In Defense of Beauty

It’s said that the three marks of the divine–that which is transcendent–is beauty, goodness, and truth. That which is beautiful, good, or truthful points towards God. This is why Catholic churches have traditionally been built with rich artwork and soaring architecture.

Modern society is at battle with these marks of transcendence. Not only is popular culture seeking to make goodness and truth relative, it also seeks to destroy beauty in favor of efficiency. We see examples of this with the literal destruction of beauty in Catholic churches across the country: high altars ripped down, intricate altar rails thrown away, detailed stained glass imagery replaced by abstract colors, beautiful vestments replaced by schlocky polyester sheets, and many more examples. Secular life has many examples too; most modern buildings favor high-efficiency materials to produce cookie-cutter strip malls dotting our roads, deep and meaningful music, artwork, and literature exists but seems to be harder and harder to find. Gone are the days when someone who cherished authentic beauty in society is to be regarded civilized.

1710-15_de_matteis_triumph_of_the_immaculate_anagoria

The soul’s longing for beauty may be hard to easily satisfy in today’s world but those who seek to live a counter-cultural, authentic, better and joyful life need to try. One must ask of everything surrounding their life, “does this reflect goodness, truth, or beauty”? It’s not the most efficient way of living, but it does produce better results. This point is reflected over and over by Rod Dreher in his book Crunchy Cons, “beauty is more important than efficiency”:

Appreciation of aesthetic quality–that is, beauty–is not a luxury, but key to the good life

In my now-heightened awareness of the lack of beauty plaguing both our churches and culture, I found the recent article by Paul Krause particularly edifying. He more eloquently states the same point while citing ancient thinkers such as Cicero and Platinus and their impact on classic Christian philosophy. These notions were once obvious to Christians. This unfortunately is no longer.

What’s hopeful, however, is the recent “re-renovations” of previously destroyed churches, the formation of architectural firms specializing in traditional beauty, and priests interested in offering reverent Masses (especially the TLM).

Quoting only parts from A Defense of Beauty and Excellence from the Classical Tradition (emphases mine):

There are many serious problems facing moderns, but one of the most troubling—and worrying—is the loss and degradation of beauty, not just in the arts, but in society as a whole. Classical Greek philosophy, to which Catholic philosophy largely inherited and preserved, maintained that beauty and morality were intertwined with one another. When Christianity began to spread, the Christian encounter with Greek philosophy was largely positive. However, over the last two centuries, the widening chasm between aesthetics and virtue, and the postmodern assertion that aesthetics is oppressive (and therefore needing deconstruction), has brought immeasurable harm to culture and society.

Culture means life. And for life to be truly flourishing in a teleological sense, Greek, Roman, traditional Jewish and Christian philosophy, always affirmed beauty as an integral aspect of the good life. In his masterpiece, Enneads, Plotinus opened his most famous section—on beauty—by writing, “Beauty addresses itself chiefly to sight; but there is a beauty for the hearing too, as in certain combinations of words and in all kinds of music, for melodies and cadences are beautiful; and minds that lift themselves above the realm of sense to a higher order are aware of beauty in the conduct of life, in actions, in character, in the pursuits of the intellect; and there is the beauty of the virtues. What loftier beauty there may be, yet, our argument will bring to light.”

More…

[Plotinus stated] “Then again, all the virtues are a beauty of the soul, a beauty authentic beyond any of these others.”… As Plotinus explains, the ugly lacks a proper cultivation of reason, torn by lust and discord, lashes out and destroys beauty in the process—which also destroys harmony. It is interesting to note that Plotinus associated the ugly soul with the person preoccupied with only material things.

Catholics, best of all, understand the importance of the union of aesthetics with arête. Beauty, itself, demands a value judgement. There is nothing harsh or unfair with proclaiming this truth. That which is beautiful is good, and that which is ugly, as Plotinus recognized, is neither beautiful nor good. There are natural gradations of beauty. As Augustine explained, the gradations of beauty lift one up closer to Heaven and the Supreme Beauty that is God. This follows the insights of both Plato and Plotinus who recognized that the experience of even low beauty awakens an innate desire for greater beauty that drives one to greater excellence in search for beauty.

Cicero equally noted that people in their folly, are prone to destroy things beautiful and admirable. Nihilism is the end result of anti-intellectualism and relativism, not just the mere absence of values but the abject negation—destruction—of beauty and values.

