Fitted for Sacred Use: Beauty, the Liturgy, and Sacrosanctum Concilium

Here are two sections in Sacrosanctum Concilium (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy), a constitutional document from Vatican II. These are sections that mention beauty and the arts. I am doing so for one purpose – to encourage the reader to consider the words therein and compare them with their own experience of the liturgy in their local church. I have bolded a few of the words that jump out at me and get me thinking. It is clear to me that the Church does not prescribe any particular style of art, or demand anything with great specificity. However, I cannot help but notice somewhat of a gulf between what is called out here as important, and the general state (so I hear) of many parishes.

But let me hesitate a bit… There is nothing more natural than Beauty, but creating Beauty is difficult; much harder to do than most people realize. For a local parish to seek Beauty with passion is also to demand a great deal of work, and probably to overturn the tables a bit, even make some long-term volunteers grumpy. And few agree entirely on Beauty.

Regardless, consider these words and meditate on them. Remember Beauty is one of the three Transcendentals. Do not shy away from Beauty. Rather, run towards it and embrace it. I say this as an encouragement for all of us to care more about Beauty in our parishes, our liturgies, and our lives.

122. Very rightly the fine arts are considered to rank among the noblest activities of man’s genius, and this applies especially to religious art and to its highest achievement, which is sacred art. These arts, by their very nature, are oriented toward the infinite beauty of God which they attempt in some way to portray by the work of human hands; they achieve their purpose of redounding to God’s praise and glory in proportion as they are directed the more exclusively to the single aim of turning men’s minds devoutly toward God.

Holy Mother Church has therefore always been the friend of the fine arts and has ever sought their noble help, with the special aim that all things set apart for use in divine worship should be truly worthy, becoming, and beautiful, signs and symbols of the supernatural world, and for this purpose she has trained artists. In fact, the Church has, with good reason, always reserved to herself the right to pass judgment upon the arts, deciding which of the works of artists are in accordance with faith, piety, and cherished traditional laws, and thereby fitted for sacred use.

The Church has been particularly careful to see that sacred furnishings should worthily and beautifully serve the dignity of worship, and has admitted changes in materials, style, or ornamentation prompted by the progress of the technical arts with the passage of time.

123. The Church has not adopted any particular style of art as her very own; she has admitted styles from every period according to the natural talents and circumstances of peoples, and the needs of the various rites. Thus, in the course of the centuries, she has brought into being a treasury of art which must be very carefully preserved. The art of our own days, coming from every race and region, shall also be given free scope in the Church, provided that it adorns the sacred buildings and holy rites with due reverence and honor; thereby it is enabled to contribute its own voice to that wonderful chorus of praise in honor of the Catholic faith sung by great men in times gone by.

124. Ordinaries, by the encouragement and favor they show to art which is truly sacred, should strive after noble beauty rather than mere sumptuous display. This principle is to apply also in the matter of sacred vestments and ornaments.

Let bishops carefully remove from the house of God and from other sacred places those works of artists which are repugnant to faith, morals, and Christian piety, and which offend true religious sense either by depraved forms or by lack of artistic worth, mediocrity and pretense.

And when churches are to be built, let great care be taken that they be suitable for the celebration of liturgical services and for the active participation of the faithful.

I wonder how many parishes take all this seriously. I tend to think they (the laity, staff, priests, everyone) don’t much. And when they do, I tend to think they would like to see more Beauty, but it’s hard to make changes; people’s feeling are at stake, etc. But I also think there are two key factors as well: 1) People don’t really notice beauty or ugliness that much, and 2) People are wary of Beauty, thinking it mere prettiness and the surface of things. In other words, they don’t see that there is an issue when there is one, and if confronted with a lack of beauty, they push back in the name of “truly spirituality” and “authentic faith.” Alas, the influence of our modern culture and American puritan piety.