Herbst and Diocese of Bridgeport respond to painting controversy

First Selectman Tim Herbst says a controversial painting can go back up at The Trumbull Library, as soon as the town and painting’s owner sign a legal agreement that protects the town from any potential lawsuits.

The Diocese of Bridgeport is also responding to some of the controversy surrounding the painting, which offended some Catholics for its portrayal of Mother Teresa with figures who are famously pro-choice.

The painting titled “Onward We March” depicts Mother Teresa and Margaret Sanger, among other historical female figures, who fought for social and political change. Sanger’s work to educate women on reproductive health in the early 20th Century led to Planned Parenthood. The painting is part of the Great Minds Collection, owned by Richard and Jane Resnick. and currently on display at the Trumbull Library. It has also been up at Fairfield University and Colgate University, in the past.

“I don’t care what the Catholic Church thinks about it and I don’t care what Dr. Resnick thinks about it,” Herbst said of the painting Tuesday. “What I care about is I don’t want the town of Trumbull getting sucked into the middle of political and religious debate. I want the town insulated, indemnified and protected. When that is done, that painting goes back up.”

Richard Resnick told The Times Monday he felt Herbst’s decision was based on political pressures. The first selectman has said his decision is based solely on a copyright claim made by a Mother Teresa organization in India and his other concern is that the library did not already draft a legal agreement with Resnick, protecting the town from harm if any damage comes to the collection.

Herbst said the town attorneys gave the opinion that it should be taken down for the time being. There has not been a thorough investigation into the copyright claim as of yet. Herbst said he is working with town attorneys to draft an agreement between the town and Resnick.

He noted that the town arts department has artists and art owner's sign agreements when work in put in town hall, to protect in case any damage is done. He would like to see the same thing between the town and Resnick.

“The first step is to get the agreement,” Herbst said. “Then I think the next step is having an intellectual property attorney weigh in, for the future, so we have an opinion to refer to.”

When asked why he posted a photo of the painting on the town website, despite copyright concerns, Herbst said he was trying to be open to the media and public, as many asked to see it.

Herbst said he is not Catholic, though he respects the opinions of those who are, including Father Brian Gannon of St. Theresa Church, who wrote in opposition to the painting.

“I am being accused of capitulating to the Catholic Church when I am not even a Catholic and I am taking a position they don’t support,” Herbst said of putting the painting back up when an agreement is complete.

Diocese responds

Father Gannon spoke to The Times Tuesday, saying that the painting does not respect Mother Teresa's memory or give an accurate depiction of her beliefs.

"She would have never have picked up a banner in solidarity with some of the pro-abortion women in the painting," Gannon said. "She was devoted to every single human life conceived."

The Order of Missionaries of Charity in India have said the image is an improper use of Mother Teresa and they should be respected, according to the Trumbull priest. Gannon noted that an image of Mother Teresa used in the past on a Hillary Clinton campaign website was also taken down, by request of the order.

"Art is supposed to be an expression of beauty and truth and beauty is certainly in the eyes of the beholder but truth is fundamental." Gannon said.

Bishop Frank Caggiano is in Rome this week for a meeting at the Vatican, according to Diocese of Bridgeport spokesman Brian Wallace. Wallace said Bishop Caggiano never requested the painting come down but did express concerns in light of objections he heard from many in town.

“I think it would be fair to characterize his concerns in the same spirit of the recent remarks by Pope Francis on a trip to Manila,” Wallace wrote. “The Pope mentioned that he supported free expression in the media and arts but he also cautioned against using sacred images and venerated symbols in a way that insults or ridicules people of faith—which is not to suggest that such attitudes are the intent or effect of the painting in question.”

Wallace cited other recent examples in the media of artwork he said is meant to provoke or degrade the faith of others, causing some to feel polarized and offended.

“He feels that all viewpoints should be heard in this controversy, and that free speech should also be grounded in a profound respect for the dignity and beliefs of others,” Wallace said of Bishop Caggiano.