The quote above is great. Relativism of beauty, truth, and goodness has an end result of not just the simple absence of each mark but a destruction of each. What did we see bishops and priests do in the 70’s? They didn’t just simply start making ugly new churches, they quite literally destroyed the beauty of old churches. The “art” that replaced traditional sacred art in many suburban parishes are kitschy felt banners and horrendously cheesy guitar music. Gross.

It is the inheritance of the classical marriage of aesthetics and moral excellence that had historically been a cornerstone of not just Catholic philosophy, but Western philosophy more generally—inspiring all aspects of culture: art, music, engineering, and literature, to reflect the highest excellence demanded of beauty itself. And in that beauty there exists an irresistible draw for the virtuous to defend all that is beautiful. The compulsion to defend the beautiful, itself, reflects the moral excellence of the person.

…in Confessions, Augustine stated that reading Virgil and Cicero had brought him to belief in God. Beauty is the brilliance of truth, and as Augustine said, “All truth belongs to God.” And we know where that road ultimately ends.

We all should start discerning what is beautiful in our homes and lives. Then we should slowly start surrounding our minds, bodies, and souls not only with what is truthful and good but also is beautiful. ☩

Reminded Why I Left

Unable to make it to my normal parish (where yesterday would have marked the Sixth Sunday after Epiphany), yesterday I assisted at Mass for the 33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time at the church much, much closer to my house. Oh, how nice that drive is! Why did I ever give up such a convenient drive? Answering my question, the enjoyment of the six-minute commute was quickly neutralized for many reasons.

I was driving home from out of town Sunday morning which required me to fulfill my Sunday Obligation at the aforementioned parish because they offered an evening Mass. I won’t name this parish because it is irrelevant. But at one time I was a member of this parish only to leave it in search of a more worthy liturgy (Heb 12:28) and less banal, more Catholic-sounding homilies.

I entered the round, carpeted, suburban church a bit early. I figured the time saved on the drive could be put to good use with a rosary. Unfortunately, the tabernacle (which is pushed to the side of the sanctuary) had its view mostly obstructed by a mock Door of Mercy decorated by children. Not discouraged, I continued according to plan. Then, apparently spoiled by churches which try to maintain sacred silence in both the nave and sanctuary over the past couple years, I had to battle the distraction of a literal band practice taking place in the choir area inches away from the tabernacle (interestingly, the Door of Mercy wasn’t obstructing the view of those ‘performing’). I wish to point out that these people (a couple I know) are very nice and well-intentioned. I know a few members from this parish read this blog so I want you to be clear on this :). But it’s not easy to pray when there’s two guitars being strummed and a full drum kit being banged! Were we preparing for a protestant service or the Holy Mass? Were rosaries even allowed in here I jokingly thought to myself (hey, I was distracted).

Then the Mass began.

I won’t bother with writing about the unfortunate liturgy that was offered. It was as-expected. What wasn’t expected was the shockingly inappropriate political commentary that popped up.

Before the penitential rite, the pastor suggested that “because of how the election turned out” we need to call to mind what has happened to us as voters, asking for God’s mercy. It didn’t end there.

It’s a shame that this pastor chose not to properly form the conscience (since they, he alludes, are ill-formed) of his congregation by focusing on the meaning of the propers for this Sunday–and most others–because they offered some rich scripture:

Reading 1 Mal 3:19-20a

Lo, the day is coming, blazing like an oven,
when all the proud and all evildoers will be stubble,
and the day that is coming will set them on fire,
leaving them neither root nor branch,
says the LORD of hosts.
But for you who fear my name, there will arise
the sun of justice with its healing rays.

Gospel Lk 21:5-19

[…]“Before all this happens, however,
they will seize and persecute you,
they will hand you over to the synagogues and to prisons,
and they will have you led before kings and governors
because of my name.
It will lead to your giving testimony.
Remember, you are not to prepare your defense beforehand,
for I myself shall give you a wisdom in speaking
that all your adversaries will be powerless to resist or refute.
You will even be handed over by parents, brothers, relatives, and friends,
and they will put some of you to death.
You will be hated by all because of my name,
but not a hair on your head will be destroyed.
By your perseverance you will secure your lives.”

