Ratzinger, Beauty, and the Church

by D. Vincent Twomey, S.V.D., appearing in Volume 43

We may not see how the artistic dimension has any importance beyond the rhetorically persuasive. An exclusive rationality has left no truth value to the imagination as a faculty or to art as its medium of communication. The coinage of the vocabulary itself has been devalued. We have no words which without further gloss will convey the sense of the imagination as the whole soul processing the world to meaning, and of the artefact as the patterned precipitate of that meaning.

—Thomas Finan

Notre-Dame-du-Haut, Ronchamp, by Le Corbusier, 1955. Photo: flickr.com/John Ng

Aesthetics might appear to be something quite peripheral to the liturgy. But, as Antoni Gaudí, the Catalan architect of the Sagrada Família Cathedral in Barcelona, echoing a long tradition that goes back to the ancient Greeks, once affirmed: “Beauty is the image of truth.” In short, beauty and truth are intrinsically related; not only can the denial of the one lead to the denial of the other, but the absence of either undermines our very humanity.  

To treat beauty as something peripheral—mere decoration—reflects the utilitarianism of our age, which, as we know, has profoundly influenced both modern church architecture and the remodeling of older churches undertaken in the name of the liturgical reforms of the Second Vatican Council. Despite some impressive modern churches, the result has not infrequently been buildings with all the charm of a fridge. Roger Scruton once commented that, for all its magnificence, Le Corbusier’s chapel at Ronchamp has all the marks of modernistic architecture insofar as it turns public buildings into expressions of private originality. Modernist architecture is thus, by its very nature as modernist, corrosive of community. 

In general, buildings define the spatial environment of the human community and so cannot be just expressions of private genius. Modernist architecture, claims Scruton, can produce impressive monuments, but, by its own self-definition, it cannot produce a modern monumental style that can be shared by others, since modern architecture rejects the notion of common style or form rooted in tradition, one that could be adopted to suit all kinds of building, monumental or not. Without such an agreed style, it is impossible to create the kind of civic space where people can feel at home. 

Unlike other forms of art, such as music, painting, and literature, which are personal by nature (and usually demand a degree of Bildung, as the Germans put it, that is, a certain degree of education and training as well as a broad cultural knowledge), architecture is public and so must have the humility to subject personal genius to public welfare in the creation of that space where a community is made to feel at home. This is what characterizes the buildings of Brunelleschi and Michelangelo, whose buildings fitted into the already existing environment yet transformed it. 

The Cathedral of Our Lady in Antwerp, Belgium, was begun in 1352 and dedicated in 1521. Photo: wikimedia.org/Rolf Kranz

Architecture must therefore also be rooted in tradition. Tradition is the indispensable humus of a true originality that can at the same time be contemporary yet lasting because it is rooted in the common experience of humanity. What applies to buildings in general applies with particular force to church buildings, the church being, as Paige F. Hochschild has pointed out in these pages, “visible speech.” The tradition of building churches can be traced back at least to the early third century (and probably earlier).  

In the wake of the council, the changes in the liturgy were seen primarily in functional terms and essentially as breaking with tradition. The public space needed for the execution of the new liturgy was similarly considered in utilitarian terms—leading, in some extreme cases, to the building of multi-purpose churches, churches serving also as parish halls so that Mass could be celebrated there in the morning and lectures, games, or parties in the evening. This is a tendency that predates the council, as we can gather from the attempt by Joseph Ratzinger in 1958 to answer the question: “Should one still actually build churches today?” Churches as sacral buildings, it was suggested at the time, should be replaced by multi-purpose buildings. The theological justification for the latter was the claim that, since the frontier separating what is sacral from what is profane had been broken down by the crucified Christ, the creation of a separate sacral space amounted to nothing less than a relapse into pre-Christian religiosity. Furthermore, the liturgy for which they were designed had itself been reduced to a minimum of ritual movement and gestures—and with the almost total exclusion of images. The effect of these anti-cultural forces has been not only an impoverishment of our communal worship but also the undermining of the worshipping community as a community, with the consequent privatization of religion: à-la-carte Christianity. 

Though anticipated by preconciliar church buildings under the influence of the Bauhaus movement, the ancient heresy of iconoclasm, it could be said, entered the Church to a certain degree through the way the conciliar reform of the liturgy was executed. Many, including Ratzinger, would argue that that reform was not in fact faithful to the intent of the Council Fathers. The iconoclastic controversy—the eighth-century debate about the legitimacy of sacred images—touched on the most profound of theological issues. It is no accident that the Orthodox Churches consider the Second Council of Nicaea (A.D. 787), which definitively rejected iconoclasm, as the Orthodox Council par excellence. One is reminded of what the great German writer Heinrich Heine once said when he stood before Antwerp Cathedral in awe of its beauty: “The men who built these [cathedrals] had dogmas [i.e., eternal truths]. We have only opinions. And with opinions one does not build cathedrals.”  

