Animal images on St. Peter’s Basilica charm and alarm

(RNS) “This has gone beyond ridiculous,” one priest fumed about an illuminated projection of images of the natural world that drew thousands of awed spectators to the Vatican. He wasn’t alone in his criticism, not by a long shot.

Video courtesy of vatican via YouTube

(RNS) An extraordinary illuminated projection of images of the natural world onto St. Peter’s Basilica on Tuesday evening (Dec. 8) drew thousands of awed spectators to the Vatican and delighted untold numbers more watching online and via widespread media coverage of the three-hour show.

But not everyone was happy with the spectacle, not by a long shot, as social media and conservative Catholic sites erupted with indignation.

“This has gone beyond ridiculous,” fumed a conservative blogger, the Rev. John Zuhlsdorf, who called it “irreverent” to use a sacred space for a secular purpose. “Why not rent out the Sistine chapel too, while they’re at it?”

“The Vatican profaned,” Antonio Socci wrote at the traditionalist blog Rorate Caeli. “The symbolic significance of the event is a Church immersed in darkness, but illuminated by the world, by the new climatist-religion-ideology.”

“Sickening” and “embarrassing” were among the reactions on a Twitter thread started by Raymond Arroyo, a popular host on the conservative Catholic cable network EWTN. “Someone should be fired for this. Actually, several people should be,” wrote another.

The event was in fact inspired by Pope Francis’ June encyclical, “Laudato Si’,” on the moral duty to protect the environment and was intended to push negotiators currently meeting at climate talks in Paris to take concrete steps on reducing global warming — a goal Francis has also pushed for very publicly.

READ: Act now, for God’s sake, faith voices urge Paris climate conference

Such causes have hardly endeared the pope to conservatives inside and outside the church, and Tuesday night’s showcase seemed to be the confirmation of all their fears.

The criticisms tended to cluster around a few main issues: Chief among them was the long-running conservative argument that global warming is a myth, or that humanity can’t do anything to stop it even if it’s happening, and that trying to limit carbon emissions, for example, will hurt the economy and therefore the very people the pontiff says he is trying to defend.

Others argued that the Catholic Church shouldn’t be lobbying on global warming policies, which they see as a secular agenda and not a religious concern. “This is the kind of thing ideological politicians do, like President Obama’s rainbow projection onto the White House after the Supreme Court approved gay marriage,” Robert Royal, head of the Washington-based Faith and Reason Institute, told LifeSiteNews.

Some objected that the display did not make an anti-abortion statement by including images of fetuses, while others were outraged that the light show was sponsored by groups such as the World Bank, which they say promote abortion and contraception.

And there was the fact that the event took place on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, a major celebration of the Virgin Mary and one that coincided with Francis’ inauguration of a Holy Year of Mercy. “A Neo-Pagan obscenity for the Feast of the Immaculate!” as Socci wrote.

READ: Pope Francis opens doors to ‘Year of Mercy’ in a time of fear

There was also anger that the program included images of a woman in a burka as well as pictures of Buddhists and representatives of animist religions and it did not use obvious references to explicitly religious and Christian themes. Most of the pictures, by renowned photographers, were of animals — a virtual Noah’s Ark of jaguars and jellyfish, parrots and pandas, lions and lemurs moving across the centuries-old façade and cupola.

But fans of the event argued that, for one thing, the images were projected onto the most famous Catholic Church in the world, and with the explicit approval of the pope.

They also noted that the title of the event was “Fiat Lux,” or “Let there be light,” the words God spoke in Genesis at the creation of the world. The link between faith and creation, they said, could hardly be clearer — and Francis has said care of the Earth is a concern of all humanity and the church should be working with everyone toward that goal.

Others pointed out that the Vatican has been illuminated before and many historic churches around the world have been used for projection displays; Catholic art and architecture — and spirituality, in fact — have often been based on these sorts of vivid displays.

Yet the criticisms were not entirely confined to conservative commentators, or based solely on worries about sacrilege and climate change policies.

“I’m not opposed to the message, but I thought it was tacky,” the Rev. Jarrod Waugh, a Holy Cross priest in South Bend, Ind., wrote in a lively comment thread at Pray Tell, a blog focused on issues of liturgy and prayer.

In one response, the blog’s moderator, the Rev. Anthony Ruff, a Benedictine, said he didn’t feel the show was tacky. But he said he was convinced it was “not a sacrilege or profanation.”

“If images of animals and natural creation are defacing a sacred space … well then the defacement would be all the greater if humans enter sacred spaces since humans are capable of sin and evil in a way that animals and inanimate objects are not,” Ruff wrote. “Some folks need to reflect on their theology of Creation and of Incarnation.”

(David Gibson is a national reporter for RNS)

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