The Way of BeautyBeauty – the Church’s Greatest Power

In this month’s issue of First Things, Dana Gioia’s superb article, “The Catholic Writer Today,” sums up the diminished state of the fine arts in the American Catholic Church. While the Church registers the largest religious and cultural group in the country, Gioia writes that, paradoxically we “currently enjoy almost no positive presence in the American fine arts—not in literature, music, sculpture, or painting.” 

Dana Gioia is well known to the literary world.  A poet and critic, the former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, he is currently the Judge Widney Professor of Poetry and Public Culture at the University of Southern California.  Gioia is a practicing Catholic and a very concerned Catholic. He worries about the future not only of the Catholic writer but also of other expressions of artistic beauty in the American Church. 

Past Influence of the Church and the Arts

Until sixty years ago, the Church had earned a lasting place in history for inspiring Christian culture through the literary, visual, and musical arts, understood as beautiful. By commissioning the finest artists, the Church stood as their foremost patron. The sacred arts exerted a formative influence on the lives of the faithful and as well as on those not of the Catholic faith.  Scholars agreed that beauty was the Church’s greatest treasure, the Church’s greatest power. This is no longer true.  They have been critical of the Church for abandoning its teaching and pursuit of beauty, and with it, the ability to attract contemporary men and women beyond the mundane, to the beautiful, and to the Church itself.

“If one asked an arts journalist,” Gioia writes, “to identify a major living painter or sculptor, playwright or choreographer, composer or poet, who was a practicing Catholic, the critic, I suspect would be unable to offer a single name. He could surely identify a few ex-Catholics such as Andres Serrano, Terrence McNally, or Mark Adamo, who use religious subject matter for satire, censure, or shock value.”

The Church’s Fine Arts and Education

The Church used to exercise a prominent role in education for the arts.  Non-sectarian graduate schools of fine arts respected the Church’s position on the arts as though it were the gold standard. In fact, the Church’s views formed part of their curriculum. Today, the School of Sacred Architecture at Notre Dame University, dedicated to the art of beautiful church architecture, is exerting a wide influence. Church music has not fared quite so well. After Vatican II, schools of sacred music were closed.  Today, sacred music excels most notably at St. John’s Abbey, Collegeville, MN and St. Vincent’s Archabbey, Latrobe, PA.  More choir schools are needed like the Choir School at the Cathedral of the Madeleine in Salt Lake City and the Boston Archdiocesan Choir School.  And the time has come to re-establish diocesan competitions of scholas and choruses, of young painters, of sculptors, and writers.

Good Literature

“Sixty years ago,” Gioia notes, “it was taken for granted that a significant portion of American writers were Catholics who balanced their dual identities as artists and believers.  Catholic authors were reviewed and discussed in the general press.  They were also intelligently covered in the large and varied Catholic press.” Today most Catholic publishing companies cater to explicitly religious topics leaving Catholic writers, whose caliber matches that of Flannery O’Connor or Evelyn Waugh, to fend for themselves.  Then there is the question of readership.  How many people read, and read good Catholic fiction and poetry?   Though anti-Catholicism is not new in these United States, today overt scorn and open hatred of the Church are intense. The clergy scandals have severely wounded the Church, weakening its credibility.  The media are in no mood to look kindly on the Church.  Gone is the day of “Going My Way.”

The Liturgical Arts

Gioia’s also has his pulse on the diminished state of the refining arts in the liturgy.  Since Vatican II, artistic decline has been most evident in the Church’s liturgy. In addition to “ill-conceived and poorly performed music, graceless architecture, formulaic painting, banal sculpture,” the author includes “the cliché-ridden and shallow homilies.

The author writes that “Vatican II’s legitimate impulse to make the Church and its liturgy more modern and accessible was implemented mostly by clergy with no training in the arts.  These eager, well-intentioned reformers not only lacked artistic judgment; they also lacked respectful understanding of art itself, sacred or secular.  They saw words, music, images, and architecture as functional entities whose role was mostly intellectual and rational.  Art is holistic and incarnate—simultaneously addressing the intellect, emotions, imagination, physical sense, and memory without dividing them.”   

Sacred Images

Over the years, several prominent church leaders have criticized defective sacred images. Among them are Romano Guardini, Avery Dulles, Thomas Merton, and the popes. Writes Merton: “Some of us would instinctively be ashamed to let a non-Catholic friend see some of the statues or stained glass windows that are found in our churches. The deplorable quality and lack of restraint of art, and the sentimental, feminine character of the picture of the Sacred Heart, a handsome Jesus with azure blue eyes, statues of Our Lady, dolled up with lipstick and mascara and who looks like a lovely society lady.  All these pervert the truth.  Bad so-called religious art is like rotten food; there is a healthy reaction to bad food: you throw it out” (Merton, Disputed Questions, 157, 159).

Impoverishment and Disfigurement of Catholic Sacred Music

In the 1960s, many of our church leaders were seminarians.  It was a time when Gregorian chant was forcibly submerged below the surface, and the songs of the St. Louis Jesuits with other colleagues were all the rage. These amateurs did not simply lack training in the classical tradition; they refused instruction in composition.  Their songs, found in flimsy, unattractive missalettes that also print the word of God, are an embarrassment to the Church’s classical tradition. Is this our faith?

