I think not! Some time ago, on the final Monday of Lent, Mass at Thomas More College was celebrated by one of the monks from St Benedict's Abbey in Still River. As usual, we got a stimulating and challenging homily. It challenged us to give to the poor, but not in the way that we often hear.
The gospel passage on this occasion was about Martha and Mary: Martha tended to the guests and Mary washed Jesus feet with expensive nard, a fragrant ointment. Unusually, (in my experience at any rate), the homily spoke not so much to the contrast between Martha and Mary, but between Mary and Judas. It was the latter who suggested that the money spent on nard would have been better given to the poor. Here was a lesson about allocation of resources. Mary made the right choice, we were told, in choosing Christ even before giving to the poor. Then an even more interesting point was made. There is an equivalent choice facing us today every time we have to decide about having beautiful churches and art, intricate vestments, ornate jewel-studded chalices and so on. Is it right to direct money to these things when there is poverty? The answer is yes when these things, through the liturgy, elevate the souls of the faithful to Christ and this is greater than giving to the poor.
However, in order to understand how this can be so, some additional points must be made. First is that there is a point beyond which spending money on ornamentation of churches would constitute extravagance. But provided that point has not been reached then spending money on that nobler end is not asking the poor to make a sacrifice either. This may surprise some people but it is true. First of all, all of us, rich or poor, can go to church and need our souls saving, so the poor benefit spiritually from the beauty of the church and the liturgy as much as the rich do. Second, is that when we see the greater picture, the poor will benefit materially as well. It will inspire the rich to give to the poor directly. Further to that it will allow for the generation of greater wealth for the benefit of the poor. This is the principle of superabundance at work.
It occurred to me as I pondered on this afterwards that it is this last point that escapes so many people. Life is not a zero-sum game. Love is always fruitful - and when it is it invokes the principle of superabundance which means that something is created out of nothing. The miracle of the loaves and fishes applies to wealth as well when we place Christ first. Inspiring holiness will not only cause people to give more of their wealth to the poor, it will also mean that love permeates each personal interaction to a greater degree, including economic ones. As a consequence, their economic activity more superabundant. It is a double whammy! More wealth is generated to for rich and poor alike and those for whom it is generated are more inclined in turn to give to others who need it. This is the principle of good stewardship.
It is not surprising that critics of beautiful churches should not be aware that the supernatural has an impact on the creation and distrubution of wealth and on the distribution of social justice. Quite apart from consideration of the spiritual aspects of this, which require faith in order to be accepted, it is a basic principle of economics that seems to be beyond so many people who really ought to know better - right up to the level of finance ministers. Wealth is generated out of nothing through economic activity. It is superabundance that creates wealth. Once we realise this then it becomes obvious that tax policy, for example, will be effective if directed towards promoting wealth generation as well as wealth redistribution. (For any that are interested, I have written more of my thoughts on this in an article called Beauty, Business and Liturgy - A Theology of Work and the Entrepreneur.)
It is also the reason, incidentally, that there is such fear about the availability of resources for the future that result in advocating population control, contraception and abortion. Without the realisation that man's ingenuity, inspired by God, can invoke the principle of superabundance to allow greater things to emanate from less, it is impossible to believe that we can live beyond the next generation. This is not to advocate irresponsible use of the world's resources, rather to say that there is more to consider than just the material.
Think now of Pope Francis's call to charity and the poor and his citing of St Francis of Assisi as a model. I claim no insights as to how the Holy Father hopes to see this manifested, but his words have inspired me to think about how I might contribute to what he asks for. Certainly it is true that St Francis himself and the Franciscan order generally is known for their concern for the poor and the model they give of personal poverty. However, St Francis was also told to rebuild Christ's Church. He did both and he did both lovingly and beautifully. So many of the great artists from the time of Francis were third order Franciscans or worked for them at the very least, and they were great innovators - Giotto, Cimabue, Simone Martini, Raphael, Michelangelo. They were contributing to the building of great and beautiful churches and this is evidence, I would say, that points to strong belief in the value of the liturgy. Furthermore, these were innovators who were contributing the creation of a whole new culture of beauty, which through a greater appreciation of nature also fostered huge progress in natural science that generated material wealth for society. All of this is consistent with these twin aims of rebuilding the Church and caring for poor. When you rely on God you tap into the infinite. Inspiring people, rich and poor alike to come closer to God will create benefits in every area of our lives.
So it is only those who have a limited either-or mentality in regard to these things who would interpret a call to help the poor as one that also diverts money away from the support of beautiful churches and liturgy.
There is one argument for less ornate and simpler decoration in churches that is valid. That is one put forward by St Bernard of Clairveaux. If the beauty of the church is so alluring that it acts to distract us from Christ, then it is problematic. If you want to know if this applies to you...then ask yourself when you close you eyes: does your imagination takes you to somewhere lower that the art of the churches, or somewhere higher and closer to heaven. If you naturally think of things lower, then beautiful art in churches is beneficial to you. Those who are hindered by beauty in churches are exceptional. Bernard who was a lot higher up the spiritual slopes than most of us was clearly someone for whom the problem was the opposite. The imagery of the church was lower than the natural place of his imagination, and so were a distraction to him.
The Franciscan, by the nature of their calling, are out engaging with the world, and so, perhaps, the beauty of their churches was calculated to ensure that their prayer and their liturgical imaginations were raised up to the source of their love for the poor. Whatever the precise reason, as one of the spiritually weak whose imagination runs riot if left to its own devices, I am always grateful whenever a church and the liturgy are beautiful.
So please, keep everything in Rome. Except, that is, for the ugly concrete buildings and abstract garish stained glass windows from the 1960s, you can sell those...if anyone will buy them.
Vermeer - Martha and Mary
Luca Giordano - The Good Samaritan
Ribera - St Francis
Franciscan monastery Assisi
...and if you're fed up with reading and looking and want to start creating beauty, here's a unique sacred art class - learn the style of the English gothic psalter...