In Defense of Catholic Romanticism

The presentation of a mediocre image of Jesus is especially dangerous today because the world as a whole has become much more mediocre than it was, say, 150 years ago. The sense for greatness and depth has completely receded, even on a purely natural level. In the industrialized world which is viewed by Tellihard de Chardin as “progress”, in which the machine has replaced the tool and the computer ideal has captivated many people, in which education increases its breadth and loses its depth; in such an age, the presentation of a mediocre image of the personality of Christ is harder to recognize for what it is because it fits in so well with our mediocre world. The more our age becomes one in which not only the air is poisoned by chemical elements, but the spiritual and intellectual atmosphere is poisoned by the mass media, the more one brings mediocrity into religion for pastoral reasons – Dietrich von Hildebrand, The Devastated Vineyard (1973)

I am opening this essay with a lengthy quote from Dietrich von Hildebrand, whom Pius XII called a 20th century Doctor of the Church, in order to make an important point at the very outset; that I am a Catholic romanticist, as I believe Hildebrand was.

To bring these two concepts together may be controversial in some ways, and in others, it may make perfect sense. I could say that I am a “Catholic traditionalist”, or that I am a “Catholic reactionary”, or even a “Catholic conservative”, but none of these words – traditionalist, reactionary, or conservative – fully and accurately portrays what I feel or what I think. I warn you in advance: prepare to be offended or delighted, and to either way be roused from complacency.

Romanticism is a word that has fallen into disrepute among most intellectual types that I know and read. Part of this disrepute comes from the assumption that romanticism is irrationalism. The word “romanticism” has come to describe, moreover, views of historical episodes or even entire epochs that elevate certain desirable qualities and events while disregarding or downplaying episodes that are no longer considered politically correct.  Finally, romanticism is often confused with genuine reaction, a desire to somehow forcefully turn back the clock to earlier conditions.

I will address each of these claims in this essay, though the journey I propose to take you on will cover much more ground than these nagging objections.

I will do so because a healthy romanticism is of infinitely greater value to society and to the Catholic Church than any degree of mediocrity – the greatest enemy of romanticism in every field, be it morality, liturgy, aesthetics, politics, and many others. I believe Papal wisdom, which is often balanced and measured, has been misconstrued by mediocrities and re-cast in their own image, whereas in reality the Papacy has always maintained a healthy romanticism: that is, a view of the past that elevates and glorifies what was good and just, a view of the present that finds room for those good and just things, and a view of the future in which the past has not been exterminated in the name of “progress”, which often turns out to be nothing more than the soul-crushing mediocrity denounced by Hildebrand.

Let me be clear on what my definition of Catholic Romanticism is: it is an appeal, a passion you might even say, for the greatest aesthetic trends in the history of the Catholic Church, and a rejection, for the most part, of the modern aesthetic of the typical Novus Ordo church house. It is not limited to, or even mostly found in, the era typically considered “Romantic”, though there were amazing and beautiful spiritual works produced during that time (Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis, Schubert’s Ave Maria, etc). My use of the word “romantic” may well be idiosyncratic and that may rub certain people the wrong way. Fair enough. I distinguish Catholic Romanticism from Catholic traditionalism only by the degree of passion for the aesthetic spiritual experience, and in no doctrinal or philosophical or theological or moral sense.

Because I am a passionate romanticist, I am a passionate Catholic as well. And I believe I have become more “conservative” over the years precisely because of romanticism, though no one should take that to mean I am some kind of rigid political conservative. This was the essence of my earlier essay on my conversion (re-entry, if one wishes to be technical) to Catholicism through music. This was, if I may say so now, an aesthetic romantic conversion. That isn’t to say that facts and logic (reason) played no role. There are truths, however, conveyed through aesthetics that are barely comprehensible to the human intellect, but which are a useful, even necessary compliment to that intellect.

Romanticism and Aesthetics

Thus romanticism begins, for me, with aesthetics. A romantic aesthetic is what saved my soul from atheism and communism. I wish I could say it were something else – a divine revelation, an objective understanding of right and wrong, some intellectual journey – but none of it would be true. Those things followed after. The first step was through aesthetics, through romantic aesthetics.

How can I explain it? A communist worldview is a materialist worldview. A materialist worldview, in turn, is a deterministic worldview. Anything that is great, anything that is glorious, anything that is free, anything that is beautiful – none of it can be said to emanate from a will, as an act of creation, either by God or by man. It is rather an unconscious “expression” of some deeper objective fatalistic processes over which man has no control. Not only is man incapable of creation, he is incapable of genuine enjoyment, of sharing in glory. He never had a choice, and his participation cannot be said to be genuine or personal.

This view is a mockery of itself. Everything we feel, everything we know, everything we experience is reduced to involuntary hiccups in an unbreakable chain of causality. Our deepest, most personal moments and experiences – what we feel when we hear a glorious work of music – is nothing but a series of pre-determined chemical reactions. It is stripped of all wonder and all value and booted into the ash heap.

This doctrine is as inhuman as it is false. Anyone who really believes it is a psychopath. Most people, however, think they have to believe it in spite of wanting to believe otherwise. They deny themselves, not in a good way (the way of the Cross), but for absolutely nothing. They gain nothing, they get nothing, and even the slight sense of satisfaction at having arrived at a position consistent with atheism and materialism turns to ashes in their mouths. They deny their own humanity and they crush themselves under the weight of their own pride – the first and greatest obstacle between themselves and God.

