Don’t look now, but John Paul II is citing “the spirit of the Second Vatican Council.” Gaudium et Spes has something to say:
11. The Second Vatican Council laid the foundation for a renewed relationship between the Church and culture, with immediate implications for the world of art. This is a relationship offered in friendship, openness and dialogue. In the Pastoral Constitution Gaudium et Spes, the Fathers of the Council stressed “the great importance” of literature and the arts in human life: “They seek to probe the true nature of man, his problems and experiences, as he strives to know and perfect himself and the world, to discover his place in history and the universe, to portray his miseries and joys, his needs and strengths, with a view to a better future”.(GS 62)
Just a generation after WWII, and in the midst of the continuing Cold War, the world needed–needs something. Within the confines of the Church, art is not just for liturgy. And for the world, it is not just for art’s sake.
On this basis, at the end of the Council the Fathers addressed a greeting and an appeal to artists: “This world—they said—in which we live needs beauty in order not to sink into despair. Beauty, like truth, brings joy to the human heart and is that precious fruit which resists the erosion of time, which unites generations and enables them to be one in admiration!”.(Message to Artists, 8 December 1965: AAS 58 (1966), 13) In this spirit of profound respect for beauty, the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy Sacrosanctum Concilium recalled the historic friendliness of the Church towards art and, referring more specifically to sacred art, the “summit” of religious art, did not hesitate to consider artists as having “a noble ministry” when their works reflect in some way the infinite beauty of God and raise people’s minds to him.(Message to Artists, 8 December 1965: AAS 58 (1966), 122) Thanks also to the help of artists “the knowledge of God can be better revealed and the preaching of the Gospel can become clearer to the human mind”.(GS 62) In this light, it comes as no surprise when Father Marie Dominique Chenu claims that the work of the historian of theology would be incomplete if he failed to give due attention to works of art, both literary and figurative, which are in their own way “not only aesthetic representations, but genuine ‘sources’ of theology”.(La teologia nel XII secolo, Milan 1992, p. 9)
Art as theology: a concept worthy of in-depth exploration. Any commenters want to start?
Pope John Paul II’s Letter To Artists is available in its entirety online here.