Catholic Church Architecture and the Spirit of the Liturgy

Catholic Church Architecture and the Spirit of the Liturgy

by Dr. Denis McNamara
2009 Liturgy Training Publications, 256 pages

For those who have borne witness to the architectural and liturgical vandalism that has occurred over the last half century, there will be comfort in this groundbreaking work. It is a testament to a turning of the tide, a counter-revolution in liturgical and architectural thought, which has been held captive and scorned at by a “spirit of reform” that is foreign to both Catholic theology and pious customs for the last two millennia. Modernism, both liturgical and architectural (as well as in all the allied arts), has roots dating back to the nineteenth century. Influenced by “Enlightenment” thinking, liturgical and architectural modernisms formed a natural partnership that rendered ontology subservient to epistemology and consequently provided the framework for a worldview counter to Catholic social teachings, as acknowledged in the writings of the holy pontiffs throughout the nineteenth century and beyond. The architectural destruction wrought upon the faithful since Vatican Council II was documented powerfully in Michael Rose’s Ugly as Sin, but Denis McNamara has gone a step farther, establishing a connection between that destruction and a “theology” that has rendered the sacred liturgy and its architectural settings inadequate for expressing the dogmas of proper Catholic worship as confirmed by the writings of Pope Benedict XVI, both as cardinal and pope.

This work is especially significant as it reconnects both the philosophical and theological principles underpinning both liturgical architecture and the liturgy. The book is based on a refreshingly Thomistic pattern, clear in its distinctions and completely accessible to the average reader. One is guided through a discourse regarding ontological categories and laying out the basis and final goal of any artistic endeavor, that is, truth, goodness, and beauty. The discussion on beauty should be a prerequisite for anyone even remotely interested in the arts. Understanding the theological implications of beauty is crucial in any discussion regarding the appropriateness of liturgical architecture, as beauty is the manifestation of the “splendor of truth”: one has to know what a thing is in its deepest sense to know how it should be made. Beautiful things are formative as they move the will toward the good, and this can also be described as an act of love. Simply said, things should look like what they are. This is a straightforward concept, but one that unfortunately escapes many practicing architects and liturgical consultants today.

The Cathedral of Saint Joseph, Wheeling, West Virginia by Edward Joseph Weber, 1926.

Another noteworthy contribution of this book is the chapter dealing with the scriptural foundations of the Temple as the typological precursor of the Church and the image of the Heavenly Jerusalem. Studying and acknowledging the Temple as a model for our churches presents an opportunity to recapture our understanding of sacrifice. McNamara explains in detail the Temple theology and its architectural forms and traces the roots of Catholic theology back to the Temple of Jerusalem. The symbolism of the Temple as the Gate of Heaven and the Temple ritual as a precursor to the Catholic liturgy is one of the most profound concepts of liturgical architecture, but one that has been lost to modern Catholics. Studying these Biblical typologies assists in our understanding of the very essence of the Mass. In turn, it is the Mass that unveils the mystery of the Temple and the theology of liturgical architecture.

McNamara continues his analysis by illustrating the principles behind classical and Temple architecture and explaining why the classical language is still appropriate for contemporary liturgical architecture. The chapters on ornament, decoration, and iconography are particularly insightful and follow the Western architectural traditions as understood through the writings of Vitruvius until the present day. By using patterns in nature established by its Creator, these elements are absolutely necessary, not mere whimsical add-ons, in revealing and understanding a building’s purpose as well as its structural clarity.

Every architectural choice is the result of a theological premise, hence all architectural arguments are ultimately theological. If we view church architecture as the built form of theology, then the architectural forms (as are the rubrical forms in the rites of worship) ought to be used as didactic and functional mediums to communicate the realities of the liturgy. One may infer that the clearer the rite of worship, the clearer the liturgy, thus rendering a further clarity to a certain theology or system of belief. Therefore, in Catholic worship, liturgical art and architecture must be subordinate to the proper understanding of the liturgy in order to reveal the divine nature of the Mass. A church’s legibility also depends upon conventions acquired from an inherited architectural tradition. If the architect departs from those recognizable conventions he fails to convey the intended meaning of a structure. A building’s beauty is reduced if its external expression does not correspond with its ontological reality. Therefore, a church must look like a church, or at the very least possess the quality of “church-ness.” The discussion on the inappropriateness of domestic architecture as a paradigm for modern Church structures is clearly demonstrated through scriptural and historical references. It is a textbook defence against the “archeological enthusiasm” and “pastoral pragmatism” so often touted by liturgical consultants and those advocating the virtues of social justice while neglecting the dignity of worship that is due to our Creator. So by its very nature, liturgical architecture not only demands legibility but this legibility must be accompanied by architectural decorum that insists on church architecture possessing a higher dignity than that of secular buildings.