The aesthetic conversion had to be a romantic one, precisely because of the mediocrity which has penetrated the modern world like a ravenous cancer, replacing all that is healthy and vibrant with sickness and decay. A mediocre culture cannot resist a culture of lust, a culture of greed, and a culture of death, because a mediocre culture cannot inspire.

Yes, it is inspiration, that act, that process, call it what you will, by which aesthetics can convert the soul. What does it mean to be inspired? It means to be imbued with a new sense of purpose as a result of coming into contact with something entirely above and beyond the ordinary, the mundane, the mediocre. It is an entirely spiritual experience that is not possible in a materialist universe.

Inspiration is the antithesis of calculation. Inspiration is entirely qualitative and cannot be quantified; calculation is entirely quantitative and lacks all quality. Inspiration is something new and original, entering the soul from without; calculation is the base work of man unguided by grace, the manipulation of what already exists without the addition of anything new.

Thus romantic aesthetics convert the soul by way of inspiration. In the past we might have simply said Catholic aesthetics, because Catholic aesthetics even up until the middle of the 20th century understood the intimate, incomprehensible relation between truth and beauty. We must now speak of romantic aesthetics because the Catholic aesthetic is now debased, and has been driven to a lower level than the most drab Puritan church house of the 17th century, even in spite of recent attempts to ape the lights and noises of Protestant charismatic concerts. But the relationship between truth and beauty has not changed.

Mediocrity and Relativism

Mediocrity has entered the world, society and the Church by way of relativism, sometimes travelling under the dubious banner of “pluralism.” It is an undeniable fact that the Catholic aesthetic, which expressed timeless truths in beautiful forms to glorify God and convert men’s souls, was the product of a society in which Catholicism was the dominant culture.

What Pope Leo XIII said of politics and religious belief systems in Immortale Dei might then be equally said about aesthetics; that it is not wrong or evil for other modes of expression to exist in a society, provided that the Catholic aesthetic reigns supreme, is given pride of place, and retains veto power, the right to object and prohibit that which would be harmful to the culture. This is a true and good form of pluralism.

Hysterical leftists who become relativists cannot fathom this. Because of their pride and their materialism, they can envision no form of domination other than that of the most abusive, violent, hateful totalitarian control, as we see through the Jacobins, the Bolsheviks, the Nazis, and today’s communists that march under many different signs. Though this power is the ultimate aim of the “vanguard” of the revolution, relativism is a necessary stage through which they must pass in order to establish a new dominance.

After all, those previous revolutions, which really did try to establish themselves aesthetically by mimicking in some ways the Christian cultures that came before, ended in failure. The Bolsheviks under Stalin and the Nazis under Hitler had grand conceptions of aesthetics that were ironically derived from the cultures they smashed up and destroyed, and which ironically kept the memory of those cultures alive as a sort of smoldering resistance.

When Gorbachev opened the churches in the 1980s, millions of Russians came out of the woodwork to worship. The same happened as the Iron Curtain fell across Eastern Europe. Even an aesthetic scarred by the inhuman ideologies of Bolshevism and Nazism was enough to remind people of their spiritual nature. It was the ultimate weakness of these regimes (with respect to their inhuman goals) that they relied on those impulses, contrary to what we typically hear. The spirit can be misguided, but if it is not destroyed, it always aches to reorient to God.

What could not be done from above, even through seventy years of communist repression in Eastern Europe, is now being achieved through subversion and consumerism. It is really the only way it can be done. Likewise, what Luther, Calvin, Henry VIII, and the other iconoclastic madmen of the 16th and 17th centuries could not do to the Catholic Church is now being done through the same forces.

We know what relativism is. It is the view that no idea in politics, art, morality, religion, etc. is inherently superior to any other, which is really to say that none of them are true. They are simply different ways of looking at reality, and we are free to pick and choose from among them as spiritual shoppers. To claim that Christianity has more truth than Islam or Greek mythology is as absurd as claiming that Coke tastes better than Pepsi. You might believe it, but you cannot say it is true.

Nature, however, always abhors a vacuum. No power can be dethroned without another taking its place, and no one seeks power who does not believe that their worldview is true, and that all others are false. The insidiousness of relativism is that it masks the ascent of a new dominant paradigm with the innocence of impartiality. Thus there is a “liberal consensus” which is the new untouchable dogma; that something is “ok” as long as “it doesn’t hurt anyone.” Harm is generally understood to be physical, though it can also include spiritual harm, or what the faithless would call “psychological harm” provided only, and I stress only, that the group being harmed is a politically-protected ethnic or religious group that the new regime needs to use as a battering ram against its “reactionary” foes.

Thus it is a grave political sin to offend a Muslim, but a matter of free expression and of indifference to urinate on an image of Jesus Christ.

Relativism has consequences, however, that most relativists don’t really understand or care about, but which the most insidious among them plan upon, learning from past failures. The consequence I am most concerned with here, though there are others, is that it amplifies mediocrity, it elevates mediocrity, it celebrates and parades mediocrity.