The way the reform of the liturgy was implemented after the Second Vatican Council, however, was not based on dogmas. Rather, it was based on theological opinions, and not the richest of opinions, either. According to Tracey Rowland, the theology that guided the Liturgical Commission presided over by Cardinal Lercaro with the assistance of Archbishop Annibale Bugnini as secretary was a neo-scholasticism that was both a-historical and a-cultural. It was only interested in essences: in a word, it was minimalist—which demonstrates again that the same neo-scholastic theology was strangely in harmony with the most dominant forms of contemporary culture and its art. The irony is that the whole thrust of the council was to overcome that kind of theology. The tragedy is that most of the liturgical experts who carried out their radical reforms “in the spirit of Vatican II” seem to have shared this same desiccated neo-scholasticism. 

Another influential factor that, it seems to me, fostered the minimalist approach to the liturgy was the legalistic mindset of the same liturgists who themselves had been trained to observe the most intricate of rubrics, most of which were removed by the liturgical reform. The former rigorist approach to rubrics gave way to a legalistic minimalism that was pursued with equal zeal. What was considered not to be absolutely necessary was judged to be superfluous and so had to be removed. 

Though many of the faithful, and even some clerics, were upset by the resulting destruction of beautiful altars, communion rails, tabernacles, even statues—many of which ended up decorating lounge bars—their protests were dismissed by a display of clerical arrogance that justified itself by claiming obedience to the liturgical reforms of the council. 

Reforming clerics, too, often rode roughshod over the sensibilities of the faithful, even their familial sensitivities, since, at least in Ireland, many of those artifacts now deemed redundant had been donated by their struggling ancestors in the financially straitened times of the nineteenth century in the aftermath of the Great Famine (1845-1852), when about a million died and another million emigrated. It is no wonder that, as a result of such neo-clericalism (disguised as progressivism), many believers were alienated from the Church and remain so to this day. 

Apse mosaic of the Coronation of Mary in Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome, by Jacopo Torriti, 1295, incorporating parts of the original fifth-century mosaic. Photo: wikimedia.org/Jastrow

But leaving that aside, the changes to the church building and to the liturgy also profoundly affected the worship of those who actually stayed behind and endured the new “stripping of the altars” (to quote the title of Eamon Duffy’s well-regarded book about the Protestant Reformation in England). More precisely, the changes also affected their image of God. Roger Scruton once commented perceptively: “Changes in the liturgy take on a momentous significance for the believer, for they are changes in his experience of God—changes, if you wish to be Feuerbachian, in God himself.”  A poem by a Limerick poet Tim Cunningham entitled “Tabernacle” illustrates this in a more colloquial fashion:


It was bold, this house of gold, 

Its golden door on fire, alive, 

Dead centre on the high altar,


Regal, expecting the homage of bent

Knees. The sanctuary lamp flickered

Saying God was in. 


They moved Him to a side altar. 

I see their point, a changing

Liturgy for changing times, 


Diluted like whiskey on the rocks,

An accessible deity discreet about 

His thunderclap and lightning bolt, 


A guy-next-door god 

Who can share a pint 

And chat about the football scores.


But some old codgers moan, 

Imagine the whiz kids 

Have taken over the manor; 


Cobbled together 

A granny-annexe-bathchair-god

To wheel out on occasion.


The profound significance of the break with the Church’s two-thousand-year-old tradition is perhaps best illustrated by Otto von Simson in his classic work, The Gothic Cathedral: Origin of Gothic Architecture and the Medieval Concept of Order, where he speaks of the universal understanding of what a church building means, or rather, once meant—for the Church: The church building is “mystically and liturgically an image of heaven....The authoritative language of the dedication ritual of a church explicitly relates the vision of the Celestial City, as described in the Book of Revelation, to the building that is to be erected.” 

