February 18, 2008
vol 19, no. 49

The Agony and Ecstasy of being judged by Modern Standards
Scott Montgomery

      There is no standard in art and architecture higher than Michelangelo Buonarroti, the virtuoso of all time, whose work could easily convey that he could very well be a Doctor of the Church for what he has left to fortify the Faith forever in his magnificent marmoreal, canvas and relief tributes to Art and the Sacraments, God and His saints. And yet, even the great G.K. Chesterton was influenced by modern thought in dismissing this master as inferior to his own countrymen. Those Brits do stick together.

    "It is ironic that while he lived during the heady days of the Renaissance, Michelangelo was not the classic Renaissance man. He had no interest in politics, literature, or science. He was not the cultured man of many talents so prized by Chesterton. Rather, he eschewed the cultural and social gymnastics engaged in by men such as Donato Bramante (the great Italian architect) and Raphael Sanzio (the gifted young painter who was Michelangelo's nearest rival). His one true love was art, and he pursued her with a passion and singleness of purpose that by G.K. Chesterton's standards would make him a weak-minded amateur."

      Editor's Note: In accordance with Catholic teaching, we present an interesting essay by Scott Montgomery to commemorate the 444th anniversary of the death of the master Michelangelo. The Italian virtuoso in sculpturing and with his imaginative brush is beloved for his brilliant masterpieces in marble, reliefs, and paintings that convey why many many consider him a kind of artistic Doctor of the Church. Most of his art greatly honors God and has remained as timeless edifications throughout the Vatican including the massive St. Peter's Cupola and the Sistine Chapel, not to mention other priceless works. Today Scott refutes another great Catholic who thought less of Michelangelo in selling the 16th century maestro of maestros short. Scott seeks to set the record straight. He provides his arguments below in delineating Michelangelo vs. Chesterton as well as pointing out the message imparted by Michelangelo's dedication, which should be emulated by priests today. Scott speaks specifically of the Jesuits who were once such an edifying group of consecrated sacerdotes. Yet today, due to liberation theology, new ageism, and adherence to the Modernist agenda of Vatican II, The Society of Jesus has so few truly consecrated priests left, and from this void comes another Modernist to lead them further toward ruin in Fr. Adolfo Nicholas as the new 'black pope.' St. Ignatius of Loyola must be deeply embarassed. Pray for the Jesuits for they are so in need of prayer and Scott asks that we all entrust them to Our Lady for a vital return to their original mission of orthodoxy for the sake of souls everywhere.

    In his critical essay "On the Wit of Whistler" (1935), G.K. Chesterton takes to task those who are afflicted with what he refers to as "the artistic temperament". Though he focuses much of his attention upon Whistler himself, Chesterton goes on to apply his theory to artists in general and to those in nearly every other field of endeavor.

    According to Chesterton, all-consuming passion is the sign of a weak mind and an incomplete personality. He explains himself thusly:

       "Art is a right and human thing, like walking or saying one's prayers; but the moment it begins to be talked about very solemnly, a man may be fairly certain that the thing has come into a congestion and a kind of difficulty.
       The artistic temperament is a disease that afflicts amateurs. It is a disease which arises from men not having sufficient power of expression to utter and get rid of the element of art in their being. It is healthful to every sane man to utter the art within him; it is essential to every sane man to get rid of the art within him at all costs. Artists of a large and wholesome vitality get rid of their art easily, as they breathe easily or perspire easily. But in artists of less force, the thing becomes a pressure and produces a definite pain, which is called the artistic temperament. Thus, very great artists are able to be ordinary men -- men like Shakespeare or Browning. There are many real tragedies of the artistic temperament, tragedies of vanity or violence or fear. But the great tragedy of the artistic temperament is that it cannot produce any art.
      ...There can be no stronger manifestation of the man who is a really great artist than the fact that he can dismiss the subject of art; that he can, upon due occasion, wish art to the bottom of the sea. Similarly, we should always be much more inclined to trust a solicitor who does not talk about conveyancing over the nuts and wine. What we really desire of any man conducting any business is that the full force of an ordinary man should be put into that particular study. We do not desire that the full force of that study should be put into an ordinary man." 1
    1 Return To Tradition, Francis Beauchesne Thornton, Ed., Roman Catholic Books, originally published 1948, pages 177-178.

    It is apparent from what Chesterton says both here and elsewhere in this essay that he considers art to be a hobby; something that should be engaged in for brief periods of time amidst the performance of more serious pursuits. As his model he puts forth William Shakespeare; yet Chesterton's reasoning appears to be somewhat conflicted. He begins with the unfounded statement that Shakespeare was an ordinary man who easily purged himself of his artistic impulses:

       "Shakespeare had a real lyrical impulse, wrote a real lyric, and so got rid of the impulse and went about his business. Being an artist did not prevent him from being an ordinary man." 2
    2 Thornton, page 178.