This is because the mediocre cannot inspire. Because the mediocre cannot inspire, they cannot cause trouble, they cannot stir things up against the dominant paradigm. Jean Jacques Rousseau described the consequences of relativism and its creation of the mediocre man well:

It is philosophy that isolates him, and bids him say, at sight of the misfortunes of others: “Perish if you will, I am secure.” Nothing but such general evils as threaten the whole community can disturb the tranquil sleep of the philosopher, or tear him from his bed. A murder may with impunity be committed under his window; he has only to put his hands to his ears and argue a little with himself, to prevent nature, which is shocked within him, from identifying itself with the unfortunate sufferer. (Discourse on Inequality, Part I)

What an interesting passage! Though I am not certain I would agree with Rousseau’s use of the word “philosophy”, it is fascinating to me that this indifference can be found in equal amounts within the halls of academia and the isles of Wal-Mart. It penetrates every pore of modern society. Indifference is relativism incarnate, in morals, politics, art, religion. “Perish if you will”, says the indifferent and mediocre man to all of the great and wonderful things of the past, as they are murdered under his window, as he covers his ears and argues with himself using the rationale of relativism.

I am tempted therefore to describe relativism as a kind of a psychopathy. A psychopath understands the difference between right and wrong, and simply doesn’t care. The true relativist is a psychopath; he knows the difference between the beautiful and the grotesque, and he doesn’t care. He will tear down the beautiful, elevate the grotesque, and champion the mediocre for the sake of his ideological agenda.

The useful fools of the psychopathic relativist are to be found among well-intentioned, well-meaning people who sometimes call themselves liberals, and even conservatives, especially among intellectuals. The relativist plays on the guilt, on the fear, on the self-doubt of the most sensitive and thoughtful individuals among the dominant group. He gets them to believe that relativism is the only answer to oppression and injustice, that “truth claims” inherently and always lead right back to them.

This claim is a fallacy, but it strikes a deep emotional chord. It is, ironically, a sort of negative inspiration, a disease that enters the soul, breathed into it by a demonic mind. True inspiration affirms and brightens the truth and fuses it to our passions, which can admit no fallacies; negative inspiration introduces a fallacy in order to drive a vicious wedge between truth and passion. It does not come from God.

In the isles of Wal-Mart less effort is required. Any sort of truth conflicts with at least some hedonistic desires, the indulgence of which is all that remains for millions of people trapped in consumerism. Therefore, truth has to go. For what truth would Al Bundy give up the indulgences that make his spiritually murdered life barely worth living?

Romanticism and Spiritual Revival

In a mediocre world, romanticism, the fusion of lost truths and passions through inspiration and their expression through beauty, can serve as defibrillator for a spiritually murdered society. That is my thesis, that is my belief. And the same applies to a mediocre Church.

This is why I am a traditionalist. The aesthetic quality of my conversion, my re-entry into the faith, could lead me to no other expression of the faith than the traditional rite (and it also accounts for my utter disinterest in the legalistic squabbles that some traditionalists make a pass-time of). The Novus Ordo, as it is typically “celebrated” in parishes throughout the United States, is the most lukewarm, uninspiring, mediocre hour a mind can conceive of. Knowing now how and why mediocrity enters the world, we know why it has entered the Church – as a means of soul control.

Of course all of the liturgical “experimentation” was supposed to be done in a spirit of freedom, of liberation from stifling old forms. What would you say, however, to someone who lead you out of your home and into a prison, only to ask you how much more you enjoy your new home over the old prison you were just liberated from? You would think you were in the Twilight Zone: that up had become down, dry had become wet, and good had become evil. You would be, otherwise, in a relativist hell, a “dictatorship of relativism”, to use the phrase of Pope Benedict:

We are building a dictatorship of relativism that does not recognize anything as definitive and whose ultimate goal consists solely of one’s own ego and desires. (2005)

To the mediocre man, unfortunately, this means nothing. He has been trained to view open space and space confined by prison bars as having no meaningful differences.

And yet, in my previous essay on the role music played in my conversion, the words of the Holy Father gave me cause for optimism and not despair:

Pope Benedict, as Cardinal Ratzinger, wrote in The Spirit of the Liturgy that through the music composed at the high-mark of history, the works of Bach and Mozart, one might even see the image of God. If this is so, then we must learn to communicate, to evangelize, through the promulgation of such music.

I still believe this to be true. And it gives us an opportunity to digest the following thought; that evangelization and mediocrity are utterly incompatible with one another. Of course the recent successes of Protestantism might serve to contradict this hypothesis. In my view, however, they just understand better than Catholics do how to use mass media to bring back their lapsed brethren and keep the youth interested; look at their rock concerts, their youth events, their television programming, their incessant work with drug and alcohol recovery.

I can’t say this without offending Protestants, but I must say it, because it is relevant to the topic at hand: quantity is not quality. There are many sincere, wonderful Protestants out there, and I like them very much, especially when I see them trying as hard as they can to live a Christian life. They fight against social injustices such as abortion, abominations such as gay marriage, and so on. In politics, they are brothers in arms.

But in religion, in theology and liturgy, we cannot emulate them! The use of romantic aesthetics will separate the superficial from the sincere, the passionate from the lukewarm, the curious from the indifferent, the sighted from the blind. How can it do this?

