We are not just material beings, but spiritual persons with a need for meaning, purpose, and fulfillment that transcends the visible confines of this world. This longing for transcendence is a longing for truth, goodness, and beauty. Truth, goodness, and beauty are called the transcendentals of being, because they are aspects of being. Everything in existence has these transcendentals to some extent. God, of course, as the source of all truth, goodness, and beauty, has these transcendentals to an infinite degree. Oftentimes, He draws us to Himself primarily through one of these transcendentals. St. Augustine, who was drawn to beauty in all its creaturely forms, found the ultimate beauty he was seeking in God, his creator, the beauty “ever ancient, ever new.”―Sister Gabriella Yi, O.P.

Bishop Lopes: A Pledged Troth. A pastoral letter on Amoris Laetitia.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Complementing the social justice paradigm with the mercy of art.

In our day and age when everything churchy is measured against the pro social justice paradigm, great violence has been done and continues to be done to the 'truth in art' legacy of the Church. Granted, much modern art tends to compound man's desperation and adds weight to his depression. However, art that offers beauty (truth and goodness) and thus hope is a spiritual work of mercy. Both the corporal and spiritual works offer hope to a world desperately in need of hope.

It seems that, in the wake of the Second Vatican Council, a disconnect occurred between the Church's social teaching and her artistic identity and legacy. The nexus has somehow been lost or deemphasized between the Church's artistic heritage and her preferential option for the poor. It seems we are not mustering the effort to do both art and corporal works of mercy. Perhaps we are still waiting for a synthesis of justice and the arts that is applicable to our time.

Poorly Understood

In many ways the Church is hamstrung by an unfortunate misunderstanding about poverty. Let's be clear: the poverty to which all are called is not crushing material destitution. Authentic poverty is prudent stewardship of the gifts we have been given so we may offer to God our time and talent in service to our brothers and sisters. To put it another way, we should be detached from things in order to use things to serve God and people. To put it briefly, use things not people. Love God and love neighbour. Let's get our priorities right.

Nice try.

For all the best efforts of the "social justice" crowd, the gulf between the rich and poor continues to widen. The utopian social justice enterprise that emerged in the 1960s and 1970s and proclaimed as the Church's rediscovered raison d'être is not as healthy nor effective as some might imagine. Instead of easing poverty by embracing poverty (solidarity), the promotion of the pseudo-gospel of liberation theology (and its illegitimate offspring), for example, has merely impoverished the Church and robbed her citizens and the world of an encounter with the redeeming beauty of Christ. Where there is authentic solidarity there is typically authentic religious practice and faithfulness to the Magisterium. The two go hand in hand. I.e., obedience to the Gospel means faithful witness in word and deed, in prayer (liturgy) and practice (social service outreach). Only a heart illumined by grace can see Jesus in the poorest of the poor.

Rise of Dissent

It is no coincidence that a massive loss of faithfulness to the truth has occurred along with a loss of appreciation of authentic beauty and goodness. The rejection of legitimate authority in the wake of the Second Vatican Council mirrored the rejection of authority and common sense in secular society. Without Faith, a moral compass and the good sense to understand the consequences of an abandonment of reason, people turned to various forms of self medication—pornography, drugs, technology and half-baked meditation practices—in an attempt to fill an existential void.

It is no coincidence that with a loss of focus on saving souls, the social justice enterprise came to resemble all too closely in many nations of the Americas the utopian praxis of communism and its happy-go-lucky twin—socialism. It is no coincidence that, where liberation theology made its biggest impact, evangelical protestant sects have poured into the void left by a flaccid Catholicism and have poached millions of Catholics who, quite frankly, found and are finding more substance about the person of Jesus in those sects that they have or do in many Catholic parishes which frequently tout a vapid socialism sold as Catholicism. Those same parishes are typically bereft of the glory of the Liturgy that once illumined entire continents. The darkness of man's rejection (of the beauty, truth and goodness of God) has replaced the hope and glory of God formerly manifest in and through the Mass.

Part of the problem or part of the solution?

One might counter that the social justice revolution in the Church is only just getting started. It may be true that the focus on social justice has come in the nick of time when man is descending into new depths of depravity, when man is finding new ways to rob his fellow human being of the opportunity to rise above crushing debt and material dependence. The tragic irony is that many social/political and religious enterprises dedicated to alleviating material poverty are creating dependence (on the state, for example) and elevating poverty rates rather than alleviating poverty. The problem with many social justice programs is that they do not go deep enough. They treat man as if he is a mere animal whose happiness depends on satisfying base instincts rather than an enfleshed soul who merits and needs supernatural food. Social justice without a soul is socialism. Socialism is a God-less religion that pretends too much and offers too little.

