Of the many great gifts Pope Benedict XVI has left the Church, one remains perhaps less apparent, but has great potential: the recognition of the role of beauty in finding Truth. Detractors often underestimate how well Benedict understood contemporary society, mistaking his continuity of Church teaching on moral issues as a sign of a backward old man out of touch with the times.
But Benedict, in his incisive and lucid way, sought not to treat the symptoms of wanton and widespread licentiousness, but to address the underlying disease: the inability to recognize authentic beauty.
Now, this may strike us as strange. If there ever was a culture obsessed by "beauty," it is ours. Millions spent on diets, clothes and beauty treatments, the proliferation of eating disorders and costly, superfluous surgery are but a few examples of our almost pathological quest for "beauty." We might think we are surrounded by beauty. Everywhere we turn, we run upon clothes, shoes, movie stars, manicured gardens, pretty packaging and glossy magazines. But Benedict reminds us that this is but an illusion.
Describing our impoverished notion of beauty, Pope Benedict addressed artists in 2007, saying, "The beauty that is thrust upon us is illusory and deceitful, superficial and blinding, leaving the onlooker dazed." Instead of bringing him out of himself, Benedict observes, this false beauty "imprisons him within himself and further enslaves him, depriving him of hope and joy." And Benedict concludes that it is "a seductive but hypocritical beauty that rekindles desire, the will to power, to possess and to dominate others; it is a beauty which soon turns into its opposite, taking on the guise of indecency."
As people grow to understand the emptiness of what they have become accustomed to calling beauty, these prophetic words will help identify the cause of this modern malaise.
Firmly focused on the here and now of the modern, then-Cardinal Ratzinger identified another cause of our numbness to beauty. In 2002, addressing a crowd in Rimini, Italy, he said, in almost shocking terms, that, today, "the message of beauty is thrown into complete doubt by the power of falsehood, seduction, violence and evil. Can the beautiful be genuine, or, in the end, is it only an illusion? Isn’t reality perhaps basically evil? The fear that in the end it is not the arrow of the beautiful that leads us to the truth, but that falsehood, all that is ugly and vulgar, may constitute the true ‘reality’ has at all times caused people anguish."
The obsession with scandal — the "dirty little secret" as truth, the idea that wisdom is believing the worst of man, and the casting down of heroes can all be identified as symptoms of this error.
Pope Benedict, who has seen all kinds of ugliness — from his childhood during World War II to the sex-abuse files he was obliged to study — urges us not to look downwards at filth and baseness to find Truth, but to gaze upon the wounded, suffering image of the crucified Christ and to see through his bloody face to the beauty of his enduring love for us.
Benedict brought the battle for the soul of the world to the cultural front, to the very turf so hard-won by Hollywood and policed by advertising, media and the capricious gods of fashion. He dared to expose the clay feet of the giant and has been hated for it. But so certain is he that Christianity has the strength to enter this arena that he raised the status of the Pontifical Council of Culture, naming its president to the Cardinalate.
In 2008, at the Cathedral of Bressanone, he reprised a refrain he had first enunciated in the Ratzinger Report of 1985, saying that, to him, "art and the saints are the greatest apologetic for our faith." The 1 million people packed into St. Peter’s Square for the beatification of Pope John Paul II in 2011 proved his point well, as do the record number of entrances at the Vatican Museums in the last few years.
To help us even further, Benedict issued a challenge, daring us to engage true beauty, if we have the courage for it. Beauty is not as innocuous as it may seem, but threatens to shake up our comfortable worldview and make us rethink many of our prejudices.
"The encounter with the beautiful can become the wound of the arrow that strikes the heart and in this way opens our eyes," said Cardinal Ratzinger at Rimini.
That wound, that opening in our hardened opinions, our complacent convictions, leaves us exposed. As the Pope said to artists, that dart "draws [man] out of himself, wrenches him away from resignation and from being content with the humdrum — it even makes him suffer, piercing him like a dart; but, in so doing, it ‘reawakens’ him, opening afresh the eyes of his heart and mind, giving him wings."
That awakening can make man thirst for truth, to reject the false, the superficial and illusory. Beauty is dangerous. If it captures the heart, it can make one change. Ovid knew it; Dante knew it. And Benedict has spent his pontificate telling us we have resources we haven’t even begun to tap.
Thanks to art and the exceptional lives of saintly men and women, the Church — the custodian of beauty and Truth for the past 2,000 years — still has a powerful voice in the world of culture. In the great cultural battlefield of our era, Pope Benedict has shown future generations how to get into the trenches and win with grace, in every sense of the word.
As he said last August, at a general audience at Castel Gandolfo, "Art is capable of making visible our need to go beyond what we see, and it reveals our thirst for infinite beauty, for God."
There are "artistic expressions that are true paths to God, the supreme Beauty," which "help nurture our relationship with him in prayer. These are works that are born of faith and express faith."
The Pope recalled a concert of Johann Sebastian Bach’s music: "After the last piece of music, one of the Cantate, I felt, not by reasoning, but in my heart, that what I heard had conveyed to me truth, something of the truth of the great composer’s faith — and this pressed me to praise and thank the Lord."
He reminded the faithful that visiting churches, art galleries and museums can be "where we can stop and contemplate, in the transition from simple, external reality to a deeper reality, the ray of beauty that strikes us, that almost wounds us in our inner selves and invites us to rise towards God."
Elizabeth Lev is an art historian
based in Rome.