Decorating Naked Public Squares

Fribourg is a small town on the border between French and German Switzerland. A visitor would not be exaggerating if he claimed that there was a church on almost every street corner. In that part of the world, it is not unusual to see so many churches. What did catch my attention, however, was St. Peter’s Well.

Standing in one of the town squares not far from the train station, the well was sunk centuries ago for the people of Fribourg. What is worth considering is how it is decorated. On the well appear keys crowned with a tiara, the symbol of St. Peter. His statue is nearby.

Can you imagine the uproar this would cause in America? Now ask yourself a second question: Why?

Richard John Neuhaus has described the banishment of religion from public life (and public view) as the phenomenon of the “naked public square.” Advocates of this approach hold that religion has no place in public life. Public life should be hermetically sealed off from religion—de facto agnostic. Secularists deem this arrangement “democratic” in a religiously pluralistic world. The corollary of that position, however, is that believers, even if they form a cultural majority, must strip themselves of their religious convictions when they enter public life. The good citizen is either irreligious or someone who doesn’t take his religion too seriously.

Happily, once upon a time, the people of Fribourg did not believe that. And so a little well in a little Swiss town deserves comment for two reasons: The well’s decoration and the nearby statue say something about what most of these people are Catholics—and add a note of beauty to an otherwise generic well.

Today in the United States, such a public celebration of a community’s faith is verboten. The few Nativity scenes that pass muster with federal courts do so because they are genuine mishmashes, because Rudolph is on the roof of the manger while Baby Jesus is out in the yard building a snowman to the light of a menorah. These catchall “holiday” scenes respect no believer’s convictions because they allow a believer neither to define himself explicitly nor to distinguish himself outright from the purely secular.

Fribourg is not religiously homogenous. There must have been some Protestant Calvinists around, Geneva and Zurich being nearby. Jews, agnostics, and atheists must have passed through the town. Yet St. Peter’s Well is not festooned with Magen Davids, Tao signs, and flowing script announcing “There is no God but Allah.” Nor did the keys lose their tiara to calm anti-papist Calvinists.

What lessons can we draw from St. Peter’s Well? In the current stage of the debate over church-state relations in the United States, painting icons on municipal water towers in Nebraska probably isn’t going to work. Still, St. Peter’s Well reminds us that “strict separationism” is not an indispensable prerequisite to a democratic polity: Switzerland has not yet made the watch lists of countries where religious freedom is endangered. The well reminds us that there are other democratic ways of looking at public expressions of religion.

There is also a shorter-range lesson. We as private citizens can go about reclothing the naked public squares of America, putting religion back in the public eye. How? Many Catholics in the United States have the resources to fund new religious art. Just as the Church hierarchy used to support Europe’s artists, perhaps it is now time for lay Catholics in this country to take on the important work of patronage.

Catholics should not be content with the annual struggle over Christmas creches in county parks—even if the fight succeeds, the scenes only last a month. Catholics should instead look for more permanent expressions of their faith. Privately funded projects publicly displayed would contribute to challenging the unspoken assumption that the only good citizen-believer is the gagged one.

Look around any European city. From Brittany to Bavaria to Poland you’ll find wayside crosses. Statues adorn outdoor cornices of houses in Bruges and Krakow, while Romans have their mosaics. One of Vienna’s main thoroughfares is Marian: Mariahilferstraβe. What’s to stop a Catholic church from trying to get the street it’s on named after it? “St. Stephen’s Street” sounds a lot better to me than generic “Elm Street,” and one can always argue in the inevitable court challenge that the name is “a testimony to the long-term presence of this landmark church.”

Such privately funded efforts might also stimulate a renaissance in Catholic art. A previous generation might have been content with a religious kitsch version of pink flamingos: plastic garden statues. But even these artless objects testified to something more important than refinement: real and unashamed belief. Today, a whole generation has grown up amid the banalities of Catholic “art” approved by the liturgical vandals. But there is still, I think, a healthy, if diminished, sense of religious aesthetics among Catholics in the United States—an ember worth fanning. Many initial efforts will no doubt produce more kitsch, but practice makes perfect; and perfection comes more quickly when one is financially invested in the effort. With so much grant money dedicated to crucifixes in urinals, we Catholics need to assist those artists whose work honors and adds to the Catholic tradition.

Lots of people—believers and nonbelievers alike—stand speechless before a Chartres Cathedral (or a St. Patrick’s Cathedral). In this generation, what have we done—what have we made—to render people speechless? Previous generations paid their pence toward public expressions of their faith. Our contribution is now due.


  • John M. Grondelski

    John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) is a former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. All views expressed herein are his own.

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