The Arts and Catholic Teaching
By Anthony Malleus
In this aspect we look at the arts in the general sense of the term, that is all that would come under entertainment, poetry, music, literature, art, movies, etc . . .
Definition of arts – (the right reason of things to be made). – The right use of reason in the making of something.
St. Pius X, tells us that "the Church unceasingly encourages and favors the progress of the arts, admitting for religious use all the good and the beautiful that the mind of man has discovered over the course of the centuries’ – Cf. Pius XII ency. Sacrae Musicae.
St. Thomas points out that the problem of Poetry and the arts is a dual one:
To the extent that amusements affect the public interest, there is one set of questions which are for the State to consider;
To the extent that Poetry and the arts provide diversions which the soul either should enjoy or avoid in its progression toward eternal salvation, there is another set of questions that are for the Church to consider.
What are the purpose of the Arts?
1. The arts instruct and improve the soul.
· The aim of education is to form the good man and must be understood in terms of formation of moral character (i.e. the acquisition of virtues), and the instruction of the intellect (i.e. the acquisition of prudence, knowledge, and wisdom). In grasping this we must comprehend that there are three main sources of virtuous character: namely, nature, habit and reason. Now, our intellect is formed well not only by a good education but also by the practice of good habits because human nature as it is more easily will follow vice than virtue if it is not formed in good habits. However to create the habit, requires some sense of discipline, and as we know discipline requires some sense of force, but this force (external rules/laws) are not enough since we easily tire from such things. And so we need the arts to help in this formation.
In this sense; we can say that in the Proper order of things the arts should work as a magnet to draw us to us to virtue and ultimately to God Himself.
The ancients always saw the arts an important means of reaching into the utmost depths of the soul so as to lead it on the right path of virtue.
Arts are to work as a magnet to God – by means of the work that is produced – A good music peace, a beautiful painting, a great peace of poetry – Like Pope Benedict XV said of the work of Dante – like running water should lead us to the source of that fountain – We do I get more of this great stuff – Go to the source – God Himself. ‘He that drinks of this water shall not thirst’ -
This is because the artist who has been given a talent by God, when used well can make us of their talent to show forth that which is good, true and beautify – In this way reflecting those attributes of God which draw us to Him – God who is all truth, all goodness and all beauty – Going from the imperfect to the perfect.
To love the beauty and the harmony of creation is the way we can learn to love the beauty of God and the harmony of His Wisdom.
The book of Wisdom (Wisdom 13 ) points this out for us, in telling us that man should naturally be able to go from the lower good to the higher good, and that not to do so, especially in those who claim to have knowledge, or claim to be able to appreciate beautiful things, such souls are inexcusable before God. –
Wisdom 13: ‘All men are vain, in whom there is not the knowledge of God: and who by these good things that are seen, could not understand him that is, neither by attending to the works have acknowledged who was the workman: …
‘let them know how much the Lord of them is more beautiful than they: for the first author of beauty made all those things. Or if they admired their power and their effects, let them understand by them, that he that made them, is mightier than they: For by the greatness of the beauty, of the creature, the creator of them can be seen, so as to be thereby known. ….’
Today more than ever we must refuse to acknowledge as art, music, poetry, etc all that is not beautiful, true or good. On the contrary, as regards so much of what is called art, music, entertainment, today it is nothing but trash, which is spewed forth from the perverse minds which have created them. Hence instead of being surrounded by things, that help to lead to God, unfortunately we find ourselves surrounded by things that lead away from him. – In Music we have nothing but pure noise, in art today, nothing but the promotion of the ungly and immoral. – That is why it is important to put this topic before us. -
It may be objected :
Who are you to say what is true, beautiful, good, or ugly – who made you the judge of such things. – I would simply answer that; I don’t set the standard. It is God who did, He created order and nature and it’s perfect harmony – all that conforms to it, is true, good and beautiful all that doesn’t is disordered and hence ugly (Wisdom 11: 21). -
Today, we are precisely being taught to embrace the ugly – and that is diabolic – The ugly which is nothing other than the extension of the Kingdom of the devil on earth, which promotes are culture of immorality and death. It is not surprising then as the ancients pointed out that the soul immersed in vices will be attracted by what is ugly.
For this reason we must learn to love that which is good, true, and beautiful in this way we learn as almost instinctively to shun that that which is perverse, disordered.
Plato the pagan philosopher puts it this way for us: "Wouldn’t (such a person who is taught to love such things) know how to praise what is good, and receive it with delight and, receiving it in his soul, feed himself from it and make himself a good man, at the same time that he would hate and repeal the ugly since his childhood, even before he can rationalize? And, when reason comes, the person educated this way will recognize the good and embrace it with greater joy, as if it were an old friend.” (Plato, "Republic, book III).
It is not by mistake then that the 4 major revolution in the world ; Renascence, the protestant reformation, French Revolution and Communist Revolution all brought with them the destruction of the great arts and replaced with emptiness and decadence producing the trash we around us today, which has lead to the prevailing of the arts which promote the immoral culture of death we see set before us today.
3. Arts serve to purify the soul. –
How is it that the arts are said to serve to purify the soul? We can say simply by directing it’s gaze on higher things. For example – Good music peace can serve to stir the soul and then move it to a higher plane of thought and contemplation.
This is what any great artist is trying to achieve – You see it in some of those great artists who might paint a master piece depicting the passion of our lord or the sorrows of our Lady – By looking at the image – our passions should be aroused – that of sorrow and compassion – but then from there the artist seeks to move us to contemplation and union to something higher, something more noble (in that particular case with Our Lord – Our Lady etc).
4. Another merit of the arts = sources of relaxation and rest.
St. Thomas points out that: “Just as man needs bodily rest for the body’s refreshment, because he cannot always be at work, so too it is with his soul, whose power is also finite and equal to a fixed amount of work. - II-II, 168, 2:
St. Thomas also points out then that ‘Art is a fundamental necessity in the human state, because no man can live utterly without any pleasure. It provides a better kind of pleasure and one which, in the infinite gradation of things, is a step in the direction of the greatest good, God Himself.”
It not only is a good in itself as a source of contemplative joy but, also a means of giving us both interior tranquillity and exterior peace.
How are we understand that: Let me quote the well know philosopher, Jacque Maritain who explains this point well, so it is not misunderstood:
Maritain, Art and Scholasticism. “Art teaches men the pleasures of the spirit [...] it prepares the human race for contemplation (the contemplation of the Saints), the spiritual joy of which surpasses every other joy and seems to be the end of all human activities. For what useful purpose do servile work and trade serve, except to provide the body with the necessities of life so that it may be in a state fit for contemplation? What is the use of the moral virtues and prudence if not to procure that tranquillity of the passions and interior peace which contemplation needs? To what end the whole government of civil life, if not to assure the exterior peace necessary for contemplation?”
It would be a manifest error to suppose that because the arts are appreciated through the senses, the pleasure which they bring to us is purely sensual. – That is totally false and superficial look at the whole world of the arts, so often made by so many.
Our sense are going to be the means by which we understand things, but through them we have to be able to attaint to that contemplative joy which they present us with. The true problem here is that often so many don’t think so as to go beyond the senses to that which is above. Hearing a beautiful peace of music and being moved to love order, peace and tranquillity. Seeing a noble movie and being able to seek to carry out in our own lives the noble ideas we see set forth. We get stuck on the image, and then forget about it a few seconds latter, having no real depth of soul. For this reason we can see why the arts can not be seen as an end in themselves but as a means to a higher end, that being the glory of God and the salvation of our soul.