Friday, March 22, 2013

Should the Church Sell Her Artwork?

There is a common tendency among dissenting Catholics and opponents of the Church to criticize the supposed wealth of the Church. Many complain "If the Church would simply sell Her artwork, basilicas, and vestments, give them to the poor, and return to the simplicity of Christ, then I might be more inclined to listen to Her teachings!" This atrocious sentiment is apparently even shared by a certain disgraced Church Cardinal.
Those who believe this poor excuse for an argument exhibit extreme gullibility. It is naiveté bordering on deliberate self-deception to believe that those who criticize the Church for her poverty would simply convert en masse if She sold all Her artwork, vestments, and other beautiful possessions. (As an aside, shouldn't those who would buy the artwork be helping the poor instead of spending money on supposedly useless art?) Would the Church's critics, who mock or willfully distort practically every doctrine of the Catholic Church to suit their own ends, suddenly convert if the Church were to give all Her goods to feed the poor?
Not likely. Especially since the solution the Church's critics propose to end to poverty appears to consist of free birth control for everyone, having no children, and instituting higher taxes on others to fund government programs of questionable efficacy. (The willingness of the Church's critics to give away their own possessions to assist those in need is also questionable.)
Their complaints echo those in the Bible who complained against a woman washed Jesus's feet with expensive perfume in the Gospel. (Mark 14:1-10) Her detractors complained: "Why this waste of perfume? It could have been sold for more than a year's wages and the money given to the poor." Jesus rebuked them for their false concern, and reminded His followers that "the poor you will always have with you," but that He would not always be with them.
The Church is not foolish enough to sell off Her beautiful artwork in order to satisfy the hypocritical taunts of Her loudest detractors. In fact, She already does far more than any of Her critics for the poor. Her mission of service is not compromised by the beautiful gifts She owns. Besides, merely selling off all the Church's patrimony would not solve the plight of the poor; there are millions of poor individuals on this earth, and the money that would be gained from selling off the Church's artwork would prove to be at best a temporary solution (and more likely, not even that) for the plight of the poor.
But more importantly, the art and the decorations that the Church "owns," so to speak, are fashioned to reveal the glory of God. Artists labored to reveal the glory of God through their work. Their work is a foretaste of the beauty of heaven, and quite literally leads people to God.
And the Catholic Church generously presents this art to all. Most of the art She "owns" is located in churches open to the general public, available to be viewed free of charge. If the Church's art were located in private collections or even in museums, the poor would be unable to view the beauty contained within because of their poverty.
There are two paths to Christ and the truths of the Faith: intellect and beauty. The first path is the way of the intellect. But few are reachable by reason; the way of the scholar is not attractive to the common man with little time to think of the mysteries of heaven. And intellectuals are often led away from truth by their own arrogance and stubbornness.
The second, far more commonly taken path is the path of beauty. Yes, the example of good men and women serves as a spur to sanctity; the example of the saints inspires many to take on the sweet yoke of Christ. But beautiful objects which people create also can evoke a salutary wonder which can lead people to Christ. And the wonders of the liturgy, the glory of the basilicas, the spiritual messages of the artwork - these inspire men and women to think of a sublime God, and to think on higher things.

Update: After this was originally posted, a friend pointed out to me that the art in Catholic churches is available for all, including the poor, to view freely, whereas most museums charge for entrance. The Church makes Her beautiful art available to the public in a way that most museums do not. I have accordingly updated the post. 

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