Because romantic aesthetics appeal to something in the human soul that transcends time and place, and utterly vanquish the presumptions of historical materialism. Think of it as beacon, a signal, that one lights in the night. Those who have had their eyes gouged out by relativism will not see the light. They will not come towards it, and in their blindness, accidently snuff it out. Those who still have eyes to see will see the light; they will come towards it and they will love it and they will bear it with pride, seeking out others who may still have eyes but who are still lost in the dark.

But is it not a cruelty to leave out the blind? No, it is not, because they are blind by choice. This truth is affirmed by Christ in the Gospels:

To you it is given to know the mystery of the kingdom of God: but to them that are without, all things are done in parables: That seeing they may see, and not perceive; and hearing they may hear, and not understand: lest at any time they should be converted, and their sins should be forgiven them. (Mark 4:11-12)

So it is with the romantic aesthetic, the truly Catholic aesthetic; to the willfully corrupt, it is incomprehensible to the senses and the intellect. To the genuinely and sincerely lost, it is a beautiful and redemptive call in the wilderness, a sign of hope amidst all despair. So it was for me, and so it is for many others.

To us it was given by Christ’s Church, we might then say, to know the mystery of the kingdom of God not only through her teachings, but also through her divine aesthetics. I challenge anyone to listen to a work such as Monteverdi’s Vespers of 1610 and deny it. I challenge anyone to listen to Mozart’s Requiem and deny it. I challenge anyone to listen to even the chanted propers of the Latin Mass and deny it. I would say the same of her architecture, her commissioned artwork, her philosophical and literary works, and so on.

Romanticism’s Confrontation With Modernity

Now I must return, unfortunately and thanklessly, to the task I set out in the beginning of this essay; to defend romanticism against its mediocre critics. We may as well establish now that much of what is modern is simply mediocre, and that these two concepts are virtually indistinguishable at times. Now let us look at the three principle charges I have seen leveled against romanticism.

1. Romanticism is irrational.

Is this true? Of course not. There is as much irrationalism to be found among romantics as there is among modernists, and perhaps far less. Aesthetic romanticism is, in my view, a survival instinct, it is what the historically aware human being reflexively reaches out to as the overwhelming, vomit-inducing stench of modernity’s cultural sewer reaches his spiritual olfactory sense. And survival is the ultimate rationality.

Proof of this is the fact that even Marx and Lenin were aesthetic romantics, and struggled with great and terrible pain against the implications that their hate-filled materialist worldview held for truths expressed through beauty. Said Lenin to Maxim Gorky, whose work I quote here, practically in tears, upon listening to Beethoven’s Appassionata sonata:

“I know of nothing better than the Appassionata and could listen to it every day. What astonishing, superhuman music! It always makes me proud, perhaps naively so, to think that people can work such miracles!”

Wrinkling up his eyes, he smiled rather sadly, adding:

“But I can’t listen to music very often, it affects my nerves. I want to say sweet, silly things and pat the heads of people who, living in a filthy hell, can create such beauty. One can’t pat anyone on the head nowadays, they might bite your hand off. They ought to be beaten on the head, beaten mercilessly, although ideally we are against doing any violence to people. Hm-what a hellishly difficult job!”

In the fate of millions of Russians, Ukrainians, Eastern Europeans, and other victims of communism, we can see the consequences of one man’s self-denial, his denial of his own spirit, the part of him that can listen to a sonata and cry. Who can say what would have happened if he simply allowed himself to do it more often?

From an instrumental point of view, aesthetic romanticism is the only rational option for a Church that has any interest in retaining its identity, its uniqueness, its relevance, and its connection to the 2000 years of tradition without which it cannot stand.

And finally, we have already seen above that my view of romanticism is one of a fusion of truth and passion – truth, which is timeless and not subject alteration or negation by the philosophical fashionistas of academia, which can be found in the past as well as in the present, and probably moreso in the former.

2. Romanticism ignores the ugly truths of history.

Because romanticism is an aesthetic movement (among other things), it will naturally focus on the beauty of the past, rather than the ugliness. But it is a curious thing for people who are typically relativists to raise the question of ugliness in history. What was it again, that made slavery a bad thing? Or racism? Or what have you?

What more needs to be said? I ignore nothing as a romanticist. The existence of ugliness in history does not logically negate its beauty. Moreover, what is good and beautiful in history survives and endures forever. What is ugly ultimately perishes, if not in the history of man, in the history of God’s eternal reign.

3. Romanticism is reactionary; it wants to turn back the clock.

Wrong. As I have studied the political philosophy of the Catholic Church since Pope Leo XIII, I have come to understand that one can be a romanticist and still come to terms with modern technology, if not modern ideas.

Thus I do not advocate some sort of reactionary social ideal, a return to agriculture, a society that looks like Tolkien’s Shire or Pol Pot’s Cambodia.

I believe the good ideas of the ancient and medieval world, however, can be married to technological progress. Thus, along with the Papacy, I reject vulgar Marxist historical materialism, which posits a 1:1 relationship between the technological “base” and the ideological “superstructure” of society.

In the field of aesthetics, though – and I would add theology and liturgy to this general consideration – I certainly do wish to turn back the clock. Because there is absolutely nothing necessary in the Church’s downward spiral into mediocrity in each of these areas. It all emanates from the free choices of spiritually corrupt individuals, and can be undone by the free choices of spiritually healthy individuals.

