Sed Contra: Catholic Journalism As If Beauty Really Mattered

Deal W. Hudson
March 1, 2000

Readers may have noticed that I added an explanatory note to the review section. I have been asked if this is a “disclaimer,” meant to disassociate myself from our reviewers’ opinions. That was certainly not my intent. I deemed the note necessary by the letters I have received from some readers who assume the mere presence of a review in Crisis constitutes a positive recommendation. It is important for all our readers to understand the role of a review section in a Catholic magazine, namely, to engage the culture with the sanity of Catholic intelligence.

Those who write these letters don’t articulate a disagreement with the comments of our reviewers— they simply don’t want these movies mentioned at all or anything redeeming about them extolled. They want Crisis to place a seal of approval on specific films every month. Take a look at the Ignatius Press video catalog to see where that strategy leads— it can’t include films like Liv Ullman’s Kristin Lavransdatter, presumably because of its sexual content. I assume it will sell the book. (Interesting contrast, isn’t it?)

Frankly, most of the complaints are about sex scenes and innuendoes. I agree that these are unnecessary and, at times, morally dangerous. Offhand, I can think of only one film in which an explicit sex scene was necessary to the unfolding plot and characterization—Lina Wertmuller’s Swept Away. The closing of a door, the blowing out of a candle, or the dropping of clothes on the floor is all that is needed to get the point. In fact, the evocation of genuine desire has been all but banished from the movies with the obligatory sex scenes. They violate a basic canon of Aristotle’s Poetics that spectacle should never be allowed to overwhelm the narrative.

The purpose of the Crisis review section is not to help our readers create a Catholic ghetto with a “G” rating. Yes, we will continue to provide guidance to parents with young children, but more importantly we will equip those parents whose teenage and young-adult children express opinions about films like American Beauty, Eyes Wide Shut, and The End of the Affair. Need it be said that film watching has become the most universally shared experience of the realm (although it has recently been challenged by investment chatter)? Catholics should enter that discussion, as Flannery O’Connor put it, informed by their vision, not by the “sensibility” of the age.

However, it concerns me that some Catholics deeply committed to Catholic intelligence, who are manifestly not afraid to talk about the truth, are the most skittish when it comes to the arts. A case in point is my recent trip to the marvelous Thomas Aquinas College (TAC) in Santa Paula, California. What I say here is only a minor quibble with what is surely one of the best Catholic colleges anywhere in the world. The staff, faculty, students, curriculum, campus, and physical setting would give almost anyone the urge to start his or her education all over again (evidently, some TAC undergraduates have done just that). TAC is flourishing and deserves all the Catholic support it can get.

My lecture at TAC on the subject of morality and art was followed by more than three hours of discussion. Most of the questions centered on the moral influence of artists’ work. Throughout the discussion, there was strong resistance to my argument that art serves us best when artists are free and responsible to create, and we, the audience, are free and responsible to enjoy. In other words, I urged a sort of subsidiary approach to the problem of moral influence—let both the artist and the audience stand free of external restrictions but responsible for the beauty they share. In this approach, parents teach their children critical skills; audience and artists learn from Catholic critics, teachers, and pastors. Everyone learns to see and create beyond the secular hype.

Some TACers clearly thought that since few know the truth, the moral limits of art should be imposed by those few, like Plato’s philosopher kings. Their concern about lost souls is precisely the same as mine, except I see it the other way around—more souls are put at risk when Catholics abandon the culture and the cause of beauty. Beauty converts more readily than sound arguments—it should always be on our side, even if marred by the spectacle of unnecessary sensuality. Thomas Aquinas once said that the truth should be embraced no matter who utters it; the same is also true of the other transcendentals, including the much-feared Beauty.

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