ROME – A mounting debate in Catholicism over whether to remove artwork by sexual abusers from sacred spaces seems destined to be especially difficult to resolve, pitting the weight of tradition against changing cultural sensitivities, not to mention practicalities against new moral imperatives.

The most likely outcome seems that no universal solution will be found, with answers deemed appropriate in one context not working in others.

The question is presented above all by the case of Jesuit Father Marko Rupnik, a celebrated Slovenian artist whose Eastern-themed work adorns churches all over the world, and who now stands accused of spiritual, psychological or sexual abuse of multiple adult women stretching over almost 40 years.

The Diocese of Rome quietly has launched an Apostolic Visit of the Centro Aletti in Rome which served as Rupnik’s base of operations, but it’s unclear if that probe will address the question of what to do about Rupnik’s artwork, which appears in multiple churches and other Catholic venues throughout the city.

Italian Father Giacomo Incitti, a noted canon lawyer at Rome’s Urban University charged with leading the visit, declined a Crux request for an interview.

In any event, Rupnik is not an isolated instance.

In France, there’s a similar ferment around the artwork of Father Louis Ribes, known as the “Picasso of the Churches,” who created scores of Cubist-style paintings and stained-glass windows between the 1950s and 1970s which adorn French churches. Ribes is now also accused of sexual abuse, including sexual acts with minor children who served as his models.

One can imagine that such revelations will prompt a reexamination of the personal lives of other artists whose works appear in Catholic sacred spaces.

In some ways, these cases pose a question which, at least theologically, Catholicism would seem to have answered a long time ago: Does the spiritual value of an act depend upon the moral integrity of the person performing it?

The Donatists posed that question in the fourth through the sixth centuries, insisting that sacraments performed by ministers who had capitulated to imperial authority during the Diocletian persecution were invalid and had to be re-administered. In response, the church developed the doctrine of ex opere operato, which roughly means that the validity of a sacrament arises from its own power as an instrument of God, not on the personal worthiness of the minister.

In other words, the church made a distinction between actors and their works that has echoed in Catholic tradition, and not just in sacramental theology.

Church historians note, for example, that one of the founding friars of the Capuchin religious order in the 16th century, Bernardino Ochino, was a heretic who abandoned Catholicism altogether to join forces with John Calvin in Geneva, until he proved too much even for the Calvinists and was driven into exile.

Capuchins were forbidden from preaching by papal edict, and there was talk of suppressing the order. In the end, however, the community endured. Today’s it’s the fourth largest men’s religious community in the church – and, in a supreme historical irony, since 1743 the privilege of supplying the Preacher of the Papal Household has belonged to the Capuchins.

Today, the same principle often applies to the works of sexual abusers.

When the late Mexican Father Marcial Maciel Degollado was revealed to have been guilty of a wide variety of sexual abuse and misconduct, including the abuse of at least two children he fathered out of wedlock, many critics argued that the Legion of Christ he founded and its lay branch, Regnum Christi, should be suppressed.

At least so far, church authorities have not gone that route, instead allowing the Legion and Regnum Christi to pursue internal reformation. De facto, similar decisions seem to have been reached regarding other Catholic groups whose founders have been accused of abuse, including the L’Arche Community launched by Canadian laymen Jean Vanier and the Sodality of Christian Life initiated by Peruvian layman Luis Fernando Figari.

As far as art is concerned, over the ages the approach has been broadly the same, separating the work from the private life of the artist.

Mozart’s sacred music continues to be played in Catholic churches, despite the fact that he was a Mason in defiance of explicit papal edicts; Caravaggio’s artwork also remains in churches, even though he was a notoriously violent thug who allegedly committed at least one murder during the course of his life, and possibly more.

There’s also Fra Filippo Lippi, a 15th century painter and Carmelite monk who once seduced a Carmelite novice whom he was using as a model for a painting of the Madonna, abducted her to his house and refused to let her go when nuns arrived seeking her return. Lippi’s work continues to adorn Catholic churches to this day, including in Prato and Spoleto.

Set against the power of precedent, however, is a new imperative in Catholicism, one of giving priority to the sensitivities of survivors and victims when it comes to judging how to proceed in the aftermath of sexual abuse.

