by Dr. Matthew J. Ramage, PhD

“I have often affirmed my conviction that the true apology of Christian faith, the most convincing demonstration of its truth…are the saints and the beauty that the faith has generated.”1 Throughout his career, Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI has, time and again, emphasized that the via pulchritudinis, the way of beauty, constitutes a privileged path by which to advance the New Evangelization. In a de-Christianized society that is often hostile to the Church’s truth claims and moral norms, Benedict believes that recourse to the universal language of beauty is indispensable if today’s evangelist is to compellingly present the Gospel to would-be believers. In this brief reflection, we will explore the concept of beauty in Benedict’s theology and suggest areas in which it might be fruitfully applied by the Church today in her ministry of evangelization.

Pope Benedict XVI, greets faithful upon his arrival at St. Patrick' s Cathedral in New York to celebrate a Mass  Saturday, April 19, 2008. (AP Photo/ Vincenzo Pinto, Pool)
Pope Benedict XVI, greets faithful upon his arrival at St. Patrick’ s Cathedral in New York to celebrate a Mass Saturday, April 19, 2008. (AP Photo/ Vincenzo Pinto, Pool)

The nature of beauty and its power to convert

It is commonly said that “beauty lies in the eye of the beholder.” There is certainly some truth to this saying. When it comes to some matters (say, whether you like a particular song or movie), there is considerable room for debate among people of good will as to whether a given work of art should be called “beautiful.” Yet, to relegate beauty solely to the realm of the subjective gives rise to grave problems when pushed to its logical conclusion. This can be seen by the fact that there exist certain realities that any sane person would recognize as not beautiful. For an extremely obvious example, take the carnage of Auschwitz—not the acts of heroism by those imprisoned, but the brutal acts of aggression perpetrated upon them. If one is to call that beautiful, then one has clearly emptied the word “beauty” of all meaning.

So what is beauty? As we will discover below, Pope Benedict provides us with something different from a textbook definition of beauty. But for now, a good starting point is St. Thomas Aquinas whose thought mirrors a large part of the reflection on the subject. Within this tradition, beauty is described as having three hallmarks: integrity, proportion, and clarity, or luminosity. A piece of art possesses integrity when it is whole (a painting is not ripped in half); proportion occurs when a thing’s various parts are all in proper relation with one another (the painting has not been drawn with twig-like limbs); clarity is that “shine” that allows for the self-revelation of the beautiful (a painting could possess integrity and proportion but lack adequate light).

For his part, Benedict draws on Plato to give us more of a phenomenological account describing the experience of beauty, rather than seeking to define its precise nature. He teaches us that the dominant effect of beauty is to give us a healthy “shock” that draws us out of ourselves, and the rut in which we sometimes find ourselves entrenched throughout our daily routine. Beauty gives us wings, lifting us up so that we may soar to the transcendent and rise to greatness. It “disturbs” us and even causes us suffering.2

Writing in a similar vein, Fr. Jacques Philippe reminds us that the Greek patristic tradition connected the beautiful, kalos, with the verb kalein, which means to call or summon. For Church Fathers like Dionysius the Areopagite, beauty thus beckons us to truth, to goodness, and to unity.3

C.S. Lewis, to whom Pope Benedict himself refers in this connection, gets to the heart of the matter when he says that created beauty provokes in us a longing to be united with, to receive into ourselves, and to enter into that infinite Beauty of which all created beauty is but a reflection.4

One of Benedict’s favorite illustrations of this point can be seen in the medieval cathedral and its power to draw one toward the infinite. Upon crossing the threshold of God’s house, one enters a space and time set apart from ordinary life. The upward thrust of the Gothic cathedral’s walls is an invitation to prayer, intended to express in its architectural lines the soul’s longing for God, while its stained-glass windows flood the building with the light of God.5

The universal language of beauty

In his lifelong process of meditating on beauty, Benedict has repeatedly touched on the various arts of painting, iconography, architecture, sculpture, music, film, and literature as vehicles for communicating the message of the Gospel. He tells us that these artistic forms speak a universal language, a language of parables. This is a language uniquely capable of speaking to those who seek God but who initially may not be open to hearing the Gospel message more directly. This is by no means to say that dogma is irrelevant. It simply means that for some people the path leading to the fullness of truth might first be entered through the door of an experience of beauty.6

Why this is the case can be readily understood upon a moment’s reflection. How many times in our lives have we found our attempts to engage people on a moral or dogmatic issue stymied before the discussion even got off the ground? For many of us, this has also been our experience when attempting a dialogue with fellow Catholics on such issues. If it is a matter of politics, morals, or religion, we are told we should not impose our views on other people.

