In Defense of Catholic Romanticism
The presentation of a mediocre image of Jesus is especially dangerous today because the world as a whole has become much more mediocre than it was, say, 150 years ago. The sense for greatness and depth has completely receded, even on a purely natural level. In the industrialized world which is viewed by Tellihard de Chardin as “progress”, in which the machine has replaced the tool and the computer ideal has captivated many people, in which education increases its breadth and loses its depth; in such an age, the presentation of a mediocre image of the personality of Christ is harder to recognize for what it is because it fits in so well with our mediocre world. The more our age becomes one in which not only the air is poisoned by chemical elements, but the spiritual and intellectual atmosphere is poisoned by the mass media, the more one brings mediocrity into religion for pastoral reasons – Dietrich von Hildebrand, The Devastated Vineyard (1973)
I am opening this essay with a lengthy quote from Dietrich von Hildebrand, whom Pius XII called a 20th century Doctor of the Church, in order to make an important point at the very outset; that I am a Catholic romanticist, as I believe Hildebrand was.
To bring these two concepts together may be controversial in some ways, and in others, it may make perfect sense. I could say that I am a “Catholic traditionalist”, or that I am a “Catholic reactionary”, or even a “Catholic conservative”, but none of these words – traditionalist, reactionary, or conservative – fully and accurately portrays what I feel or what I think. I warn you in advance: prepare to be offended or delighted, and to either way be roused from complacency.
Romanticism is a word that has fallen into disrepute among most intellectual types that I know and read. Part of this disrepute comes from the assumption that romanticism is irrationalism. The word “romanticism” has come to describe, moreover, views of historical episodes or even entire epochs that elevate certain desirable qualities and events while disregarding or downplaying episodes that are no longer considered politically correct. Finally, romanticism is often confused with genuine reaction, a desire to somehow forcefully turn back the clock to earlier conditions.
I will address each of these claims in this essay, though the journey I propose to take you on will cover much more ground than these nagging objections.
I will do so because a healthy romanticism is of infinitely greater value to society and to the Catholic Church than any degree of mediocrity – the greatest enemy of romanticism in every field, be it morality, liturgy, aesthetics, politics, and many others. I believe Papal wisdom, which is often balanced and measured, has been misconstrued by mediocrities and re-cast in their own image, whereas in reality the Papacy has always maintained a healthy romanticism: that is, a view of the past that elevates and glorifies what was good and just, a view of the present that finds room for those good and just things, and a view of the future in which the past has not been exterminated in the name of “progress”, which often turns out to be nothing more than the soul-crushing mediocrity denounced by Hildebrand.
Let me be clear on what my definition of Catholic Romanticism is: it is an appeal, a passion you might even say, for the greatest aesthetic trends in the history of the Catholic Church, and a rejection, for the most part, of the modern aesthetic of the typical Novus Ordo church house. It is not limited to, or even mostly found in, the era typically considered “Romantic”, though there were amazing and beautiful spiritual works produced during that time (Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis, Schubert’s Ave Maria, etc). My use of the word “romantic” may well be idiosyncratic and that may rub certain people the wrong way. Fair enough. I distinguish Catholic Romanticism from Catholic traditionalism only by the degree of passion for the aesthetic spiritual experience, and in no doctrinal or philosophical or theological or moral sense.
Because I am a passionate romanticist, I am a passionate Catholic as well. And I believe I have become more “conservative” over the years precisely because of romanticism, though no one should take that to mean I am some kind of rigid political conservative. This was the essence of my earlier essay on my conversion (re-entry, if one wishes to be technical) to Catholicism through music. This was, if I may say so now, an aesthetic romantic conversion. That isn’t to say that facts and logic (reason) played no role. There are truths, however, conveyed through aesthetics that are barely comprehensible to the human intellect, but which are a useful, even necessary compliment to that intellect.
Romanticism and Aesthetics
Thus romanticism begins, for me, with aesthetics. A romantic aesthetic is what saved my soul from atheism and communism. I wish I could say it were something else – a divine revelation, an objective understanding of right and wrong, some intellectual journey – but none of it would be true. Those things followed after. The first step was through aesthetics, through romantic aesthetics.
How can I explain it? A communist worldview is a materialist worldview. A materialist worldview, in turn, is a deterministic worldview. Anything that is great, anything that is glorious, anything that is free, anything that is beautiful – none of it can be said to emanate from a will, as an act of creation, either by God or by man. It is rather an unconscious “expression” of some deeper objective fatalistic processes over which man has no control. Not only is man incapable of creation, he is incapable of genuine enjoyment, of sharing in glory. He never had a choice, and his participation cannot be said to be genuine or personal.