Look on the Bright Side

Blessed (Mother) Teresa of Calcutta lived among the poorest of the poor with her many Missionary Sisters and Brothers of Charity.
All God's gifts are good, but they are not all the same. As I often say to people who tell me that they would like to serve the poor as I do, "What I can do, you cannot. What you can do, I cannot. But together we can do something beautiful for God."—Blessed Teresa of Calcutta.
Mother Teresa raised to an art form service to the poorest of the poor. The reason she could uncover such beauty in some of the worst hellholes on earth is because she could, by a grace of God, see in each person the image of God. She found and made beauty even among the destitute and dying because Christ was there among those she and her sisters served. She found and served Christ in the distressing disguise of the poor. It is difficult to imagine Blessed Teresa pitting service and beauty against each other.

God's offer of salvation extends to all.

The materially rich need God as much as the poor. The call to conversion applies to all. As it is, many in the Church who promote solidarity with the poor are only succeeding in making men and women envious of the rich, an envy that is debilitating and manipulating many souls to imprison themselves in the pursuit of the brass ring. The purpose of the Church is not to sell the American Dream, it is to save souls. The American Dream certainly has many praiseworthy aspects. A rising tide floats all boats, one would hope. Authentic prosperity is achieved when man participates in the creation of dignified employment and the defence of the health and well being of his fellow citizens. In other words, the goal is to offer a hand up that is not limited to a hand out.

The Lord teaches us that man does not live on bread alone. Artists, musicians and architects are still swimming upstream against a raging current of "belly-first Catholicism". Belly-first, as in ignore the heart and simply feed mouths. We all know that material poverty grinds man down. However, those who are spiritually impoverished, unaware of the hole in their souls, tend to grind others down. Materially poverty will always be with us. We have work to do, but we cannot allow ourselves to become like the diseased thing we seek to heal—a world bereft of beauty and truth.

Man's internal unrest is projected on the world.

The natural world, too, is suffering because mankind is spiritually bankrupt. All the problems we face as a global community are due to man's spiritual malady: sin, alienation from God. Hunger, pollution, violence, loneliness—these are symptoms of a spiritual sickness, a sign that man is at war with himself and God. The world needs the beauty, truth and goodness of the Church. The world is starving, both materially and spiritually, because many in the Church have abandoned the call to choose the better part.

Art and Hope

The Church's artistic legacy is a light to the nations, a light that illuminates minds impoverished by materialism and a preoccupation with being Martha-like at the expense of the better part, i.e., Mary's choice. In a world so conditioned to believe that feeding bodies equates to feeding and saving souls, it is practically heresy (according to the pseudo-orthodoxy of the social justice paradigm) to suggest that we should refocus our attention on offering the world the beauty and promise of eternal life. Our ability to offer convincing symbols of Christian hope—i.e., beautiful works of art, architecture and music—has been severely hampered by a contemporary iconoclasm that shares much in common with other destructive forces.

The need for truth, goodness and beauty to be held up to man is this: the beautiful reminds man of the truth, i.e., his dignity, of having been created in God's image. Possessing a sense of his dignity, man rises to the challenge of overcoming material destitution and defending the right to life.

Authentic art does more to remind man of his inalienable rights than any constitution or charter. Without art, in particular religious art, no constitution or charter of rights can capture the ineffable character of man's design. The contemporary iconoclasm is a destruction of the image of God in man. By denying beauty at the heart of the Church, the new iconoclasm is in as many ways equally destructive as its ancient predecessor. The new iconoclasm denies the image of God in man and thus denies man's fundamental dignity. The new iconoclasm is, in a word, diabolical.

If the New Evangelization is to be anything, it must be a renewal of the artistic heart of man. The wars and ideological battles of the 20th Century corrupted and conditioned man's heart to be oriented to, among other life-sucking ideologies, materialistic socialism. If we do not rediscover the primacy of truth and beauty in art, there will be no goodness to share with our brothers and sisters. If we do not promote beauty, truth and goodness, who will?

Postscript

Here's a thought: liberate the heart to liberate the hands. The body goes where the heart goes. A heart illumined by goodness spreads goodness. A heart illumined by the truth of Jesus Christ spreads the knowledge of salvation.

In Christ alone is there is salvation. The recovery of one's dignity in Christ offers man authentic freedom to do what he ought. He ought to love God and his neighbour.

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"A multitude of wise men is the salvation of the world(.)—Wisdom 6:24. Readers are welcome to make rational and responsible comments. Any comment that 1) offends human dignity and/or 2) which constitutes an irrational attack on the Catholic Faith will not go unchallenged. If deemed completely stupid, such a comment will most assuredly not see the light of day. Them's the rules. Don't like 'em? Move on.