Catholics believe that sacred art has the power to inspire and encourage the practice of our faith’s social teachings. From the earliest Christian catacomb paintings to modern-day street art, we have used art as a means of expressing our faith and promoting the Church’s traditions on these topics:
- Life and dignity of the human person
- Call to family, community, and participation
- Rights and responsibilities
- Option for the poor and vulnerable
- The dignity of work and the rights of workers
- Care for God’s creation
In his letter “On the Relationship between Faith and the Arts,” Pope Benedict XVI wrote that “Art is a pathway to the inmost reality of man and of the world. … Through the senses, art reaches that place within us where time and space are transcended and where we are in contact with the absolute.” The former pope determines in this passage that art has the power to connect us with the divine and to transcend the limitations of time and space. This idea aligns with the rule in the Catechism of the Catholic Church that says, “The sacred image, the liturgical icon, principally represents Christ,” (CCC 1159), indicating that sacred art is significant to Catholicism both within and external to the Mass. Catholics, then, who understand the Church’s viewpoint on sacred art have a deeper relationship with their faith and a fuller experience with such artwork that enriches how they live out Catholicism.
Sacred art encourages Catholic social teachings by conveying the Church’s teachings in powerful and memorable ways that motivate people to take action and understand the world around them. From the depiction of biblical stories to the portrayal of the lives of the saints, we learn about and understand the Church’s teachings through sacred art. Visually appealing artwork presented in engaging ways inspires us to put these teachings into practice in our daily lives.
Mediums such as paintings, sculptures, stained glass, murals depict the Church’s social teachings—ideas like the importance of peace, justice, and charity—which, in turn, inspires us to empathize, act, and strengthen our convictions and beliefs. A painting that depicts the importance of caring for the poor and marginalized, for example, may encourage us to work toward social justice in our communities. A sculpture garden outside a pro-life center that depicts the Blessed Mother watching over babies is an excellent place for prayer rallies to be held on behalf of the lives of the unborn. These examples, and many others like them, demonstrate that sacred art in various mediums is effective in individualized ways to those who view it and that what inspires one person may not do the same for someone else. God speaks to everyone in a deeply personal manner and uses art as a means to do so.
Sacred art can also take the form of modern media, such as film, music, digital art, and social media, which convey the Church’s teachings in relevant and engaging ways that contemporary audiences, in particular, may relate to. For example, a Catholic film might depict the struggles and triumphs of a character trying to live out the Church’s teachings on social justice, or a company may highlight on its social media page how its mission aligns with issues important to younger Catholics.
In addition to its educative power, sacred art can also promote Catholic social teachings through its ability to inspire compassion and empathy. As Matthew 9:36 reminds us, when Jesus saw the crowds, he had compassion for them because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Colossians 3:12 also encourages us to clothe ourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. And as 1 John 3:17 tells us, if anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? Through the depiction of suffering and injustice, sacred art has the power to move us to action and to inspire us to work toward creating a more just and compassionate world, just as Romans 12:15 exhorts us to mourn with those who mourn and Proverbs 14:31 reminds us that whoever is kind to the needy honors God. When we show compassion and empathy toward others through the powerful medium of art, we become inspired to the depiction of the sufferings of Jesus; and regardless of a person’s faith, people are moved to want to help and to work towards creating a more just and compassionate world when they see suffering. These depictions may also inspire people to reflect on their own values and beliefs and to consider how they can put these values into action in their daily lives.
Sacred art also encourages Catholic social teachings by promoting a sense of community and solidarity. Whether through the creation of art as a group or through the sharing of art with others, sacred art bring us together and to inspire us to work toward the common good. A group of Catholics, for example, may come together to create a mural that reflects their shared values and beliefs or to create a quilt that celebrates their cultural heritage. Community and solidarity also could be strengthened when a Catholic school hosts an art show of work created by its students, which would promote camaraderie and pride among the students as well as showcase art that supported by faith.
The ability of sacred art to encourage the practice of Catholic social teachings in powerful and meaningful ways is significant due to the empathy and desire to affect change people experience after studying the works. By conveying the Church’s teachings, inspiring compassion and empathy, and promoting a sense of community and solidarity, sacred art inspires Catholics to live out their faith in a way that makes a positive impact on the world around them.