Is Beauty Worth It? Doesn’t It Cost Too Much?

No! Beauty Transforms Us, Invokes the Principle of Superabundance that Generates Wealth for Society, and Inspires Us to Love the Poor.

Some time ago, on the final Monday of Lent, the priest at Mass gave us a stimulating and challenging homily. It challenged us to give to the poor, but not in the way that we often hear.

The gospel passage on this occasion was about Martha and Mary: Martha tended to the guests, and Mary washed Jesus feet with expensive nard, a fragrant ointment. Unusually (in my experience, at any rate), the homily spoke not so much to the contrast between Martha and Mary but between Mary and Judas. It was the latter who suggested that the money spent on nard would have been better given to the poor. Here was a lesson about the allocation of resources.  Mary made the right choice, we were told, in choosing Christ even before giving to the poor. Then an even more interesting point was made. There is an equivalent choice facing us today every time we have to decide about having beautiful churches and art, intricate vestments, ornate jewel-studded chalices and so on. Is it right to direct money to these things when there is poverty? The answer is yes when these things, through the liturgy, elevate the souls of the faithful to Christ and love of neighbor.

Tintoretto, Italian 16th century: Martha and Mary with Christ in Bethany, with Judas looking on, Credit: Wikimedia, public domain

First, all of us, rich or poor, can attend church, and we all need our souls saved. So, in church, the poor benefit from this spiritually as much as the rich do. Beauty is a common good, equally available and equally beneficial to all who encounter it, rich and poor alike. 

Second, the poor will benefit materially as well. Faith inspires charity and so it will inspire the rich to give to the poor directly. Furthermore, it will allow for the creation of greater wealth for the benefit of the poor in such a way that their dignity is elevated. This is the principle of superabundance at work. Superabundance is the creation of something out of nothing or of more from less. The Christian life lived according to the principle of love, is always fruitful in so many ways – and when it is, it invokes the principle of superabundance. In the family, this fruitfulness of love is realised in the creation of children. Clearly not all human relationships are intended to be as profoundly loving as a marriage, but all of them, even those in business, can be ordered to love rather than selfishness and will be more productive for it.  

Benedict XVI speaks of this principle of superabundance through charity in the economic sphere in his encyclical, Caritas in veritate (CV) – Charity in Truth. He tells us how love might be present even in the ordinary economic transaction. When it is, it not only creates wealth, as all economic transactions do but also builds up the dignity of all concerned, for even economic transactions suffused with love are raised to a level that goes beyond the material. A community is created that, through every interaction, including the economy, builds up the dignity of those involved and, in turn, generates greater material wealth by encouraging more economic activity. 

King’s College Cambridge. Credit: By Cc364 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Benedict writes:

“Because it is a gift received by everyone, a charity, in truth, is a force that builds community; it brings all people together without imposing barriers or limits. The human community that we build by ourselves can never, purely by its own strength, be a fully fraternal community, nor can it overcome every division and become a truly universal community. The unity of the human race, a fraternal communion transcending every barrier, is called into being by the word of God-who-is-Love. In addressing this key question, we must make it clear, on the one hand, that the logic of gift does not exclude justice, nor does it merely sit alongside it as a second element added from without; on the other hand, economic, social and political development, if it is to be authentically human, needs to make room for the principle of gratuitousness as an expression of fraternity.

“35. In a climate of mutual trust, the market is the economic institution that permits encounter between persons, inasmuch as they are economic subjects who make use of contracts to regulate their relations as they exchange goods and services of equivalent value between them, in order to satisfy their needs and desires. The market is subject to the principles of so-called commutative justice, which regulates the relations of giving and receiving between parties to a transaction. But the social doctrine of the Church has unceasingly highlighted the importance of distributive justice and social justice for the market economy, not only because it belongs within a broader social and political context but also because of the wider network of relations within which it operates. In fact, if the market is governed solely by the principle of the equivalence in value of exchanged goods, it cannot produce the social cohesion that it requires in order to function well.” (CV, 34)

A Church whose liturgy inspires holiness will inspire an atmosphere of mutual trust that Benedict speaks of.

Gloucester Cathedral. Credit: By Diliff – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Think now St Francis of Assisi and his vocation to help the poor. St Francis himself and the Franciscan order generally is known for their concern for the poor and the model they give of personal poverty. However, St Francis was also told to rebuild Christ’s Church. He did both and he did both lovingly and beautifully. So many of the great artists from the time of Francis were third-order Franciscans or worked for them at the very least, and they were great innovators – Giotto, Cimabue, Simone Martini, Raphael, Michelangelo. They were contributing to the building of great and beautiful churches, and this is evidence, I would say, that points to a strong belief in the value of the liturgy. Furthermore, these were innovators who were contributing to the creation of a whole new culture of beauty, which, through a greater appreciation of nature, also fostered huge progress in natural science that generated material wealth for society. All of this is consistent with these twin aims of rebuilding the Church and caring for the poor. When you rely on God, you tap into the infinite. Inspiring people, rich and poor alike, to come closer to God will create benefits in every area of our lives.

So it is only those who have a limited either-or mentality regarding these things who would interpret a call to help the poor as one that also diverts money away from the support of beautiful churches and liturgy and sees no value, generally, in having a beautiful culture..

The interior of the Basilica of St Francis of Assisi. The Franciscan order felt, at least, that there is no contradiction between spending money on such decoration, and care for the poor
Credit: By Starlight – Own work, Public Domain,

If we are to help the poor of America, we begin as the Franciscans did in medieval Italy, by transforming the Church into one with ‘charity in truth’ – Beauty! Beautiful liturgy and beautiful art and architecture. This will, in turn, evangelize the culture and change all men’s hearts so that they are more inclined to help the poor as part of their own community. It will also create a national culture that will foster the rise in mutual trust by which the economy will grow so that the poor will have jobs and greater dignity; in other words, they will cease to be poor.

Tagged: St Francis of AssisiPope FrancisPope Benedict XVISuperabundanceBeautyChristian culture