Environment and Art in Catholic Worship - A Critique

A few years ago I spoke with a pastor in Chicago about a new church his parish was about to build. They had obtained the services of a liturgical consultant and an architect and were in the process of educating the building committee about the principles of church architecture, mainly by reading and discussing the little booklet Environment and Art in Catholic Worship, published by the Bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy in 1978.  I asked him if they were also reading any other texts such as the Vatican II documents, Canon Law, or the Scriptures. “Oh no,” he said, “the Vatican documents were written thirty years ago, this is 1995 and we’ve gone far beyond them.” And so they had.

The recent competitions for the design of a “church for the year 2000” in Rome and for the Los Angeles Cathedral have brought renewed attention to the importance of sacred architecture in Roman Catholicism. Parishes and cathedrals all over the country are embarking on substantial building campaigns. By all accounts, the past forty years have produced few church buildings that the American laity are proud of and fewer of which the cultural establishment approves. No doubt some credit for the present state of architecture should be given to a small booklet entitled Environment and Art in Catholic Worship (EACW) presently being revised.

For the past two decades, this document has been used in dioceses across the United States and Canada as the “bible” for new church design and renovation. Both its promoters and its detractors would concede that the statement has been more successful than anyone dreamt twenty years ago. Its authority has been invoked to require theater shaped interiors, removal of tabernacles from sanctuaries, removal of religious imagery and a puritanical style. The lack of a good alternative to EACW coupled with its heavy promotion by the liturgical establishment has resulted in EACW exerting an undue influence over the face of our sacramental architecture during the past two decades. It has also been supported by a secular architectural profession often willing to strip older churches and design new buildings in a reductionist mode.

EACW’s status has been controversial since its inception, particularly over the question of its canonical standing. However, it has long been recognized that EACW has no legal status in the Church. In fact one of the document’s promoters, canon lawyer Frederick McManus, has written in The Jurist that “the statement is not, nor does it purport to be, a law or general decree of the conference of bishops. . . . Thus it lacks, and there is no suggestion that it has, juridically binding or obligatory force, for which two-thirds affirmative vote of the conference’s de iure membership and the recognition of the Apostolic See are required.” In fact, many in the American hierarchy seem to have reservations on the statement including a number of bishops who have proscribed its use and have published their own guidelines. These sentiments coupled with the rejection of the document by many laity have resulted in the Bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy calling for a new or companion document to EACW which they hope will have some binding force.

As Fr. Andrew Greeley has pointed out, the average Catholic maintains a higher interest in the fine arts than his Protestant brethren.  It follows, and experience bears this out, that most Catholics have an interest in and strong opinions about what their church should look like. Most laity would agree with Greeley that “new Catholic churches should look like Catholic churches and not like Quaker meeting houses.” One hopes that in writing the new document, the American bishops will reevaluate the “low church style that has characterized many post-Vatican II buildings and recommend principles which will promote the richness, diversity, and ingenuity inherent in Roman Catholicism.

For a document which has affected the pocketbooks of parishioners all over the country, EACW is quite short, only 50 pages of narrow text including a foreword by Archbishop John Quinn. It seems to have been hastily written with a text which often suffers from opaque language and overgeneralization. However, these limitations are also its strength in allowing for a dogmatic reading. Though the document was ostensibly put together by a joint committee of the Federation of Diocesan Liturgical Commissions and the Bishop’s Committee on Liturgy, it is widely held that the text was the work of one person, Fr. Robert Hovda, a well known liturgical consultant who has since passed away. Equally surprising is that of the 39 photographs illustrating the text, 34 are photographs of buildings designed by one person, Frank Kacmarcik, who is best known as the liturgical consultant for the Benedictine Abbey at Collegeville, de- signed by Marcel Breuer.

The Action of the Assembly
Generally, EACW seeks to base the design of the “liturgical environment” on the liturgy as “the action of the assembly” of believers. Most of the document’s prescriptions flow from an emphasis on the assembly’s feelings, needs, and experiences. It becomes for most intents and purposes a theory of architecture based on a type of Congregationalism to the exclusion of worship, the sacraments, or God’s call to mankind. Beginning with the Second Vatican Council’s emphasis on Christ’s presence in the assembly celebrating mass, EACW goes a giant leap further in making the “assembly the primary symbol of worship.” The liturgical environment draws on the “community’s recognition of the sacred,” “its own expression,” “the concerns for feelings of conversion, support, joy. . . .” more than on principles from liturgy, theology, or even architecture. For instance having eye contact with other people is posited as crucial to participation. “Not only are the ministers to be visible to all present, but among themselves the faithful should be able to have visual contact, being attentive to one another as they celebrate the liturgy.”