This view is a mockery of itself. Everything we feel, everything we know, everything we experience is reduced to involuntary hiccups in an unbreakable chain of causality. Our deepest, most personal moments and experiences – what we feel when we hear a glorious work of music – is nothing but a series of pre-determined chemical reactions. It is stripped of all wonder and all value and booted into the ash heap.
This doctrine is as inhuman as it is false. Anyone who really believes it is a psychopath. Most people, however, think they have to believe it in spite of wanting to believe otherwise. They deny themselves, not in a good way (the way of the Cross), but for absolutely nothing. They gain nothing, they get nothing, and even the slight sense of satisfaction at having arrived at a position consistent with atheism and materialism turns to ashes in their mouths. They deny their own humanity and they crush themselves under the weight of their own pride – the first and greatest obstacle between themselves and God.
The aesthetic conversion had to be a romantic one, precisely because of the mediocrity which has penetrated the modern world like a ravenous cancer, replacing all that is healthy and vibrant with sickness and decay. A mediocre culture cannot resist a culture of lust, a culture of greed, and a culture of death, because a mediocre culture cannot inspire.
Yes, it is inspiration, that act, that process, call it what you will, by which aesthetics can convert the soul. What does it mean to be inspired? It means to be imbued with a new sense of purpose as a result of coming into contact with something entirely above and beyond the ordinary, the mundane, the mediocre. It is an entirely spiritual experience that is not possible in a materialist universe.
Inspiration is the antithesis of calculation. Inspiration is entirely qualitative and cannot be quantified; calculation is entirely quantitative and lacks all quality. Inspiration is something new and original, entering the soul from without; calculation is the base work of man unguided by grace, the manipulation of what already exists without the addition of anything new.
Thus romantic aesthetics convert the soul by way of inspiration. In the past we might have simply said Catholic aesthetics, because Catholic aesthetics even up until the middle of the 20th century understood the intimate, incomprehensible relation between truth and beauty. We must now speak of romantic aesthetics because the Catholic aesthetic is now debased, and has been driven to a lower level than the most drab Puritan church house of the 17th century, even in spite of recent attempts to ape the lights and noises of Protestant charismatic concerts. But the relationship between truth and beauty has not changed.
Mediocrity and Relativism
Mediocrity has entered the world, society and the Church by way of relativism, sometimes travelling under the dubious banner of “pluralism.” It is an undeniable fact that the Catholic aesthetic, which expressed timeless truths in beautiful forms to glorify God and convert men’s souls, was the product of a society in which Catholicism was the dominant culture.
What Pope Leo XIII said of politics and religious belief systems in Immortale Dei might then be equally said about aesthetics; that it is not wrong or evil for other modes of expression to exist in a society, provided that the Catholic aesthetic reigns supreme, is given pride of place, and retains veto power, the right to object and prohibit that which would be harmful to the culture. This is a true and good form of pluralism.
Hysterical leftists who become relativists cannot fathom this. Because of their pride and their materialism, they can envision no form of domination other than that of the most abusive, violent, hateful totalitarian control, as we see through the Jacobins, the Bolsheviks, the Nazis, and today’s communists that march under many different signs. Though this power is the ultimate aim of the “vanguard” of the revolution, relativism is a necessary stage through which they must pass in order to establish a new dominance.
After all, those previous revolutions, which really did try to establish themselves aesthetically by mimicking in some ways the Christian cultures that came before, ended in failure. The Bolsheviks under Stalin and the Nazis under Hitler had grand conceptions of aesthetics that were ironically derived from the cultures they smashed up and destroyed, and which ironically kept the memory of those cultures alive as a sort of smoldering resistance.
When Gorbachev opened the churches in the 1980s, millions of Russians came out of the woodwork to worship. The same happened as the Iron Curtain fell across Eastern Europe. Even an aesthetic scarred by the inhuman ideologies of Bolshevism and Nazism was enough to remind people of their spiritual nature. It was the ultimate weakness of these regimes (with respect to their inhuman goals) that they relied on those impulses, contrary to what we typically hear. The spirit can be misguided, but if it is not destroyed, it always aches to reorient to God.
What could not be done from above, even through seventy years of communist repression in Eastern Europe, is now being achieved through subversion and consumerism. It is really the only way it can be done. Likewise, what Luther, Calvin, Henry VIII, and the other iconoclastic madmen of the 16th and 17th centuries could not do to the Catholic Church is now being done through the same forces.