    But is being ordinary what Chesterton finds to be so admirable about Shakespeare? He gives us some insight into his thinking, and perhaps his prejudices, when he says the following:

       "The modern artistic temperament cannot understand how a man who could write such lyrics as Shakespeare wrote, could be as keen as Shakespeare was on business transactions in a little town in Warwickshire." 3
    3 Thornton, page 178.

    So perhaps it is not being ordinary that Chesterton finds to be so worthy of praise, but the idea that Shakespeare could easily dispatch his artistic tendencies in order to focus on more important matters such as business and free enterprise -- that the Bard was a man of many talents who could take or leave art as he saw fit. Hence, though he does not claim to fully subscribe to it, the idea being floated in the 1930's that William Shakespeare was actually a pen name for Francis Bacon is one that is potentially very appealing to Chesterton.

    By this theory, works such as Hamlet, Julius Caesar, and Macbeth may have been written between sessions of British Parliament, or between trials Bacon tried as an attorney, or between the more serious (ordinary?) books of science and philosophy that he penned; whenever the artistic impulse may have struck him. Thus, Sir Francis Bacon (a.k.a. William Shakespeare) would be the complete person; the man of varied interests and pursuits who is also a great artist. He is the everyman. And to Chesterton, this is as it should be.

    I disagree.

    Each of us is placed on this earth by God in a particular time and place, and for a particular purpose. Our Lord has envisioned each one of us from all eternity and knows exactly how He desires each one of us to serve Him. Some men will live simple lives and will glorify God in equally simple ways. Others, like Bacon, will be multi-talented and will devote themselves to several high profile pursuits. But occasionally a soul will come along who will be chosen by God for one particular task. This soul will devote all of his time, energy, and talent to his destined vocation to the exclusion of all else. He will not be an ordinary man, but will be a man who is set apart for an exclusive labor of love. He will pour his heart and soul into his work until he is completely spent; and then he will be compelled by a power he does not understand to continue to give of himself beyond the point of normal human endurance. But by God's grace he shall continue through heart-rending failure and glorious success, because it is the burning passion to do what his Maker requires of him that stirs his soul.

    In the world of art, Michelangelo Buonarroti was such a man. From the time he was taken under the wing of the great patron of the arts, Lorenzo de' Medici, at the age of 15, sculpting and painting became Michelangelo's all-consuming passion. Until his death at the age of 88 in February 1564, the hammer, chisel and paintbrush would be his constant companions; and his masterpieces in paint and stone would become his progeny.

    Like most of his countrymen living in the land of the martyrs, Michelangelo was baptized and confirmed in the Catholic faith. Though he would sometimes claim to be indifferent to religion, the power and majesty of God and His Church had a profound impact upon Michelangelo's soul. This was the seed that the Holy Trinity would use to inspire some of the greatest works of religious art ever produced by man.

    It is ironic that while he lived during the heady days of the Renaissance, Michelangelo was not the classic Renaissance man. He had no interest in politics, literature, or science. He was not the cultured man of many talents so prized by Chesterton. Rather, he eschewed the cultural and social gymnastics engaged in by men such as Donato Bramante (the great Italian architect) and Raphael Sanzio (the gifted young painter who was Michelangelo's nearest rival). His one true love was art, and he pursued her with a passion and singleness of purpose that by G.K. Chesterton's standards would make him a weak-minded amateur.

    In fact, Michelangelo displayed all of the symptoms of the artistic temperament outlined by our British antagonist. He was head strong, moody, jealous, solitary, quick-tempered, and a driven perfectionist. According to one of his biographers he was frugal to the point of squalor because he was so consumed by his work that he gave little thought to eating, sleeping, or socializing. While it may have been an exaggeration, he was once quoted as saying, "I have no friends, nor do I want any". 4

4 The Life and Times of Michelangelo, Maria Luisa Rizzati, Curtis Publishing Co., 1967, page 36.

    In addition, painting and sculpting were often agonizing tasks for Michelangelo, as he would spend years working on various pieces only to leave some of them unfinished. A biographer gives us the reason why, and it reveals a fascinating insight into the relationship between God and art that guided his actions:

       "To Michelangelo, in every block of marble or stone there is hidden, held prisoner there, a concept. This inate concept is none other than a reflection of an idea existing in the mind of God. The sculptor's task is to uncover it and, in a sense, to free it. Thus, the art of sculpture becomes a search which does not always reach a successful conclusion." 5
    5 Rizzati, page 64.


