Continuity or Discontinuity?

Benedict XVI and Sacred Architecture

by Duncan G. Stroik, appearing in Volume 43

“We must do our utmost to see that today too faith is expressed in authentic art, in continuity and in innovation, and to prevent art from losing its contact with faith.” —Pope Benedict XVI

Joseph Ratzinger was ordained a priest in the Cathedral of Saints Mary and Corbinian in Freising, Germany, in 1951. Photo:

The modern Catholic Church is not known for being a leader in cultural endeavors. Where once it inspired artists to create beautiful art, majestic cathedrals, inspiring colleges, and great works of music, it seems like that spark had left us by the twentieth century. Since World War II the Church has belatedly tried to catch up, yet most of what it has commissioned in art and architecture is ignored by the broader culture.

When we think of the modern papacy, patronage of the arts is not the first thing that comes to mind. Thus many are not aware that one of the great legacies left us by Pope Benedict XVI was a half century of writing and speaking about the arts. 

What did the first German Pope in one thousand years (since Pope Victor II in 1057) have to say about art and the sacred? Although Joseph Ratzinger did not commission much art or architecture, he was perhaps the most articulate advocate for sacred art and architecture in the modern papacy. 

Pope Benedict XVI was a highly educated priest who believed that supporting the best in culture was crucial to the flourishing of society. He wrote and spoke prolifically about art and also sought to exemplify this devotion to art and beauty in his life. 

As a university professor, and later as the author of many important Church documents at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, he was unafraid to dialogue with scholars of opposing views and speak to educated laymen. As a well-educated European of the last generation, he was able to draw upon the history and theology of the arts from two millennia to make his case.

Later, as the head of the 1.2-billion-member Catholic Church, Benedict had an enormous effect on our understanding of liturgy as something not merely man-made but something received from God. His views on art and architecture followed this understanding. 

While Cardinal Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith under John Paul II, Benedict had a great influence on many architects and artists. He was a hero for many scholars of liturgy and for those who love the classic liturgy. Rereading his works on art, liturgy and architecture after his death, I was reminded what a breath of fresh air it was when the Ratzinger Report came out in 1985, or when he published Spirit of the Liturgy in 2000, including large sections on art and architecture. 

A Hermeneutic of Continuity versus a Hermeneutic of Discontinuity

In Christmas of 2005, Benedict coined the terms “Hermeneutic of Discontinuity and Rupture” and “Hermeneutic of Reform” to refer to the main two ways people had interpreted the Second Vatican Council. 

Those who use a Hermeneutic of Discontinuity or Rupture interpret the Second Vatican Council as directing us to reject the past and embrace the new. In the realm of architecture and art, this meant a dismissal of the two-millennial tradition of sacred architecture and replacing it with an architecture of our time.

The alternative to a Hermeneutic of Discontinuity is a Hermeneutic of Continuity. This hermeneutic interprets the Council in the light of tradition and seeks to create new art and architecture inspired by tradition. In practice, this means an embrace, not a rejection, of the two-millennial tradition of sacred art and architecture. 

The Hermeneutic of Discontinuity is critical of many aspects of the tradition of sacred architecture, from Early Christian basilicas, Romanesque abbeys, Gothic cathedrals like Notre-Dame, Renaissance churches such as Saint Peter’s, up through the variety found in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The Hermeneutic of Discontinuity demanded the re-ordering of sanctuaries and naves, the re-orientation and destruction of altars, altar rails, and choir stalls, and the white-washing of interiors. Liturgists in the 1960s looked at an ornate church interior and saw it as outmoded and a distraction from the liturgy. 

This rejection of the past was often thought to be a requirement of the Second Vatican Council, though nothing in the documents indicated this. Those devoted to the Hermeneutic of Rupture used the council documents to sanction acts of vandalism, not dissimilar from the destruction visited upon the Cathedral of Notre-Dame during the French Revolution. The iconoclasts of the 1790s and the Protestant reformers of the sixteenth century could not have been more pleased with what Catholic liturgists and their architects foisted upon the Church in the 1960s and 70s.

The Hermeneutic of Discontinuity resulted in the common view that anything goes, except tradition. This led to the novel idea of church as theater or as a work of abstract sculpture, inspired more by modernist ideology than by any serious study of theology or anthropology.

In some of its most famous and influential examples, Church authorities looked to the secular world for the answers. She hired architects without faith who wished to design new buildings for homo modernus.

Benedict XVI, by contrast, offered a different method for applying Vatican II to our predicament. The Hermeneutic of Continuity entailed guarding the precious treasure of antiquity while also making a modern presentation of this treasure.

