:24

Crucifixion was the most humilitating, painful torture the Romans had. It was meant to scare others away from doing the same thing as the one hanging on the cross.

Yet Christ told His followers and tells us today that we must take up the cross. 

The cross means humiliation. The cross means shame. The cross means jeers. The cross means being striped naked. The cross means abandonment. The cross is uncomfortable.

Yet, as Pope Benedict XVI said, “The world offers you comfort. But you were not made for comfort. You were made for greatness.”

Despite its pains, the cross is a place of great love. The cross means loving anyway when no one loves you back. The cross means forgiving those who hurt you anyway even when they’re not sorry. The cross means giving away your life into the hands of the Father. The cross means sacrifice. 

All together, the cross is beautiful.

And Pope Benedict XVI knows the beauty of the cross.

Born Joseph Ratzinger in Bavaria, Germany, on April 16, 1927, his childhood was ravaged by increasing Nazi sentiments. He was mandated to join the Hitler Youth in 1941 while he was in seminary. In 1943, he was drafted even though he was a seminarian. While in service in the military, he witness Jewish Hungarians being sent to death camps. He deserted in April 1945 and was later captured by American soldiers and imprisoned for several months.

After the war, he returned to his studies. Ratzinger became a priest in 1951. After earning his doctorate, he became a professor of theology at various universities. During Vatican II from 1962-1965, Ratzinger served as chief theological expert to Cardinal Joseph Frings of Cologne, Germany. He co-founded the theological journal Communio, one of the most important journals of Catholic thought. Ratzinger, too, is said to be one of the most brilliant minds on Christianity in the world today.

Ratzinger was named archbishop of Munich and Freising in 1977 and appointed Cardinal later that year. In 1981, Saint Pope John Paul II named him prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and he eventually became the dean of the College of Cardinals. At 78, he was elected pontiff in April, 2005. He weathered a scandals within the Vatican and the clerical abuse scandal present throughout the world. At 85, he announced his retirement. He said,

“In today’s world, subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith, in order to govern the bark of St. Peter and proclaim the gospel, both strength of mind and body are necessary, strength which in the last few months has deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me … For this reason, and well aware of the seriousness of this act, with full freedom, I declare that I renounce the ministry of bishop of Rome, successor of St. Peter.”

Pope Benedict XVI served his last day as Pope on February 28, 2013.

Growing up in Nazi Germany, he could have become bogged down in despair, but he faithfully believed in the beauty of the Gospel. An academic, he would have preferred the quiet of a library, but he obediently took on major roles in the Church as he was asked. In his old age, he traveled and spoke in front of millions instead of resting. And when he became too frail to continue papal duties to the best of his abilities, Pope Benedict XVI courageously stepped down so the Church, the flock of Christ, could be served the best.

Truly, Pope Benedict XVI is an example of beautiful, Christ-like humility.

So, as I silently stared at his face mockingly made out of condoms, I was in awe of his beautiful humility. “Eggs Benedict” is art in that it is beautiful. It is a beautiful portrait of a humble servant of God, a portrait of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus in the world today.

Being a disciple today means we too need to take up our cross. We might be humiliated, made fun of, mocked, scourged, wounded faithfully following Christ. Authentic discipleship, marked with mockery, shame, and humiliation from the world, is beautiful.

But, Stingl, Johnson, Pabst, and people who think making a condom portrait out of someone many people deeply respect is a great way to spark a civil conversation about AIDS, you took it too far. Stop kidding yourselves that this is art. This is a mockery.

You took something sacred and made an open mockery of it. It doesn’t matter if it was Christianity, Buddhism, Judiasm, Islam, etc. Each religion has dignity, and you dragged that dignity in the mud. You took artistic expression, twisted it, and used it to openly mock others. That is not art. That is not beauty. That is open provocation.

As Milwaukee Catholic Sara Bowen (who revoked her Milwaukee Art Museum membership after “Eggs Benedict” was unveiled) said,

“You could be provocative putting a Swastika on a synagogue. It would be provocative, but it wouldn’t be art. It would be hate speech.”

“Eggs Benedict” is hate speech. It openly mocks a humble religious leader, but that humiliation only deepens my respect for Pope Benedict XVI and all he has endured to spread the beauty of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

It’s one thing to drag religion in the mud if it is harmfully inaccurate and hurts its followers. But Pope Benedict’s comments were on par scientifically and in line with a religious belief you obviously do not respect. Catholic services are at least 25% of the services to AIDS victims in Africa. What have you done lately, aside from insult a lot of people and further divide us from one another?

Too, you’re lucky you insulted Pope Benedict XVI. Pope Francis might have punched you. While traveling on a plane and speaking to reporters on January 15, 2015, Pope Francis said on religious freedom,

“The freedom of expression… Every one of us has not just the freedom, the right, but also the obligation to say what he thinks to help build the common good. The obligation. If we think of a congressman, a senator, if he doesn’t say what he thinks is the true path, he doesn’t collaborate in the common good. We have the obligation to freely have this liberty, but without offending. It’s true that you cannot react violently. But, if Dr. Gasbarri, my great friend, says something against my mother, he can expect a punch. It’s normal. It’s normal. You cannot provoke, you cannot insult the faith of others, you cannot make fun of the faith.

Pope Benedict, in a speech, I don’t remember which, he spoke of this post-positivist mentality, of the post-positivist metaphysics that brought people to believe that religions or religious expressions are a type of lower culture: that they are tolerated but that there’s not much to them, that they are in not part of an enlightened culture. And this is a legacy of the Enlightenment. So many people speak against others’ religions. They make fun of them. Let’s say they “giocatalizzano” (make a playng out of) the religion of others. But they are provoking, and what can happen is what I said about Dr. Gasbarri if he says something about my mother. There is a limit. Every religion has dignity; I cannot mock a religion that respects human life and the human person. And this is a limit. I’ve used this example of the limit to say that in the freedom of expression there are limits, like the example I gave of my mother.

– Pope Francis, January 15, 2015, in an interview found here.

You made something that said something very insulting to a person Pope Francis has called his “grandfather” that overstepped the bounds of artistic expression by mocking a religion that deeply respects the human person. Seems like Pope Francis might be coming for you…probably by continually praying for you.

I know that’s what I did standing there, looking at sweet Pope Benedict XVI’s face made out of condoms, at the Milwaukee Art Museum on August 6th, 2015. I did not spray paint. I did not loudly make a scene. I did not demand for the piece to be removed. I did not pester my fellow patrons to sign a petition. I silently prayed for you, for a greater respect for one another, and for all of us to have open, civil, respectful conversation.

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