Faith and Art

Author: Fr. Robert Skeris

SACRED MUSIC Volume 117, Number 4, Winter 1990

FAITH AND ART Monsignor Richard J. Schuler Faith is the intellectual conviction that the revelation presented to us by the Roman Catholic Church is true because it comes from God who cannot deceive or be deceived. This conviction must be so strong that even in the face of death itself, we are prepared to defend it. The martyrs gave their lives rather than deny Catholic truth. Nothing less is expected of today's Catholics.

Defense of the core of truth demands ramparts, much as a medieval castle was secured. At the center was the keep, surrounded by moats and walls, guarded by towers and battlements, virtually impregnable against the enemy. There was held the treasure, well defended by ditch and drawbridge, locks and armaments.

Surely the Christian faith, that body of truths revealed by God through Jesus Christ and taught by the Church, demands protection be given it by everyone who has accepted it. The greatest defense is, of course, the theological virtue of faith given by God Himself as the first-line protection. Secondly, the very living of the truths of that faith in ordinary life constitute a strong line against attack. The community in which one lives gives support when all members profess the same faith and practice it openly and fearlessly.

But there is more. The culture of a people forms the bed in which the faith reposes. Faith needs a garden in which it is planted and where it grows and blooms. When the garden is allowed to become overgrown and filled with weeds, then the flowers of the faith wither and die for lack of care and nourishment. Part of that garden in which the faith grows is what we call art, sacred art.

Fundamentally, the need for art in the exposition and defense of the faith rests in the fact that God is Beauty. He has revealed Himself through Jesus Christ and that revelation is an expression of Beauty. Truth, Beauty and Being are interchangeable terms. God is Truth; He is Beauty; He is Being. The expression of revealed Truth is supported by beauty, which in man's world is art, the human expression of God's creation in a variety of media employed by the skilled and trained artist to reflect the world that God has created. We worship God, the Creator, not alone by acceptance of the truths about Himself which He has chosen to reveal to us, but in the employment of human art to carry us, both intellectually and emotionally, to the realization of the Beauty that God is.

Rationalism strayed from the right way by relying only on an intellectual perception of God, and ultimately came to a denial of the personal love for each one that God gives. Other errors have been centered on an emotional approach, making man's subjective actions the basis of contact with the Creator. These in time abandoned a true basis in revelation, and the knowledge of God as He revealed Himself was lost.

The Church, as the very Mystical Person of Jesus Christ, who has given us the revelation of the Father, has always guarded the body of truth and related it to beauty. This is done chiefly through the liturgy, which is the very action of Christ in this world, an action in which every member of His Body must participate, because it is the chief expression of Christ's life which has been given to us. The liturgy contains the truths of revelation, and they are expressed there in art, in beauty. Liturgy needs art for that purpose. When art is weak or bad, then beauty suffers and expression of the faith is likwise weakened. The life of the Body of Christ suffers.

In these days after the Second Vatican Council, sacred art has failed. Music, painting, architecture, work in silver, gold and glass, the printed page and the priest's vestments have for the most part become less than truly beautiful. Many have asked the reason. Why has sacred art in our time not produced works of merit in service of the liturgy? There are two reasons based in the very nature of sacred art: a lack of serious training in the techniques of the medium, whatever it be; and a lessening of the faith which must be the inspiration of the artist who is properly skilled and trained. True sacred art demands of an artist a God-given talent, properly trained and inspired by faith.

The beginning of the collapse of sacred art in our time can be traced to our seminaries. Surely it is the clergy that constitute the leaders in the Body of Christ, who inspire and direct the members of the Church. But seminary training for the past twenty-five years has been bankrupt in this country. The two things that the seminary should be inculcating have been totally absent: the exposition of the truths revealed by God and taught through the Magisterium to students preparing for the priesthood, giving them the basis for a personal growth in faith; and the training of the students in the fundamentals of those arts relevant to the task that they might be assigned, whether as celebrant at Mass, builder of a new church, or purchaser of a new chalice or vestment. The seminaries have failed completely in both of these. Without going into the content of the theological studies, the spiritual life proposed to each student for his formation, or the type of liturgy imposed on seminary students, one can easily see the results of such programs in the products that seminaries are turning out. Students have been cheated of proper education; when they indicate a desire to learn what the Church proposes, they are persecuted; they are beset with inadequately prepared teachers and even by some who have not only academic deficiencies but who lack faith in divine revelation itself.

The medieval keep is without defence. Those whose task it is to hold the castle are themselves contributing to its fall. Intellectual levels have been lowered to a disconcerting degree; artistic standards do not exist. In the area of sacred music, many who are hailed as the great composers of our day scarsely can write a melody or harmonize a chord. When the truths of the faith do not have a strong culture in which to rest, they are in danger of being lost to the enemy. We are in danger of losing what we have, and what is a logical corallary: who might become interested in the Catholic faith if its demonstration rests in so empty and banal an artistic exposition?

Most Catholics have contact with religion, with God's revelation, with the Church, chiefly through the liturgy. When liturgy has suffered as it has in the last twenty-five years, who can wonder that the numbers at Mass have dramatically declined? And who can wonder that thousands are calling for a restoration of what existed before the council? And how else can we account for the lessening of vocations to the priesthood but in the banality and ineptitude of so much liturgy in our seminaries and parishes that turns prospective candidates away? We have entered a vicious circle: seminaries, clergy, parishes, musicians, artists.

The answer does not lie in retreat. There is no turning back. It lies in a revival of faith, an intellectual conviction that what Jesus Christ revealed and the Catholic Church teaches is true and admits of no dissent. Then follows a strengthening and a defence of the faith through public worship using the sacred art that comes from skilled and trained men of faith. The castle needs defenders and the defender need arms for the battle. True sacred art provides both the defenders and the arms.