With this situation in mind, now consider a different scenario. Over the years, how many amicable conversations have you had with people about movies? When it comes to my experience in classroom teaching and parish evangelization, people who would otherwise be reluctant to discuss a moral issue with me are much more open to doing so when it emerges from a discussion of a film that broached the topic. Most recently, I have been showing people The Livesof Others,” a German film that marvelously illustrates the power of beauty to convert souls. A benefit of the work is that it is not even implicitly Christian. The important line at a key point in the movie comes when one of its grieving characters plays a sonata and then asks: “Can anyone who has heard this music, I mean truly heard it, really be a bad person?” In the following scenes, the audience watches as the effects of this music are played out in the life of the film’s protagonist. I use this scene as a way to raise the question of whether there is such a thing as objectively good or bad music—and, more importantly, whether one can say there are objectively good and bad things. One of my main goals in doing this is to challenge the widespread assumption that certain things “may not be good for me, but I can’t say they are bad for someone else.”

While my above comments focused on film, Benedict XVI also spends considerable time reflecting on images as outstanding means for communicating the Gospel. His comments introducing the Compendium to the Catechism of the Catholic Church are especially illuminating. The section of the work dedicated to artistic images is dear to Benedict because he sees in great art an antidote to what he calls today’s “culture of images.” Especially for young people who become estranged from the faith, Benedict tells us that “a sacred image can express much more than what can be said in words, and be an extremely effective and dynamic way of communicating the Gospel message.”7

When teaching morality, I myself make abundant use of images like Caravaggio’s “Calling of St. Matthew” to reflect upon our vocation to holiness, and how Christ wishes to “re-create” us through the gift of his grace. I also catechize my students through outstanding frescos by Raphael, medieval stained-glass windows, and renaissance sculpture. People today relate well to images, and it is relatively easy to comb the tradition and find compelling art to meet them where they are, and balance their daily aesthetic experience with a sacred, or at least wholesome, perspective. To paraphrase the great author, Flannery O’Connor, this art does not even have to be Christian, but it does have to be good art. Mediocre Christian art is not what Benedict has in mind in claiming that beauty has the power to convert souls.

The same principles apply to music. I often have my students listen to two different pieces, one after another, for example ACDC’s “Highway to Hell” followed by the theme to the film, “Jurassic Park.” Again, neither of these is even Christian, but the key is that a reaction is elicited in everyone who hears these two very different pieces. It is fascinating to ask people what happens in their souls when hearing each of them. The majestic orchestral piece by John Williams draws us out of ourselves, giving us a sense of awe, reverence, even nostalgia. It puts us in touch with our humanity, and makes us ponder higher things. Heavy metal music, on the other hand, hardly inspires an impulse for contemplation or charity. In Benedict’s own words, rock music “is the expression of elemental passions, and at rock festivals it assumes a cultic character, a form of worship, in fact, in opposition to Christian worship.”8 While Benedict’s analysis may not cause us to give up all our rock music, it does provide us important food for thought, helping us to reflect upon why we listen to our music, and what we can do to better immerse ourselves in an aesthetic environment that will lift us up, rather than imprison us in a perpetual cycle of self-gratification.