So you might say I am a counter-revolutionary in this regard.

Final Thoughts

By now I have offended lukewarm Catholics, Protestants, intellectuals, “moderates”, pussy-footers of all stripes, and people who shop at Wal-Mart (though I was only kidding on that last one; I shop at Wal-Mart and I even cash my checks there sometimes).

But that will all be worth it if I have inspired a few lost Catholics and at least given them something to consider as they continue to grapple through the darkness and look towards the light. If we are to be the change we want to see in the world, or in the Church, then let us transform ourselves.

Immerse yourself in romantic Catholic aesthetics. Listen to the great works of sacred classical music; listen to Gregorian chant. Find the most beautiful Catholic church in your area and spend some time absorbing the images (for some of you this will be difficult, so look at images online. Start with the cathedral at Chartes, perhaps). Look at some of the amazing and unmatched Renaissance sacred art. Read medieval literature, read about the lives of the saints. Connect yourself to the past. Do as much of it at the same time as you can. Let it transform you. Let it inspire you.

Remember your humanity! Remember your Creator! Remember your Redeemer!

Then you’ll know what you must do.

(As a post-script, I must add that I stumbled upon something called “the mediocrity principle” that deserves an essay twice as long as this to address. Suffice to say, its mere existence testifies to the mortal threat that relativism and mediocrity pose to human civilization. Something to look forward to.)

33 Responses to In Defense of Catholic Romanticism

  1. Dietrich von Hildebrand is NOT a Doctor of the Church.

  2. Joe Hargrave says:

    No, Karlson. You’re not derailing this discussion. You don’t like the title that Pope Pius XII gave to Hildebrand, go huff about it at your own blog.

    Unless your next comment is on something substantial, I will throw it, and every subsequent comment out.

  3. Todd says:

    Has the list of Doctors suddenly become the stuff of politics and huffery? Henry is right: the man is not a Doctor. I was struck by this quote:

    “We may as well establish now that much of what is modern is simply mediocre, and that these two concepts are virtually indistinguishable at times.”

    Much of everything is mediocre: it’s the nature of the human being. Romanticism had its own blind spots, and if you’re willing to bring them up in an essay, the better path would be to address what the critics actually say, not the charges you perceive have been leveled against it.

    I’ll confess up front Romanticism in art, especially music, has little appeal for me. That said, I don’t need to go on a tirade about a very safe period in the arts: the slow, summery end to aristocratic patronage and what I perceive as the indifference to human suffering.

  4. Randy Johnson says:

    As a man who finds himself (quite cheerfully) on the road home from Protestantism to The Holy Roman Catholic Church, let me say thank you for such an inspiring -and inspired- article.

  5. Joe Hargrave says:

    Well, I’ve drawn the flies. Where’s everyone else?

    (Update. This was before Randy’s generous comment. Before.)

    “the better path would be to address what the critics actually say”

    I did. They do say those things. They’ve said them to me.

    “not the charges you perceive have been leveled against it”

    So are you saying here that you don’t think anyone has leveled those charges, or that you don’t like people using their perceptions?

    It doesn’t surprise me at all that romanticism has little appeal for you. Enjoy whatever it is you enjoy, and God Bless.

  6. Joe Hargrave says:


    You are quite welcome!

  7. Marc says:

    (The devoté of Chateaubriand in me is enthusiastically anticipating the free time to read your essay.)

    But I wanted to comment on the pettiness of fussing about the laudatory description of von H. by Pius XII: the pope used the offending term praising him, and we all know he did not bestow the title in an official act; good Heavens.

  8. Joe Hargrave says:

    Good heavens indeed.

    I say this with no intention to offend or chastise Marc, but as a general statement.

    Whether one sees Pius XII’s words as an indication that Hildebrand was, or at any rate could have been a 20th century Doctor of the Church – or as a mere phrase of affection for his work, I am going to politely ask that NO FUTURE COMMENTS bring this up.

    I did not write this essay to have a petty debate about what to call Dietrich von Hildebrand in the com-boxes.

    I will summarily delete future posts by anyone, friend or foe, bringing this up. I didn’t work on this thing for hours to have it derailed by this.

  9. I really enjoyed this essay.

    If I may, I’d like to pick at the term “romantic” for a moment and get your thoughts on it. I recall that Beethoven (who in the musical sense was certainly a key Romantic composer) talked about art in terms of heroism. This image of the artist as hero was, I believe, a rather broadly used one among the Romantics.

    Would you say that one of the essential elements of Romantic Catholicism which you’re addressing here is the insistence that Good does exist, and that it demands a heroic, not a mediocre, response from us?

  10. Joe Hargrave says:

    I thought you’d like it, D!

    Beethoven is practically the initiator of romantic music. He is the bridge between classical and romantic music, you might say.

    Heroism is certainly a part of romanticism. I would have included more about it, but I wanted to focus on aesthetics – a future post might cover heroes, though I mentioned some of them in my last post. The Marquis de Bonchamps is an example of a hero I would elevate as a Catholic Romantic.

    In answer to your question, yes, that’s a very good way to put it. The key elements, I think, are aesthetic inspiration and “medievalism”, which was a big part of the original Romantic movement, a revival of medieval ideas and art in response to the “Enlightenment” (and I’d say, Protestant iconoclasm that came before it). But heroism is another key component.