According to von Simson, the images of Christ in glory seated on a throne and surrounded by the heavenly court as found in Romanesque churches indicate the “anti-functionalism” of both Romanesque and Byzantine art: “The mystical experience that murals or mosaics are to help invoke within the faithful is emphatically not of this world; the celestial vision depicted is to make us forget that we find ourselves in a building of stone and mortar, since inwardly we have entered the heavenly sanctuary.” Von Simson goes on to show how the Gothic architecture marvelously incarnated this vision in stone and glass as determined by the speculations on geometry first articulated by Augustine under the influence of the Pythagoreans. In a different cultural context, the same vision guided the artists who created the Baroque, which style the art historian Kenneth Clarke described as the natural reaction of Catholics to the world-denying and body-denying spirituality of the Reformation, which had also featured some not-inconsiderable iconoclasm. Common to both the Gothic and the Baroque was their sacral nature: they were, as Scruton notes, “earthly manifestations of some higher design.” 

Was that artistic development, for all its greatness, perhaps a false one? In his article “On the Meaning of Church Architecture,” Ratzinger shows how the church as a sacral building evolved necessarily from the unique spiritualization of worship that characterized Christian worship, namely, its incarnational nature. It was this incarnational nature of Christian worship that posed difficulties for the Platonizing tendencies of the Church Fathers, such as that experienced by Augustine, and was only overcome by the Second Council of Nicaea (787). Church buildings themselves arose naturally and organically from the actual celebration of the Eucharist, which makes the death and Resurrection of Christ present. “This gathering, which we call Eucharist, is the heartbeat of its life. In it, the faith community remembers that central event of the cross and Resurrection and, in remembering, receives the presence. And for that purpose we build churches. As Christians we need a house for gathering, which by the way cannot exist without interior recollection.”  

Ratzinger shows further how, already in New Testament times, the distinction between sacral and profane was made by Paul when he separated the domestic Agape meal from the celebration of the Eucharist (1 Corinthians 11). Further, the Church of the first three centuries conceived itself, not as a gathering of friends or a private club, but rather as a universal assembly (ecclesia) making public claims on a par with the Roman Empire. The result was that, when Christianity was eventually recognized as a public entity after Constantine, the Roman basilica was its preferred place of worship. This public space was thereby transformed into a sacral building, primarily by retaining the earlier orientation of the worshipping community to the east, eventually giving rise to the creation of the specific Christian sacral building we call church. 

The shape of the church building was determined by the special requirements needed to facilitate the main ecclesial actions of Eucharist, baptism, and reconciliation. In doing so, the Christian community replicated what all religions in the history of mankind have spontaneously done, namely, create sacred spaces that, to quote Mircea Eliade, are recognized as “meeting points between heaven and earth,” each being “a point of junction between earth, heaven, and hell, the navel of the earth, a meeting place of three cosmic regions.”  

The Triumph of the Immaculate by Paolo de Matteis, c. 1710. Image: wikimedia.org/Anagoria

According to Tracey Rowland, one of the major differences between Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Saint Paul VI is to be found in their attitude toward beauty. For Paul VI, it seems to have been mostly a matter of taste, something external to theology. For Pope Benedict XVI, it is something more humanly and theologically significant. In harmony with Saint Bonaventure’s comments on God revealing himself first in the beauty of creation, for Pope Benedict, “the liturgy is inherently linked to beauty.” It is an essential element of the liturgical action, like the experience of Peter, James, and John on Mount Tabor. Further, Benedict XVI is acutely aware of the necessity for reason to combine with aesthetic and intuitive sensibility, both in liturgy and art. 

This approach colors Ratzinger’s own reflections on liturgical music.  The same could be said about his approach to art and architecture, since, as Augustine held, at one with Plato, music and architecture are sisters. Ratzinger opposes the utility music once advocated by Karl Rahner and Herbert Vorgrimler, who stressed its pedagogical value. “Ratzinger’s argument is that liturgy is about worship of the Triune God,” writes Rowland: “it is neither pedagogy or psychotherapy.” The latter are legitimate human needs, namely, catechesis or making people feel cozy, but they might be catered for elsewhere, such as in the Advent, Lenten, and May devotions which provide opportunities for instruction and emotional support appealing to our sentiments. Both of these are greatly needed but cannot be provided by the divine liturgy. Hence, as Ratzinger concludes in The Feast of Faith:

The Church must not settle down with what is merely comfortable and serviceable at the parish level; she must arouse the voice of the cosmos and, by glorifying the Creator, elicit the glory of the cosmos itself, making it also glorious, beautiful, habitable and beloved. Next to the saints, the art which the Church has produced is the only real “apologia” for her history…The Church must maintain high standards; she must be a place where beauty can be at home; she must lead the struggle for that “spiritualization” without which the world becomes the “first circle of hell.”