Tradition and Innovation Living Together in the Same House

While drawing the same meaning from tradition, Benedict’s modern presentation exposes truth in a new way. The Hermeneutic of Continuity asks that we seek a synthesis of fidelity and dynamism. 

The Hermeneutic of Continuity leads us to recognize that it is right and just to restore old buildings and artwork and to create new things inspired by tradition. This is important because while it is good to conserve the old, we also want to create new beauty. As a Church and as a culture, we have to commit to creating beautiful things. It is not enough just to teach Milton, or Dante, or Shakespeare, we also have to  learn how to write as well as they did and to relate our work to our modern culture. 

In order to create this synthesis of continuity, one must know history and try to apply it today. The architect or artist needs to be a student of the history of art and to have been trained in it. He will seek to create something that reflects time-tested principles, realizing that true innovation is very difficult. Yet a talented artist or architect who takes study seriously will find that tradition and innovation have always lived together in the same house. 

The Pope was a great fan of Gothic architecture, which he experienced growing up in Germany, and the Baroque, which he experienced in both Germany and in Rome. He spoke many times about the artistic highpoint of the Middle Ages: 

The Gothic cathedral thus wished to translate in its architectural lines souls longing for God. Moreover, with the new technical solutions, the perimeter walls could be penetrated and embellished by colorful stained glass windows. In other words, the windows were transformed into great luminous figures, very adapted to instructing the people in the faith. In them—scene by scene—were narrated the life of a saint, a parable or other biblical events. From the painted windows a cascade of light was shed on the faithful to narrate to them the history of salvation and to involve them in this history. 

In his meditation on the crucifix, Pope Benedict cited the tradition of the Eastern Church which historically did not emphasize a bloody crucifixion. Showing Christ dying in pain on the cross is a medieval development, and Benedict writes positively about these crucifixes: “Don’t these help us understand the mystery of the Mass with new vividness?” In his view, art had developed in the Middle Ages and should continue to develop today.  Continuity and retrieval, which Benedict spoke of so often, means bringing back those things which are good and true, even when they have been rejected by the dictatorship of discontinuity.

Pope Benedict XVI’s Christmas greeting to the Roman Curia in the Sala Clementina, December 22, 2005. Photo: Gianni Giansanti/Gammo-Rapho via Getty Images

Benedict spoke of continuity and retrieval especially in regard to the liturgy, which is the central action of the Christian life. This meant that he could reconsider the orientation of a church and the orientation of the priest and people. It meant he would revive the use of the altar rail as the place for receiving the body and blood of Christ. And in order to reorient the focus from the priest to Christ, he called for bringing back the tradition of placing a prominent crucifix and six candlesticks on the freestanding altar.

Benedict argues that in the traditional orientation of priest and people, it is not that the laity are facing the priest’s back, which is what people have been taught to think, but rather everyone is facing in the same direction. That direction is toward the oriens, the east, which represents Christ’s second coming. So traditional orientation means that all face Christ together.

In a church-in-the-round, the focus is on the community, and the priest and people become, in Pope Benedict’s  words, a “self-enclosed circle.” Poorly designed churches and sanctuaries emphasize this self-referential community. They focus on the present, rather than being connected to the heavenly hosts past, present, and future.

Benedict writes that “the altar is the place where heaven is opened up.” Then there is the beautiful and central tabernacle which is a tempietto (“little temple”) of Christ’s presence, the altarpiece which helps our minds focus on the eternal truths through beautiful figures, and the architecture of the church itself, which creates a house of God.

So too, Benedict has written that the altarpiece is a window on heaven, which reminds us of the statement from the Council of Trent that can be traced back to the Second Council of Nicaea:

The more frequently [icons] are seen in representational art, the more are those who see them drawn to remember and long for those who serve as models, and to pay these images the tribute of salutation and respectful veneration .…Indeed, the honor paid to an image traverses it, reaching the model, and he who venerates the image, venerates the person represented in that image.

Benedict’s view of the Hermeneutic of Continuity in architecture suggests that we need to retrieve the proper focus. To that end, the art, the architecture, and the furnishings should help us to regain that focus. Most especially, “everything related to the Eucharist should be marked by beauty,” because beauty is an attribute of God. Thus during Benedict’s pontificate, all over the world we saw a small renaissance of beautiful liturgical elements: the chalice, the ciborium, the crucifix, and the candlesticks. Even in modern churches, people brought in beautiful vestments, elegant tabernacles, and noble altars.

