Saturday, December 14, 2013

Evangelii Gaudium - Pope Francis on the Way of Beauty and Sacred Art

This is the first short article in which I offer some reaction to the apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium of Pope Francis.

In this he referred directly to Pope Benedict's phrase, the 'via pulchritudinis' as a vital component in evangelisation and of the importance of the arts.

'167. Every form of catechesis would do well to attend to the “way of beauty” (via pulchritudinis). Proclaiming Christ means showing that to believe in and to follow him is not only something right and true, but also something beautiful, capable of filling life with new splendour and profound joy, even in the midst of difficulties. Every expression of true beauty can thus be acknowledged as a path leading to an encounter with the Lord Jesus. This has nothing to do with fostering an aesthetic relativism which would downplay the inseparable bond between truth, goodness and beauty, but rather a renewed esteem for beauty as a means of touching the human heart and enabling the truth and goodness of the Risen Christ to radiate within it. If, as Saint Augustine says, we love only that which is beautiful, the incarnate Son, as the revelation of infinite beauty, is supremely lovable and draws us to himself with bonds of love. So a formation in the via pulchritudinis ought to be part of our effort to pass on the faith. Each particular Church should encourage the use of the arts in evangelization, building on the treasures of the past but also drawing upon the wide variety of contemporary expressions so as to transmit the faith in a new “language of parables”. We must be bold enough to discover new signs and new symbols, new flesh to embody and communicate the word, and different forms of beauty which are valued in different cultural settings, including those unconventional modes of beauty which may mean little to the evangelizers, yet prove particularly attractive for others.'

So he stresses the objectivity of beauty and how that which is genuinely beautiful points to God. In regard to art in particular he stresses the importance of creating new forms but that this should be done by 'building on the treasures of the past'. This means, as I read it, doing what Christian artists have always done: looking at the forms of the cultures of those with whom they wish to communicate with, in a discerning way; deciding what is consistent with the principle of objective beauty (and here we look to traditions to guide us) and then applying them in the context of those Catholic traditions (and, incidentally, exactly what happened after the Council of Trent as part of the Catholic Counter-Reformation).

This is very different from what those who reject tradition might wish to do - simply incorporating modern forms without any regard to those of the past and assuming that by making the content Christian we have something that is good. To my mind the Holy Father is absolutely right and it is consistent, for example, with what Pius XII said in Mediator Dei in regard to figurative art; and in general to the writing of Popes Paul VI, John Paul II and Benedict XVI on such matters.

Given that this constitutes a small part of the whole document, one might think that he does not give it great importance. However, his reiteration of the writing past recent Popes, suggests that one should read this document not as an isolated statement that replaces previous ideas, but in the context of a much larger corpus - as one that re-emphasises, builds on and adds to, albeit incrementally, what came before.

Also, given that the document is an apostolic exhortation following a synod, one wonders how much we should look at this as a personal statement of the Pope, and how much it is in fact an account of contributions made by others. I am not expert enough to answer that question. Except to say that much of it reads to me like the section on art does - the restatement of things said before without any attempt to give new insights: it is simply giving the message, 'this is still important'.