In 1971, a group of distinguished individuals — artists, writers, musicians, intellectuals — sent an appeal to Pope Paul VI requesting that he preserve the classical Roman Rite of the Mass. This group, composed of Catholics and non-Catholics alike, had as their aim not the maintenance of a particular theological mode of worship so much as the source and summit of much of the best of European culture. In part, the appeal read:
The rite in question, in its magnificent Latin text, has also inspired a host of priceless achievements in the arts — not only mystical works, but works by poets, philosophers, musicians, architects, painters and sculptors in all countries and epochs. Thus, it belongs to universal culture as well as to churchmen and formal Christians.
There were 57 signatures, and some were surprising. While there were prominent Catholics on the list, such as Graham Greene and Malcolm Muggeridge, others, like the flamboyant homosexual writer and dilettante Harold Acton, unrivaled soprano Dame Joan Sutherland, and former British poet laureate (and one time Communist) Cecil Day Lewis, had no particularly religious axe to grind. Anglican novelist Agatha Christie, in fact, has long had her name associated with the request, because (according to a popular anecdote) it was Christie’s name that Paul VI took note of, being an admirer of her stories.
It is no secret to the historian that the rich spiritual and human tapestry of Catholicism that so infused the Western world has served as the inspiration for more art, architecture, and music than any other subject. From Mozart’s Coronation Mass to the sacred art of Michelangelo, Bernini, and Caravaggio, to the cathedrals of Chartres, Cologne, St. Vitus, and St. Peter’s itself — Europe is teeming with art that that draws its substance from the Faith. Even Hollywood had a tryst with Catholicism, producing movies like Bells of Saint Mary’s, It’s a Wonderful Life, Ben Hur, Come to the Stable, and The Song of Bernadette.
Can anyone imagine the Catholic Church inspiring art in a similar fashion today, or a coalition of artists, musicians, and actors clamoring for the restoration of this or that liturgy or custom? Rather than finding a common cultural muse in the Church, contemporary artisans have rebelled against its teachings and severed their work from its traditions, and Catholics — also subject to the forces of the zeitgeist — have lost their own moorings, and have all but given up on the arts.
We see pockets, of course. There’s been a small resurgence in fiction written by Catholic authors, and The Passion of the Christ was a masterpiece, but unless there is some great renaissance lying in wait beneath the surface of postmodern secularism, it appears we have conceded the fight.
In an interview published recently in Lay Witness, Barbara Nicolosi, Catholic blogger and founding partner of the Act One program designed to help Christians break into the movie business, lamented this loss of Christian artistry. She noted that while the Church used to be considered the patron of the arts, we have by and large lost our sense of the beautiful, both inside and outside of our parishes. We see it not only in the ecclesiastical sphere — liturgies and architecture and music — but in our general failure as Catholics to engage and uplift the culture by helping to shape it:
I’m very sad that we have had so few Catholics go through the [Act One] program. I have gone to these schools — the Catholic schools, the special Catholic schools — I’ve gone to them all several times and spoken there and pleaded, and what I find there is that kids do not have any apostolic drive. After getting these great Great Books educations, what they want to be is maybe a DRE in a small country parish in the backwoods where nobody will notice them and they can just shut the world down and out. You know, there’s nothing apostolic in that. St. Paul could’ve done that — the Church would be nothing if we had done that. We have not received a mandate to head for the hills.
While Nicolosi might overstate her case, her point is valid:
While we certainly need DREs in backwoods parishes, we cannot be satisfied with that. If our most faithful schools are creating isolationist Catholics with bunker mentalities, how can we ever hope to speak to the world? The Mystical Body is made up of many parts; surely we need directors and writers and musicians and artists nearly as much as we need religion teachers and catechists and priests. When the two are separated, the result is a Catholic ghetto, rather than a culture with Catholicism at its heart.
Nicolosi identifies the problem:
There is something wrong in a Church in which we are preparing kids to only play in the Catholic subculture. [whispers] There was never supposed to be a Catholic subculture! You know what disciples do in the Catholic subculture? They have personality fights and power struggles.