In a couple of places, Benedict gives us an autobiographical glimpse into how the beauty of music bolsters his faith. One time after attending a Bach concert with a Lutheran bishop, the two spontaneously looked at each other and said, “Anyone who has heard this, knows that the faith is true.” Benedict later reflected on the experience, saying: “The music had such an extraordinary force of reality that we realized, no longer by deduction, but by the impact on our hearts, that it could not have originated from nothingness, but could only have come to be through the power of the Truth that became real in the composer’s inspiration.”9

Benedict’s account raises an important pastoral question that we need to ask ourselves: what are we doing concretely in our own parishes, schools, and dioceses to provide the faithful with opportunities to encounter the beautiful? How often do Catholics come out of Mass remarking how their experience put them in touch with the transcendent? For how many Catholics is their liturgical experience more moving than that of watching a movie or hearing secular music? When we think about this, it is no wonder why so many people find the Church unattractive. This is not to say that the Mass should be all about entertaining people, but let’s face it: solemnity matters, and our experiences matter. The Church was once the greatest patron of the arts, and people flocked to her great cathedrals, not only to meet God, but also to be moved and inspired by man’s artistic genius put at the service of God. Within our present culture, film has been termed the “new cathedral of the masses.” So we must ask ourselves what we are doing in the Church to attract people in the absence of the cultural forces that once caused people to enter her sacred doors.

For its part, the Pontifical Council for Culture recommends that we consider three areas in which to promote beauty. First of all, it discusses beauty in creation. Think of John Paul II leading his students on outdoor hikes, catechizing them, celebrating Mass, and simply getting to know them as people. The council also discusses beauty in the arts. As I’ve been discussing, this involves such things as offering beautiful liturgies, and forming the faithful to appreciate great art. Finally, there is the beauty that comes through an encounter with Christ himself. We meet Christ especially in his word, in the liturgy, and in the saints. These are merely a few indications of areas in which to foster encounters with the beautiful in our Church today. Ultimately, each pastor and evangelist must prayerfully consider these principles in light of his community’s concrete circumstances.10

Spiritual beauty

Pope Benedict’s theology of beauty concerns not merely the arts, but even more importantly such matters as the liturgy, and our friendship with Christ, and the lives of the saints. Indeed, after praising the evangelizing role of beauty in the arts, the emeritus pontiff adds:

Yet, the beauty of Christian life is even more effective than art and imagery in the communication of the Gospel message. In the end, love alone is worthy of faith, and proves credible. The lives of the saints and martyrs demonstrate a singular beauty which fascinates and attracts, because a Christian life lived in fullness speaks without words. We need men and women whose lives are eloquent, and who know how to proclaim the Gospel with clarity and courage, with transparency of action, and with the joyful passion of charity.11

In connecting the lives of the saints with beauty as the primary apologia for the Christian faith, Benedict echoes the understanding of beauty that we find in St. Thomas Aquinas. The Angelic Doctor applies the three properties of beauty—integrity, proportion, and clarity—to the spiritual realm: “Spiritual beauty consists in a man’s conduct or actions being well proportioned in respect of the spiritual clarity of reason.”12

For St. Thomas, this all-important beauty lies precisely in the life of virtue. To live virtuously is to live a life of balance, to live in the clarity of right reason integrated into all our actions. To use Benedict’s phrasing, these character traits form the “mosaic of holiness” by which the Christian disciple shines the light of Christ upon the world around him.

If we are striving to live the Gospel generously, the above qualities will shine through without a contrived effort on our part to put on a show and “attract” others by our Christian joy. That said, beginning in his very first papal homily, Pope Benedict emphasized the need for consciously making the effort to speak to others of our friendship with Jesus, a task he described in terms of beauty: “There is nothing more beautiful than to know him, and to speak to others of our friendship with him.”13

At the conclusion of this same text, Benedict advanced a point which reflects a recurring theme in his thought: we evangelists need to share with people the good news that our friendship with Jesus does not hold us back from fulfilling our deepest desires. On the contrary, believe it or not, living a life in conformity with the demands of the Gospel actually makes us happy! As Benedict puts it, it is only in this friendship that we experience beauty and liberation.