We know what relativism is. It is the view that no idea in politics, art, morality, religion, etc. is inherently superior to any other, which is really to say that none of them are true. They are simply different ways of looking at reality, and we are free to pick and choose from among them as spiritual shoppers. To claim that Christianity has more truth than Islam or Greek mythology is as absurd as claiming that Coke tastes better than Pepsi. You might believe it, but you cannot say it is true.
Nature, however, always abhors a vacuum. No power can be dethroned without another taking its place, and no one seeks power who does not believe that their worldview is true, and that all others are false. The insidiousness of relativism is that it masks the ascent of a new dominant paradigm with the innocence of impartiality. Thus there is a “liberal consensus” which is the new untouchable dogma; that something is “ok” as long as “it doesn’t hurt anyone.” Harm is generally understood to be physical, though it can also include spiritual harm, or what the faithless would call “psychological harm” provided only, and I stress only, that the group being harmed is a politically-protected ethnic or religious group that the new regime needs to use as a battering ram against its “reactionary” foes.
Thus it is a grave political sin to offend a Muslim, but a matter of free expression and of indifference to urinate on an image of Jesus Christ.
Relativism has consequences, however, that most relativists don’t really understand or care about, but which the most insidious among them plan upon, learning from past failures. The consequence I am most concerned with here, though there are others, is that it amplifies mediocrity, it elevates mediocrity, it celebrates and parades mediocrity.
This is because the mediocre cannot inspire. Because the mediocre cannot inspire, they cannot cause trouble, they cannot stir things up against the dominant paradigm. Jean Jacques Rousseau described the consequences of relativism and its creation of the mediocre man well:
It is philosophy that isolates him, and bids him say, at sight of the misfortunes of others: “Perish if you will, I am secure.” Nothing but such general evils as threaten the whole community can disturb the tranquil sleep of the philosopher, or tear him from his bed. A murder may with impunity be committed under his window; he has only to put his hands to his ears and argue a little with himself, to prevent nature, which is shocked within him, from identifying itself with the unfortunate sufferer. (Discourse on Inequality, Part I)
What an interesting passage! Though I am not certain I would agree with Rousseau’s use of the word “philosophy”, it is fascinating to me that this indifference can be found in equal amounts within the halls of academia and the isles of Wal-Mart. It penetrates every pore of modern society. Indifference is relativism incarnate, in morals, politics, art, religion. “Perish if you will”, says the indifferent and mediocre man to all of the great and wonderful things of the past, as they are murdered under his window, as he covers his ears and argues with himself using the rationale of relativism.
I am tempted therefore to describe relativism as a kind of a psychopathy. A psychopath understands the difference between right and wrong, and simply doesn’t care. The true relativist is a psychopath; he knows the difference between the beautiful and the grotesque, and he doesn’t care. He will tear down the beautiful, elevate the grotesque, and champion the mediocre for the sake of his ideological agenda.
The useful fools of the psychopathic relativist are to be found among well-intentioned, well-meaning people who sometimes call themselves liberals, and even conservatives, especially among intellectuals. The relativist plays on the guilt, on the fear, on the self-doubt of the most sensitive and thoughtful individuals among the dominant group. He gets them to believe that relativism is the only answer to oppression and injustice, that “truth claims” inherently and always lead right back to them.
This claim is a fallacy, but it strikes a deep emotional chord. It is, ironically, a sort of negative inspiration, a disease that enters the soul, breathed into it by a demonic mind. True inspiration affirms and brightens the truth and fuses it to our passions, which can admit no fallacies; negative inspiration introduces a fallacy in order to drive a vicious wedge between truth and passion. It does not come from God.
In the isles of Wal-Mart less effort is required. Any sort of truth conflicts with at least some hedonistic desires, the indulgence of which is all that remains for millions of people trapped in consumerism. Therefore, truth has to go. For what truth would Al Bundy give up the indulgences that make his spiritually murdered life barely worth living?
Romanticism and Spiritual Revival
In a mediocre world, romanticism, the fusion of lost truths and passions through inspiration and their expression through beauty, can serve as defibrillator for a spiritually murdered society. That is my thesis, that is my belief. And the same applies to a mediocre Church.
This is why I am a traditionalist. The aesthetic quality of my conversion, my re-entry into the faith, could lead me to no other expression of the faith than the traditional rite (and it also accounts for my utter disinterest in the legalistic squabbles that some traditionalists make a pass-time of). The Novus Ordo, as it is typically “celebrated” in parishes throughout the United States, is the most lukewarm, uninspiring, mediocre hour a mind can conceive of. Knowing now how and why mediocrity enters the world, we know why it has entered the Church – as a means of soul control.