    This is definitely not Chesterton's artist of "large and wholesome vitality" who gets rid of his art as easily as he breathes or perspires. Instead, this is a man who has decided to cooperate with grace and use his singular talent to glorify God. When one looks at the dramatic scenes from the Old and New Testaments painted on the ceiling and walls of the Sistine Chapel; when one admires his finished sculptures of Moses, of David, and of Our Lady holding the body of Jesus in the Pieta; when one considers the Dome of St. Peter's Basilica or ponders Michelangelo's unfinished sculpture of the "Atlas Slave" depicting the soul imprisoned in the human body, one sees a collection of work produced by a man who has perfectly fulfilled the purpose for which God created him. Through these masterpieces, Michelangelo Buonarroti has lifted the souls of generations of Christians to Heaven.


    This is an enterprise normally associated with the Roman Catholic priesthood, and those who are set apart for this slavery of love would do well to imitate some of Michelangelo's virtues. As a shepherd of souls, the priest must be single-minded in his approach. The enemy does not rest in his efforts to bring man to ruin. Therefore, the Catholic priest must be tireless in waging war against this foe.

    The priest must also live a life of frugal simplicity, not desiring wealth, temporal power, or social status. Like Michelangelo, he must seek a certain degree of solitude so that God may speak to his heart in moments of quiet reflection.

    The Roman Catholic priest must be zealous in his vocation and be consumed with the desire to serve God alone. Preaching the Gospel, administering the Sacraments, and reconciling men with Christ must be his all-consuming passion. When he is attacked by the very souls who he is trying to free from their attachment to sin, he must summon the strength to persevere even though he, too, may not understand the power that moves him forward.

    If he can do these things, the priest will fulfill the purpose for which he was created. If not, he will be a pretender who does not reach his potential. This latter possibility has been the path of many diocesan and religious order priests since the close of the Second Vatican Council and is embodied most strikingly by the priests of the Society of Jesus.

    Adopting something similar to Chesterton's model, the Jesuits have largely neglected their priestly functions and have sought to be like ordinary men. Today, Jesuits are social workers, psychologists, political activists, economists, anthropologists, liberation theologians, and so on. The results have been catastrophic. The priestly order that was once the glory of the Catholic Church is now dying a slow and painful death. With the exception of a few older clerics who have not given in to the lure of Modernism, the Society of Jesus has become a haven for dissenters who have drifted far from the model of religious life established by St. Ignatius of Loyola. They are now largely secular humanists and rationalists who have forgotton what it means to be holy priests and brothers doing the work of Heaven. By seeking to be broad-minded, the Jesuits have lost their way and are no longer attractive to those men who wish to serve the Lord at the Altar of Sacrifice. "The full force of an ordinary man", as Chesterton refers to it, has been their poison and many have followed them into error.

    This tendency to secularize the priesthood and to turn the representatives of our Lord Jesus Christ into ordinary men is a tenet of Modernism that has afflicted the Church since the days of the French Revolution. It resulted in the Worker Priest movement of the late 19th century, and in the almost complete abandonment of the constant teaching and practice of the Church by many Catholics in the wake of Vatican II.

    Seeing clearly the danger represented by the heresy of Modernism in 1907, Pope St. Pius X spoke clearly about the traits of the Modernists and the need for immediate action in his enclyclical Pascendi Dominici Gregis:

       "That we should act without delay in this matter is made imperative especially by the fact that the partisans of error are to be sought not only among the Church's open enemies; but, what is to be most dreaded and deplored, in her very bosom, and are the more mischievous the less they keep in the open. We allude, Venerable Brethren, to many who belong to the Catholic laity, and, what is much more sad, to the ranks of the priesthood itself, who, animated by a false zeal for the Church, lacking the solid safeguards of philosophy and theology, nay more, thoroughly imbued with the poisonous doctrines taught by the enemies of the Church, and lost to all sense of modesty, put themselves forward as reformers of the Church; and, forming more boldly into line of attack, assail all that is most sacred in the work of Christ, not sparing even the Person of the Divine Redeemer, whom, with sacrilegious audacity, they degrade to the condition of a simple and ordinary man." 6
    6 Pascendi dominici Gregis, Pope St. Pius X, 1907, n. 2.

    Then, seeing the attack that would be launched against the priesthood by the forces of rationalism and secularism, St. Pius X goes on to say of the Modernists:

