One Step Forward

An Analysis of Built of Living Stones

by Duncan G. Stroik, appearing in Volume 8

People often ask me what texts one should read in preparation for designing or renovating a Catholic church. I typically recommend starting with Church documents such as Sacrosanctum Concilium, the General Instruction on the Roman Missal, the Rite for the Dedication of a Church; and a few paragraphs each from the Code of Canon Law, the Cathechism, Opera Artis and Pope John Paul II’s Letter to Artists. In addition to these documents, I suggest turning to well-written tomes on the history of architecture, to be accompanied by books written specifically on the principles of church architecture, such as O’Connell’s Church Building and Furnishing,1 Roulin’s Modern Church Architecture2 and Rose’s Ugly as Sin.3 While the Church documents define the liturgical and canonical requirements for sacred architecture, the latter books help to interpret these documents in the light of architecture, both historic and contemporary. As well, the document from the American bishops, Built of Living Stones,4 purportedly offers a little bit of both and can serve as an introduction to the topic of Catholic architecture for a pastor or building committee.

There is much to appreciate in Built of Living Stones (BLS hereafter), for it includes many of the requirements from liturgical law while highlighting a number of issues that need to be taken into consideration when building a church. Issued on November 16, 2000, BLS does not claim to be Church law but rather offers helpful guidelines; as the Preface states, BLS “contains many of the provisions of universal law governing liturgical art and architecture and offers pastoral suggestions.”5 The guidelines found in BLS were developed over a four-year period by a task group of the Bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy, chaired by Bishop Rodimer. Its drafting saw no little controversy, including one of the liveliest debates by American bishops in recent memory. The first draft of Built of Living Stones, entitled Domus Dei, was heavily flawed and repeated many of the mistakes of the notorious Environment and Art in Catholic Worship (EACW hereafter), a booklet published by the Bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy in 1978.6 Fortunately, many of the recommendations by the bishops were taken into consideration in the final editing of BLS, and the document was re-written by the task group, which included among others Rev. James Moroney, secretary of the Bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy, and Rev. Brian Hughes, an architectural historian from the diocese of Sioux City.

The first chapter of BLS concerns the theology of the church building and—refreshingly—treats it as more than a functional structure for the liturgy. One of the important debates in modern times has been whether the church building is a domus Dei or a domus ecclesiae, and BLS rightly points out that it is both and therefore must be “expressive of the presence of God, suited for the celebration of the sacrifice of Christ, as well as reflective of the community that celebrates there.”7 It acknowledges that the church building signifies and makes visible the Church in a particular place, which is the reason that from early times Christians have called their buildings “churches”8 and not “meeting houses.” Since churches are also houses of worship, they must be suited to sacred celebrations, dignified, and beautiful. BLS makes the significant point that “church buildings and the religious artworks that beautify them are forms of worship themselves,” which is quite a tonic to the conventional wisdom that the building is merely a container for the liturgy. However, following this rather nice introduction, BLS falls into what might be termed a “ritual functionalist” viewpoint, in which church architecture is determined almost soley by the liturgical rites. The document enumerates five “liturgical principles for building or renovating churches,” including designing buildings in harmony with church laws and serving the liturgy, fostering participation in the liturgy, recognizing the different roles within the body of Christ, respecting the culture of time and place, and ensuring that the church be beautiful and raise people’s hearts and minds to the Author of all beauty. At this point it becomes clear that the prejudices of EACW and Domus Dei are very much still alive: BLS emphasizes the local, the contemporary, and the diverse over the universal, the historical and the unifying. While it is certainly true that the Church has produced a great variety of art and architecture over time and place and will continue to do so, it is also true that early Christian basilicas, Spanish missions, and Byzantine churches and icons continue to speak to modern man across time and culture. Just consider the number of Japanese tourists who love to visit St. Peter’s and the Sistine Chapel yet have little interest in visiting Ronchamp or the church of the Autostrada. Even more crucial is the idea that a believer should feel at home in a church, whether it is in Western Europe, Africa, Oceana, South America, or Asia. Church buildings that are inspired by tradition and seek to be timeless are more likely to speak to people from a variety of cultures and future generations.