Instead he repeated the common platitudes officially sanctioned by popular culture about “fear” and “hate” in his commentary on the outcome of the election. He treated us to a story about how he worked with many Latino families earlier in his career and how many of them are likely scared because of who was elected president (even though about a third of them voted for Trump). He told us how now it’s likely that millions of people will now lose their health insurance! Apparently he did not get the memo that Obamacare has resulted in less people insured and higher insurance premiums for those who are. He also must not be aware that the very Roman Catholic Church that employs him sued the government over Obamacare, along with other Catholic organizations in the United States. It’s too bad Cardinal Dolan, Little Sisters of the Poor, and other Catholics were not in attendance to be reminded about their apparent need for penitence by this thoughtful pastor.

I need not explain the many problems a Catholic faces with president-elect Trump because I have written about it many time on this blog. But one sure wonders, if Hillary were elected, would this sandal-wearing priest have struck the same tone over the woman who has extreme positions on abortion (including it being funded by tax payers), family issues, and the sovereignty of the Church in America. Was he even aware that this candidate’s campaign managers set up fake Catholic groups in attempt to weaken the American Church? Did this priest care about any of this or the legitimate concerns of the American faithful? I’ll bet not, especially since as long as I have known this priest, I haven’t witness him tackle one difficult issue.

But wait, there’s more! Then the priest actually asked for a show of hands to see who voted for Trump and who voted for Hillary! I sat, utterly shocked. Should I get up and leave this unfortunate display? Should I say something out loud to rebuke his behavior? Should I wait to let him hear my mind in the narthex?. I decided not to do any of these things. He has proven to be unresponsive in the past to concerns and anything said directly would likely be unproductive and self-serving. I decided instead, in agreement with my neighbor (a choir member at this parish), to write the bishop. And apparently, according to the same neighbor, other members will likely write the bishop after what they witnessed from this weekend. Here is a part of what I wrote:

Your Excellency,

I was at Mass last night at [typical suburban parish] in [whiteupperclassville]. Despite living in [whiteupperclassville], my family almost never goes to [typical suburban parish] because of events similar to what I’m about to describe (along with their liturgy). There are many other local young families that drive out of their way on Sunday for the same reasons.

Rev. [He’sWithHer] opened the Mass by suggesting we need the penitential rite for what happened in our country over the past week. He went on to suggest that the outcome of the election was deeply problematic for Catholics and we need to reorient ourselves in the wake of this. Then during his homily [I explain what was just explained]. Would he have addressed any of those problems if the election outcome was different? Probably not, because he, along with way too many of his colleagues, refuse to address topics that are not in line with what popular culture thinks.

Your Excellency, I (and many, many other in your diocese) have had enough of this nonsense. Please address it. Also, please address many of the liturgical matters that plague various parishes on a regular basis.

Thank you very much for reading this.

Asking for your blessing,

[TSP]
Did you experience anything similar following the election? Let’s keep praying for the wonderful young priests coming out of the seminary right now, that they one day are finally able to change things for the better. ☩

Thoughts on Pew’s In-Depth Poll of American Catholics

Pew Research conducted a thorough poll of American Catholics leading up to the Holy Father’s recent trip to the United States. The study covers a lot of issues facing American culture today, attempting to understand where Catholics stand on these topics. The findings are interesting even if expected. The entire poll is over five “chapters” long but let’s discuss a few glaring points. If you have time, make sure to check out the entire thing–handy graphs and all–at their site with the table of contents below:

There’s been a lot of polling over the past few years showing that fewer people than ever consider themselves Christian. While I don’t doubt that, percentage-wise, fewer people are Christian (let alone Catholic), something we need to keep in mind is that many of the people checking the “no” box on these polls feel the same way they did 20 years ago, only now there’s less of a stigma associating yourself with non-Christian or even atheistic beliefs. I’d submit that many people are just actually being more honest now than ever (how virtuous!). So, a non-Mass-going ‘Catholic’ dad in 1995 might have felt uneasy about admitting he really has no connection to the Catholicism he was raised with back then but now, with the popularity of open secularism in the West, this same man doesn’t feel so ashamed that he and his family have no connection to any formal religion. In fact, statistician and Catholic Leah Libresco drew my attention to this poll through her post discussing a similar point on First Things: Statting While Catholic.