“Bringing the voice of survivors to the leadership of the Church is crucial if people are going to have an understanding of how important it is for the Church to respond quickly and correctly any time a situation of abuse may arise,” said Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston, president of the Vatican’s Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, in 2018, summing up the commission’s experience in its first four years of operations.

That would appear to be the logic for which bishops in France have largely opted in favor of removing artwork by Ribes, although doing so is complicated by the fact several of the churches in which his stained glass windows appear are owned by local municipalities because they pre-date 1905.

A petition requesting that Ribes’ work be removed has been signed by hundreds of survivors. In favoring removal, church authorities generally have cited the requests of abuse survivors such as Luc Gemet.

“Any victim who sees his [Ribes’] stained glass windows finds himself immersed in what he experienced during his childhood,” Gemet said.

Auxiliary Bishop Emmanuel Gobilliard of Lyon vowed that “these works will never again be exhibited, but kept, so that the memory of these pedo-criminal actions within the Church is kept.”

Critics of Rupnik usually base the argument for removing his work on similar considerations. The influential Italian Catholic blog, for example, made that case in a Feb. 2 posting.

“Think of the suffering for victims (and their families) to see the (ugly) images created by Rupnik, their spiritual father and violator, which are present in sacred spaces such as churches and oratories … we must censor them, if not as a just form of reprobation for the guilty party, at least out of respect for the victims.”

Inevitably, the debate over Rupnik’s works also tends to be influenced by judgments about the intrinsic value of his art. While many viewers admire the scenes he’s created, others object on aesthetic grounds, while some even find traces of a “false gospel” in his imagery.

Such critics invoke the teaching of the Second Vatican Council in Sacrosanctum Concilium: “Let bishops carefully remove from the house of God and from other sacred places those works of artists which are repugnant to faith, morals, and Christian piety, and which offend true religious sense either by depraved forms or by lack of artistic worth, mediocrity and pretense.”

A still further complication arises from the practicalities involved in trying to remove artwork from sacred spaces, especially when it comes not simply to paintings or statues, which often can be fairly easily taken away and replaced, but also frescoes, stained glass or whole chapels, which generally are more difficult and expensive to dislodge.

One anonymous poster to an Italian Catholic blog made that point in a recent comment about the ferment over Rupnik’s work.

“A parish near mine [in Rome] commissioned Rupnik to create an entire Eucharistic chapel,” the blogger wrote. “So are they supposed to take it apart, flushing all the money they spent down a toilet, because the artist is a swine, and out of respect for people who almost certainly will never even come there?”

In the end, it seems likely that the decision about “should it stay or should it go” vis-à-vis Rupnik’s art not be settled in any uniform fashion, but rather on a case-by-case basis.

As Elise Ann Allen recently reported for Crux, French Bishop Jean-Marc Micas has announced the creation of a “reflection group” to ponder whether a series of mosaics by Rupnik should be removed from the Basilica of the Rosary at the famed shrine of Lourdes.

RELATED: Lourdes bishop ponders removal of Rupnik mosaics in light of abuse claims

Micas said there’s a special sensitivity at Lourdes, since many victims make pilgrimages there seeking healing.

To some extent, that sensitivity may also have to do with the recent experience of the French church, where a 2021 report commissioned by the bishops’ conference estimated that some 330,000 children had been abused by priests and other Catholic personnel between 1950 and 2020. The report triggered a massive outcry that is still reverberating in French society.

Meanwhile in nearby Geneva, Switzerland, where the experience of the abuse crisis has not been quite as traumatic, Bishop Charles Morerod has decided that a series of 13 mosaics created by Rupnik and displayed in local churches will not be removed.

“Removing the artworks seems to me a denial of reality, which can indeed be dark,” Morerod said.

It will be interesting to see if that position holds when Switzerland releases the results of its own internal investigation into sexual abuse in the church this fall, a review inspired by the bombshell French report.

In the end, whatever happens seems unlikely to fully satisfy everyone. To date, Pope Francis himself has not weighed in on the fate of the artwork created by his fellow Jesuit – and, in the end, this may be one of the many questions in Catholic life which can’t really be settled by papal edict anyway.