Chapter two continues BLS’ focus on the sacred rites as a determinant of form9 (not surprising in a document authored by liturgists), but exhibits the same limitations one would find in the description of a restaurant written by a cook, or the design of a hotel written from the vantage point of the concierge. While the document makes a distinction between the nave and the sanctuary, it offers little in the way of principles of design to create this distinction architecturally, such as by the use of materials like marble, the triumphal arch, or altar-rail to create a threshold; or ways to make the sanctuary the major architectural focus of the church through the use of pilasters, domes, mosaics, etc. After the paen to diversity and variety of traditions in chapter one it comes as a surprise that there is little acknowlegement that these different architectural traditions (such as the iconostasis in Byzantium) have tended toward creating a distinctive and separate sanctuary rather than spatial unity. If one reads the footnotes, which tend to be quotes from Church law, one learns important things, such as that the freestanding altar ordinarily should be fixed, dedicated, and include a mensa or table made of stone. This is because the altar is Christ10 as well as the place of sacrifice and the table around which Christ gathers the community to nourish them.11 However, BLS is a bit confusing in this regard, implying that relics should be placed in the floor under the altar, whereas Church law indicates they should be placed under the mensa (or top stone). As evidenced in architectural tradition, the altar should be the center of attention in a church, which is best accomplished when the design of the interior and the altar work together to emphasize the altar. One of the least successful aspects of church architecture since the Second Vatican C ouncil has been the banal sanctuaries and freestanding altars which are too small for the size of the church and look rather silly, somewhat like a folding chair placed in a throne room. One of the best ways to return prominence to the altar is to raise it on steps, make it as wide as one-eighth of the nave, and cover it with a baldacchino or tester, as was employed in the early basilicas (as well as in the liturgical movement of the twentieth century). On the contrary, BLS claims that a highly elevated altar might cause “visual or symbolic division from the liturgical assembly.”12 In making this statement, BLS dispenses with the benefits of prominence, sightlines, and transcendence that a raised altar can afford, while ignoring examples from architectural history and the basic desire of the laity to see the altar and the action of the mass. While most architects will provide wheelchair access to the sanctuary in a new church, the notion that the altar needs access by ministers or others in wheelchairs is highly questionable (except perhaps in retirement homes for priests).

The recommendations for the design of the baptistry are even more speculative, and it comes as a surprise that there is more written about the baptistry than any other element of the church. While BLS notes that it is customary to locate the font either in a special area within the church or in a separate baptistry, the booklet’s recommendation is to place the font in the central aisle and design it to emulate the altar and sanctuary. While the font can certainly be thought of as the place of sacramental entry into the Church, by overemphasizing its design and location, one lessens the distinctiveness of the altar and the preeminence of the sacrament called Blessed. It has been popular among liturgists to locate the font at the entry of the church to emphasize the common priesthood of all believers and to de-emphasize the ministerial priesthood of the ordained (which is most visible in the sanctuary). However, not only does the placement of the font in the central aisle tend to treat it like a glorified holy water font (that is, as a sacramental rather than the sacrament), it also creates a competition with the altar and tabernacle. Along with the fact that there is little basis for this location in church documents or in Catholic Tradition, such a placement of the font creates numerous practical difficulties for solemn processions, especially during weddings, funerals, and even baptisms.

The six criteria for designing a font listed in BLS exhibit some of the most obvious limitations of the liturgical-functional theory of architecture, including the notion that the “location of the baptistry will determine how, and how actively the entire liturgical assembly can participate in the rite.” This seems to ignore the ancient and poignant symbolism of the catechumen or child being baptized outside of the church proper. In this way baptism is seen clearly as the sacrament of initiation necessary for entering the Church.

