Monday, April 11, 2011

Beauty of the House of God

"[I]s it immoral to get carried away with beautiful things when so many basic human needs are left unmet?" asks a Catholic blogger — Are beautiful churches immoral? "Many people would feel that diverting money from disaster relief or homeless charities, say, in order to decorate a building would be wrong. So, is it important for churches to be beautiful? Or is an obsession with beauty immoral?"

I have never heard of "diverting money from disaster relief or homeless charities." The Church stands as history's greatest giver of charity. Also, we are not talking about money used "to decorate a building" but to furnish the House of God, which is also the people's house. The disaster victim and homeless the blogger is rightly concerned with, not to mention the rest of us poor slobs, have in beautiful churches a public space to revel in the eternal. Would citizens of a city be better served by a beautiful cathedral or a loaf of bread each?

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Blogger Kevin J. Jones said...

Artists are poor people too.

They're better off working on sacred art than redesigning some business logo that will be forgotten in five years.

11:18 AM  
Blogger pandora said...

Many years ago, when travelling through South America, with little money and little Spanish - I found myself drawn to churches in the villages and cathedrals of the towns and cities. Long after I had abandoned my childhood catholicism.

I remember visiting a village in the Peruvian Andes - a mudslide had devastated the area. The church was a wood and stone structure of zen-like beauty. Villagers were busily shoveling mud, washing walls - a Bishop from Lima was scheduled to visit! Step outside the wall of the church and one was overwhelmed by the magnificence of Mt Illimani, a hand's reach away, by the surrounding moutains and deep valleys, the clouds, the women sitting on the mountains edge preparing potatoes. The munificence of the natural world.

I was not in need of a loaf of bread, but something other. I found it.

11:13 PM  
Blogger Faith said...

The Eucharist is the living Bread.

1:38 AM  
Blogger love the girls said...

Given the choice, most definitely by the loaf of bread.

Only those with full stomachs talk of the suffering poor as if they would be better off suffering.

6:34 AM  
Blogger The Western Confucian said...

From a reader:

I can't get OpenID to accept my ID at Livejournal

Apparently Blogger has decided I suck.

Here was what I was trying to answer on the question of whether beautiful churches are immoral.

Re: LTG,

The people of the rural area around Celina OH, who were poor German immigrants who came to the area in the 1870s, would beg to differ.

They built, from their meagerness, houses of God that are the most beautiful churches anywhere, and are the tallest buildings in towns such as Maria Stein, Minster, Fort Loramie, and other towns in Mercer County.

Also see the Sacred Heart Chapel of Maria Stein, part of the Shrine of the Holy Relics located outside of that town.

Not a bad destination for a pilgrimage.

9:18 AM  
Blogger love the girls said...

Did those German immigrants choose to forgo bread for their children? If they did, then their choice was immoral because their prior duty was to feed their children.

But what I suspect they did, was sacrifice what was within their power to sacrifice for the further good of their children because it was also understood that the beautiful also feeds us.

9:37 AM  
Blogger The Western Confucian said...

Which is the point of this post, to remember that "that the beautiful also feeds us," and especially the poor who often have little access to beauty; there was no "talk of the suffering poor as if they would be better off suffering."

Taking your earlier flippant "most definitely by the loaf of bread" comments to their logical conclusion, the Catholic Church is sinful for not immediately selling off its works of art, which might at best provide a single meal to each of the world's suffering poor.

Instead, the Church recognizes, as you say, "that the beautiful also feeds us," and that this beauty has fed countless generations, and sustained the Church's civilizing mission in the world, which ultimately has ended up feeding far more not only aesthetically and spiritually, but materially as well.

10:28 AM  
Blogger love the girls said...

It certainly wasn't intended to be flippant. The situation was given the choice of disaster relief or spending that same money to build a beautiful church where the choice is either this or that where should the money be spent? The money should be spent feeding those in distress because their need is prior.

10:50 AM  
Blogger The Western Confucian said...

Flippancy charge withdrawn. You are right. I doubt the Diocese of Sendai is buying new gold monstances right now, but I know the laity are rebuilding parishes with their own hands and materials as we speak.

11:31 AM  
Blogger The Western Confucian said...

Sire Martin Rees, the Royal Astronomer, 2011 Templeton Laureate, and agnostic Anglican has weighed in:

"All too often the focus is short term and parochial – the urgent and the local loom higher on political agendas than even the gravest long-term challenges. We downplay what's happening even now in impoverished far-away countries. And we give too little thought to what kind of world we'll leave for our grandchildren.

"As regards my own 'philosophy', I continue to be inspired by the music, liturgy and architectural tradition of the Anglican Church in which I was brought up. No one can fail to be uplifted by great cathedrals – such as that at Ely, near my home in Cambridge. Ely Cathedral overwhelms us today. But think of its impact 900 years ago – think of the vast enterprise its construction entailed. Most of its builders had never travelled more than 50 miles; the Fens were their world. Even the most educated knew of essentially nothing beyond Europe. They thought the world was a few thousand years old – and that it might not last another thousand.

"But despite these constricted horizons, in both time and space – despite the deprivation and harshness of their lives – despite their primitive technology and meagre resources – they built this huge and glorious building – pushing the boundaries of what was possible. Those who conceived it knew they wouldn't live to see it finished. Their legacy still elevates our spirits, nearly a millennium later."

4:46 PM  
Blogger Ed Cole said...

The hidden assumption in this dilemma is that you have to choose between the poor and the beauty of God's house, or that the dollar you spend on stained glass should be given to the poor (as the Church's first treasurer famously suggested (John 12:5)). But if you really believed in God, you can't accept that. All things are in God's hands, and he can make your business prosper so that you have ten times as much to give to the poor; or he can allow your crops to fail if you neglect him (see Haggai 1:2-6). The dilemma assumes that this religion stuff is hogwash.


12:24 PM  
Blogger love the girls said...

If the choice was fixed, and the choice was literally letting ones children die of starvation versus giving money for building a beautiful church to honor God, what should the choice be?

The money should go to feeding the children because sustenance is a prior good because it is more foundational or prior, just as baptism is prior in the sacraments. The church exists for the good of us, so likewise does the honoring exist for the good of us.

It's not a matter of believing, but a matter of understanding our duties and what is prior to what.

Interestingly enough, this choice was made for my wife's great grandfather and his siblings. Their parents were both dead, the eldest was around 13 and the Mormon church came in and took all their food as their obligatory offering to the church. They obviously survived it, but I had always considered it a classic example of indifference to the plight of our fellow man who is standing in front of us.

Would the rich man have gone to hell if he had instead stepped over lazarus to but money into the church building fund? No, but I would want him to spend some time in purgatory discovering what an indifferent lout he was.

10:46 PM  

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