This theory isn’t to view the situation with rose-colored glasses though, there’s an undeniable problem. And, to cut right to the chase, I am looking at all the careless, lax, fluffy, and lazy priests that have infected the American Church over the last half century. I’m looking at the priests that have led their flocks astray by downplaying reverence, up-playing sentimentalism, allowing sacred art to be discarded, using their homilies as a time to tell stories that hardly resemble any sort of Catholic thought, not teaching the faith to their parishioners with adult logic and philosophical intellect, and ignoring the difference between virtue and vice. We also need to recognize the destruction left in the wake of the Vatican II to properly contextualize these numbers. Fifty years later, it is obvious, especially to young Catholics, that the Second Vatican Council, despite its intention, has created more confusion, chaos, and empty pews than anything else in recent Church history. The Second Council is like a poorly written contract with countless loopholes to be taken advantage of, allowing relative interpretation to creep in…and that’s just what these crappy priests did. In many parishes, Mass has become something that more resembles a protestant worship service only with worse music and lower attendance.

Today's homily: God loves it when you say "please & thank you"
Today’s homily: God loves it when you say “please & thank you”

We have had time for the dust to settle. Now it is no longer the traditional Mass goers and lovers of Catholic orthodoxy that are viewed as the ones “haunting the turrets of outdated and reactionary Catholicism” (quoting Rachel Lu) but rather the aging progressive modernists that are either responsible for or a product of this debacle. The crop of impressive and faithful young laity and clergy supports the old saying “the Church outlives all heresies”. The tables have indeed turned, it’s the progressive modernist-style Catholics in the rear-view mirror of this unfolding history. However, as the data from Pew shows, we still have a huge mess to clean up.

So back to the whole point of this post: the poll. Let’s discuss some numbers. We see that almost half of Catholics consider unmarried partners of any gender combination raising children just as good as a man and woman in marriage raising a family. How can this possibly happen? I have some theories (it involves crappy lazy priests) but I’ll save you the rant.

We see that 83% of Catholics don’t understand the teachings on artificial contraception and with some even thinking the Church is wrong. Now, there is a notable difference between cultural Catholics (who rarely attend Mass) and weekly Mass-going Catholics, but not by much. Another topic many priests shy away from, confession, a SACRAMENT, is something few Catholics participate in, with 56% of them either never going or going less than once a year!

We see that parents either are not doing a good job or are not getting the support they deserve because half of children who grow up Catholic leave the Faith. So, since most Catholics seem to have no more than two children, that means…well you do the math.

We also see the trend of men becoming less engaged. While I applaud the strong female Catholics leading their families, this has caused many problems in attendance and vocations. Many of the liturgies you come across at some parishes are enough to make sure a man never thinks about setting foot in a Roman Catholic church again. At many parishes women (again, to their credit) nearly run the entire operation, but it shouldn’t be so lopsided. We need engaged men.

guitar massThe poll has a chapter asking which actions, if any, constitute a “sin”. These results show, in my opinion, that many Catholics don’t understand what “sin” means. This is something we’ve discussed on this blog before. Popular culture (and protestants) has a done a great job diminishing what “sin” is. Of course, many Catholics haven’t had explained that sin is simply taking an action contrary to the natural order in the world; that God is–in the most basic sense–the unseen order of the universe and a sin is any action that frustrates that order. That’s it. It’s not some outdated, judgmental term. But again, many Catholics aren’t aware of this because their priests likely decide to talk to the congregation as if they are children, incapable of any intellectual or adult discussion. Pastors need to lead their congregation’s spiritual growth by discussing the disorder that vice causes in our lives, and about the holy saints that lived lives of heroic virtue.
So, fellow Catholics, keep praying, keep evangelizing, and keep hope. We’ve about hit rock bottom–it’s only up from here. There’s an amazing crop of young priests seeking to “fix the fix” of 50 years ago. These young priests are in love with their bride, the Church, and they want to share everything she has to offer with their congregations. Liturgies are embracing Gregorian chant in the music and Latin in the ordinaries again. The Traditional Latin Mass is exponentially growing worldwide. We have tools at our disposal that help us communicate like never before. We have young men and women who desire big and beautiful families. We have a laity on fire with the Faith. Because of all this, the dire numbers we see are getting better every day.

So, yes, there’s some very unfortunate facts we must face temporarily. Luckily, all that’s right with the Church is strong enough to overcome anything that’s currently wrong. So be patient with your eyes on Christ and, in the meantime, pardon all the snark on TSP.

For an incredible breakdown of American Catholics by the numbers check out the linked table of contents above. There’s a ton of stats not mentioned in this article.