       "Although they express their astonishment that We should number them among the enemies of the Church, no one will be reasonably surprised that We should do so, if, leaving out of the account the internal disposition of the soul, of which God alone is the Judge, he considers their tenets, their manner of speech, and their action. Nor indeed would he be wrong in regarding them as the most pernicious of all the adversaries of the Church. For, as We have said, they put into operation their designs for her undoing, not from without but from within. Hence, the danger is present almost in the very veins and heart of the Church, whose injury is the more certain from the very fact that their knowledge of her is more intimate. Moreover, they lay the ax not to the branches and shoots, but to the very root, that is, to the Faith and its deepest fibers. And once having struck at this root of immortality, they proceed to diffuse poison through the whole tree, so that there is no part of Catholic truth which they leave untouched, none that they do not strive to corrupt. Further, none is more skillful than they, in the employment of a thousand noxious devices; for they play the double part of rationalist and Catholic , and this so craftily that they easily lead the unwary into error; and as audacity is their chief characteristic, there is no conclusion of any kind from which they shrink or which they do not thrust forward with pertinacity and assurance. To this must be added the fact, which indeed is well calculated to deceive souls, that they lead a life of the greatest activity , of assiduous and ardent application to every branch of learning, and that they possess, as a rule, a reputation for irreproachable morality. Finally, there is the fact which is all but fatal to the hope of cure that their very doctrines have given such a bent to their minds, that they disdain all authority and brook no restraint; and relying upon a false conscience, they attempt to ascribe to a love of truth that which is in reality the result of pride and obstinacy." 7
    7 Pascendi, n. 3.

    Such a calamity has led the Black Pope (which the Superior General of the Society of Jesus was formerly called) and those serving under him to abandon the service of Christ and the missionary activity of the Church. What is even more startling is that they seem to be blind to their error. This is clearly displayed by the newly elected Superior General of the order, Fr. Adolfo Nicolas, in comments made to several journalists in Rome on January 25, 2008.

    Feigning ignorance of the several decades of inculturation, Liberation Theology, and systematic denial of doctrine engaged in by the order, Fr. Nicolas begins by proclaiming the fidelity of the Jesuits to the Catholic Church:

       "The Society of Jesus wants to cooperate with the Vatican and obey the Holy Father. This has not and will not change. We were born in this context, and this is the context that will determine our decisions."

        "If there are difficulties, it is precisely because we are so close...Only those who love each other can hurt each other." 8

    8 Jesuit General: Order Is Close To Pope; Making Differences Painful; Cindy Wooden; Catholic News Service; January 25, 2008.

    Then Fr. Nicolas dashes any hope that the Jesuits will cease behaving like ordinary men under his leadership. Speaking of his extensive work in Asia, he declares:

       "In Japan I discovered that the world wasn't what I thought it was in Spain. Their way of seeing things, even of seeing the faith, questions about various problems, is not like ours. Studying theology there in the 1960's was like trying to refind and reformulate your faith, not only in the context of the Second Vatican Council, but in the context of Asia, of Japan, where Buddhism, Shintoism and other religions have had a great influence.
       I think Asia changed me. I hope for the better, but this I cannot say. It changed me; it helped me to understand others, to accept what is different, to try to understand what is different, why it is different, and what I can learn from what is different.
      In Spain I was a bit intolerant, a bit in the line of 'everything in order' -- demanding; because for me religion was still understood in the widespread way of fidelity to a series of religious practices. But in Japan I discovered that true religiosity is much deeper, that you must go to the heart of the person, the heart of the question when we speak of God, just as when we speak of ourselves or of human life.
       It scandalizes the Japanese that we are so strict and intolerant, so unaccepting of diversity." 9
    9 Wooden.

    In its essentials, this statement by Fr. Nicolas is an affirmation of the evolution of dogma condemned by Pius X in Pascendi. By relying upon the subjective religious sense of the individual, the Modernists declare that there are no unchangeable religious truths. Rather, only those beliefs emanating from the hearts of men in each era of history should form what will be accepted as current Church doctrine. Hence, the Deposit of Faith is not something given to us, perfect and entire, by God Himself, but is something that springs forth from the mind of imperfect and ordinary man.

    This is not what St. Pius X taught the faithful during his Pontificate. It is not what St. Ignatius of Loyola instilled in the hearts and minds of the first Jesuits. Nor is it what Michelangelo conveyed to the world through his art.

    These servants of God realized that the Catholic faith is an extraordinary gift that should be prized by mankind, and that we should seek to separate ourselves from the ordinary and sinful world around us. Christ on His Cross, and everything that His Sacrifice entails, guarantees that those who belong to Him can no longer be content to live as ordinary men. We must attempt to raise ourselves to a level of holiness that can only be achieved by cooperating with the grace won for us at Calvary. To be sure, this fidelity to God and His Church will manifest itself in various ways, some more grand and obvious than others; but whether it is displayed through the teaching of a Saint, the works of a great artist, or the unheralded love of a simple Catholic mother and father, such fidelity is anything but ordinary because it is done for the love of Him who has purchased us with His blood. It is the all-consuming passion that makes us whole by uniting us to the Sacrifice of our King and our God. And it gives our lives their ultimate purpose.

    Whether he is currently serving Christ as a member of the Church Suffering or the Church Triumphant, I am sure that Mr. Chesterton would agree. Michelangelo had it right.

    February 18, 2008
    vol 19, no. 49