The Rites for the Dedication of a Church state that “When a church is erected as a building destined solely and permanently for assembling the people of God and for carrying out sacred functions, it is fitting that it be dedicated to God with a solemn rite, in accordance with the ancient custom of the Church.” According to EACW, a liturgical space acquires a sacredness from the sacred action of the community rather than by being dedicated to God. No longer should a building be built ad maiorem Dei gloriam but for the feelings of the assembly. There is an implication that it is the people who make the sacraments efficacious. The understanding of the sacred in EACW seems to go against what we know about mankind from an anthropological, sociological, historical or theological perspective.

In reading the text, one has to wonder how much the “needs of the assembly” is a populist ruse, only to be consulted as long as the views of the assembly agree with EACW. The continual referral to the “needs of the assembly” seems to be less interested in democracy or inculturation but is rather a convenient slogan to bring about specific changes. This comes out in the advice to the elite architect: “A good architect will possess both the willingness to learn from the congregation and sufficient integrity not to allow the community’s design taste or preference to limit the freedom necessary for a creative design.” [italics mine] The architect should assume the assembly knows nothing about what they really “need”. Ironically, only one of the 39 photo- graphs shows a liturgical environment with an assembly. Most unfortunately, in emphasizing the centrality of the assembly and its liturgical celebration, EACW finds little to say about the God who has called the assembly together to be Church.

A Skin for Liturgical Action
Given that the stated purpose of the document is to give guidelines for new or renovated “liturgical spaces,” it is surprising that EACW was written with such a limited emphasis on architecture. The section of the document which gives particular focus to the building itself is a mere six pages of discussion. In fact, the document seems to harbor a mistrust of strong architecture because it might distract from the liturgy. It sets up an unfortunate duality between the assembly and the building, and in order to strengthen liturgy, architecture must be weak. Broad and indefensible statements are made such as “the historical problem of the church as a place attaining a dominance over the faith community need not be repeated.” This antagonism towards the church as a “place” tends to favor a multipurpose assembly hall or “non-place”. In spite of the document’s laudable calls for beauty, authenticity, good materials and craftsmanship, EACW states that the building should be merely a shelter or “skin” for a liturgical action.  In this “functionalist” view of the church building, the architect’s only role is to provide enough space for the assembly with good audibility and visibility. Interestingly, this view, growing out of the American meeting house tradition, parallels the recent success of the megachurch movement in which the building is consciously designed not to look like a church or anything else. In this vision of architecture there is no room for “great buildings for worship, in which the functional is always wedded to the creative impulse inspired by a sense of the beautiful and an intuition of the mystery.”

The document says very little about the exterior of the church, its signification as a “domus ecclesia,” and its appropriate siting in the city or the country. There is no recognition of the scriptural metaphors of the city set on a hill, the lamp on a lampstand or the city of God. The ability of the church building to symbolize the Christian community and her belief in Christ, through domes, spires, bells, generous portals, atriums, gardens, and iconography is ignored. This is problematic, since the exterior is the first image of the Church with which people come in contact. It is also one of the most expensive parts of a church, the proper design of which can ensure its durability, and the people’s investment. The document could be greatly improved if it would examine the impact the design of the exterior can have on the street, in the community, on the understanding of the interior, and on the preparation for worship. The Church sends her people out into the world to serve, to witness, and to continue to pray, so the architecture should help to reinforce these things. Most importantly, if we understand the Church to be the central institution of modern life we would expect her architecture to be of the same quality as the finest libraries, court- houses, schools, and city halls.

The emphasis of EACW seems to be on the interior environment, though there is very little that it suggests specifically. One way to understand the interior is through a discussion of architectural “typology” or the study of generalized types that reoccur throughout history. A discussion of the basilica, hall, cruciform or centralized types, their historical derivation and theological expression would have helped EACW immensely. Each of these types has its own principles of axes, symmetry, hierarchy, and volume which must be followed for the building to be integral and coherent. In all church types one of the most important elements is a focus on the sanctuary as a place set apart. The raised bema and ark in early synagogues and house churches as well as the Jewish Holy of Holies may have developed into the concept of the sanctuary. From earliest times the altar, bishop’s cathedra and sometimes other elements were located in this hierarchical place. The raised platform and iconostasis, baldacchino, altar rail, dome, and apse were developed to articulate the sanctuary architecturally. Surprisingly, EACW does not treat the sanctuary as an issue at all even though conciliar documents require it.  The lack of appreciation for the sanctuary or typology is brought out in one illustration, #10, in which it is adjudged that while “the location of the altar will be central in any eucharistic celebration, but this does not mean it must be spatially in the center or on a central axis.” Either the authors do not recognize the inherent logic of architectural composition or else they wish to undermine the importance of the altar. In a document written to assist the faithful in designing Catholic churches, it is essential that concepts such as typology, sanctuary and axiality be defined.

