The Catholic Church is Home to the Tasteful and the Tacky, the Sinners and the Saints

This is the authenticity of the Catholic faith. It is universal.

The upper chapel of Sainte Chapelle in Paris.
The upper chapel of Sainte Chapelle in Paris. (photo: Credit: ‘Didier B’, CC BY-SA 2.5, via Wikimedia Commons)

I was living in England when we became Catholics and not long after our reception into the full communion of the Catholic Church an Anglican friend asked me, “Well, now that you’re Catholic do you like being Catholic?” He was referring to the fact that in England the Anglicans have all the nice old buildings, the money, the contacts with the Queen, the old cathedrals and colleges and lots and lots of good taste.

“No.” I answered.

He was surprised and a bit confused. “If I were choosing a church I liked I’d still be an Anglican. I didn’t become a Catholic because I liked the Catholic Church.” I retorted. “I became a Catholic because it’s the true Church.”

I have this way of stopping conversations…

My friend was hinting at the fact that within Catholicism there are some astounding examples of bad taste.

If you are a convert to the Catholic faith from Lutheranism or Anglicanism or any other form of tasteful religion, then you will have to deal with Catholic kitsch. What are we to do with the trashy trinkets, the horrid holy cards, the sappy statues? How do you put up with the banal hymns, bad preaching and sentimental religiosity?

You have to correct your expectations. You thought sanctity and sublimity were the same thing, and while what is true is also beautiful, we sometimes have to re-assess our own opinions about beauty. There is a beauty that transcends matters of fine art and good taste.

Being a Catholic means having our preconceptions blown away. It’s all much bigger than you thought. Being Catholic is learning to see the beauty of holiness. Sanctity and sublimity are not always the same thing.

A good illustration of this is St. Thérèse of Lisieux. Anyone with taste and learning who has first read her book will probably not find it to their taste. It is a schoolgirl’s account of growing up in a very pious household in nineteenth century France. It is not only unremarkable, but it is sentimental, sweet and not only girly, but frenchy girly. Then you see the popular images of the simpering saint of Lisieux with her ruby lips pouting in a pious smile–the upturned gaze, the cross and the roses…

 “Give me break!” said my tasteful Anglican soul.

But there was something else there–something I missed. There was a beauty that lurked beneath and behind and below and in and through all the sentimentality and tackiness. It was the beauty of sanctity–and that sanctity was a mystery of divine light made incarnate by God’s grace in a very ordinary little girl.

This is the beauty of the saints. Very few of them are sublime, and even the ones who seem sublime–when you really get to know them–are gritty and real. This is the deeper beauty: the beauty of the reality of the Catholic faith.

It’s true Catholics have some awful music and bad hymns. But we also have Palestrina, Elgar, Mozart and Byrd. 

Yes, we do have plastic glow in the dark rosaries and those night lights you plug in where the plastic statue of the Blessed Mother lights up. But we also have the Pieta and the Sistine Chapel and Michelangelo and Caravaggio. 

It’s true we have brutalist churches that look like a cross between a flying saucer and a parking garage, but we also have Chartres, St. Mark’s in Venice, Sainte-Chapelle, Notre Dame, St. Peter’s and Mont Saint-Michel.

This is the authenticity of the Catholic faith. It is universal. It has room for the peasant and the aristocrat, hoi polloi and high falutin’, the learned and the ignorant, the tasteful and the tacky, the sinner and the saint.