Of course all of the liturgical “experimentation” was supposed to be done in a spirit of freedom, of liberation from stifling old forms. What would you say, however, to someone who lead you out of your home and into a prison, only to ask you how much more you enjoy your new home over the old prison you were just liberated from? You would think you were in the Twilight Zone: that up had become down, dry had become wet, and good had become evil. You would be, otherwise, in a relativist hell, a “dictatorship of relativism”, to use the phrase of Pope Benedict:
We are building a dictatorship of relativism that does not recognize anything as definitive and whose ultimate goal consists solely of one’s own ego and desires. (2005)
To the mediocre man, unfortunately, this means nothing. He has been trained to view open space and space confined by prison bars as having no meaningful differences.
And yet, in my previous essay on the role music played in my conversion, the words of the Holy Father gave me cause for optimism and not despair:
Pope Benedict, as Cardinal Ratzinger, wrote in The Spirit of the Liturgy that through the music composed at the high-mark of history, the works of Bach and Mozart, one might even see the image of God. If this is so, then we must learn to communicate, to evangelize, through the promulgation of such music.
I still believe this to be true. And it gives us an opportunity to digest the following thought; that evangelization and mediocrity are utterly incompatible with one another. Of course the recent successes of Protestantism might serve to contradict this hypothesis. In my view, however, they just understand better than Catholics do how to use mass media to bring back their lapsed brethren and keep the youth interested; look at their rock concerts, their youth events, their television programming, their incessant work with drug and alcohol recovery.
I can’t say this without offending Protestants, but I must say it, because it is relevant to the topic at hand: quantity is not quality. There are many sincere, wonderful Protestants out there, and I like them very much, especially when I see them trying as hard as they can to live a Christian life. They fight against social injustices such as abortion, abominations such as gay marriage, and so on. In politics, they are brothers in arms.
But in religion, in theology and liturgy, we cannot emulate them! The use of romantic aesthetics will separate the superficial from the sincere, the passionate from the lukewarm, the curious from the indifferent, the sighted from the blind. How can it do this?
Because romantic aesthetics appeal to something in the human soul that transcends time and place, and utterly vanquish the presumptions of historical materialism. Think of it as beacon, a signal, that one lights in the night. Those who have had their eyes gouged out by relativism will not see the light. They will not come towards it, and in their blindness, accidently snuff it out. Those who still have eyes to see will see the light; they will come towards it and they will love it and they will bear it with pride, seeking out others who may still have eyes but who are still lost in the dark.
But is it not a cruelty to leave out the blind? No, it is not, because they are blind by choice. This truth is affirmed by Christ in the Gospels:
To you it is given to know the mystery of the kingdom of God: but to them that are without, all things are done in parables: That seeing they may see, and not perceive; and hearing they may hear, and not understand: lest at any time they should be converted, and their sins should be forgiven them. (Mark 4:11-12)
So it is with the romantic aesthetic, the truly Catholic aesthetic; to the willfully corrupt, it is incomprehensible to the senses and the intellect. To the genuinely and sincerely lost, it is a beautiful and redemptive call in the wilderness, a sign of hope amidst all despair. So it was for me, and so it is for many others.
To us it was given by Christ’s Church, we might then say, to know the mystery of the kingdom of God not only through her teachings, but also through her divine aesthetics. I challenge anyone to listen to a work such as Monteverdi’s Vespers of 1610 and deny it. I challenge anyone to listen to Mozart’s Requiem and deny it. I challenge anyone to listen to even the chanted propers of the Latin Mass and deny it. I would say the same of her architecture, her commissioned artwork, her philosophical and literary works, and so on.
Romanticism’s Confrontation With Modernity
Now I must return, unfortunately and thanklessly, to the task I set out in the beginning of this essay; to defend romanticism against its mediocre critics. We may as well establish now that much of what is modern is simply mediocre, and that these two concepts are virtually indistinguishable at times. Now let us look at the three principle charges I have seen leveled against romanticism.
1. Romanticism is irrational.
Is this true? Of course not. There is as much irrationalism to be found among romantics as there is among modernists, and perhaps far less. Aesthetic romanticism is, in my view, a survival instinct, it is what the historically aware human being reflexively reaches out to as the overwhelming, vomit-inducing stench of modernity’s cultural sewer reaches his spiritual olfactory sense. And survival is the ultimate rationality.
