Sunday, August 23, 2015

Church History Apologetics Series: The Catholic Church and Art

Anna Mitchell and I will continue our discussion of Church History and Apologetics on the Son Rise Morning Show tomorrow (Monday, August 24) at 6:45 a.m. Central time; 7:45 a.m. Eastern time--right after the quarter hour news headlines. Listen live online here.

We are a week later than usual because she was on vacation last week. This month's topic is a little different than the others: we are going to look at the Church's positive contribution to culture in art and architecture and how that often turns into an attack.

When we think of the glories of Gothic art and architecture or the great achievements of Renaissance and Baroque churches in all the great capitals of Europe, we must recognize that the Church, through its patronage and with the assistance of contributors rich and poor, built those churches and cathedrals, commissioned those paintings, mosaics, and statues for the honor and glory of God. At the same time that many appreciate the beauty of those works, some wonder about their source and value. As I noted a couple of years ago in an article for Homiletic and Pastoral Review:

The strange flipside of these achievements, however, is that someone might say that the Vatican, and the churches around the world, should sell priceless artwork, using the money to eliminate poverty. That adjective “priceless” points out one of the flaws of that argument: who could afford to pay what it’s worth? But, even if other museums, and private collectors, could pay what that vast treasure of beauty is worth, would it really be enough to take care of all the poor? What happens when that money has been distributed, and the problem of poverty has still not been solved?

As nearly every guidebook comments about each great European capital with a Catholic heritage, the cathedrals and churches are a great free refuge and resource for the weary tourist. They offer shelter from heat and rain, a place to rest, and a feast for the eyes to see great artwork by Titian, Raphael, Caravaggio, Michelangelo, Rubens, Tintoretto, and many others, especially that great and prolific artist, “Anonymous.” What about justice to the benefactors who gave artwork to the Church for the purpose of praising God in beautiful churches? Is it fair to their memory? Once the artwork is in private hands, for example, who will have access to it? The poor? Not likely.

I've encountered this rather twisted view of how the Church should sell this artwork--as if it belongs to the Church in the first place--often. When Pope Francis spoke about a poor Church for the poor, there were several comments (see this one in The Catholic Herald for example) that suggested he should sell off these priceless works. Even The National Catholic Reporter, with an article by John Allen, showed how ridiculous such an idea is:

To begin with, the legendary wealth of the Vatican is to some extent more myth than reality. The Vatican has an annual operating budget of under $300 million, while Harvard University, arguably the Vatican of elite secular opinion, has a budget of $3.7 billion, meaning it's 10 times greater. The Vatican's "patrimony," what other institutions would call an endowment, is around $1 billion. In this case, Harvard's ahead by a robust factor of 30, with an endowment of $30.7 billion.

The Vatican bank controls assets estimated at more than $6 billion, which is nobody's idea of chump change, but most of that isn't the Vatican's money. It belongs to religious orders, dioceses, movements and other Catholic organizations, and is managed by the Institute for the Works of Religion to facilitate moving it around the world.

Of course, these figures don't include the value of masterpieces of Western art housed in the Vatican, such as Michelangelo's "Pietà." The Vatican considers itself custodians of these items, not their owners, and it's a matter of Vatican law that they can never be sold or borrowed against. As a result, they have no practical value and are listed on the Vatican books at a value of 1 euro each.

National Geographic years ago published a special issue on great human artistic achievements: of all the buildings and sites mentioned, it was only in the article about St. Peter's Basilica that the author thought everything should be sold and given to eliminate poverty. Does anyone ever suggest that the National Cathedral in Washington or the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine, two Episcopalian churches, should sell all their artwork and give the proceeds to the poor? 

Such a comment always reminds me of the episode of Jesus at Bethany being anointed with costly perfume: in St. John's Gospel, Judas Iscariot protests that the nard should have been sold to feed the poor, in St. Matthew and St. Mark, the disciples make the same comment, but Jesus defends her action: she has done something good for Him and they should not begrudge it.

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