Thursday, December 27, 2018

On Confusing Style With Holiness

Preliminary Note: To pre-empt any accusation of this advocating “modern” or “minimalist” style, let me be clear. This article is not about what the style of churches should be. It’s about people missing the point by saying only a certain style of art is the sign of a holy Church.

Some of the internal criticism on the Church is to compare the glory and temporal influence of the Church at her height (usually in the high Middle Ages or the time of the Council of Trent), and contrast it with the rebellion and contempt against her today. The argument is that ever since X happened, the Church has been in decline. Some blame Vatican II or the Popes from 1958 onward. Others blame Popes after St. John XXIII for “betraying” the Council. But both are operating from the belief that:
  1. There was a time when we had a “golden age” in the Church.
  2. This ain’t it.
  3. We need to go back to what worked at that time.
The problem is, the glory and prestige is a byproduct of the mission of the Church that only exists in certain times. In most times, the Church has had to deal with indifference, hostility, and disrespect. Even in the times of the greatest earthly renown, the Church has needed to deal with hostile governments (some of them Catholics), corruption, dissent, and sin.

When people speak of the decline in respect and holiness, they usually confuse the architecture of churches, the talent of artists, and the solemnity of a High Mass in a certain era with the holiness of the Church. But the mission of the Church exists, regardless of the artistic talent of the times.

There’s a vast difference between the frescoes in the catacombs and the Renaissance art [§]. But the mission to be God’s way of bringing His salvation of the world to every person in every place and time continues regardless of the talent and piety of the individual Catholics. 

That’s not to say that art, architecture, and ceremony aimed glorifying God is meaningless. If not done to an excess that distracts, these things are good at elevating the heart and mind to thinking about God. But if the focus on these ever becomes a distraction away from serving God, then people have missed the point of the Church.

I am reminded of a video shared by a member of the SSPX that purported to show a modern altar that was ignored. Then (through time lapse photography), the altar was decorated (practically buried under cloth and statuary over crates) to look like a pre-Vatican II altar and people started showing it more respect. The point was supposed to be that respect was lost because of Vatican II.

“But,” I replied, “what was sacred was the altar itself, not the decoration on top of it. The fact that people were not being respectful of the altar before it was buried under trappings shows they were missing the point of what was sacred.” The altar should be reverenced because of the role it plays, not because it is adorned with beautiful things.

Of course, when possible, the altar should be dignified. We shouldn’t tear down the old without serious reasons [#]. But dignified is not the same as “ornate.” Music should be dignified, but dignified is not the same as “baroque.” Churches should glorify God, but glorifying is not a synonym for “flying buttresses.” To say that a church that is not ornate, baroque, or designed in a medieval style is not dignified is to miss the point.

Some may be called to create beautiful churches, beautiful decoration, and beautiful music. They should carry out that calling of course. But let’s not forget that this beauty is not the point of the Church. The mission of saving souls is. If our quarrels over beauty obscures that mission, we have missed the point of what the Church is.

______________________

[§] I’ll set aside the discussion of the general decline of art as we go forward in time. Much of the recent bad “Church art” seems to coincide with bad art in general.

[#] It was tragic when some Catholics carried out a mini iconoclasm in the misinterpretation of Vatican II. But this was not done at the instruction of Vatican II.

3 comments:

  1. Many great films have beautiful, atmospheric cinematography and a great score. Surely the story is usually what makes it great at its core, but without the sensory beauty accompanying it, it might be a lot harder to really pull people into the story.

    It's just how people are. We respond to sensory things. Images and sounds capture us, and beauty draws us to what it represents.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I agree. But, to use your analogy, I’m writing about the theological equivalent of people who think only the style of cinematography and score of a certain era is valid.

      Delete
    2. I can definitely see what you're saying there. One of my favorite churches is actually very modern in design. Some might criticize it for looking like a weird spaceship. But I find that it has a moody and beautiful atmosphere that feels meditative and transporting.

      So I'm with you on that. Gothic architecture and "traditional" statuary and altar designs aren't necessary for a church to be holy, beautiful or Catholic.

      Delete