In his first encyclical, co-authored with Benedict, the current Roman pontiff has emphasized this point, writing that “the light of faith is linked to concrete life-stories.”14An implication of this is that Christian disciples ought to cultivate a biblical memory of God’s saving deeds in our own lives, letting this serve as a topic in our fraternal dialogue with those whom we wish to evangelize. In his critically important apostolic exhortation, Pope Francis has offered a brief roadmap of how to do this within an evangelizing conversation. We ought first and foremost to listen to those whom we wish to evangelize, and then share a story, a biblical text, or some other insight when we discern it to be appropriate. But for Francis, the emphasis must always remain upon what is essential and most beautiful by “always keeping in mind the fundamental message: the personal love of God who became man, who gave himself up for us, who is living, and who offers us his salvation and his friendship.”15

Beauty and the liturgy

Benedict’s theology of beauty has great ramifications for liturgy in the Church today. For example, we need to ask ourselves: do our sacred buildings and sacred art lift our spirits out of the ordinary and toward God, or do they let us remain in the comfort of the secular world around us? Note that this is not to say we need to replace all our churches with Gothic structures, and replace all contemporary music with Gregorian chant. We can only work with what God gives us, and we must always take care to properly catechize the faithful when making liturgical changes in the parish. That said, certainly all of our communities could stand to reflect more deeply on what we are doing to make the liturgy, and our faith life, something that draws us out of ourselves into an encounter with the transcendent.

In his writings on the liturgy and iconography, one can see that Pope Benedict’s theology of beauty is hardly one of an aestheticism concerned with the technical perfection of art to the neglect of charity. In our desire to beautify our churches, we must not forget the need to meet the ordinary believer where he is. Though no one is a greater lover of liturgy, Benedict reminds us that it is easy to get caught up in an “elitist ghetto,” neglecting the pedagogical art by which we must gradually introduce ordinary believers to the great riches of the Church’s liturgical and artistic patrimony.16

The practical import of this point is critical for those of us who love beautiful liturgy, and traditional liturgy in particular. Liturgical solemnity attracts and delights us, but how easy it is to become so engrossed in achieving technical perfection that we forget how to relate to people, and sometimes even lose our original love that was the driving force for that very perfection!17

At the same time, it is worth mentioning an opposing temptation Catholic leaders often face: the temptation to write off the importance of making our liturgies beautiful since, after all, the sacraments are efficacious ex opere operato regardless of how well our choir sings, or the Church is decorated. Yet, to this excuse, Benedict replies that beauty in the liturgy “is not mere decoration, but rather an essential element of the liturgical action, since it is an attribute of God himself.”18

Accordingly, our love for the liturgy, and its profound connection with beauty “should make us attentive to every work of art placed at the service of the celebration.”19

While it is true that God’s power is made perfect in weakness, and that we are all pressed for time these days, this is no excuse for lack of care and preparation for our liturgies. It is important to remember that most practicing Catholics encounter the Church only for that one hour a week precisely in the liturgy. This is one reason why both Pope Benedict and Pope Francis have placed so much emphasis upon a beautifying the liturgy, and the homily especially.20

It is not incredibly difficult to beautify the liturgy, and draw people out of themselves. Benedict has gone so far as to say that “{t}he primary way to foster the participation of the People of God in the sacred rite is the proper celebration of the rite itself. The ars celebrandi is the best way to ensure theiractuosa participatio.”21

Sometimes, it is the mere reverence of a priest, and the palpable piety with which he celebrates the Eucharist, that moves the faithful to greater participation in the sacred mysteries.

True versus false beauty and our response to it

As Dostoyevsky wrote in The Brothers Karamazov, “The awful thing is that beauty is mysterious as well as terrible. God and the devil are fighting there and the battlefield is the heart of man.” The beauty we seek to place at the service of the liturgy presumably contains nothing that Christians would consider unethical or merely self-gratifying. Greater difficulties arise, however, when it comes to the broader pastoral problem of how to help Christians embrace beauty within the world. This, too, is a tremendously important issue, for evangelization not only needs to proclaim the beauty of Christ and get people to Church, but moreover, it needs to educate people in how to experience beauty in the first place. What are we to say of things which would appear beautiful and, yet, which fail to elicit a beautiful response on the part of the one experiencing them? In other words, what about much of the beauty we find displayed in television, pop culture, and advertising?

