The universal Church does not foresee the dispossession of its cultural heritage even under the most burdensome of situations. Its competent teaching authority, including both the Holy See and various national episcopal conferences, have set forth guidelines to these ends. In fact, numerous teaching documents, and various ecclesial initiatives at the international, national and local levels, have sought to express and explain the Church’s promotion and care of its cultural goods. These document support their protection not only as an aspect of the cultural patrimony of humanity, but also as evidence of the Spirit’s vivifying, sanctifying life active in the Church throughout the centuries. The beauty of this witness, a common heritage of all the People of God, is to be safeguarded and employed in the Church’s evangelization.
Currently, a process is in its final stages to sell-off a portion of the most significant works of art held by the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, including works by American painter Thomas Eakins and others. Five portraits by Eakins have been handed over to Christie’s New York, and other unspecified pieces to unnamed brokers. Although the intention of the plan is to aid the consolidation and renovation of the Archdiocesan seminary, such a motive is at odds with the Church’s instruction regarding the care of patrimony. This unfortunately tends to be indicative of the American context in which cultural sensibilities fall on the side of the pragmatic and economic at times, tending to see the Church’s patrimony as a dispensable reality. This action, however well intended, is woefully contrary to the vision and use of religious artistic patrimony.
Concern for the artistic heritage of the church can be traced back directly to Sacrosanctum Concillium. Although a brief exchange during the preparatory commission pondered the question, a number of interventions by bishops during the Council addressed the topic directly. These bishops feared the destruction or selling of genuine works of art in the name of the liturgical reform. Reflecting this wisdom, the final version of SC included the instruction at no. 126:
Ordinaries must be very careful to see that sacred furnishings and works of value are not disposed of or dispersed.
The American bishops expressed this view as well in Environment and Art in Catholic Worship (1978), stating at no. 33 that art forms of the past
are part of our common memory, our communion (which extends over time as well as over geographical boundaries).
Although beginning in a liturgical context, there was a wide recognition of the need to form clerics in art and patrimony to protect the heritage of the Church in all its forms (cf. SC 129). Following the Council numerous circular letters to this effect were sent to national episcopal conferences. None of these were identifiably followed in the United States. Such concerns gave rise to the establishment of the Pontifical Commission for the Conservation of the Artistic Patrimony of the Church within the Congregation for the Clergy. In 1993 the moto proprio of John Paul II, Inde a pontificatus, established the body as the independent Pontifical Commission for the Cultural Heritage of the Church. The competencies of the commission were then merged with the Pontifical Council for Culture in 2012 by Benedict XVI in his moto proprio Pulchritudinis fidei. The goal of these bodies has been the same:
[P]residing over the guardianship of the historical and artistic patrimony of the entire Church (works of art, historical documents, books and everything kept in museums, libraries and archives); collaborating in the conservation of this patrimony with the individual Churches and their respective episcopal organizations; and promoting an ever greater awareness in the Church about these riches, in accordance with the Congregations for Catholic Education and for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments.
During these years an extensive array of directives and scholarship has been produced that directly relates to the current situation in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia:
The cultural patrimony of the church includes more than liturgical art and architecture. The Circular letter regarding the cultural and pastoral training of future priests in their upcoming responsibilities concerning the artistic and historic heritage of the Church (1992) states:
[Heritage] not only includes sacred art (architecture, painting, sculpture, mosaics, music, internal decorating, and every other art form connected with the making of the liturgy and the cult), but also libraries, archives, and museums (12).
Moreover, fundamental aspects of the stewardship of the Church’s patrimony have been laid out, including:
adequate conservation”, “protection against dispersion and instrumentalization (which results from their use according to economic standards alone)
and their proposal to the larger community
“as vehicles of the meaning and value of human life” (3).
Notably, the documents also propose a pastoral path in the utilization of Church’s patrimony. This is to say, patrimony is in danger, and too easily dispensed with, when opportunities for purposeful and fruitful interaction are not organized. Failure to do so results in the devaluation of patrimony in its proper sense and the deterioration of the human capacity to see beauty. The Pontifical Council for Culture, in its document Where is your God? (1996), has indicated the urgent
need for an adequate pastoral approach to artists and the arts, and also the appropriate use of cultural heritage.
In a culture marked by globalization where doing, creating and working occupy a fundamental place, the Church enriches the person by promoting being, praise and contemplation to reveal the dimension of the Beautiful One.”
The document notes that many universities fail to teach religion, the arts, and humanities together. The result is that students, and then generations of citizens, are incapable of understanding their own artistic, historical and cultural heritage. Such a perspective hardly foresees an institution of Catholic learning, let alone of clergy formation, ridding itself of art that is essential in its American, local, and Catholic characteristics. If the collection of art is seen as a “storehouse for ‘dead objects’” that can be sold, it so because of an inadequate pastoral vision and plan (Towards a Pastoral Approach to Culture, 36-37. 1999). In fact, contrary to the plans unfolding in Philadelphia, one of the specific recommendations for the management of ecclesiastical patrimony is the setting up of
activities, events, diocesan museums, cultural itineraries where local art, preserved for future generations, can become instruments of catechesis and education. (Where is Your God?, 2.7)
Unfortunately, those charged with the preservation and protection of the works in Philadelphia, lay and ordained, evidence the lack of formation warned against by the Church for now five decades. The rector of the seminary described the works as “low hanging fruit,” dispensable because of its non-sacred character. The VP for Information services, who directly oversaw the works, stated she lacked the adequate skills necessary to oversee the works of art. The obvious correction needed is the adequate formation in the Church’s vision of its heritage and related skill-sets, not the commodification and dispersal of its patrimony and collective memory – what the RNS article described as “baggage.” In fact, the Eakins paintings were seemingly selected among the holdings of the Archdiocese precisely because they were the works which would command the most attention on the art-market. This is why the collection was placed with Christie’s private sales rather than an auction house.
While the American church is young by European standards, it too has unique roots and indispensable patrimony. Precisely because of this situation it is imperative that local churches in the Unites States preserve their unique witness to the faith of generations of Catholics in the American context. No one doubts the economic burdens felt by religious institutions. But the liquidation of uniquely American Catholic patrimony of the highest caliber is both shortsighted and contrary to the Church’s understanding of its historical treasures and evangelical mission. The patrimony of the Church exists as the authentic faith expression of the entire People of God – not as a tangential commodity. Patrimony has a unique characteristic – once gone, it is irretrievable. Sadly, in Philadelphia the Church’s particular and unique heritage is being exchanged for drywall board and carpet squares.
James Thomas Hadley, Obl.SB, STL, PhD is a post-doctoral student in the Faculty of Beni Culturali at the Pontifical Gregorian University, Rome.