On the topic of architectural style EACW is for all intents and purposes a paean to modernist abstraction. Although Sacrosanctum Concilium is invoked in regard to “noble simplicity,” the rhetoric and the aesthetics of EACW seems to be limited to modernist architecture of the 1960’s. The photographs of new and “renovated” churches reinforce this view and already look outdated. In the Church’s long artistic history, it could be argued that one of the least successful phases was American architecture of the 1960’s and 1970’s, yet it is held up along with Shaker furniture as the only inspiration for liturgical buildings.

Another constant theme is that commonness and simplicity of elements are always to be preferred to richness and complexity. Symbols, icons, liturgy and architecture must all be reduced in order for people to better understand their faith. If the design of the church building affects worship and worship informs belief, is this reductionism in our churches not in part responsible for the recent study which found Catholics to be quite ignorant of their faith?  EACW states that “the rejection of certain embellishments which have in the course of history become hindrances. . . has resulted in more austere interiors, with fewer objects on the walls and in the corners.” This architectural minimalism promoted by EACW which requires “modern materials” and “honesty of construction” is simply abstract modernism with a font. If the highest goal of a liturgical environment according to EACW is hospitality rather than transcendence, the presumed model for a church seems to be the family room of a suburban house rather than the nave of an early Christian basilica. The document states that the scale of a space should not “seek to impress or even less, to dominate,” eliminating all of the great churches of western civilization such as Notre Dame, the Palatine Chapel, Canterbury Cathedral, Santiago de Compostela, or even St. Patrick’s in New York.

Tradition and History
For a document of the Bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy, it is shocking that there is no citation or acknowledgement of the existence of sacred architecture and church texts before 1960. History and tradition are dismissed as “unkind” and it is difficult to find positive treatment of historical churches. In contrast, one would expect that a Catholic document on architecture would have room for Bernini, for Pugin, for the Medieval masterbuilder and for Constantine’s architects. With few exceptions, EACW would criticize the masterpieces of Western architecture as not being simple enough, common enough, and distracting us from the action of the assembly. This is a surprising view coming from a faith which relies both on innovation and tradition.

As a ritualized faith which is I grounded in tradition, Roman Catholicism would be foolish theologically, liturgically, and anthropologically to jettison our wide variety of building traditions. Yet in writing that a church “does not have to ‘look like’ anything else, past or present” EACW rejects the concept of a regional building tradition under which Christendom has operated up until recently. Could we say the same about a hymn, that it does not have to “sound like” anything else, or that a prayer does not have to have “meaning like” anything else? This view of the architect’s creativity is naive; architecture is never done in a vacuum and even so-called abstract buildings “look like” other abstract buildings or even other objects. Thus, when churches look odd they are given nicknames, such as “Our Lady of the Maytag” or “Our Lady of the Turbine” or the “Corkscrew to Heaven.” Instead it can be argued that in order to maintain continuity, new churches like children, should look like they are part of a family. Along with promoting architectural continuity a document of the Universal Church should include reference to and photographs of sacred buildings from all places and times. Missing in this statement are images of the Spanish missions of the Southwest, the French missions of the Southeast and of Canada, as well as the great variety of parish churches, shrines and cathedrals built by the Germans, Irish, Africans, Italians, and Slavs. These buildings are part of our American Catholic heritage, and while they can be criticized architecturally or liturgically, they have few competitors from recent decades. And it is important to meditate on the fact that these churches continue to serve the liturgy and to “meet the needs” of a substantial portion of the lay faithful.

For historic preservationists and parishes seeking to conserve their traditional churches, the principles and images of church renovation in EACW leave a lot to be desired. The document states that “many local Churches must use spaces de- signed and built in a former period, spaces which may now be unsuitable for the liturgy.” It reminds me of a liturgist in Rome who once told me that none of the 300 historic churches in the Eternal City were appropriate for the new liturgy because they had not yet been renovated. His comment would have undoubtedly surprised the Fathers of Vatican I1 who held up the early Christian basilica as a model for church architecture. On the other hand EACW presents a typical 19th century Gothic church which has all of its decoration whitewashed, the removal of historic chandeliers and the altar and tabernacle replaced by the presider’s chair.  One of the other examples prominently displayed is the New Melleray Abbey in Iowa, designed by a student of Pugin, in which all of the original 1867 Gothic architecture is ripped out with the ironic caption “a renovation can respect both the best qualities of the original structure and the requirements of contemporary worship.” Presently a number of parishes across the country are defending their churches from liturgical designers who claim that they must whitewash them in accordance with EACW.

