“Even beyond its typically religious expressions, true art has a close affinity with the world of faith, so that, even in situations where culture and the Church are far apart, art remains a kind of bridge to religious experience.” –Saint John Paul II
It would be easy to list negative reasons why Catholics should shun many of the offerings of today’s arts and entertainment industries. But to begin with the negative isn’t really a Catholic approach to anything. So let’s start afresh with the 10 Principles of a Positive Catholic Approach to the Arts & Entertainment.
1. God made artists to be his associates in his creativity activity–or what J.R.R. Tolkien calls “sub-creators.” See Saint John Paul II’s 1999 “Letter to Artists,” section 1.
2. St. Thomas Aquinas teaches that the best and noblest activity of human beings is that activity by which we imitate God the most, i.e., contemplation. The fine arts (fiction, theater, music, dance) are ways of contemplation, ways in which we behold the grandeur of human beings finding, or failing to find, their happiness. (Interesting factoid: the Greek word for “contemplation,” theoria, is not only the root of our English word “theory,” but also of “theater.” Etymologically, a theater is a “place of beholding,” i.e. a place of contemplation.)
3. The Catholic tradition of the arts is not insular and defensive by its nature but open and inclusive, even of those noble works of pagan antiquity such as the epics of Homer and Virgil. (For more on how Homer and Virgil can belong to the Catholic tradition of the arts, see my recent self-interview on Ethika Politika, “The Catholic Tradition of the Arts: A Cantankerous Q&A.”)
4. The Catholic tradition of the arts produced the greatest poet of the medieval period, Dante, and the greatest poem of that era, Dante’s Divine Comedy. The heart of the entire Catholic tradition, including its art, is to see life as a divine comedy, a resolution of all conflict and suffering into one magnificent and never-ending Joy.
5. The Renaissance, brought to you by…Catholic popes, artists, benefactors.
6. Oh, and William Shakespeare? Yeah. He was one of ours.
7. While taking care not to be seduced by scandalous features of certain modern works of art, Catholics can also appreciate the ways in which some modern art is looking for a kind of transcendence. Reflect upon these beautiful lines from Saint John Paul II’s “Letter to Artists, section 10: “Even beyond its typically religious expressions, true art has a close affinity with the world of faith, so that, even in situations where culture and the Church are far apart, art remains a kind of bridge to religious experience. In so far as it seeks the beautiful, fruit of an imagination which rises above the everyday, art is by its nature a kind of appeal to the mystery. Even when they explore the darkest depths of the soul or the most unsettling aspects of evil, artists give voice in a way to the universal desire for redemption.”
8. The world of art needs the Church. See Saint John Paul II’s “Letter to Artists,” section 13: “Artists are constantly in search of the hidden meaning of things, and their torment is to succeed in expressing the world of the ineffable. How then can we fail to see what a great source of inspiration is offered by that kind of homeland of the soul that is religion? Is it not perhaps within the realm of religion that the most vital personal questions are posed, and answers both concrete and definitive are sought?”
9. As an example of the Church’s positive approach to modern arts, note that as early as 1936 Pope Pius XI thought enough of the importance and power of motion pictures to devote an entire encyclical letter to a Catholic approach to this art, Vigilanti Cura. (For those keeping score, 1936 was three years before Hollywood’s annus mirabilis of 1939, when it issued The Wizard of Oz, Gone With the Wind, and Wuthering Heights.)
10. The Catholic tradition of the arts is the greatest tradition of art and artists the world has ever known. On the all-star team would certainly be: da Vinci, Fra Angelico, Raphael, Botticelli, Palestrina, Tallis, Brubeck, Dante, Shakespeare, Chaucer, Chesterton, Waugh, Percy, O’Connor, Spark, Powers, Guinness, Ford….One could go on.
So what principles of a positive Catholic approach to arts and entertainment have I missed?
The photograph above of Sir Alec Guinness is reproduced courtesy of Allan Warren at Wikimedia Commons.