Monday, July 02, 2007

The Danger of Being ‘Merely Aesthetic’

“In Germany, whenever there is a debate about the great Catholic liturgical tradition, it only needs someone to utter the accusation of “aestheticism”, and it is all over. There is never any doubt which side has lost. To be charged with aestheticism is, for the most part, fatal for those trying to defend the liturgy….

“..Nowadays, the most withering condemnation is to say that something is “merely beautiful”…”
— Martin Mosebach, The Heresy of Formlessness

Mr. Mosebach tells us that the desire for beauty in Catholicism is looked down upon by the enemies of the Church as mere ‘aestheticism’: religion, they think, should be purely intellectual.

The reductionistic philosophy that stripped bare our churches and liturgies, in the pursuit of ‘essential’ Christianity and ecumenism is well-known, and has few obvious successes and much apparent failure. And so it is hoped by many that the upcoming motu proprio on freeing the traditional liturgy will help speed the restoration of the Church after decades of decline.

The traditional aesthetics (that is, the philosophy of beauty) tells us that form, symmetry, and harmonious detail are among the objective factors that make something beautiful. Modern liturgies and liturgical arts have been systematically stripped of their objective factors of beauty, leading to formlessness and ugliness. The richness of traditional liturgy and the liturgical arts is due in part to formality and detail, and so we can expect these to be beautiful. Informality, in the widest sense, is a problem, and ultimately is a heresy, as Mr. Mosebach’s book title suggests.

Detractors of the Catholic faith say that beauty is unimportant in religion — this attitude came out of the Reformation — but we must remind ourselves of another harmful trend that loves the beauty of religion, but religion stripped of its faith, doctrine, and morality. A restoration of the beauty and formality to the liturgy of the Church may have unintended consequences, for critics of the faith may attack aesthetics today, and embrace them tomorrow.

Catholic art remains a popular subject of photo books, audio recordings, and even web sites, but often this art is valued only for its aesthetics, and so is more akin to art in a museum than an inspiration to worship.

We must be aware that wider popularity of the traditional Latin liturgy may lead to the danger of churches being seen as merely another kind of arts venue. If the art in a church is really good, then aesthetes may attend for the beauty and nothing else. The restoration of the liturgy ought to be used for evangelization, for this is the purpose of Catholic art; it would be deadly for a church to hold back on its mission of preaching the Gospel for the sake of not offending anyone.

Classical philosophy tells us that ontologically, beauty flows from goodness, and goodness flows from truth. True beauty especially comes from moral goodness. But psychologically, we are attracted to goodness through its beauty, and we are led to the truth through its goodness. We need beauty; we can perceive beauty because of our human nature, beauty gives us joy, and we suffer without beauty; but beauty is not an end in itself, for it points beyond itself. Art for art’s sake is deadly to both art and to souls.

The beauty of the traditional liturgy may attract the curious, but it is goodness, especially moral goodness that leads to the conversion of souls. Likewise, solid philosophy and theology are needed to inform the intellect, as well as fearless preaching of the Gospel. Beautiful Catholic liturgy is only one step in the Restoration.

[Originally published in the article The Danger of Being ‘Merely Aesthetic’, over at the Catholic Restorationists blog.]

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