The Church and Art

Alfred J. Freddoso
University of Notre Dame

Three things--one distinction and two arguments--stand out in this excerpt from the Pope John Paul II's Letter to Artists.

The Holy Father first invokes the common philosophical distinction between doing and making, which underlies the further distinction, at the level of habit, between a virtue (habitual doing-well) and a craft or art (habitual making-well). On the one hand, doing-well--that is, acting in accord with our ultimate end--constitutes our goodness as human persons (our moral or spiritual goodness). On the other hand, making-well--that is, producing fitting objects that conform to "ideas conceived in the mind"--constitutes our goodness as human workers (our professional goodness, so to speak). The notion of an object is taken widely here to designate the fruit of any sort of work that involves intelligent design. Even when I clean my office, I have in mind (roughly) an object or end-state that serves to guide my work. But the paradigmatic instances of an art are those that require extensive training and practice.

As the Holy Father points out, making-well does not entail moral goodness, since it is possible to use an art in ways that are morally destructive of ourselves and others. Nonetheless, in the best sort of human lives our ability to make-well both serves and expresses our doing-well. In fact, one theme of Vatican II, emphasized repeatedly by the present Pontiff, is that honorable human work, when properly ordered to our ultimate end and joined to Christ's sacrifice on the cross, can serve to sanctify both ourselves and others. In this way our work, done well and with the right intention, becomes a vehicle of growth in moral and spiritual goodness.

So all honorable work is potentially sanctifying. But certain types of work, because of their inner nature, participate more fully in God's own creative activity. Work in the fine arts, the Holy Father asserts, is especially revelatory of the artist's personality, and beautiful objects of the arts, produced with the right intention, open up "a new dimension and an exceptional mode of expression for [the artist's] spiritual growth." We discover later that this 'new dimension' consists in the potential of the fine arts to transport us from the mundane to the transcendent, from visible realities to invisible, yet deeper, realities.

It is precisely because of this special nature that work in the fine arts bears a special relationship to the Church. And here we come to the two arguments mentioned above.

The first attempts to establish the conclusion that the Church needs the fine arts--in particular, the literary and figurative arts, music, and architecture. The most interesting premise for this conclusion invokes an analogy between objects of art and the Incarnate Word of God, who is himself "the icon of the unseen God." Building on a conclusion established in an earlier section of the letter, the Holy Father reasons that just as the Church needs Jesus Christ to make visible his unseen Father, so too she needs literary and figurative works, music, and architecture to raise our hearts and minds to the Father revealed by Jesus Christ. The Incarnate Word serves as the model of corporeal representations of transcendent realities and thus secures the place of the fine arts within the practice of the Church.

This premise strikes me as both deep and plausible. I will cite just one liturgical example. In a recent Catholic bestseller, The Lamb's Supper, Scott Hahn has powerfully reasserted the ancient claim that in the Mass the faithful quite literally participate in the heavenly worship depicted in the book of Revelation. This, of course, is true even when the liturgy is celebrated without music in the most plain setting--for example, in the crypt of Sacred Heart Basilica on the campus of Notre Dame, where I often go to Mass on weekdays. But especially after having read Hahn's book, I am aware that in such austere circumstances it takes an almost heroic act of imagination to believe that I really am worshipping in the company of the heavenly hosts. By contrast, in the Basilica proper--with its "carpenter Gothic" architecture, its murals and exquisite stained-glass windows depicting hundreds of angels and saints, its Mestrovic Pieta, its hand-painted Stations of the Cross, its magnificent golden main altar, etc.--I have little trouble believing the Mass to be, in Hahn's words, "heaven on earth." Recently, on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, when a student choir sang to the accompaniment of the 3000-pipe organ, the celebration of the Mass was positively sublime. The beauty of the visible signs produced by artists had palpably led the congregation to "see" otherwise unseen realities.

The second argument is a seeming "provocation." The conclusion is that art needs the Church every bit as much as the Church needs art. In Fides et Ratio the Holy Father traces the deleterious effects of the modernist separation of philosophy from faith. So, too, in an earlier section of the Letter to Artists he had noted with sorrow a similar modernist separation of art from faith. In each case an important vehicle of the deepest human desires and aspirations has deliberately cut itself off from its possible fulfillment in the Christian understanding of the world. And in light of this now entrenched separation, the very suggestion that art needs the Church sounds strange and outmoded.

The argument itself proceeds in two stages. The Holy Father first notes that in almost every culture there has been a close tie between religion and art. For religion seeks answers to those "most vital personal questions" that art in its own way wishes to address--questions concerning "the hidden meaning of things" and, ultimately, the very meaning of human existence. For art to cut itself off from such questions or from the search for "concrete and definitive" answers to them is for it to lose its very reason for being.

But a fortiori--and this is the second stage--art must especially not cut itself off from the full truth about man, which is found in Christian revelation. For as Gaudium et Spes puts it in a passage that the Holy Father has often cited in his writings and once again cites in the very next section of the Letter to Artists, Jesus Christ not only reveals his Father to man but also "fully reveals man to himself." Hence, any authentic attempt to give aesthetic expression to the mystery of man will find both inspiration and fulfillment in Jesus Christ. So art, like philosophy, needs Christ in order to best accomplish its own intrinsic goals. And this is why art needs the Church.

The main premise here--namely, that it is only in Jesus Christ that we can fully understand ourselves--is, to be sure, a revealed premise that must be accepted on faith. But it is also a very powerful premise when taken not as a bare statement to be assented to, but rather as an invitation to meditate on the Gospels prayerfully and with an open heart, guided by one of those great saints whose spiritual writings are capable of revealing hidden depths of meaning. For philosophy, much like art, is in the end a matter of the heart as much as of the intellect.