When prominent churches, even a cathedral or two, endorse noisy instruments, when leaders choose music that is defective, even by the lowest musical standards, when cantors consistently sing off-pitch, when they croon, swoon, and sway like torch singers in a cocktail lounge, when the liturgy is permeated with operatic and theatrical music, this is a disfigurement of the liturgy.

More in The Way of Beauty

Conversion to the Faith through Music

The French poet, dramatist and former atheist, Paul Claudel (d 1955) recounts his conversion when he heard the Magnificat sung during Vespers on Christmas Eve at the cathedral Notre-Dame de Paris: “In an instant, my heart was touched and I believed. I believed with such force, with such relief of all my being, a conviction so powerful, so certain and without any room for doubt, that ever since, all the books and arguments, all the hazards of my agitated life have never shaken my faith, nor, to tell the truth, have they even touched it” (“Ma conversion” in Contacts et circonstances, Gallimard, 1940).

Organists Driven from the Church

The plight of talented organists is grave.  Many have been forced out of their positions by church leaders who lack musical training and respect for the Church’s tradition of artistic beauty. In forsaking the pipe organ and church organists, the Church has further diminished its influence and position as a Church of beauty.  These drastic, tragic changes have deprived the faithful of experiencing a rich organ repertory, despite official documents singling out the pipe organ as adding “a wonderful splendor to the Church’s ceremonies, powerfully lift[ing] up men’s hearts and minds to God and to higher things.”

Beauty—an Attitude of Mind, a Way of Living

Beauty is a power.  It lifts us up above the mundane, above the ugly.  Beauty inspires us, breathes new life into us; it refreshes. The appearance of beauty makes us happy, giving enjoyment and deep satisfaction.  Beauty makes us feel like gods; it can bring us to our knees.  Even before a word was spoken at the beginning of time, God breathed beauty into all of creation. “The Lord will dawn on you in radiant beauty,” the Advent liturgy sings.  All beauty derives from God’s glory, and for this reason, it causes us to break out in wonder, joy, and prayer. 

“The schism between Christianity and the arts has had two profound consequences,” Gioia observes, “two vast impoverishments—one for the arts world, the other for the Church. First, for the art world, the loss of a transcendent religious vision, a refined and rigorous sense of the sacred . . . . The shallow novelty, the low-cost nihilism, and the vague and sentimental spiritual medium—are the legacy of this schism . . . not that art needs to be religious . . . just something more subtle and complex. The second consequence of this cultural schism affects the Church.  The loss of the aesthetic sensibility in the Church has weakened its ability to make its call heard in the world.  Whenever the Church has abandoned the notion of beauty, it has lost precisely the power that it hoped to cultivate—its ability to reach souls in the modern world.”

(Column continues below)

Beauty, Truth, and Goodness

The Church proclaims the truths of salvation. It is a great charitable organization, if not the greatest in the world, but no longer considered the most beautiful.  Many in the Church are deeply troubled by the realization that beauty has been banished from Catholic theology and catechesis.  Not just minimized, trivialized, or ignored, beauty has virtually been dismissed as critical to proclaiming dogmas and to celebrating the Eucharistic liturgy which should enrapture Catholics. One church where all the particulars conspire toward beautiful liturgy is St. Joseph Church in Greenwich Village.  The Dominican Fathers serve this university church, located near New York University.

Beauty is an essential part of Catholic faith, not an ornament, not a decoration. Discipleship is fundamentally that dynamic movement from self to the beauty of Christ.  Weren’t the disciples first transported by what they heard and touch—by everything that Christ manifested in his very presence (1 Jn:1)?  A lively faith moves the heart in a transport beyond the self to the Beloved who is beauty.  Without this movement, faith remains woefully incomplete. 

A lively faith consists not just in creed bolstered by the intellect and then believed.  Without beauty—this dynamic movement toward Christ, faith remains a bundle of truths that are formalistic, dry, and without spiritual unction.

Nor is faith simply a matter of performing good deeds.  Without the dynamic movement to Christ, one questions why such charitable works should be done.  In fact, their interest may be so functional, so grafted to the natural plane that there is no transcendent overreach.  Beauty is not simply a matter of aesthetics but a matter of faith.  It guards truth and goodness to complete a faith, crowned with love. Hans Urs von Balthasar warns: “We can be sure that whoever sneers at [beauty] as if she were the ornament of a bourgeois past—whether he admits it or not—can no longer pray and soon will no longer be able to love” (The Glory of the Lord, I:18).

Beauty is proper to the sacred arts that serve the liturgy.  With the sacramental signs, they are the primary way in which the mystery of the Incarnation continues to be effective in the Church.  Great liturgy, great art, great music have the power to transform our lives, as it did Paul Claudel’s.  If our churches were temples of beauty, they would be filled again.  Then, we could proclaim, ‘See here is our treasure; here is our faith!’

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