It is precisely in connection with this question that Benedict sharply distinguishes true from false beauty: “Too often … 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, and opening him up to horizons of true freedom as it draws him aloft, it imprisons him within himself, and further enslaves him, depriving him of hope and joy.”22

If the hallmark of true beauty is that it gives us a “shock” that draws us out of ourselves, and fosters our vocation of love, then the prime characteristic of deceitful beauty is that it locks us within our own ego. In another work, Pope Benedict puts it this way:

Falsehood, however, has another strategem. A beauty that is deceptive and false, a dazzling beauty that does not bring human beings out of themselves to open them to the ecstasy of rising to the heights, but indeed locks them entirely into themselves. Such beauty does not reawaken a longing for the Ineffable, readiness for sacrifice, the abandonment of self, but instead stirs up the desire, the will for power, possession and pleasure.23

Benedict connects this experience of delusory beauty with the fall of man in Genesis 3. Eve saw that the fruit of the tree was “beautiful” (kalon) to eat. The beautiful aroused in Adam and Eve a desire for possession, making them turn in upon themselves in the quest for an autonomy that would make them their own gods. Applying the story to our culture today, the pontiff asks, “Who would not recognize, for example, in advertising, the images made with supreme skill that are created to tempt the human being irresistibly, to make him want to grab everything, and seek the passing satisfaction, rather than be open to others?”24

He sounds a similar note on the subject of popular music which at times “attempts to swallow up the spirit in the senses as a means of release” and thus can become a “seduction,” “drug,” and “anesthetic.”25

That beauty can seduce and imprison us within our own ego should make it clear that the experience of beauty by itself does not necessarily make a person good. Moreover, many great artists and appreciators of beauty throughout history have not been good, virtuous people. For example, it is well known that many Nazi SS leaders were accomplished musicians, and that Hitler himself had a passionate obsession with the fine arts. This brings us to the heart of the matter: it is not enough to be confronted with true beauty: we must also offer a “true” or proper response to this beauty. Such a response requires reverence for the art in question, and openness to living out the message it wishes to convey—in short, to letting it “shock” us into a life of virtue and, ultimately, that charity which is a sharing in Christ’s own sacrificial love for us. This leads to the final and critical point in our reflection upon beauty.

The fullness of beauty: the beauty of Christ and our sharing in his Cross

Pope Benedict tells us that the epitome of beauty is God’s love.26

Christ’s total gift of self on the Cross is the most beautiful of human actions ever to have been performed, and it challenges the superficial notion of beauty dominant in our culture today. The beauty of our crucified Lord is not simply a harmony of proportion and form. While Christ is surely “the fairest of the sons of men” (Ps 45:2), he is also the one “who had no form or comeliness that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him” (Isa 53:2). From the suffering Christ, we learn one of life’s most important lessons: that true beauty also embraces the ugliness of pain, and even the dark mystery of death. Jesus on the cross reminds us that true beauty, true freedom and, ultimately, true happiness are only found when we accept suffering as part of God’s plan for our sanctification.27

In short, the crucible of suffering of Christ on the Cross draws us away from the transitory, detaching us from what is opposed to God. Dostoyevsky famously remarked that beauty will save the world, and this is certainly a thought we ought to be considering as Christian evangelists. But here Benedict reminds us of something people usually forget: salvific beauty is not any beauty whatsoever, but specifically the redeeming beauty of Christ crucified who invites us to share in his cross.


Reading the lesser known writings of Pope Benedict XVI, one frequently discovers unexpectedly delightful gems, and it is with one of these that I would like to draw these reflections to a close. When he celebrated Mass in St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York in 2008, Benedict gave a fascinating homily in which he reflected upon the great building as an allegory of faith, and the search for truth. Like any Gothic cathedral, from the outside its windows appear dark and heavy, even dreary. But once one enters the Church, these same windows suddenly come alive with resplendent light passing through their stained glass. The allegory is clear: “It is only from the inside, from the experience of faith and ecclesial life, that we see the Church as she truly is: flooded with grace, resplendent in beauty, adorned by the manifold gifts of the Spirit.”28 Here, Benedict teaches in poetic fashion a truth he has reiterated in many different places and ways throughout his life. The truth of the Catholic Church ultimately can be seen only from the inside when we fast from our own preconceptions and desires with a willingness to embark upon “the experiment of faith.”29