  11. Find the most beautiful Catholic church in your area and spend some time absorbing the images (for some of you this will be difficult, so look at images online. Start with the cathedral at Chartes, perhaps).

    I’ve thought about this a lot in connection with architecture. My wife is a photographer and her project is taking pictures of Churches. Having been raised in suburban Churches, I never really understood the importance of excellent and beautiful Churches until I started going to them, especially the ones in poor rural areas. Good post (though I confess to having skimmed it; darn 1L finals!)

    Shameless plug: if someone’s looking for beautiful images check out my wife’s website! (Hey, a man can brag about his wife, right?)

  12. bob says:

    I’m with DarwinCatholic. I suspect there is much in what you write with which I could ultimately agree, but I am reluctant to endorse your views because their being framed in terms of “Romanticism.”

    Perhaps the problem is an incomplete definition of what you actually mean by the term.

    When I hear “Romantic”, I think of its emphasis on strong emotion as an authentic source of aesthetic experience and on the individual imagination as the paramount critical authority. I think of the vogue for “medievalism” which, at its worst, was nothing more than a sentimental re-imagining of the Age of Faith, with none of its commitment to Christendom.
    I think too of the ideal Byronic “hero” who, in my view, too often devolved into a mere libertine or smug contrarian.

    In fact, I would see many of the errors or abuses of abuses of our times as not arising primarily from overly materialistic or rationalistic tendencies, but from tendencies which are too “Romantic”.

    My attraction to the extraordinary form of the Mass, for example, is certainly based in part on its Beauty. But, I would argue that its Beauty lies in its adherence to Classical ideals and forms and not in its pursuit of any Romantic notions of what divine worship was at some point in the mythic past or should be now, either to make the experience “prettier”, more “dramatic”, or more “emotional”.

    For me, “Romantic” is roughly synonymous with “Liberal”.

  13. Joe Hargrave says:

    I would define my conception of romanticism as drawing inspiration from the aesthetics and heroism of the past. I would define Catholic romanticism as, to put it tritely, drawing inspiration from Catholic aesthetics and heroism from the past.

    Where you would use, and perhaps other romantics would use, the word “emotional”, I would use the word “passionate.” I speak of passion being fused to the truth. Emotionalism is just raw passion without any regard for truth, and if truth and beauty are related as I believe they are, that means emotionalism is not a romantic concept.

    Why do we call the end of Christ’s life, after all, the Passion? Because it is an intense emotional experience, one of great suffering. Bach’s Passion of St. John captures it in the opening chorus. Its technically Baroque, but any musical depiction of the Passion in my view is bound to be romantic in essence.

    And the form doesn’t really matter in the end; Bach underwent his greatest revival, after all, during the Romantic era in music thanks to Felix Mendelssohn, who wove Bach’s musical textures into his own music (just listen to the opening of his Violin Concerto!)

    But my broader point is this; the Passion of Christ was not only an intense emotional experience, but it was also one in which many truths are revealed, many prophecies fulfilled, and God’s love for mankind displayed in full. So there isn’t some contradiction between passion and truth.

    As for Classical ideals, ok. I like Classicism too. Its very rational, very proportioned, very… organized. It can rightly align your inner moods and provide clarity of thought. But in my view, you can take a romantic view of Classicism! I see Romantic music, for instance, as a development from Classicism, and Classicism as a necessary foundation for Romanticism. Without the former, the latter would have been formless. But it never did. Music didn’t become formless and ugly and banal and stupid until well after the Romantic era.

    Now, lets take a look at one great example of a post Romantic composer – Sergei Rachmaninoff. In a world coming unhinged aesthetically, Rachmaninoff, whom everyone considered a Romantic “throwback”, composed religious music that no sane individual could call liberal. Rachmaninoff in my view was the greatest Romantic who lived and worked after Romanticism had ended as an epoch. His religious work and much of his “secular” work is transcendent. He was a conservative by avant-grade standards, and is a reactionary by all modern standards.

  14. Joe Hargrave says:

    In other words, romanticism on its own can be those bad things you mention. It can be “nothing more than a sentimental re-imagining of the Age of Faith, with none of its commitment to Christendom.”

    But it doesn’t have to be. That’s why I call it Catholic Romanticism. It does have the commitment.

  15. Joe Hargrave says:

    And I have to add, why wasn’t this definition which I provided in my intro not good enough?

    “a view of the past that elevates and glorifies what was good and just, a view of the present that finds room for those good and just things, and a view of the future in which the past has not been exterminated in the name of “progress””

    At least for starters?

  16. bob says:

    There’s no modifier of “Catholic” which is necessary or appropriate, given the Church’s embrace of all which is Good, Beautiful, and True. The Romantic view, however, is just as subject to a disordered understanding and application as is the view of material or the rational. The bottom line should be orthodoxy and orthopraxy.

    As to the “Passion” of Christ, I think it illustrates part of the point I was making. Its original meaning was “suffering”. It is only in relatively modern times (13th-16th century?) that it was evolved into meaning any “feeling”, especially one of a carnal nature.