In recent decades, the font has been enlarged and moved out of a baptistry and into the church, while at the same time the tabernacle has often been moved out of its place of prominence in the sanctuary and put in a type of baptistry outside of the nave. Presumably this swap was due to a misreading of the 1975 GIRM, alongside the creation of a false dichotomy between the “active presence” of Christ at the altar and the “static presence” of Christ reserved in the tabernacle. However, the writings of Pope John Paul II, the 1983 edition of Canon Law, the 2000 edition of the GIRM, and the sense of the faithful have helped to put most of these ideas to rest. Not surprisingly, the location of the tabernacle was the topic of greatest interest in the bishops’ discussion of the Domus Dei draft in 1999. Among those criticizing Domus Dei for its treatment of the Blessed Sacrament chapel were Archbishops McCarrick, Rigali, Sheehan, Chaput, and Cardinals Bevilacqua and Hickey. While somewhat reflecting the bishops’ concerns, BLS still seems to favor the chapel of reservation, though it acknowledges that Church law requires that it be “integrally connected with the church and conspicuous to the faithful.”13 It also rehashes the modernist concern that the tabernacle “not draw the attention of the faithful away from the eucharistic celebration,” which has never been bncern of canonical documents and assumes that the laity cannot do the liturgical equivalent of walking and chewing gum at the same time. This is unfortunate. BLS points out that it is preferable that the tabernacle should not be on the altar of celebration, but omits the allowance for the tabernacle being placed on an existing high altar (though reading the footnotes and GIRM 2000 #315 will make this clear).

The majority of chapter two is spent describing the numerous rites and functions that will occur in a church, with the belief that planning for all of these individual elements—such as veneration of the Cross, the altar of Reposition, the paschal candle or the holy oils—will add up to a well-designed church. This may be due to the sad fact that in the past few decades the Church has built functional-looking buildings which do not function. Yet the document reads as if designing the house of God is like designing some sort of commercial kitchen where we have to make sure that each spiritual implement and appliance is in its place. There is no evidence that the architects of our historic churches spent a lot time worrying about these things, because, a well-designed church, like a well-designed room, naturally accommodates a multiplicity of elements and rituals.

One of the most disconcerting developments during the past few decades has been the design of churches as semi-circular or fan-shaped theaters, following the lead of Protestant denominations. Interestingly, one of the stated goals of many of the large mega-church buildings has been to make people feel as comfortable and anonymous as if they were going to a show, without any need to participate. BLS seems to acknowledge this trend when it recommends “parishes will want to choose a seating arrangement that calls the congregation to active participation and that avoids any semblance of a theater or an arena.”14 On the other hand, the document sounds like it is advocating the theater model when it states that “ideally, no seat in the nave would be located beyond a point where distance and the lighting level of the sanctuary severely impede the view of and participation in liturgical actions.”15 Yet one of the most transcendent and attractive aspects of the great cathedrals such as Chartres or St. Peter is their great length, their side aisles, and their light and shadow. And while BLS does offer some caution about placing the choir in or near the sanctuary, it makes no mention of the acoustical benefits and American tradition of the choir loft.

BLS acknowledges the significance and the diversity of pious devotions, which are central to the life of Catholics and should be fostered by the design of churches. However, BLS overstates the case that specific devotions are unique to various ethnic communities, whereas in point of fact, there are a large number of Catholic devotions such as the Stations of the Cross, devotion to the Blessed Virgin in the Rosary, and devotion to Christ in the Sacred Heart or the crucifix. Images of the saints and scenes from their lives remind us that we are joined with them in the Mystical Body of Christ and should be a part of the design of a church. The crucifix, stained glass, paintings and sculpture are often those elements of the church which are most inspiring for the lay faithful and should be beautiful, of high quality and beauty and respectful of traditional iconography. No one likes to see their mother portrayed in an ugly fashion, and Catholics are no different. Yet the discussion of images in BLS also includes some liturgical-functional tendencies, such as the recommendation that images depict saints for whom devotion currently exists and, if saints are only venerated by a few, to remove their images. This sentiment does not sufficiently reflect the Communion of Saints and the reality that the longer a church stands, the more it reflects the devotions and saints from a variety of times. On the contrary, one of the rich aspects of historic churches is the presence of sacred art and saints from all different periods, giving one a sense of the longevity and great richness of the Body of Christ.

