Vatican II, the Church and Art

A Hermeneutic of Liturgical Reform in Continuity

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By H. Sergio Mora

ROME, JULY 13, 2012 ( – The Church and Art According to the Ecumenical Second Vatican Council («La Chiesa e l’arte secondo il Concilio Ecumenico Vaticano II») is the title of a book by Father Daniel Estivill, who adds a subtitle «Annotations for A Hermeneutic of Reform in Continuity» («Note per un’ermeneutica della riforma nella continuita»).

The book in Italian published by LUP is a guide for the reading of the conciliar texts in relation to the Church and art, especially Chapter 7 of the constitution Sacrosanctum Concilium. 

The author teaches in the Faculty of History and Culture of the Church at the Pontifical Gregorian University.

ZENIT spoke with Father Estivill, who is originally from Argentina.

ZENIT: How was the idea of the book born?

Father Estivill: It was born with the intention of giving an answer to Pope Benedict XVI’s call in an address to the Roman Curia (December 22, 2005), in which he appealed for the correct interpretation of the texts of Vatican II. In contrast to a hermeneutic of rupture and discontinuity, the Pope suggests a hermeneutic of reform in continuity.

ZENIT: What are discontinuity or continuity about?

Father Estivill: Every reform implies a certain discontinuity, but when it is said that the Council must be read according to a hermeneutics of reform it means that it is only about an «apparent» discontinuity, that is, that it refers to contingent things. Instead, to stress that a hermeneutic of reform should be «in continuity» emphasizes that the principles at the foundation of the Council maintain and deepen in a solid continuity with regard to the intimate nature and true identity of the Church.

ZENIT: Did the Pope refer to art in his address?

Father Estivill: The Holy Father formulated, in the address I referred to, a series of questions on Vatican II in general, on its implementation and its results. I allow myself to apply analogically such questions to the field of art and thus I dare ask: What has been the result of the Council in regard to religious and sacred art? Has the Council’s teaching on this matter been received in a correct way? In the reception of the Council, what things have given good fruits, what things have caused confusion or have given insufficient or even erroneous results? What must still be done to take up the guidelines of the Council on the subject of art in the Church?

ZENIT: What an enterprise, especially if we talk of a «spirit of Vatican II.»

Father Estivill: Indeed, it’s important to distinguish between what the Council has effectively affirmed and what is called the «the spirit of Vatican II.» I have reread the conciliar texts on the subject of sacred art in order to discover objectively what was really proposed by the Council. Unfortunately, not a few times, in the name of the so-called «spirit of Vatican II» there are those who have gone beyond the true intentions of the Council and even, more than once, in opposition to it.

ZENIT: And what have you discovered?

Father Estivill: On one hand, that the documents of Vatican Council II, which the Holy Father has sent us to reread, open paths of renewal and dialogue with the world of art, showing, at the same time, a strong continuity with the vision that the Church has always held in this field. On the other hand, on reading the conciliar texts, I have seen, unfortunately, that there are some re-readings inspired in a hermeneutic of rupture and discontinuity, which have created some «false myths.»

ZENIT: False myths? Can you explain this better?

Father Estivill: For example, it’s not true that the Council declared that finally the doors of the Church have opened to accept indiscriminately any type of manifestation of contemporary art. To support this affirmation, Gaudium et Spes 62 is quoted: «also the new artistic forms …. must be recognized by the Church,» forgetting that in the same number, without going further, is added: «when [the new artistic forms] raise the mind to God, with suitable expressions and in keeping with the exigencies of the liturgy.» Those who know the history of art and the history of the Church know very well how the Church in the West has always been open to novelties in the field of the arts and he knows also that, the Church has taken up, in the course of the centuries, these novelties, ennobling them and exalting human genius through them. However, in face of novelties, the Church has been able to select those that are compatible with the postulates of the faith.

ZENIT: And what else have you rediscovered?

Father Estivill: Sacrosanctum Concilium (122) establishes a basic distinction between art, religious art and sacred art, which is not a mere thematic distinction but, rather, a conceptual one. Pope Benedict XVI himself confirms the validity and importance of this distinction and at the same time points out as an essential characteristic of sacred art the fact that it is destined for the liturgy (cf. Opera Omnia, 2010, Vol. XI, p. 132). Another aspect that deserves mention is the Church’s respect for freedom of expression in art: a freedom, however, that is «ordered» to liturgical service; it is a freedom guided and illuminated by the «munus regendi» of pastors; a freedom subject to discernment, especially with regard to the relationship between art and morals. On this point too the Pope’s theological thought proves explanatory. He says: «The freedom of art, which is also necessary in the more closely confined realm of sacred art, is not a matter of arbitrariness» (Opera Omnia, 2010, Vol. XI, p. 132).

ZENIT: To carry out pastoral action from art, must there be good formation?

Father Estivill: This is another of the aspects on which Sacrosanctum Concilium insists expressly (127 and 129). This responds to a concrete historical reality: beginning with the advent of the Enlightenment there has been unleashed a growing contrast between faith and reason, between Catholic culture and avant-garde artistic tendencies. That is why, not living today in an environment permeated by the values of the faith, adequate theological formation is indispensable in relation to art, both for the artists, who must know the foundations of dogma and of the history of salvation, as well as for the clergy called to dialogue with the world of art. In this connection, the formation that the Council requests should be oriented to protecting and deepening the true identity of sacred art.

ZENIT: Should all priests be experts in art?

Father Estivill: Sacrosanctum Concilium (129) requests that in the curriculum of formation of the clergy the history and evolution of sacred art be included, as well as the healthy principles on which works of art should be based at the service of the Church. The objective is not to make priests «experts in art,» but to prepare them so that they are able to appreciate and preserve the works of art of the Church and so that they can guide artists in doing their works. We must not forget that behind the great works of art there is almost always a theologian in charge of establishing the iconographic program and of giving basic guidelines, which together with the artistic forms constitute, so to speak, the soul of the work of art. Sometimes, though not always, the «theologian» can agree with the one who commissions the work. However, in the concrete reality, who assumes these roles if not he who carries out the pastoral ministry? Such pastoral responsibility is of capital importance, as art in the Church is a valuable instrument for the transmission of the faith and for the celebration of divine worship.

[Translation by ZENIT]
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