    I sincerely am not a “either/or” sort of guy, when it comes to these matters. I find it troubling, however, how close the defense of the Romantic here is to the defense of many of the worst errors and abuses of modern times. To the modernists, their reforms are not “ugly”, they are “authentic”. They are not “primitive”, they are simply more respectful of and accommodating to “the people.” By appealing to Romanticism as a defense of true Tradition, we appear to be reducing the question to one of mere tastes and preferences.

  17. Obviously, some of the stuff you’re praising here isn’t from the Romantic era (Bach, Montreverdi, etc.)

    Am I right in taking it that you’re advocating that we bring a Romantic sensibility to Catholicism rather than specifically talking about the Romanic period and style?

  18. Joe Hargrave says:

    Well bob,

    I respectfully disagree. I think you’re quite wrong about that.

    “There’s no modifier of “Catholic” which is necessary or appropriate, given the Church’s embrace of all which is Good, Beautiful, and True.”

    The whole point is that the Church has fallen away from what is beautiful. The Papacy hasn’t, but many individual parishes have. And that’s the problem I seek to address.

    It might be ironic that I appeal to romanticism to return to a sense of objective beauty, but there it is. I see no logical contradiction, unless you insist on defining romanticism in a narrow way.

    I haven’t defended a single error or abuse “of modern times.” I have denounced them all, repeatedly, consistently, and quite strongly.

    “To the modernists, their reforms are not “ugly””

    Of course not.

    My argument, however, is that they ARE ugly. Mediocre. Substandard. Uninspiring. Boring. Useless.

    “By appealing to Romanticism as a defense of true Tradition, we appear to be reducing the question to one of mere tastes and preferences.”

    Well, that’s the nub, isn’t it? We SHOULD prefer the beautiful. We should be passionate for it, as passionate as we ought to be for the truth. And I see romanticism as a way to kindle that passion. But its not the only or the highest value, and if I gave that impression, allow me to clarify now that I don’t take that position.

  19. Joe Hargrave says:


    Right. I think of Catholic romanticism as an appeal to the greatest aesthetic traditions in the Church.

    I should have cleared that up in the essay. Though to be absolutely clear, I don’t reject the Romantic period and style either. Schubert’s Ave Maria came out of the Romantic period! Who hasn’t welled up upon hearing that for the first time?

  20. bob says:


    Thanks. As I said at the beginning, I suspect you and I agree on most of this, i.e. that we should prefer Beauty and that much of what we see now is objectively ugly, or mediocre, or uninspiring.

    I simply disagree that an appeal to Romanticism is the way to address it. In fact, I see the prevailing spirit of the age towards the Romantic as the cause of it.

    That being said, I do believe your latest posts have clarified what you intended to communicate and I have no real dispute with your intent.

  21. Joe Hargrave says:

    Well, I’m glad! Truly 🙂

    Though in my view, the prevailing spirit of our age is consumerism, hedonism, materialism – anti-life, soul-killing currents that romanticism can combat.

  22. Joe Hargrave says:

    By the way, if one searches the Vatican archives, one finds references to Romanticism, capital R, that are favorable, and romanticism, small r, that are clearly meant in the negative sense I introduced my essay with.

  23. bob says:

    Sorry, but now you’ve got me going again —

    Hedonism and materialism have been and will be with us forever due to the fallen nature of man (I’m not quite sure what you mean by “consumerism”, at least to any extent which would distinguish it from the other terms). Pleasure and a proper appreciation of the material are not evils in themselves. The “classical”, “medieval”, “rationalist”, and “romantic” ages appear to have been equally as prone, however, to hedonism and materialism. If they differ it is only in the “matter” which they perceived and inordinately pursued as being pleasurable.

    As to the culture of death as manifest in the U.S.’s recognition of the “right” to kill the unborn, isn’t it essentially a Romantic ideal: “liberating” the individual from the constraints of a corrupt society and its oppressive values to exercise her heroic “choice” based on her authentic “feeling” of what is right for her? Weren’t the death cults of both the Nazis and Soviets, among so many others, also at their core Romantic (i.e. a re-imagined past proscribing contemporary reforms, in clear conflict with objective morality which nonetheless claim to be essential to the arrival of a glorious future).

    And — I hesitate to say this and apologize in advance if it is unfair or causes offense — but I can easily imagine a spokesman for Al Qaeda or its its ilk defending its objectives with the definition of Romanticism which you offered in your introduction. I say this only to highlight what I believe are the weaknesses and perils of your argument, not to suggest in the least that you endorse any of these extremes.

  24. jonathanjones02 says:

    Very nice Joe (I also responded to you in “The Birth of Freedom,” fyi).

    I am also a traditionalist due, in part, to an aesthetic quality of conversion. God has gifted us the senses, and to consider His Beauty is to enter the sublime.

    Traditionalists like us must turn to Edmund Burke, the nationalist, small country, aesthetic Catholic (yeah, I know, he was an Anglican technically….)

    The sublime is frightening. I was frightened by the majesty of St. Peter’s and the Forum. It is truly terrifying to be in that presence. This is ethereal, otherworldly, perhaps slightly inhuman effect. It challenges the mind. Think of talking to a beautiful woman! The Catholic Church can, especially in its form and architecture, can exist like the most beautiful woman: as an image that could only come from the divine, because its creation is beyond our human sense.