Proof of this is the fact that even Marx and Lenin were aesthetic romantics, and struggled with great and terrible pain against the implications that their hate-filled materialist worldview held for truths expressed through beauty. Said Lenin to Maxim Gorky, whose work I quote here, practically in tears, upon listening to Beethoven’s Appassionata sonata:
“I know of nothing better than the Appassionata and could listen to it every day. What astonishing, superhuman music! It always makes me proud, perhaps naively so, to think that people can work such miracles!”
Wrinkling up his eyes, he smiled rather sadly, adding:
“But I can’t listen to music very often, it affects my nerves. I want to say sweet, silly things and pat the heads of people who, living in a filthy hell, can create such beauty. One can’t pat anyone on the head nowadays, they might bite your hand off. They ought to be beaten on the head, beaten mercilessly, although ideally we are against doing any violence to people. Hm-what a hellishly difficult job!”
In the fate of millions of Russians, Ukrainians, Eastern Europeans, and other victims of communism, we can see the consequences of one man’s self-denial, his denial of his own spirit, the part of him that can listen to a sonata and cry. Who can say what would have happened if he simply allowed himself to do it more often?
From an instrumental point of view, aesthetic romanticism is the only rational option for a Church that has any interest in retaining its identity, its uniqueness, its relevance, and its connection to the 2000 years of tradition without which it cannot stand.
And finally, we have already seen above that my view of romanticism is one of a fusion of truth and passion – truth, which is timeless and not subject alteration or negation by the philosophical fashionistas of academia, which can be found in the past as well as in the present, and probably moreso in the former.
2. Romanticism ignores the ugly truths of history.
Because romanticism is an aesthetic movement (among other things), it will naturally focus on the beauty of the past, rather than the ugliness. But it is a curious thing for people who are typically relativists to raise the question of ugliness in history. What was it again, that made slavery a bad thing? Or racism? Or what have you?
What more needs to be said? I ignore nothing as a romanticist. The existence of ugliness in history does not logically negate its beauty. Moreover, what is good and beautiful in history survives and endures forever. What is ugly ultimately perishes, if not in the history of man, in the history of God’s eternal reign.
3. Romanticism is reactionary; it wants to turn back the clock.
Wrong. As I have studied the political philosophy of the Catholic Church since Pope Leo XIII, I have come to understand that one can be a romanticist and still come to terms with modern technology, if not modern ideas.
Thus I do not advocate some sort of reactionary social ideal, a return to agriculture, a society that looks like Tolkien’s Shire or Pol Pot’s Cambodia.
I believe the good ideas of the ancient and medieval world, however, can be married to technological progress. Thus, along with the Papacy, I reject vulgar Marxist historical materialism, which posits a 1:1 relationship between the technological “base” and the ideological “superstructure” of society.
In the field of aesthetics, though – and I would add theology and liturgy to this general consideration – I certainly do wish to turn back the clock. Because there is absolutely nothing necessary in the Church’s downward spiral into mediocrity in each of these areas. It all emanates from the free choices of spiritually corrupt individuals, and can be undone by the free choices of spiritually healthy individuals.
So you might say I am a counter-revolutionary in this regard.
By now I have offended lukewarm Catholics, Protestants, intellectuals, “moderates”, pussy-footers of all stripes, and people who shop at Wal-Mart (though I was only kidding on that last one; I shop at Wal-Mart and I even cash my checks there sometimes).
But that will all be worth it if I have inspired a few lost Catholics and at least given them something to consider as they continue to grapple through the darkness and look towards the light. If we are to be the change we want to see in the world, or in the Church, then let us transform ourselves.
Immerse yourself in romantic Catholic aesthetics. Listen to the great works of sacred classical music; listen to Gregorian chant. Find the most beautiful Catholic church in your area and spend some time absorbing the images (for some of you this will be difficult, so look at images online. Start with the cathedral at Chartes, perhaps). Look at some of the amazing and unmatched Renaissance sacred art. Read medieval literature, read about the lives of the saints. Connect yourself to the past. Do as much of it at the same time as you can. Let it transform you. Let it inspire you.
Remember your humanity! Remember your Creator! Remember your Redeemer!
Then you’ll know what you must do.
(As a post-script, I must add that I stumbled upon something called “the mediocrity principle” that deserves an essay twice as long as this to address. Suffice to say, its mere existence testifies to the mortal threat that relativism and mediocrity pose to human civilization. Something to look forward to.)