The Milwaukee Art Museum has added a new piece to its menu, its permanent art collection, and it’s one that should make Catholics and non-Catholics alike sick to their stomachs.

Eggs Benedict, created by local artist Niki Johnson, is a portrait of retired Pope Benedict XVI created from 17,000 condoms and is scheduled to be displayed in November when the museum reopens it permanent collection galleries currently closed for renovation. According to the artist, the piece, completed in 2013 and donated to the museum by local philanthropist, Joseph Pabst, was in response to Pope Benedict’s concerns in 2009 that condom-distribution campaigns aggravate the problem of AIDS.

Johnson took exception to his comments and created the piece, which mocks him for his beliefs.

Art is a form of expression and an artist should be allowed to express himself or herself through art, but when that message is not only in poor taste, but disrespects a large group of people, is it truly art, or has it become an attack on another person and his or her beliefs?

Even more concerning than the existence of the disrespectful work, is the fact Milwaukee Art Museum officials accepted the gift and will make it part of its permanent collection.

That decision is a slap in the face to not only Pope Benedict, but to all Catholics, especially the nearly 600,000 that comprise the Archdiocese of Milwaukee.

Why, under the guise of igniting social commentary, is it acceptable to mock, denigrate or infringe upon the beliefs of others?

It was only mere months ago – in January – that Islamic terrorists killed 12 people at the offices of Charlie Hebdo, apparently in retaliation for the newspaper’s publication of cartoons mocking Islam’s Prophet Muhammad.
Like most of the world, Pope Francis was horrified by the terrorist killings, but he also offered food for thought relevant now to the Eggs Benedict entrée at the museum.

According to a Jan. 15 report by Catholic News Service, Pope Francis condemned killing in the name of God, but said freedom of expression should be limited by respect for religion. He called freedom of expression a “fundamental human right,” like freedom of religion, but one that must be exercised “without giving offense.”

There’s no doubt that Eggs Benedict “gives offense” to Catholics and shows deep disrespect for the faith and practice of its followers.

In a July 1 press release titled, “Milwaukee Art Museum’s Catholic Problem,” Bill Donohue, president of the New York-based Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, says the Milwaukee Art Museum is deliberately insulting Catholics by featuring a portrait of Pope Benedict XVI made up of condoms, adding, that by doing so, it is defending hate speech.

Donohue, in a letter to the chairman of the Milwaukee Art Museum, questioned when was the last time the Milwaukee Art Museum deliberately inflamed the passions of anti-Semites or gay bashers.

He notes that art “intentionally designed to promote hatred is not endearing – it is hate speech, pure and simple.”

Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki, also critical of the work, questioned in his June 23 “Love one Another” communiqué sent to clergy, parish staff members and other church leaders throughout the archdiocese whether the art museum would have accepted similar works disrespecting religious or world leaders.

“Would the art museum accept works that depicted various political leaders of our state in cow dung? …. What about art featuring national or international popular social reconstructionists in a manner that would depict the opposite of what they represented, such as Gandhi sporting an uzi, Lincoln in Ku Klux Klan garb or Hitler with a yarmulke reading the Torah, all in the name of art and beauty?”

According to a June 29 story in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the decision by the museum to accept this piece as part of its collection has drawn disgust and has led to complaints, dropped memberships at the museum and the resignation of a longtime docent.

Kudos to those who have made their opposition to this acquisition known. If we, as Catholics, do not express our outrage at this attack on our faith, we give the impression that such mockery is acceptable.

We call upon museum officials to reconsider their decision to accept and display this piece as it is, at the very least, an insult to Catholics.

In the words of Archbishop Listecki, “An artist who claims his or her work is some great social commentary and a museum that accepts it, insults a religious leader of a church, whose charitable outreach through its missionaries and ministers has eased the pain of those who suffer throughout the world, must understand the rejection of this local action by the believers who have been insulted.”