    Burke tells we cannot combine the sublime and the beautiful without greatly diminishing the aesthetic effect of the object. Ideas of the sublime and the beautiful stand on foundations so different it is impossible to reconcile in the same subject without lessening the effect upon the passions. The beautiful inspires love and the sublime will inspire fear. Thus the Supreme Beauty, God, whom we love and fear.

    It should be added that Burke was incomplete, however: the sublime and the beautiful in one object enhance the effect so that fear enhances the impression of beauty.

  25. Joe Hargrave says:


    Wow, all I can say is that our views are about 180 degrees apart from one another. I want to reply in full to you, and I will do so later. I do believe you are quite, quite wrong – but I welcome the opportunity to hash out these issues.

  26. Joe Hargrave says:

    Please see my updated definition of Catholic Romanticism, which I’ve added to the essay for clarity, and will reproduce here:

    It is an appeal, a passion you might even say, for the greatest aesthetic trends in the history of the Catholic Church, and a rejection, for the most part, of the modern aesthetic of the typical Novus Ordo church house. It is not limited to, or even mostly found in, the era typically considered “Romantic”, though there were amazing and beautiful spiritual works produced during that time (Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis, Schubert’s Ave Maria, etc). My use of the word “romantic” may well be idiosyncratic and that may rub certain people the wrong way. Fair enough. I distinguish Catholic Romanticism from Catholic traditionalism only by the degree of passion for the aesthetic spiritual experience, and in no doctrinal or philosophical or theological or moral sense.

  27. Katharine says:

    What an absolutely gorgeous essay! And so timely for me at this point in my life. I am so happy to learn that you are a “traditionalist”!
    I have recently found my home in traditionalism since my conversion last year from evangelical Christianity and I am just blown away at the difference it has made in my life. The ancient Mass truly is beauty, on par with the most splendid of God’s natural creations. Which says all the more who has authored it.

  28. Joe Hargrave says:


    I’m glad you liked it! Thanks for reading!

  29. Brennan says:

    Thanks for the essay, I appreciate it. As usual, Dietrich von Hildebrand nails it in his quote.

    I am reminded of this quote by Fr. George Rutler from his book, “A Crisis of Saints” (Ignatius Press):

    A Liturgical Parable

    The Hard Truth

    …We seem to slip out of that golden sense of ultimate truth in two ways. The first is by losing any real awareness of the holy. The second is by denying that it has been lost. Without lapsing into cricitism that would be out of place, suffice it to say that the worship of holiness is weak in our culture, and the beauty of holiness has been smudged in transmission through the revised liturgy. For without impugning its objective authenticity in any degree, its bouleversement [Complete overthrow; a reversal; a turning upside down] of the traditional Roman rite marks the first time in history that the Church has been an agent, however unintentionally, in the deprivation of culture, from the uprooting of classical language and sensibility to wanton depreciation of the arts.

    …It is immensely saddening to see so many elements of the Church, in her capacity as Mother of Western Culture, compliant in the promotion of ugliness. There may be no deterrent more formidable to countless potential converts than the low estate of the Church’s liturgical life, for the liturgy is the Church’s prime means of evangelism. Gone as into a primeval mist are the days not long ago when apologists regularly had to warn against being distracted by, or superficially attracted to, the beauty of the Church’s rites. And the plodding and static nature of the revised rites could not have been more ill-timed for a media culture so attuned to color and form and action.”

    (pp. 107-108)

  30. […] Romanticism in Cinema To follow up my last post on Catholic Romanticism, I thought I would share some of my favorite cinematic experiences with you all. Since three is the […]

  31. Jason Redvers Latham says:

    Sorry but there’s nothing romantic about having to listen to people like Sister Rosalind Moss go on about her habit touching the floor and hearing priests’ homilies that sound like documents issued under the Vichy regime ! I’m also fed up of the monotonous fixations present in the idea that Mary is the Coredemptrix. Traditional Catholics over here go into paroxysms about nothing else and they seem to have no inkling that such ideas are never ever going to be ratified by anyone senior in the Church. It’s empty vessels making most sound. There is also a preoccupation with total rubbish exuded by the Fatima cult that turns even a well dressed girl into a machine of lasciviously drawn preoccupations. It does noone any good. I can tell that filthy minded priests are behind this.Again nothing even vaguely romantic about being told constantly that you’re not meeting Our Lady’s standards … I mean what planet are these people on ? If you find anything romantic in the kind of dangerously belligerent drivel that Doug Barry throws at youth from his Radix den, you’re a different monster ! EWTN also sells attempts to Americanise fairytales in terms of its Chastity programmmes, they are even worse than anything from Disney.No, I think Catholic traditionalism is stuffed with worthless kitsch rather the romantically aesthetic. The EWTN chapel where Pacwa bawls out like a fruitseller among others, looks to me like the inside of Jules Verne spacecraft. It’s horrible and so is the cantor who cannot even sing. The Latin is like Tom Lehrer on speed!

  32. Jason Redvers Latham says:

    Oh and I forgot to mention: doesn’t the heart cringe and the mind overbalance with outrage when that Steltemeier man appears in that fabulously fake office with its phony statuary and stained glass begging you to right their debt ? The response to his horrible tone: “Hello family” must be to turn the simpering idiot off! They even refer to the disastrous enterprise as a mission. Come back Tammy Bakker and convert to Catholicism !

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