I was posed the following question on a Facebook forum that I help moderate:
Without so much wealth used to adorn and embellish the Church, could Catholicism survive or even thrive? Would it be better received? Would it look more modern? As an artist who appreciates the visual signifiers of tradition as much as anyone else, I wonder if these trappings speak hypocrisy to others outside the faith. What if they are not altogether wrong?
My answer is this:
Well, let me tell you a story from the Anglican Patrimony. The Oxford Movement within the Church of England that was started within Anglicanism (I used to an an Anglican priest FYI) to reclaim the Catholic heritage, particularly in terms of the liturgical and beauty of the Catholic faith. This movement largely brought Cardinal Newman into the Catholic church later on.
In any event, the beauty of the liturgy was, and I think the Catholic church has somewhat forgotten this in the wake of some of the bizarre playing out of the post-Vatican II "let's chuck all the old stuff" phase, was that the meaning behind having beautiful and expensive adornments and embellishments was to bring meaning to the drudgery of everyday life, particularly in the English docks of London where life was dirty and cheap. The liturgy gave the common dock workers who were basically outcasts of upper crust society at the time, a chance to be invited to a royal coronation like event every Sunday. To give them meaning and beauty in an otherwise dark, smoggy world where you were covered in soot by walking around the block.
In short, it was to give them a chance to participate in the beauty, mystery, and majesty of the Kingdom of God as children of the King, something expressly forbidden them in their actual life of drudgery. There is something to be said for that: that the liturgy is the work of people.