Editorial: Catechismus in Lapidem

Therefore, though it is God who takes the initiative of coming to dwell in the midst of men, and he is always the main architect of this plan, it is also true that he does not will to carry it out without our active cooperation. Therefore, [we are] to commit [ourselves] to build “God’s dwelling with men.” No one is excluded; everyone can and must contribute so that this house of communion will be more spacious and beautiful.
- Benedict XVI

People often ask me why we have not been building beautiful churches in recent decades. It is not a simple answer of course: there are the changes from Vatican II; the embrace of modernism by the architectural profession; the expense of craftsmanship; the parsimony of the faithful; and the belief that the church is merely a functional building. Today, when laity and clergy alike desire to build beautiful churches again they are confronted with a limitation that their great grandparents did not have to contend with: the strict monetary policies of the diocese.

These requirements, which are often seen as more binding than papal encyclicals, vary greatly across the country. They usually reflect some mix of cash, pledges, and loans. At the extreme there are dioceses that require their pastors to have 100 percent of their budget in cash and pledges before the architect can finish the drawings. In that scenario, is it any wonder that our modern churches do not inspire? Most of us could not have bought our houses if we had to have 50 percent cash down. So why does the Church require that of the house of God? To make matters more difficult, parishes are expected to pay their mortgage off in five years. Again, an impossibility for most families but considered reasonable for parishes!

This scenario helps to explain why churches are so cheap and ugly today, and why many built in recent decades are falling apart. Many parishes in the suburbs are filled with young families, creating the need for larger churches and schools. Yet, these same families are the ones least likely to make a substantial contribution. The limitations of clergy mean that the bishop wants them build a new church with seating for twelve hundred or sixteen hundred people—the equivalent of a cathedral—usually with the budget of a nice gymnasium. Even if they wants to, parishioners cannot afford to build a worthy church as their grandparents did in part because of the requirements to have 50 percent of the cost up front and to pay back the mortgage in five years. Instead, the parish will end up with a camel, a building too big for its budget, with low proportions, and some traditional motifs slapped on. Years ago, a parish in the west raised only $3 million in cash and pledges for a new $6 million church. They were told to continue to raise money, which they obediently did, only to find out that the cost of construction doubled over the next five years.

How did we come to this? These monetary requirements seem to be a fairly recent development in the history of the Church. They may grow out of the need to build a large number of churches and schools quickly and cheaply in the suburbs after World War II. Unfortunately, there have been parishes that defaulted on loans, and the bishop is left holding the debt. So no surprise that the bishops are trying to be fiscally responsible and to help their pastors make wise financial decisions. But inasmuch as church buildings are central to the liturgy and the salvation of souls, how does one balance the need to feed the sheep with the admonition to count the cost? If we do not build worthily, will they come?

It is important to point out that few of our parish churches from previous eras could have been built under such tough requirements. Notwithstanding a major donor, most of the Catholic churches of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were built and paid for over a long period of time by poor immigrants and their children. These churches would be “dedicated” after construction but were not “solemnly consecrated” until their mortgage was all paid off. This process, often taking from twenty to fifty years, allowed the faithful from different generations to participate in paying for them, and is the main reason for the existence of these incredible cathedral-like structures in the working-class neighborhoods of our cities. Today, many of these churches continue to be the pride of their neighborhoods, and the faithful work hard to maintain and restore them.

In the past, when Catholics were less financially successful than today, pastors were allowed to build as they saw fit. Often, Monsignor O’Callaghan had a taste for Rome or for Lombardy and hired a talented architect who designed a beautiful, solid, and expensive building. Unlike today, these working-class parishes were not endowed with owners of companies or wealthy professionals. Yet over time, with prayer and raffles, the church would get built and eventually paid off. These were entrepreneurial pastors, who thought big, and were willing to take a risk for the sake of the house of God. It probably helped that these builder priests stayed in the parish until the building was paid off and that the debt was seen as theirs and the parish’s, not the bishop’s. When they succeeded, and sometimes the people had to wait decades, they would have built a beautiful church that would stand for generations.

Our buildings are a symbol of our faith, catechisms in stone for the faithful, and should be seen as a gift for future generations. Elements, whether custom statuary or brick and stone, should be considered for their life-cycle costs, not just their upfront costs. If we build in this way we will understand our Catholic buildings are investments, investments in faith and in the future of the Church. Thus parishes should be allowed to have reasonable budgets for the size of their churches. New churches should be able to borrow like a homeowner would, for twenty or thirty years. Not only will this allow us to build better buildings, but it also means that the cost of the building will be paid for by more of the people who will eventually use it. If the diocese could develop a more realistic cash-and-pledges scenario (such as 20 percent cash down) a three-thousand-family parish trying to build a twelve-hundred-seat church could afford to build a beautiful church closer in quality to the ones their poor immigrant forebears constructed.

Duncan G. Stroik is the editor of Sacred Architecture Journal.