In Candore Decus

A rather sweet little article has appeared in the blog of my friend in the USA – The “Gospel” of Liturgical Aestheticism. Apparently, I am fortunate not to have been born before the Constantinian Settlement, and credited for being “candid”.

We are all born in the circumstances God chose for us, to use the usual pious rhetoric. I think we know precious little about Christianity in the first four centuries. Penances were extreme and the bar was high for being prepared for Baptism through the old Catechumenate. There are a few oblique references to how the Eucharist was celebrated, but it was secret. So, whether it was a utilitarian affair of a flagon of wine and a loaf of bread around a rough wooden table by people wearing ordinary clothes of their time – or a precise rite, we have little to go on.

There is too much in the way of collusion between a certain kind of Christianity and the anti-human ideology that was finally discredited with the downfall of the Nazis. I’m not talking about the externals but the underlying philosophy of a few humans being destined to form a ruling elite and the rest being “worthless dross”. This is the reductio ad absurdam of a system of thought that assumes that a small elite will go to “heaven” and the vast majority of mankind will spend eternity roasting on hot coals or being gassed again and again with Zyklon B by demons in jackboots toting Schmeisser machine pistols!

Humans are both sinful and sublime. This is the real issue over any particular point of the “aesthetic gospel”. I don’t systematically reduce things to political terms or compare everything with Nazism (Godwin’s Law), but such a reflection helps to comprehend the darker aspects of Christian history in terms almost familiar to people in our own times.

I am attracted by beauty and the kind of western culture that was slowly built up out of the ashes of the Dark Ages and the fall of the Roman Empire, leading to the Renaissance. I am even more attracted to a notion of Christianity that has the humanist genius of the Renaissance, the love of humanity and the sublimity of which we are potentially capable. Christ promised beatitude to the poor, the weak and the oppressed, above all those who lived their condition with a pure heart and eschewed the values of the “world”.

In the end of the day, had any of us been born into a different time, we would have been formed with different attitudes and another philosophy of life. Had I been a Roman, a second-century Jew, the son of a slave – that would have determined many things. The whole speculation seems as useless as nonsensical.

Aestheticism against asceticism? It’s a whole conflict of ideas, symbolised by the events surrounding the abdication of Pope Benedict XVI and the election of Pope Francis with a whole load of different values and beliefs. It seems to give another perspective on “post-modern” Christianity and American conservative religion.

It seems unfortunate to see the lights go out in Europe and elsewhere, beautiful churches going to waste and so forth. But, it seems to be necessary as liturgical aesthetics leave their place to I-pads, Twitter and football! If the seed doesn’t fall into the ground and die, it cannot bear fruit.

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7 Responses to In Candore Decus

  1. Stephen K says:

    Dear Father Chadwick, your ‘aesthetic Gospel’ is a real thing and an uplifting and transforming one but it is the result of creative and passionate and painstaking moments of artistry and craftsmanship in the service of a belief, and not the inevitable or frequent result of juridical religion by ecclesiastical politicians or professionals. The culture you and I both admire is certainly informed by religious myth and truth, but has its bad as well as positive elements. The energy that went into a Palestrina motet and a Van Eyck masterpiece is not perfectly identical with the energy that went into heresy-hunting and spiritual and theological authoritarianism. Some cardinals are artists or patrons of the arts; most artists are anything but political churchmen. That we have something to admire is no thanks to those who insist we think, speak and act “just so”.

  2. Stephen K says:

    Father Chadwick, I do not oppose asceticism with aestheticism. Ascetic spirituality is an aesthetic. I oppose asceticism with counter-Reformational extravagance; and aestheticism with puritanism. I generally eschew any attempt to define a “cathoiic” but if push came to shove, I would say a ‘catholic’ is someone who seeks purity within sensuous beauty, not a combination of effeminate flamboyance and hatred of the flesh, theologically or otherwise.

  3. Warwickensis says:

    Dear Fr. Anthony,

    I really do admire your patience with this chap. I’ve recently found that he has been engaged in some “tussle” with me, a “tussle” which I knew very little about. He seems to have read my work as if it responds to his. I have my own reasons for meditating on Romans viii at the moment, which are very separated from his agenda.

    As it is, I’m not interested in “tussling” with him firstly because he has published what I consider to be rude, condescending and uncharitable statements designed to show his intellectual superiority, and secondly because I have no interest in “tussling” or debating him on points of his own belief. If he wishes to hold to a doctrine of “once saved, always saved” along Calvinistic lines, that’s his decision. He, like me, must work out his own salvation with fear and trembling.

    If he wishes to accuse me of heresy, then he must go to my bishop. If he wishes to accuse my bishop of heresy, then he must go to my archbishop. If he wishes to accuse the whole ACC of heresy, then he must bring it to God in prayer and pray for our conversion.

    I pray for him, nonetheless. I wish him well and pray for God’s love in his life, but I have no wish to engage him in debate or post any of his comments until they demonstrate an ounce of charity and much less intellectual pride.

    Hope you’re well by the way. I hope we meet up soon.

    God bless.


    • Dear Fr Jonathan,

      Like yourself, I will not discuss points of late medieval and Reformation era scholastic speculations. Fr Louis Bouyer remarked something to the effect that the Reformers got rid of the truly Patristic aspects of the liturgy and kept the most decadent aspects of medieval piety and scholastic theology! It must have been something like throwing away the baby and keeping the bathwater. But, I will address some of the issues from another point of view.

      It often happens that those who are the most “extreme” and dialectical in their thought and discourse often flip to the opposite extreme. This time next year, he might be a sedevacantist Roman Catholic or a “new” atheist in the Dawkins camp. In medio stat virtus – we have to find a moderate way and there’s every chance we’ll stick to it and persevere in our life of disciples.

      Yes I’m well. There’s a small weather window tomorrow and I might be able to take the boat out – with my wetsuit as temperatures will be 9-10°C.

  4. ed pacht says:

    I, too, have tangled with the gentleman in question, Yes, he does have a sharp mind and a great deal of knowledge. In truth there is much in what he says that is worth the hearing, which makes it all the much more a pity that his thought is so often enwrapped in such a narrow and condemnatory attitude. I find it literally painful to read what he writes, even when he is saying things with which I agree. That is a real pity. Like Jonathan, I will pray for him, but I’m afraid I have to avoid his blog, and to moderate his comments when he appears where I have that authority.

    • Actually, I find that this particular blog provokes thought when I get to the real issues behind the twisting of Augustinian doctrine in both Protestantism and Roman Catholicism. Was it not Alexis Khomiakov who said something about Protestantism being hatched from the egg that Rome laid (I would love to find the exact quote)? Is humanity good with the possibility of doing evil, or evil with the remotest possibility of doing good if part of God’s “elite”? It really comes down to that.

      History needed the Renaissance and the Enlightenment to challenge a kind of “Christianity” that would ultimately lead to the events of the twentieth century. It is perfectly possible to be a Christian Humanist without denying the holiness and goodness of God. If I have been pushed to think of such things, it is faced with the kind of “conservative” Christianity that in Europe went very quickly out of fashion in 1945.

      • Father Martin says:

        I’ve always called Protestantism the “Bastard Child of Rome”……..that makes Rome culpable and a philandering adulterous parent.

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