For many Catholics — especially those with children — a retreat from the world seems at times the only option. Overwhelmed and surrounded by a secular, hedonistic, over-sexualized culture that grows increasingly antithetical to the faith, it becomes a constant battle to shelter our families. But in doing so, we risk losing touch with the very world in which we are meant to be the leaven.
If the popular culture is an unhealthy environment for Catholic families, so too are echo chambers filled only with the ideas we like and agree with. This can transform into fantasy, a microcosm where — as my friend and Catholic journalist Hilary White recently described — Catholic enclavists have gone off into the woods to create a happy and comforting little Catholic world, well insulated from Outside. The kids are homeschooled, the women commonly wear the trademark shapeless plaid jumper/white t-shirt and sneakers combo, the men work at home, the books on the shelves are all from Ignatius or Angelus press, the jokes are clean and not very funny, conversation is always holy, the horrors of the squelching, seething pornographic world Outside are clucked at primly and the introduction of ironic humour is a wild and somewhat scandalous sensation.
This is precisely the sort of mentality that is incapable of confronting the culture. Rather than trying to bring the light of the Church into a hostile world, such people find it safer to keep the light under a bushel basket. The reasons for doing so are noble, no question: We parents will stand before God and account for the formation of our children and want only what is best for their souls. But what also of the souls entrusted to our care? What of those individuals in society who, lost and needing a lifeline, find that all help has been withdrawn and they are alone?
Those of us who have been blessed with a Catholic education and who wish to avoid being contaminated by a sinful culture may wish to consider the wisdom of the venerable John Henry Cardinal Newman, who famously wrote in his Idea of a University, “It is a contradiction in terms to attempt a sinless literature about a sinful man.” Understanding that what we want man to be is something loftier than what man is, Newman believed that engaging the world meant understanding the reality of it. He continued:
If then a University is a direct preparation for this world, let it be what it professes. It is not a Convent, it is not a Seminary; it is a place to fit men of the world for the world. We cannot possibly keep them from plunging into the world, with all its ways and principles and maxims, when their time comes; but we can prepare them against what is inevitable; and it is not the way to learn to swim in troubled waters, never to have gone into them.
And those troubled waters are ripe with possibilities, though we won’t see them if we avoid them out of fear. I’ve watched tremendous “R”-rated movies, found brilliant satire in shows like The Simpsons and Family Guy, heard poetic Christian allegory and a pining for salvation in the dark rock ballads of U2, been soothed by the tragic voice of Amy Winehouse, and seen gripping accounts of dystopic consumerist futures in the writings of William Gibson. Critical consumption combined with a Catholic worldview allows us to recognize artistry even when the artist falls short or the message misses the mark. Art is both an inspiration for and a reflection of the culture it derives from, and where it fails to inspire, it cannot help but provide insight (even if only to shed light on what is broken in the heart of postmodern man).
At its best, it can also be a lot of fun.
We can try to avoid all of this in the interest of avoiding danger, but there is no guarantee of safe passage in this life. If we do not bring Christ to the world, who will? We alone have the sacraments, and the rich intellectual and cultural and moral tradition of the Catholic Church. What we can learn about artistry from the master storytellers of our age, we can infuse with the hope of the greatest story ever known.
Of those who are willing to speak to the world through culture and the arts, it must be conceded that their message is often the last thing the world needs to hear. That’s why it’s so important for the faithful to once again inspire and create culture, not only in an explicitly religious sense, but through the wider lens of the Catholic worldview. This is the worldview that encompasses both sinners and saints, that professes belief in a God made Man who ate with tax collectors and prostitutes, and died on a cross. Catholicism encompasses the breadth of human experience, from the height of ecstasy to the darkness of death. We have something to say because our Faith does not find hope in the notion of sinless man, but in the recognition of fallen man redeemed.
This article originally appeared in the July 2008 edition of Crisis