The Catholic Church needs to “set the example of beauty” in evangelizing society through media rather than existing as an isolated sub-culture, says screenwriter Barbara Nicolosi.
“We’re not just supposed to be in the culture; as Catholics, we're supposed to be important in the culture,” she said March 1 at the Living the Catholic Faith Conference in Denver.
“And right now, we're completely in our own little room.”
During her presentation, “Evangelization and media: re-thinking the Catholic sub-culture,” Nicolosi discussed the challenges facing Catholics' efforts to evangelize in society.
These difficulties, she said, first spring from a lack of beauty within the Church as seen by contemporary church buildings, modern liturgical music and a general absence of artistic endeavors.
Nicolosi added that the problem is worsened by many Catholics isolating themselves in a sub-culture which maintains poor artistic standards by not interacting with the culture at large.
The Church was once called “the patron of the arts,” but Nicolosi pointed out that “we couldn't begin to pretend the Catholic Church is the patron of the arts in any meaningful way today.” Christianity once produced such works as the Milan Cathedral, Handel's Messiah, and the sculptures of Michelangelo.
That heritage has been replaced by the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles, “Our God is an Awesome God,” and Rainaldi's statue of John Paul II in Rome.
On the current state of liturgical music, Nicolosi remarked to CNA in March 2 interview that what's needed today is a recapturing of the “mysterious, mystical,” and “ethereal.”
“As Pope Benedict said, the music at the liturgy should not be like any music you hear anywhere else – you should know immediately, 'oh, this is of God.' That's going to take a whole re-thinking,” she noted.
During her presentation on Friday, Nicolosi said in order to re-vitalize efforts to evangelize, Catholics must first “admit we have a problem” with art and media in the Church today. Having done that, we must re-commit to beauty.
She presented a litany of what does not constitute beauty, including that which is facile, disproportionate, sentimental, cheap, non-threatening, and cute. Yet these adjectives describe “much of what we're awash in in our Church, and the broader society,” she said.
The screenwriter issued a call to “renounce the sub-culture.” Rather than being an isolated group, Christians must be a leaven for the wider culture. In recounting the legacy of Christian storytelling, she pointed to “The Divine Comedy,” “Pilgrim's Progress,” “Anna Karenina,” “Brideshead Revisited,” and the works of Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Tolkien, Flannery O'Connor, and Walker Percy.
“None of these books were written for the Catholic subculture,” Nicolosi noted. “They were all books written for the mainstream culture, yet are profoundly Catholic.”
Contrasting with that great legacy, Nicolosi pointed to contemporary works of Christian storytelling, saying that “not one of these comes close to untying the sandal strap of 'Brideshead Revisited.'”
Many of these efforts, she noted, are “created in the sub-culture for the sub-culture.”
The great works, however, were “written for the mainstream,” and have Christian subtexts which permeate their worldview yet rarely overtly deal with theology, she said. Works produced in the Christian sub-culture, by contrast, openly address religious themes yet fail to incite a theological response from the reader or viewer.
Nicolosi said that the Christian sub-culture, created originally as a refuge from the sexual revolution, has become “a prison, a ghetto artistically.” Christian works are relegated to this sub-culture, and do not reach non-Christian audiences.
Archbishop Fulton Sheen was for Nicolosi an example of the leavening influence Catholics ought to have in the mainstream culture, rather than being isolated in a sub-culture. Archbishop Sheen hosted a radio program for 20 years, and was then on television, including ABC, through the 1950s and 60s.
“Fulton Sheen used to be on network television not because he was Catholic, but because he was good.”
Poorly made Christian media which do not “get people to ask the questions they should be asking” are failures of evangelization, Nicolosi suggested. By contrast, well-made secular works such as “Finding Nemo” actually raise important questions in the minds of fathers: “Am I a good dad?”
Christian media, she emphasized, need to be willing to work with, and learn from, the best of secular figures in the media. Christian media has to engage the consumer and their passions, and create a dialogue with the audience.
“Nothing cheap, facile, or banal will do it. Don’t you dare put something out ugly and say the Holy Spirit inspired you to do it,” Nicolosi urged – “it undermines our entire faith project.”
She concluded her talk by presenting five things the Church can do to change the culture. First, she said the Church must identify those people who can represent us well to the wider culture. Media spokesmen are needed, orators are needed, and good singers are needed, she said.
Next, the Church needs to start training artists again. Those with talents for creating beautiful works of art need to be identified, encouraged, and taught, all within the Church. Nicolosi lamented that there is not one Catholic school among the top 20 film programs in the country – “there is no place in the Church to send your artist kid to be the best.”
Nicolosi's third recommendation for Catholics to change the culture is to start treating the arts as important, by again becoming patrons of beauty. Singers and architects need to well-compensated for their efforts to produce beautiful works of art; “we used to be willing to pay for gorgeous art.”
Medieval inhabitants of Europe sacrificed to produce magnificent Cathedrals, giving a sign of their faith for the future. Our sign for the future, Nicolosi lamented, is the popular 1980s hymn, “Gather Us In.”
Fourth, we need to work with professionals in the media field. Poorly made Catholic media does not evangelize: “ugly, shoddy, embarrassing work is not orthodox Catholic – it's another kind of lie,” she said.
“You're saying one thing with your mouth, and something else with your style.” As when building a Church one hires construction professionals, not necessarily daily Mass-goers, the production of Catholic films must include professional filmmakers.
Finally, Nicolosi urged prayer for artistic geniuses – for “Mozarts.” We must “pray to God to send a new influx of beauty, and people who can send it into our midst.”
“Ask God to send a Mozart, and that we'll recognize him,” she concluded. “Let us, for the sake of the people out there beyond our doors, make what John Paul II called the sacrifices that beauty requires.”