If you dismiss the need for beauty in the Catholic Church, you will come to a spiritual dead-end.
They’re about to start fundraising to build a new parish church in my diocese. Perhaps I should phrase it this way: “Due to development in the area and increased attendance at Sunday Masses, focused efforts are underway to build a new worship space for the parish community.” That phrase better expresses what will be built than the phrase “parish church”–a computer spit out plans based on the “needs” of various groups that are meeting in the current building, and a suitable construction based on that analysis is what will be built on the current site. Of course, that means that it’s going to be a utility building that will not be constructed according to the Church’s guidelines for the beauty and sacredness necessary in building a temple of God.
Initially I tried to convince some of those in leadership positions to approach the project as a sacred building instead of as a utility building. I emphasized the need for beauty, sacredness, and tradition in the new church building. As it is a temple of God, His Church’s established guidelines for His House should be our overriding concern in beginning this project. I heard crickets chirping. Perhaps I sounded out-of-touch with reality to everyone in the room–but it is Reality itself that motivated me.
It is not, as they may think, that I have some bizarre quasi-medieval decorating obsession. Sacred Art–including images, sculpture, architecture, and music–all point to invisible realities, things that are present, things that exist, but things that we cannot see, or hear, or touch with our senses. We humans make art in order to show forth some of the beauty we know these invisible things have, using physical matter that we are able to sense and experience. Thus, we use Sacred Art to aid us in identifying & interpreting the truths of our Faith. Far beyond simply decorating a space or only embellishing, Sacred Arts can provide catechesis and instruction in a direct and inspiring manner to generations upon generations.
Catechesis is necessary to raise up future generations of Catholics, most would agree. But Sacred-Art-as-educational-tool is not the only way to justify it, nor is it the primary reason for creating beautiful things for a church. Love is the reason. If we seek to live a moral life, it is because of the invisible (metaphysical) principles and truths we subscribe to. If we have chosen to live by them, we obviously must love and believe in them. And so if we love them, why do we not display them everywhere? Why are pictures of these things we believe in not everywhere we look? We may have great faith in the Trinity, angels, saints, virtue, grace–but it is still true for us fallen humans, that phrase–“out of sight, out of mind.” If we want to connect to something that we love, we make it present to us. This is how we treat other things that we love: you may see your family members every single morning, but you still have pictures of them up at work, right? You feel closer to them if you see a picture of them whenever you are separated from them at work. (And the preciousness of their felt presence through the pictures is doubly true for family members who have died or moved far away!) This is the reason why we must speak about the eternal and invisible things in each and every square inch of the church buildings: we want to feel close and present to the things we cannot see or sense. Catholics have done this for hundreds and hundreds of years, making Sacred Art both for the glorification of God and for the edification and sanctification of the Faithful.
And for people without faith, the beauty that is seen in our old churches and paintings and statues, and heard in the Sacred Music from the heart of the Church is sometimes the last and the only way they can be reached by the Church. It is perhaps the only transcendental left that can break through this sinful and depraved culture of the West, since millions upon millions have rejected philosophy, morality, and reason. Thankfully, the one who loves beauty will also be one seeking the truth. Beauty is of God, and so beauty ultimately points to Him.
Of course, part of the value of Sacred Art is in what the artist portrays, and part of the beauty comes from HOW he expresses it. The beauty both instructs and inspires. We have an immediate emotional connection to beautiful things, as we are meant to. This is why religious things must be presented in an elevated manner, so as to inspire the right attitudes and emotions in us for the invisible realities that we profess: awe, respect, gratitude. humility, penitence, and deep love. Since we can demean even the greatest things with our treatment of them, context is just as important as content when it comes to Sacred Art. (Which is why I am personally so committed to the Sacred Music movement, for one thing: there is all the difference in the world between singing of God’s majesty in an Evangelical-style rock song and in the Gregorian Chant of the Latin rite in the context of use at a celebration of Holy Mass.)
If we are going to build a Temple for God, it should mirror His beauty; it should model the faithful beauty seen in churches in the previous ages of Catholic history. To reference Cardinal Ratzinger, who said that utility music is useless, I’d like to say that in the Church, and for the Church, utility anything is useless. Making something useful presupposes that the said “thing” it is but a means to a practical, functional end. A utility church building will supply Catholics with something nearly any other large building would do, a big place to “assemble.” Why not just build a stadium for the local Catholics? A church building that does not mirror God’s beauty will be useless as a church.
The human soul thirsts for beauty, as it thirsts for God. As Bishop Conley has said, beauty is God’s language. He speaks to us in the language of beauty in order to draw us to Him, to help us recognize Him, and to cause us to seek and to love Him. When God made the world, He made it beautiful. He did the same for His Bride, the Catholic Church. Whenever we reflect on the importance of beauty in the Church and in our churches, we must remember that beauty is a wellspring of the spiritual life, by God’s own design.