The arguments in favor of traditional architecture is not so much a set of architectural forms but a philosophy on the nature of things. It values that which is enduring and, through poetic allusion, represents what is “true.” This poetry of structure strives for a “timeless” art, which ultimately occurs when noble, universal, and enduring ideas are finely rendered as witnessed by some of the great cathedrals of Europe throughout the Church’s history. The classical worldview is ultimately connected to a sacramental theology. It accepts and propagates the view that truth exists and is knowable through divine revelation and intellectual inquiry. Architectural forms, like language, are composed of recognizable conventions that not only promote a culture’s artistic traditions but a community’s collective memory. Classical architecture, as an art, is a bearer of that continuity, offering a clear structure that conveys meaning. It is opposed to the modernist definition of art, where absolute artistic license is sacrosanct and where novelty and creativity reign supreme. It seems the artist, having departed far beyond recognizable artistic conventions, has risked becoming unable to convey meaning to his audience. It is this ambiguity, this chaos, that is diametrically opposed to a God who so ordered the cosmos in “number, measure, and weight.” The ordering of things with “wholeness, harmony, and clarity” is the hallmark of creation, which echoes the divine will. Classical architecture has developed an articulate and sophisticated language through the use of recognizable forms acquiring a level of legibility that impresses knowledge of itself on the mind of the perceiver. We see this ordering of things in classical buildings as the forces of nature are placed in balance (i.e., heavy things hold up lighter things). These conventional forms also have the benefit of communicating and clarifying hierarchical relationships, which would otherwise be invisible, within a culture’s political system and between buildings themselves, representing the importance and purpose of the institutions they house. This simply cannot be reinvented or replaced by fiat.

Although some readers may not share McNamara’s enthusiasm for the necessity of reform, his acknowledgment of the disastrous outcomes of the last forty years are uncontestable. There may be some legitimate points of dispute on his historical assessment of the Liturgical Movement and what constitutes a true liturgical reform as one seeks to identify the true “spirit” within the texts of the Vatican II. But these discussions are fruitful, for they are in line with the Holy Father’s request for honest inquiry and further reflection on the “reforms” implemented since the council. Liturgies are not fabricated but grow from the heart of the Church through millennia of organic growth and with the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Our attitude should not be to approach the liturgy with a “spirit of rupture” or a “spirit of reform” but with a “spirit of paradosis”, the handing-on of tradition. The Holy Father asks us not to fall into the error of “archeological enthusiasm” or “pastoral pragmatism” but once again to understand and recapture the principles that underline the Church’s liturgical and artistic traditions, principles that have inspired the faithful in living out the Gospel throughout the Church’s two-thousand-year history.

The value of Dr. McNamara’s scholarly yet accessible work resides in its application of architectural principles in light of the proper understanding of the mysteries of the Catholic liturgy. He is not trying to invent new concepts or a new philosophy with regards to liturgy or traditional architecture but rather reestablish the proper framework of what was once common knowledge or a common sensibility toward the sacred. He is reintroducing a classical worldview lost to the fury of reform and has contributed to the immense task of defending a classical vision that seeks to recover the sense of the sacred, particularly within the liturgical act and the physical form in which it takes place. This work will be pivotal in the re-catechesis of the faithful (a “mystagogical catechesis” according to the Holy Father) who have completely lost their understanding of the liturgy and the dignified settings appropriate for its celebration. We must remember that communication is not just a matter of language but of signs and symbols that impart a deeper metaphysical reality. “Full, active and conscious participation” can occur on a deeper contemplative level, not just physical. Saint Pius X recognized this when he pleaded to the faithful that we not just “pray at Mass” but “pray the Mass.” What the faithful desperately require is guidance in the sacred mysteries “making [them] more sensitive to the language of signs” through a liturgy that takes them beyond their ordinary everyday experiences. Our churches should offer a foretaste of Heaven, as “bearers of divinity revealing the nature of things as they appear in a restored, perfected and redeemed world.” The Holy Father has confirmed that architecture, as well as music and all the allied arts, must play a seminal role in that catechesis, and McNamara’s Catholic Church Architecture and the Spirit of the Liturgy will undoubtedly accomplish this task. It will prove to be a valuable resource for professionals, pastors, or building committees who are thinking of undertaking a restoration of a church to bring it in line with proper liturgical worship. This book ought to be required reading and should adorn the bookshelves of all those who are toiling in the vineyard, working toward “restoring all things in Christ.” Our Lady, Seat of Wisdom, pray for us!

Riccardo S. Vicenzino is an architect in New York City.