To be sure, none of what has been said above changes the fact that we can, and must always, be prepared with reasonable arguments to defend the truths of the Catholic faith in the world. Yet, Benedict wishes to remind us that we are rarely, if ever, going to argue someone into believing. One thing we can certainly do every day—even on those days when the subject of faith never comes up explicitly in our conversations—is to live beautifully the life of grace within the Church. Our life, lived in the quest for Christian holiness, has great power to draw our fellow man into the Church. This Christian witness epitomizes what Pope Benedict XVI has in mind in calling the Church’s saints, and her beauty, the greatest apology of Christian faith.

  1. Joseph Ratzinger, “The Feeling of Things, the Contemplation of Beauty” (August 24, 2002). Other formulations of Ratzinger’s leading apologetics principle are found in Feast of Faith (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1986), 124; The Ratzinger Report (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1985), 129-30; Principles of Catholic Theology (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1987), 373; Truth and Tolerance (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2005), 226; Meeting with the clergy of the Diocese of Bolzano-Bressanone (August 6, 2008).
  2. Ratzinger, “The Feeling of Things, the Contemplation of Beauty” (August 24, 2002); Benedict XVI, Meeting with Artists (November 21, 2009).
  3. Jacques Philippe, Called to Life (New York: Scepter Publishers, 2008), 102.
  4. C.S. Lewis, Weight of Glory (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 2001), 42.
  5. Benedict XVI, “The Cathedral from the Romanesque to the Gothic Architecture: The Theological Background” (November 18, 2009).
  6. Benedict XVI, Address to Participants in the Plenary Assembly of the Pontifical Council for Culture, (November 13, 2010).
  7. Joseph Ratzinger, Moto Proprio for the Approval and Publication of theCompendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, 5.
  8. Joseph Ratzinger, Spirit of the Liturgy (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2000), 147-48.
  9. Joseph Ratzinger, “The Feeling of Things, the Contemplation of Beauty” (August 24, 2002). See also his account of this experience in his catechesis “Art and Prayer” (August 31, 2011).
  10. For more suggestions and an excellent overview of beauty in relation to belief, see the Pontifical Council for Culture, The Via Pulchritudinis, Privileged Pathway for Evangelization and Dialogue (2006).
  11. Benedict XVI, Address after screening the film “Art and Faith –Via Pulchritudinis” (October 25, 2012).
  12. St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, II-II, q. 145, a. 2.
  13. Benedict XVI, Homily at the Mass for the Inauguration of his Pontificate (April 24, 2005).
  14. Pope Francis, Lumen Fidei, 12.
  15. Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium, 127-29.
  16. Joseph Ratzinger, Spirit of the Liturgy, 147.
  17. For a powerful literary illustration of how this can happen in a soul, read Chapter 9 of C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce.
  18. Benedict XVI, Sacramentum Caritatis, 35.
  19. Ibid., 41.
  20. On the pivotal importance of having a well-prepared homily, see Benedict XVI,Sacramentum Caritatis, 46, and Verbum Domini, 59, and especially Francis,Evangelii Gaudium, 135-59.
  21. Benedict XVI, Sacramentum Caritatis, 38.
  22. Benedict XVI, Meeting with Artists (November 21, 2009).
  23. Joseph Ratzinger, “The Feeling of Things, the Contemplation of Beauty” (August 24, 2002).
  24. Ibid.
  25. Benedict XVI, Feast of Faith, 119.
  26. Benedict XVI, Sacramentum Caritatis, 35.
  27. Joseph Ratzinger, “The Feeling of Things, the Contemplation of Beauty” (August 24, 2002).
  28. Benedict XVI, Homily for Votive Mass for the Universal Church (April 19, 2008).
  29. Joseph Ratzinger, “Why I Am Still in the Church” in Fundamental Speeches from Five Decades (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2012), 132-53.


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