Art and Iconography
In retrospect, titling the statement Environment and Art in Catholic Worship seems to have been a misnomer since there is even less on the subject of art than on architecture. The statement’s orientation is decidedly against imagery, to the point almost of iconoclasm. At first glance one might think that it was a document written for Calvinist Geneva and not for the faith which produced Cimabue, Giotto, Fra Angelico, Michelangelo, Raphael, van Eyck, Rubens, Poussin, El Greco, and Mestrovich. The topic “Images” which concerns painting, sculpture, and banners receives two paragraphs, while the topic of “Decorations” which treats banners, plants and getting rid of clutter receives four paragraphs. The lack of interest in the traditional arts—stained glass, mosaic, fresco, polychromy, altarpieces, statuary, bas relief, carved wood, ornamental patterns—combined with the call for simplicity is telling. Audiovisuals are seen as a parallel and possible replacement of the traditional function of stained glass.  What hubris. “In a period of Church and liturgical renewal, the attempt to recover a solid grasp of Church and faith and rites involves the rejection of certain embellishments which have in the course of history become hindrances. In building, this effort has resulted in more austere interiors, with fewer objects on the walls and in the corners.” The goal is an abstract minimalism: the International Style for the Universal Church.

EACW refers to beauty a number of times but then states that it is “admittedly difficult to define.” Throughout the text there is a romantic belief in handcraft as better than mass produced items, but the photos chosen are usually of mass produced architecture or hand made items which look machine like. The discussion of fine arts recommends consultation with a consultant, and the requirement that the art not threaten or compete with the action of the assembly, again creating an opposition between the liturgy and the art.

Conclusion
The vision of church architecture which Environment and Art in Catholic Worship gives us is a carpeted auditorium or a large living room replete with plants and banners. It suggests that a successful church building will be created by an architect working with liturgical and art consultants, aware of the congregation’s “self- image” to make a functional looking design which will serve the assembly’s needs. Rather than draw on the rich Roman Catholic tradition, EACW would leave us in a Modernist straitjacket. In an EACW church there is no complexity: there are no columns to sit next to, no shadows for a penitent to kneel in, no places for private devotion, no mystery and no images of the heavenly hosts. EACW makes a plea for simplicity, commonness, authenticity and the contemporary shape of liturgy but does little to develop theological or architectural concepts which are treated in canonical Church documents. In a document written to help direct new church design it is crucial that these concepts be developed: the church as icon, house of prayer, sacramental place and house of God.

The committee drafting the new statement, which may be considered by the American bishops as early as this fall, includes people from various disciplines, including at least one architect. I am optimistic that they will compensate for the limitations of EACW and provide us with a new and improved document which will appreciate and foster the rich tradition of Roman Catholic architecture and iconography. One looks for a bishops’ document which in tone and emphasis will be as universal as possible, drawing on a breadth of theological and aesthetic sources. And there is also hope that there will be a degree of consultation on this issue which has economic ramifications and spiritual consequences for this and future generations. It is an appropriate time therefore to consider the strengths and weaknesses of EACW and bring these issues up for discussion and debate.

EACW is a document of architectural reductionism that reflects a liturgical reductionism. It is fearful of symbols, complexity, history, art and even architecture. The statement’s conception of architecture is antinomial; things are always either/or rather than both/and; black or white rather than having multiple layers of meanings. It seems that the BCL produced a document worthy of the “non-church” promoted by Protestant architect Anders Sovik. One is left believing that the document does more damage than good and that it is preferable for parishes to look to documents which have substance and real authority such as Sacrosanctum Concilium, the General Instruction on the Roman Missal, the new Catechism and the Rites for the Dedication of a Church. Always remaining faithful to the Conciliar and Post-Conciliar Documents, today we should move beyond Environment and Art in Catholic Worship to an architecture of sign, symbol, tradition and the sacraments.

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

1.  Environment and Art in Catholic Worship, Bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy, U.S.C.C., 1978, 50 pp., plus 39 photos, noted.
2.  “Environment and Art in Catholic Worship” by Frederick R. McManus, J.C.D., The Jurist (1995) 349-362.
3.  America, May 18, 1996.
4.  Eucharisticum mysterium, n. 55. “In the celebration of Mass the principal modes of Christ’s presence to his Church emerge clearly one after the other: first he is seen to be present in the assembly gathered in his name; then in his word. . . .”
5.  EACW, no. 58, p. 28.
6.  EACW, no. 47.
7.  EACW, no. 42.
8.  Letter to Artists, Pope John Paul II, no. 8, 1999.
9.  GIRM, no. 257-258.
10.  EACW, illus. 10.
11.  “The Pollsters look at U.S. Catholics,” by Peter Steinfels, Commonweal, September 13, 1996.
12.  EACW, p. 25.
13.  “Such as the “unkind history” which has fastened slogans and symbols onto vestments, EACW, no. 94.
14.  EACW, p. 21.
15.  San Francisco Cathedral and the Cathedral of Brasilia.
16.  EACW, 43.
17.  EACW, illus. 13.
18.  EACW, illus. 21.
19.  EACW, 105.
20.  EACW, 34.