Saint Thomas Aquinas and Church Architecture

In the early sixties when I was being taught theology as a young Dominican Friar, St. Thomas Aquinas still reigned supreme as the universal teacher of the Catholic Church, although cracks were beginning to show in solidity of his appreciation by theologians who later saw him practically set aside at Vatican Council II. As a callow young friar I was excited by the movement to return to the Bible and the Fathers in theology, and was tired of trying to connect the Angelic Doctor’s thought with every conceivable reality or theory as if he himself had said it (ipse dixit) all first. Now older and I hope wiser, I rejoice in the modest Thomistic revival we now experience, although I don’t wish to return to the triumphalistic Thomism of the forties and fifties. It’s a bit ironic that I’m writing to explore the connection between the Angelic Doctor and architecture; not arbitrarily creating a nexus, but pleasantly surprised to find that he actually had something to say on the matter.

In the Prima Secundae of the Summa Theologiae where St. Thomas treats the ceremonial precepts of the Old Law, we find many insights about Jewish ritual before the time of Christ, but of great interest to us is his applying them to the Christian dispensation. The Angelic Doctor begins by pointing out that since we are composed of body and soul, exterior worship is needed as well as interior, for in our present state “we need the ray of Divine light to shine upon us under the forms of certain sensible figures . . . according to the various states of human knowledge.” So he establishes the sacramental principle here that God comes to us in sign and symbol in ways we can grasp through the senses. This is also the way we return to God for “bodily sacrifices (of the old law) denote the inner sacrifice of the heart whereby man offers his soul to God.” Clearly this principle is true of the new dispensation as well. Further on in this treatise, he discusses the human tendency to surround the priestly or the royal with “more precious garments and give them vaster and more beautiful abodes. And for this reason it behoved special times, a special abode, a special vessel, and special minister to be appointed for divine worship.” Just as the King needs a special house, so also we build one for God, not that He needs “a tabernacle or temple to be set up . . . but men who worship him are corporeal beings and for their sake, there was need for a special tabernacle or temple set up . . . (so that) coming together with the thought that the place was set aside for the worship of God they might approach with greater reverence.” St. Thomas gives many Christologically symbolic reasons why Solomon’s Temple was built as it was, but it is his application to Christian churches that is of interest to us. He points out that of old, synagogues were reserved for teaching and praise and the temple for sacrifice alone, whereas now in the Christian era “since the very sacrifice of the Church is spiritual . . . the place of sacrifice is not distinct from the place of teaching.”

With this background we approach the Tertia Pars of the Summa, where St. Thomas asks: Whether this Sacrament (the Eucharist) ought to be celebrated in a house and with Sacred Vessels? After listing many objections to so doing as is his wont, the Angelic Doctor sets the tone for his answer by quoting Matthew 18:20: “Wherever two or three are gathered together in my Name, there am I in the midst of them.” So Christ is present with us when we gather in the church for the Eucharist and this is appropriate because “the house in which this sacrament is celebrated denotes the Church and is termed a church . . . to represent the holiness which the Church acquired from the Passion, as well as to denote the holiness required of them who receive this Sacrament.” Here we find again the sacramental emphasis we saw earlier; sacred signs point toward God—the Temple of old and now the church building where God dwells with his people, the Church. Further, “by the altar, Christ, Himself, is signified,” and so is seen by the Angelic Doctor as the sign of the presence of Christ in the church edifice.

This emphasis on the sacred signs we need to experience God, this broadly sacramental approach we’ve seen in St. Thomas in terms of church buildings, is echoed in the current Rite for the Dedication of a Church. Number 2 says:

Because a church is a visible building it stands as a special sign of the pilgrim Church on earth and reflects one Church dwelling in Heaven. . . it should be dignified, evincing a noble beauty and should stand as a sign of a symbol of heavenly things.

The former monk of Taize who became a Catholic priest before he died, Max Thurian, goes further:

The church by its beautiful liturgical layout, its Tabernacle radiating Christ’s real presence, should be the beautiful house of the Lord and of his Church where the faithful love to recollect themselves in the silence of adoration.

To build beautiful churches as a sign of Heaven on earth maybe somewhat costly, and here St. Thomas again is of help. For him magnificence is a virtue which he treats in the Secunda Secundae as a part of the virtue of fortitude. This is the virtue of doing something great. . . “it belongs to the magnificent man to provide himself with a suitable dwelling.” But more than that, “No end of human works is so great as the honor of God . . . (and) for this reason magnificence is connected with holiness, since its chief effect is directed to religion or holiness.” And so St. Thomas argues that a magnificent man will spend money to produce a great work. It is clear from the above reasoning of the Angelic Doctor if one could spend magnificent sums on a suitable dwelling how much more so on a suitable abode directed to religion or holiness, i.e., the church building, and so our forebears were lavish in giving toward building great churches and cathedrals.

Our forebears and St. Thomas among them, knew that churches are necessary signs symbolizing the mystery of the Church; and not just the Church here, but the heavenly Church as well, since the Liturgy is a kind of Jacob’s Ladder with angels ascending and descending through one great High Priest Jesus Christ, Our Lord. Therefore I would like to conclude with the wonderful vision evoked in the document on sacred music, Musicam Sacram (no. 5) which speaks of the way our Liturgy ought to be celebrated—and one could argue in settings appropriate for so great a mystery: The mystery of the Liturgy, with its hierarchical and community nature is more openly shown. The unity of hearts is more profoundly achieved by a union of voices, minds are more easily raised to heavenly things by the beauty of the Sacred rites and the whole celebration more clearly prefigures that heavenly liturgy which is enacted in the holy city of Jerusalem.

Fr. Giles Dimock, OP, studied Liturgy at Notre Dame and at Sant’ Anselmo, and theology at the Angelicum in Rome, earning a licentiate and doctorate respectively. He has taught at Providence College, Franciscan University in Steubenville, the Angelicum and the Dominican House of studies in Washington, DC. He has written many articles for liturgical and theological journals. He now serves as a parochial vicar at Saint Thomas Aquinas University Parish in Charlottesville, VA.

1. St. Thomas, Summa Theologiae, I-II, q. 101, a. 2, corp.
2. Ibid., q. 102, a. 3, obj. 14.
3. Ibid., a. 4, corp.
4. Ibid., ad. 1.
5. Ibid., ad. 3.
6. Ibid., 111, q. 83, a. 3, corp.
7. Ibid., ad. 2.
8. Ibid.
9. L’Osservatore Romano, July 21,1996.
10. Summa Theologiae, I-II, q. 134, a. 1, ad. 3.
11. Ibid., a. 2, ad. 3.