I contend that a work of art must be Catholic in order to qualify for use as sacred liturgical art. I think that is what the Fathers of Vatican II meant when they stipulated in Sacrosanctum Concilium of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy that …
“…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.”
But, how do we know if a work is “in accordance with faith, piety, and cherished traditional laws”? I believe there are several standards that a work must be measured by in order for it to be used in the liturgical space of a church. But, in order to avoid one very long post, I will post several smaller ones that explain my standards. What follows are descriptions of the first two. I hope you will feel free to chime in.
Certainly, the work must be in accord with orthodox Catholic teaching and doctrine. It would not do to have images that were heretical or even ambiguous about such important matters. For example, a design proposal for an apse painting in which the Holy Mother of God was depicted as a fourth member of the Godhead would be heretical. That certainly should be rejected. But, a design, improperly formed, might inadvertently suggest that she is part of the Godhead. The artist may not have intended to create a heretical image but the image might easily be mis-interpreted. The ambiguity disqualifies the work from being considered sacred. People in charge of approving liturgical designs need to watch out for doctrinal ambiguity. (The Catechism of the Catholic Church is a good resource on Catholic doctrine and teaching to have close at hand.)
Sometimes the ambiguity is intentional. The transgendered crucifix still in use in St. Mary’s Church, downtown Rochester, is a clear example of intentional doctrinal ambiguity. It got approved because it was “modern” and not because it was Catholic. The term “modern”1 was used to justify the acquisition of the crucifix so as to deliberately blur the literal/historical identity of Christ for the purpose of furthering a feminist agenda. Now, the people responsible no doubt felt they were doing something good –making women feel included. In doing so, however, they introduced doctrinal ambiguity and, even, heresy. If there is no widespread precedent for an image then its doctrinal orthodoxy should be held suspect and a higher authority or competence consulted.
Another example of ambiguity is the popular use of the rainbow image in banners and other temporary art forms that are often found in many of the sanctuaries of our progressive parishes nowadays. It is true that the sign of the covenant between God and Noah was the rainbow and is, therefore, scriptural and a legitimate Christian symbol. But, the rainbow image has become for most Americans a secular symbol for the social issue of diversity and inclusiveness. In addition, the rainbow has become a design image symbolic of the homosexual agenda. The vast majority of people today would be reminded of inclusiveness and homosexual “rights” and would not likely think of the Sign of Noah. In the case of the association of the rainbow with the homosexual agenda the rainbow could even seem to be contradicting the Church’s clear teaching on chastity, marriage and the family. This doesn’t mean that rainbows are now out, only that we have to be particularly careful in their use.
Ambiguity is a major problem with much of what I call banner art used in parishes today partly because they are created under very loosely controlled circumstances. Sometimes created by youth groups and other times by liturgy committees, designs get by simply because no one wants to stifle anyone’s enthusiasm. Certainly, nothing should be planned for use that is not first evaluated by the pastor.
Banners promoting ideas of social action, civil rights, feminism, “community” and such present themes that are not bad in and of themselves –some are, after all, themes in the Gospel- but they tend to focus on man’s political or social action without the need for God –a kind of self redemption. They divert from the praise of God -which is the proper aim of the liturgy- and from commemorating His saving intervention in human history.
Banners, themselves, no matter how unambiguously orthodox, do not qualify for use in the church anyway. But, that is another standard. We will describe later in the series.
Restricted Content and Subjects
In addition to unambiguous orthodox doctrine, works of liturgical art should be limited to depictions of the persons of the Holy Trinity, Mary, (some) blesseds and canonized saints, the angels, scriptural accounts, and dogmatic compositions. No other persons, living or dead, or subjects should be represented anywhere in -or on- the church, excluding ancillary rooms not directly used in the liturgical space. This restriction also helps us to avoid drifting into fads which have no place in the liturgy.
I’ll clarify further on restricted content and subjects in Part 2 of this series.
So, there are my first two standards that I think we should apply to an artist’s proposed design to see if it passes the test for use as sacred liturgical art: unambiguously orthodox and, restricted content and subjects.
1 Making Renovation Work, Joan Sobala, SSJ, page 11, Modern Liturgy, Vol. 7, Num. 4. The term was used by Sister Joan Sobala, who was on staff at St. Mary’s at the time, in describing the transgendered cross which was much criticized, according to Sister, by “angry and vocal dissenters from beyond the parish.” The critics, she suggested, were merely “opposed to the replacement of the large, traditional cross by a more modern image of the risen Christ.”
4. Oscar Romero, Blessed Teresa and Pope John Paul by Bernie Dick