The lead pieces in the December issue (“The Beauty of Holiness”) are more mystifying than enlightening.  Much of this issue consists of supercilious ridicule of poor souls who try to honor God with imitative architecture and inadequate art, followed by sympathetic words for moral and social degenerates who were prudent enough to repent before dying—or at least, in one case, to repent of not yet repenting.  Several of the authors seem to be appealing to standards to which ordinary people can only defer but never really comprehend.  To read this issue with understanding, one would have to have wisdom greater than Solomon’s.

There is praise for cathedrals of the past, and even for Rome’s Pantheon, but we are not to imitate them.  Poor souls, Catholics and Anglicans, erect neo-Gothic churches as though they were medieval men and women, just as pitiably as Baptists and Methodists try to create buildings that no one could mistake for factories or grain silos.  Worse still are the pseudomodern structures better suited to chess competitions between computers than to the worship of the living God.  We simply do not know how to do it right, and Chronicles is not going to show us.

Chancellor Patrick’s essay (“Pugin and the Gothic Dream,” Views) is both confusing and irritating, as least to a reader who is not willing to accept infidelity as a synonym for Protestantism.  The watchwords of the Protestant Reformation were sola gratia and sola fide—by grace alone, through faith alone.  What is James Patrick trying to tell us?  Capitalism and the Industrial Revolution created wealth for some, misery for many, and English religion deteriorated.  Not real news, that.  The world was growing uglier, and his author, A.N.W. Pugin, had the answer: a return to medievalism.

The Renaissance and the Reformation caused the trouble.  Patrick can get away with calling the Renaissance classicism, but to imply that Protestantism means infidelity is odd in view of the Protestant battle-cry, sola fide.  Luther called for explicit faith, requiring explicit knowledge of the Gospel, and rejected the Roman Catholic implicit faith, implicit acceptance of whatever the Church teaches, whether one knows it or not.  It is not clear how classicism, as Patrick sees it, denies transformation by grace in this life, rejects good works, and seeks to get ahead in the world without reference to the moral government of God or the pursuit of holiness.  Whatever this is, it certainly is not Reformation Protestantism, either Lutheran or Calvinist.  Luther rejected salvation by works, but, as he makes plain (for example, in commenting on Galatians 5:6), we are to offer faith to God, who has no need of our works, and do good to our fellow men, who have no need of our faith (of their own, of course, but not of ours).

Do I understand Patrick to mean that the cause of all of the trouble was Protestantism?  He says flatly, “Pugin was right . . . The obvious solution was for everyone to become Catholic.”  The 15th century, which Pugin extols by comparison with the 19th, began with three popes and reached a climax of papal corruption and decadence with Alexander VI.  We can hardly expect the College of St. Thomas More to mention that.  Patrick’s concluding words are strange: Is it good for preaching to be boring, and children and adults to be fascinated by pointed windows and tracery?  Surely, we can hope for better.  This is a sad thought at Christmastime, the beauty of which depends not on the scene in the manger but on the fact that Christ was born.

        —Harold O.J. Brown
Charlotte, NC

Dr. Patrick Replies:

I will not defend what the Church calls theological faith, or the gift of believing what God teaches in the Church simply because God teaches it, even if we do not understand it fully, since this is simply a difference between Catholics and Protestants that persists.  Professor Brown writes that it is not clear how classicism (as I see it) “denies transformation by grace in this life, rejects good works, and seeks to get ahead in the world without reference to the moral government of God.”  Of course, the relation between the Renaissance and the Reformation is dauntingly complex, but I suggest the following.  Reformers such as Luther and Renaissance philosophers such as Pico della Mirandola shared an interest in antiquity and a detestation of the tradition as received.  On many other matters, they apparently differed, with Renaissance philosophers defending human omnicompetence and Calvin and Luther arguing man’s incompetence in anything touching his salvation.  But, while coming at the question from different starting points, the thought of both Luther and Pico tended to make man at home in the world—the philosopher, by arguing that the human domination of everything is natural and therefore commendable; the reformer, by insinuating that man’s actions in this world could not have any salvific consequences.  Renaissance philosophers and poets tended to believe that the simple human joys ought to occupy us this side of the grave, and, in a backhanded way, the great continental reformers would have agreed.  Both Luther and Calvin proposed systems that created a disjunction between human action and our eternal destiny, leaving men free to make of the world what they would.  The rejection of the traditional doctrines of good works and merit and with this the weakening of the fear of Hell and love of Heaven—if God does not care what I do in this world, why worry?—made a new and different civilization.  For the reformers generally—and, yes, there are exceptions and degrees—human action has little or nothing to do with salvation, either because our behavior is caused immediately by the predestining will of God, or because human effort is by nature so vile that every good work courts presumption.  This left mankind free to engage nature and society as domains useful principally for the expression of power and pleasure, creating along the way the Georgian village of the 1820’s, which Pugin detested, in which the central features were the brewery and the bank, and ultimately the postmodern culture of comfort in which we all participate.

The brewery and the banks are certainly goods of some kind, but they are secondary goods, serving to blot out (save in self-aware and highly disciplined individuals) the primary relations between man and God, man and man, and man and nature.  Of course, to imply, as Pugin did, that Renaissance classicism provoked infidelity by way of the Protestant Reformation is not to argue that Protestants are infidels.  Men are often a good deal better than their theories—and (more often) worse.  If the apprehension of truth made men good, it should be demonstrable (by my lights) that Catholics are just better people and Protestants, somehow morally impaired.  In fact, although an empirical study of intentions is impossible, the reverse is often apparent: Catholics are often moral failures of the most obvious and lamentable kind, seemingly insensible of God’s claim on their love and duty, while Protestants often walk thoughtfully in the presence of God.  I think what Pugin saw was that the tendency of the Renaissance and Reformation, by way of the unlikely alliance mentioned above, was to render the world an arena not of worship, work, and play leading to salvation but an environment of getting on, in which religion, where it persisted, became a private goodness incapable of challenging the cultural dominance of the bank and the brewery.

On the Pugin point, just how artifacts come to represent ideas is a central problem for aesthetics, and one may certainly fault Pugin, as I did and do, for having maintained with quixotic zeal that Gothic architecture was the exclusive architectural representation of Catholic ideas and piety, and for doing so at precisely the time when culture and technology would make the Gothic Revival an intellectually impossible project.  Pugin did see some principles that have permanent value.  He saw that Gothic is beautiful and that beauty is indeed the splendor that belongs to truth.  Pugin also saw intuitively that a civilization without screens (or railings) separating the holy from the commonplace would soon be a public culture without just hierarchy and, hence, without God, however that matter might lie in men’s hearts.