There is a story about St. Teresa of Avila responding to criticisms of an artist. The Church had commissioned some work of art by an artist who was a notorious philanderer. Many Catholics of her day, including her Sisters, were scandalized by it. St. Teresa said, “If Satan himself painted a picture of Jesus, and it was a good picture of Jesus, I would still venerate it as an image of Jesus, regardless of who made it.”
That says something about the attitude Catholics should have regarding art and the artist, or even the professional and the profession. Our instinct is, of course, to see them as one and inseparable, to not support the work for fear of endorsing the sin. Yet it is a fundamental thing we must understand and accept as Catholics. After all, the most important “profession” is that of the priesthood, and the Church teaches us that the priest’s sacramental duties are performed ultimately by Christ working through him, so the personal sanctity of the priest does not matter (though the form of the sacramental rituals *does*, because it shows the unity of the entire church in prayer; simply put, if the priest changes the words, he’s not praying the prayer the rest of the Church is praying).
Anyway, I’ve often reflected on that with contemporary artists. Years ago, _The World Over_ had a Christmas special. Among its guests were Charlotte Church (when she was still a fairly decent-seeming teenager) and Aaron Neville (“What’s Aaron Neville doing on _The World Over_?” I thought, knowing him only for that duet with Linda Ronstadt).
Well, when Raymond Arroyo asked Charlotte “Voice of Angel” Church about why she sang so many religious songs on her albums, her answer was, “Because they’re pretty.” Then, he interviewed tattooed, jewelry-covered Aaron Neville, who went on about how important his Catholic faith had always been to him in his life and career, in varying ways, but how he had gone through a relatively recent reversion/conversion experience and come back to the Church big time. I was shocked at the contrast.
Then, several years ago, I was curious about Mel Gibson and Arnold Schwarzeneggar. I had heard the early rumors about _The Passion_. At one point, Deal Hudson wrote a column about Mel Gibson pulling out of a pro-life conference he’d committed to speak at (I later heard of that occuring a few times). I’d seen the many stories about his family and traditionalism and all that. So I began watching a bunch of Mel Gibson movies. Certainly, the more recent ones had some Catholic themes in them (_Signs_, given M. Night Shyamalan‘s sensibilities).
But the further back I got, I didn’t see it. Some OK action films and what have you, but nothing really that profound.
Then there was Ah-nold. I knew he was allegedly a Republican, one of the few outspoken Republicans in Hollywood. I’d known that since he worked for the George H.W. Bush administration.. I had recently found out he was Catholic. I knew he was married to Maria Shriver, a major minus, but I wondered what, exactly, his views were. He was, at that point, “considering” running for governor of California, and I wanted to know if this was a good thing.
So, during the same couple years, I went through a period of watching a bunch of movies from two of the biggest 80s “action” stars (not being a particular fan of the “action” genre beyond the occasional catharsis), both to find out if their movies showed any hints of their alleged Catholicism.
Funny thing is, I saw more hints of it in Schwarzeneggar’s movies than I did in Gibson’s. Definitely, more of a sense of roles chosen for some kind of “point,” even if it was a liberal one. It is really rather interesting. It is often pointed out that some of the Catholic authors we idolize from the early twentieth century, like Graham Greene, for example, were not the best men–and, of course, their novels’ ability to depict moral crises in a genuine way would have to stem from some personal experience. Even J. R. R. Tolkein and C. S. Lewis (obviously not a Catholic, but still falls in the category) were not exactly saints in their private lives.
But then there are two other extremes. There are the Michael O’Briens and Bud Macfarlanes, who produce what is basically pulp fiction for goody-two shoeses. Flannery O’Connor lambasts this category of Catholic writers as producing work that is, from an artistic perspective, no better than porn. Porn exagggerates evil; puritan literature exaggerates good. Neither views the world realistically.
But there are also writers like G. K. Chesterton, Flannery O’Connor, and, in a way, Tolkein, who were deeply committed Catholics (though Tolkein had his issues). and their work often is hard to distinguish from that of secular writers. They have profound Catholic themes deeply embedded in their work, but, as O’Connor puts it, it’s the “lens” through which they view the events.
This is something I explain to my literature students. You can look at the *events* in stories Flannery O’Connor, Edgar Allen Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne or Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and those *events* will seem almost indistinguishable in content. The stories are, superficially, violent and bleak and depressing. But the key, as O’Connor says, is what the characters in the story do with the violent events they experience: whether they take the moment of crisis as a cause for despair or a catalyst for repentance.
So, that leaves us with several categories of Catholic artists:
a. Those wayward Catholics whose Catholic background is nothing more than “pretty songs”, who use the outward trappings of Catholicism in their stories but do so merely for its aesthetic or cultural value, or to promote some social application of morality (if they get that deep).
b. Those devout Catholics whose art is primarily polemical, “fictionalized theology.”
c. Those wayward Catholics–or reverts, or “peak and trough” Catholics–who struggle or have struggled with their faith, and express that struggle in their fiction in a genuine way (one of the two best categories).
d. Those devout Catholics who see their art as art first, and they just make good art, but they see the world through the “lens” of their Catholicism, so their works become great Catholic art (the other of the two best categories).
e. Those (not discussed yet) who are in some stage of trying to divest themselves of the Church, trying to escape from their Catholic “baggage,” as they call it. These may incorporate Catholicism into their art as a means of “working things out” and trying to rebel from the Church. However, what’s interesting is that, like Arnold Schwarzeneggar, these people may inadvertantly produce work that a serious Catholic can look at and see some worth in.
f. Those who are devout yet do not really incorporate their faith into their work at all, except in the most superficial way.
To wit, EWTN now has Fr. C. John McCloskey’s Catholic Authors series archived in MP3!! I was working on my MA when these shows originally aired, and I watched them with great interest. They’re just Fr. McCloskey talking with various experts. I dont’ even recall many visual aids. So it won’t make a difference listening in real audio.