Sunday, June 19


"Beauty has its own authority, an authority to which every human being responds, and an authority that in no way threatens." -Fr. Radcliffe

I submit to you that beauty is really the source of authority. Not in the theological or philosophical realm of licit authority, I suppose – or, at least, not immediately. The president of the United States doesn’t have authority because he’s handsome, or even because the concept of an elected executive overseeing a federal alliance of 50 states is beautiful, but instead his authority comes from the law. Nonetheless, beauty is the practical origin of authority: if I as an individual person enthusiastically embrace the president or presidency, it is because I love the concept of the presidency or a cause which the president is promoting or the person of the president. It is beautiful, and I respond to that beauty as it demands.

The Church has a lot of power over me. In some sense, I think the Church has absolute power over me: certainly, my obedience unto death; but also power over my actions and opinions and formation of my thought. I know that someone will object: no church should have such power over anyone! Or, someone else will say, “The Church does not even seek to have that much influence over its followers!” Theologians and philosophers do the important work of distilling (from what the Church is and her mission) the matters in which the Church ought to influence her faithful and the faithful ought to, or in cases absolutely must, obey. But while these powers may belong to the Church because of the inherent intent of Christ in founding a perfect society, for example, or whatever their argument might be, this argument in no way explains why the Church has any power over me. The Church, quite simply, has power over me because I choose to submit and am compelled to obey.

But it was not the lecture of a theologian, the legalizing of a dogmatist, or the proofs of a philosopher which constructed (or imposed!) this authority upon me--and for exactly that reason, it would be futile for any one to say, for example, that “the Church has no right to form your opinions!” or, as others would likely say, that the Church should have some authority over me, but that I go too far. The authority which the Church has over me, even if it is more than it asks for, it has for one reason: beauty. And, we naturally give –quite generously—of ourselves to those whose beauty (and I speak mostly of interior or inherent beauty) we love.

For example, I once owned a cassette of “The Supertones.” I admit it. There is only one rational explanation: one of my middle-school crushes liked Christian ska. Ladies and gentlemen, I would never have owned a cassette of the Supertones if it were not for that reason. Obviously, anyone would have told me that whoever this person was (I hardly remember her name now), she had no right to change my taste in music – and legalistically, maybe even morally, she didn’t. On the other hand: isn’t that sort of generosity natural? Even more so, then, with sublime love of the Church. I remember when I realized the Church was beautiful, and the Christian soul was beautiful, and that Mary was beautiful. (I confess, it was through her maternal guidance that I came to recognize, in a meaningful way, Beauty Itself in Christ Jesus. I confess this, but I am by no means ashamed of it: I think it highlights Mary’s role wonderfully.) When I realized this, the Church had me, and had me completely (very much despite my personal experience of it until that point, which has been quite banal and imminent).

I would argue that true love of the Church (and love proceeds from recognizing, and wishing to honor, true beauty) is all the authority the Church could ever need or ever want. Love of the mystery of the Church is patient, it is kind; “it does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.” Imagine if the Church had that “authority”? If it proceeded from love, it would be an authority that hardly wearied, but perhaps even vivified, the believer (rather than an authority to be shrugged-off or overthrown).

So, where am I going with this reflection?

I love apologetics. I have been taught that, with 40 years of study, philosophy can definitively prove God; theology and apologetics can certainly prove the claims of the Catholic Church and the wisdom of submission to her. But while these things can laboriously prove the validity of the Church and the extent to which she should have authority, they cannot move us to accept, they cannot compel us to joyful submit, to any manner of authority.

But, struck by the beauty of the Church, love carries the soul so much further “into” the Church than she could ask or even (when it comes, perhaps, to naming your kids “John-Paul Maximilian”) want. In a parallel universe, I can’t imagine that I would have strong opinions about damask silk, old men in Rome, or Austrian folk customs; but when these things so wonderfully express the beauty of a Church I love, they themselves become so beautiful and so joyful to embrace.

So, when it comes to evangelization, while proofs of Christian teaching or (this is more for the Protestants) threats of dire consequences can be tools to help evangelization, they really cannot be the be-all and end-all of spreading the Gospel. Explaining the True will work for those who already recognize and love Truth, if they are intellectually gifted; explaining the Good will work for the morally fit. But the Beautiful, the Beautiful is compelling to all.

Basically, my point is that the crux of true conversion, the best means for speedy evangelization, seems to be beauty. Propose something beautiful, and only then might people truly “submit” – and yet, it hardly feels like submission: it has become “an authority that does not threaten.”

I think we used to do a much better job of reflecting the beauty of the Church externally than we do now. Russia became Christian, not because of deft logical argument, but because the emissaries from Kiev to Byzantine said: “When we were in Haggia Sofia, we felt like it was heaven on earth.” They glimpsed the beauty of the Church. A book I just read, “How to Win Converts,” written in the 1950’s, said that any Protestant who attended Mass three times was generally expected to convert, the ceremonies of the Mass and the piety of the people so aptly reflecting the beauty of the Church. We still see this in the schismatic movements: housewives who 40 years ago wouldn’t have cared about scholastic theology now construct elaborate arguments about the invalidity of the new Mass—not for the theological joy of it, I argue, but because they want to justify a beautiful celebration of the older Mass against generally more banal celebrations they’ve lived with so long. All of them are conversions driven by beauty.

And certainly beauty is not beyond our reach today: it comes from the mystery of the Church itself, and is simply reflected in our piety and in the dignity of our celebrations. Any form of Catholic worship or of the Mass ("new" or "old") is quite capable of doing so. But, despite the importance of reflecting this beauty, we so seldom do, and we put so little effort into it! Yet this is our greatest vehicle of evangelization, and of truly profound evangelization.

I’m not arguing for a disconnect between reason and love, by the way. Rather, to quote Ratzinger quoting Paschal, I am simply mentioning that the heart has reasons of which the mind is unaware. (Did anyone notice this was the head of the Holy Office quoting a formerly banned book?)

(Random aside: For exactly this reason, the compelling authority of beauty, I despise the tragically-common practice of “fasting from beauty,” such as using deliberately ugly things during Lent, or stripping down worship-space to be more “purified” and “spiritual,” or “penitential.” These things remind us wonderfully of the very reason we sacrifice! Incense, statues, tracery are not things that we indulge ourselves in, as if we could “fast” from them, but instead the constant offering of our best to God in worship—done, as it were, "for God's sake"--and that is not something that a false spirit of penance, which seldom results in real personal sacrifice, can excuse us from offering.)

The occasion of this reflection another encounter I had with “the hardened Church insider.”

Catholic schools are particularly well-versed at creating the Hardened Insider, it seems. These are the people who know the color of smoke which comes upon the election of the Pope or even the inner workings of Curial cardinals, but somehow remain coolly detached, maybe even slightly jaded, with regards to the mystery of the Church itself, of the Body which is grafted onto Christ in his Pasch. These are the sort of Catholics who become the 1950’s administrators or the 1970’s reformers or the 1990’s liturgists, each of them experts in their field, who are inexplicably untouched by so much that represents the beauty of the Church, or get caught up in power-struggles or rights or what have you. I was trying to figure out how people so “in” the Church can sometimes seem so untouched by it, and the best I can conclude (as I have here) is the lack of a subjective internalization of the infinite beauty of the gift this Church, this transcendent Church, is. Maybe it was easy for all those of us who didn't go to Catholic school (which would be most of the "committed" Catholics I know) for some reason. I don't know.

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