At a meeting in 2008 with the clergy of the Diocese of Bolzano-Bressanone, Pope Benedict said, “to me, art and the saints are the greatest apologetic for our faith…. If we contemplate the beauties created by faith, they are simply the living proof of faith.”

The saints exhibit in their lives something exemplary for human lives: Mother Teresa and her self-giving care for the poor; Saint Maria Goretti and her absolute purity towards God; Saint Augustine and his search for beauty ever ancient ever new. Likewise, the artistic renditions of the saints help us to pray, to be reminded of their example, to realize that they are present in the body of Christ, and to ask for their assistance.

“Artistic treasures are not impressive monuments of a distant past,” writes Benedict. “They stand as a perennial witness to the Church’s unchanging faith in him who is ‘Beauty ever ancient, ever new.’” This is consistent with Benedict’s plea for art to synthesize continuity with newness.

False Creativity versus Authentic Renewal

Benedict XVI also spoke about false creativity in regard to the liturgy. He believed that authentic renewal comes slowly, not necessarily through instructions and regulations. He cites this key passage from the Second Vatican Council’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (Sacrosanctum Concilium): “Finally, there must be no innovations unless the good of the Church genuinely and certainly requires them; and care must be taken that any new forms adopted should in some way grow organically from forms already existing.”

The Los Angeles Cathedral, built in 2002, has won many architectural awards for its creativity. It is made up of irregular forms, brutalist concrete materiality, and the rejection of traditional imagery. Not surprisingly, someone has included it on the list of the top nine ugliest cathedrals in the world. 

One alternative to Our Lady of the Angels Cathedral in Los Angeles is the Basilica of La Sagrada Família in Barcelona, which Benedict XVI consecrated on November 10, 2010. On his trip to Barcelona, he spoke about this synthesis between continuity and newness, tradition and creativity:

Gaudí had the courage to insert himself into the great tradition of cathedrals, to contribute something new in his century—with a totally new vision—to this reality: the cathedral as a place of the encounter between God and man, in great solemnity; and do this with courage in continuity with tradition but with a new creativity, one that renews tradition. Thus he shows the humanity of history and the progress of history; it is a beautiful thing.

The pope recognized that the arts were in a difficult place. “Today we have a crisis of sacred art and in art in general.” The culture does not believe, therefore it rejects art which is true, good, and beautiful. This is ironic, because the old definition of art, one still adhered to by the common man, is that art should be something of beauty. The crisis in sacred art is due to the Church not having confidence in her tradition, so she too often hires artists who do not focus on the good, the true, and the beautiful. The sacred artist today, therefore, must be countercultural and learn once again what it is to create beauty, along with the architect, the writer, and the composer.

The True Purpose of a Church

For Pope Benedict, the key to creating worthy art and architecture today is to understand the true purpose of a church. This is what the Hermeneutic of Continuity, which includes the history of sacred architecture, shows us. 

First of all, “the church building is a building in which God and man desire to meet in which we are attracted to God and being with God unites us with one another.”

Light from a stained-glass window falls on statues of the Annunciation at the Shrine of Our Lady of the Rosary in London. Photo: Lawrence Lew, O.P.

Second, in an architecture or a liturgy completely centered on God, we see an image of eternity. “The purpose of sacred architecture is to offer the Church a fitting space for the celebration of the mysteries of faith, especially the Eucharist.” 

Third: “The Church building exists so that God’s word may be listened to, explained, and understood.” We participate in the celebration, gain knowledge of justice and goodness, and learn to live in the joy of the Lord. “Mary tells us why church buildings exist: so that room may be made within us for the word of God; so that within us and through us the Word may be made flesh today.”

Benedict believed that the purpose of art is to show us the Godhead. It is here that beauty and truth converge. He put a great value on beauty where many moderns ignore it. For contemporary man, beauty is a luxury or a historic value that is no longer relevant. In his own way, modern man looks at beauty and says, “Why was this ointment not sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor?” 

Some artistic expressions are real highways to God, the supreme Beauty; indeed, they help us to grow in our relationship with him, in prayer. These are works that were born from faith and express faith. We can see an example of this when we visit a Gothic cathedral: we are enraptured by the vertical lines that soar skywards and uplift our gaze and our spirit, while at the same time we feel small yet long for fullness.... Or when we enter a Romanesque church we are spontaneously prompted to meditate and to pray. We perceive that these splendid buildings contain, as it were, the faith of generations. 

This is the deepest purpose for sacred buildings: so that in them we may encounter Christ. If this is our goal, Benedict tells us, we will be attracted to the Hermeneutic of Continuity and learn to design and build once again  an art and architecture that is “ever ancient, ever new.”