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Can we judge Marko Rupnik?

Can we judge Marko Rupnik?
Can we judge Marko Rupnik?

On the final day of the annual Catholic Media Conference in Atlanta, Paolo Ruffini, Prefect of the Holy See’s Dicastery for Communication, stood before a conference room full of journalists. As he concluded his keynote speech on the importance of Catholic media as a tool for spreading community and hope, he opened the question-and-answer session.

Among the questions Ruffini answered was one from a journalist who inquired about the dicastery’s regular practice of publishing artwork by Father Marko Rupnik, a Rome-based Jesuit and prolific mosaic artist who is accused of sexually abusing 20 to 40 women religious. Vatican News, For example, despite protests from victims of sexual abuse and their advocates, archive photos of Father Rupnik’s artwork have been regularly used to illustrate church holidays and seasons.

In response to the challenge, Ruffini stated: “As Christians, we are called not to judge.”

Those present, including another reporter, described the atmosphere as tense. The meeting ended in an awkward situation when journalists stormed out to publish the article. Ruffini’s remarks have been circulating ever since, dominating headlines in the Catholic world.

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Beyond those headlines, many of Ruffini’s specific responses to the Q&A continue to haunt me. In one response, he seemed to downplay the alleged abuse by Father Rupnik: “We’re not talking about abuse of minors. We’re talking about a history we don’t know,” he said, seeming to imply that one type of abuse is more permissible than another. Ruffini also claimed that removing Father Rupnik’s artwork from public spaces was “not a Christian response.” Finally, when journalists claimed that removing the artwork would express the Church’s solidarity with the victims, Ruffini responded bluntly: “I think you’re wrong.” The audience gasped.

But Ruffini’s answer, which left me most confused, is a seemingly simple question: “Who am I to judge?”

I thought about that sentence, trying to remember why it seemed so important to me. Finally, I realized that Ruffini was repeating a question Pope Francis had asked in July 2013 during an airplane press conference in response to a question about gay priests.

“If a person is gay and seeks God and has good will, who am I to judge him?” Pope Francis replied.

In 2016, Pope Francis explained this comment in his book: The name of God is mercy (Random House). The book, a transcript of an interview Pope Francis gave with Italian journalist Andrea Tornielli, was intended to “reveal the heart of Francis and his vision.”

“On that occasion I said this: if a person is gay and seeks the Lord and is ready for that, who am I to judge that person?” Pope Francis told Tornielli. “I have memorized the Catechism of the Catholic Church, It says that these people must be treated with sensitivity and not excluded.”

The original audio played a notable role in the secular media’s initial perception of the new pope. TIME magazine cited the response as part of its rationale for naming Pope Francis its 2013 Person of the Year.

Who am I to judge? has become a lens through which many people, including myself, view the pontificate of Pope Francis, and so far it has been a positive understanding. Beyond the context of the original quote, the pontificate of Pope Francis has characteristically emphasized mercy and compassion, especially toward our fellow human beings, but also toward the earth and the environment.

Francis’s phrase resonates with compassion, reminding us of Jesus eating with the stigmatized – the tax collectors and the prostitutes. He has set a tone for the Church as a whole, inspiring hope that our Church can remain faithful to its teaching while opening a new chapter of compassion in dealing with the marginalized and the hurting. He has set the stage for a synodal Church where our door is open and which beckons the broken with this welcoming message: “Come in as you are, with all that you are.”

However, by applying this formulation to Father Rupnik, Ruffini turns a compassionate and open comment into a dismissive, indifferent comment that is painful not only for the victims of Father Rupnik’s alleged abuse, but also for everyone who has been hurt by the Church.

Of course, it is common practice in the United States to uphold the right to “innocent until proven guilty.” Perhaps we can give Ruffini the benefit of the doubt and assume that his response was an attempt to preserve a just and even charitable perspective for Father Rupnik.

Still, the people who investigated the allegations against Father Rupnik have not found these allegations to be unfounded. Moreover, the people who claim to be victims of his actions have a right to be heard and to have their needs met. The Society of Jesus completed its own investigation into the allegations, despite Father Rupnik’s refusal to cooperate. Many of the victims’ testimonies describe horrific details, some of which deal with grooming and abuse related to the creation of his mosaics. Following the investigation, Father Rupnik was dismissed from the order, although he had not yet been laicized. The Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith has been investigating the cases since October 2023, when Pope Francis lifted the statute of limitations.

Who am I to judge? reflects the Christian call to show mercy to our brothers and sisters rather than to judge them. Judging is God’s prerogative alone; only God can see a person’s whole life, his motives, his actions and his repentance, and therefore only God can judge a person’s heart. Who am I to judge? When used in the context of personal humility and understanding our own brokenness, it is truly a moment of surrender to divine mercy and love.

However, our task of mercy is not independent of God’s justice; rather, it is based on the recognition of God’s moral order. The need for mercy is recognized when a wrong has been committed and forgiveness is demanded – and the need for compassion arises when a person has been the victim of a moral wrong. The conviction behind this conviction is therefore Who am I to judge? is not a blanket denial of justice. Rather, it recognizes the need to show mercy to the offender while allowing space for compassion and healing for those injured by the crime. When used correctly Who am I to judge? reflects the infinite mercy of God and opens the door for people who, for whatever reason, have fallen away from their faith to return and find rest in divine love.

Christ would surely have mercy on Father Rupnik, as he does on all of us. But Ruffini’s comments do a disservice to the victims of abuse who have repeatedly asked that Rupnik’s art be removed and no longer used to illustrate sacred revelations and stories. To these victims, this art conveys the dissonance of the Church and the deception of its artist, rather than the beauty and love it is meant to convey.

In his keynote speech, Ruffini explained: “Catholicity lies precisely in this communion of diversity under the leadership of Peter and his successors. Communicating the beauty of the Church means bearing witness to this unity that unites us with all those with whom we communicate.”

Father Rupnik’s art may still provide some viewers with a gateway to the beauty of the Church, but the art cannot be separated from the artist and his crimes, at least not for the victims. If we are to work for the complete healing of these people and assure them that they can rest safely in the arms of Mother Church, we must take their accusations seriously. Father Rupnik’s actions do not reflect the love, mercy and forgiveness expressed in the Gospel stories depicted in his artwork.

I hope that as a Catholic and communications expert, Dr. Ruffini will use his discernment to recognize how to address this issue with true compassion for all involved. To convey the beauty, unity, and “love that explains” that is so essential to the heart of the Church, he must consider the weight of his words, their meaning, and their context—and then use his platform to lift up the hopeless, the meek, the hurting. In doing so, they might recognize that Mother Church is a safe haven where they can rest and heal their wounds without fear of being turned away.


Image: Wikimedia Commons/Centroaletti (CC BY-SA 4.0). Note: The background of this image has been slightly enhanced using Adobe Photoshop’s AI tools.

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