Chapter three of BLS is a pithy essay concerning art which repeats many of the concepts from the previous chapter as well as developing a few new ones. It begins with an address by Pope Paul VI in which he states that “art is meant to bring the divine to the human world, to the level of the senses, then, from the spiritual insight gained through the senses and the stirring of the emotions to raise the human world to God, to his inexpressible kingdom of mystery, beauty, and life.”16 BLS points out the necessity for the artist to understand and reverence the liturgy and to be respectful and supportive of the doctrines and practices of the Church. However, one can go further than that. Following Sacrosanctum Concilium, artists who desire to make religious or sacred art should see themselves as serving God’s glory and “engaged in a kind of sacred imitation of God the Creator,” which implies that the artist should be a person of faith. Faith, coupled with a knowledge of symbolism and iconography and the necessity of beauty by the artist, would go a long way toward a restoration of sacred art. BLS states that it is the patrimony of sacred art which provides a standard by which to judge contemporary art. Yet there are other aspects of this chapter which are unfortunate, including the fear of artistic and architectural styles from a previous time, the false dichotomy between liturgical and devotional art, and the surprising idea that parishes should not promote features identified with any class, ethnic or age group. Yet is not architectural style one of the most obvious ways that a building reflects its builders, and the people who pray there, the particular architectural style, as well as in the inclusion of art portraying St. Patrick or St. Anthony, St. Stanislaus or St. Lawrence Ruiz, Our Lady of Guadalupe or Our Lady of Lourdes? How can we better inculturate the Gospel in our churches than with the presence of sacred art?

The final chapter of BLS, “Building a Church: Practical Considerations,” is written to introduce pastors and parishes to the building process and the different roles such as the bishop, the diocese, the pastor, the parish, the architect, and the contractor. Most priests today will probably get the chance at some point to build or renovate a church, chapel, school, or other building. This material construction has spiritual ramifications, and the pastor has the responsibility to educate himself in the history of architecture and church law. The pastor is the chief liturgist for his parish, and ultimately he will get the praise or the blame for the building, even though the bishop may dedicate it and legally own it. Though he needs the advice and support of a building committee, the pastor is the ultimate patron of the project, and without his support the project will falter. More than just a good manager, the pastor must be a visionary who calls the architect and the parish to a high standard, reminding everyone that the parish is building a temple in honor of the Lord. Today, parishioners expect to be consulted on the design of their church, and certainly everyone should have a chance to be heard early on in the process. However, at some point, after the schematic design has been proposed and accepted by the people and the diocese, the pastor will have to make specific decisions about colors, materials, and managing the budget. The old joke that a camel is really a horse that was designed by committee rings true for many of our building projects, especially churches built in the last decades. BLS seems to take the bureaucratic approach and recommend more committees than are necessary, including committees to study furnishings, seating arrangements, the chapel of reservation, devotional items, artwork, and landscape design. There is no question that the parish or the building committee should educate themselves before commissioning an architect. The recommendation that the parish embark on a selfstudy and liturgical education is admirable; however, what parishes and pastors would really benefit from is a course in church architecture appreciation.

One of the difficulties today is that dioceses have made requirements that a parish have fifty percent of their monies in hand before they break ground and that they payoff their mortgage in five years. If banks had requirements like that, very few parishioners could own their own homes. Dioceses and Catholics in general need to return to the ideal of our forefathers: constructing a church is a long-term spiritual investment, and a worthy building could take fifteen or twenty years to pay off. This ideal has the added benefit of allowing more than one generation to participate in building and paying for the church.

Interpretation in Light of Buildings

One of the most basic expectations of a document on art or architecture is that there be concrete examples to express particular principles. A document on architecture without citations of buildings is like a theology text which does not quote the Bible. For the Catholic faithful, principles of church architecture are interpreted in the light of actual buildings. A good example of this is John Paul II’s Letter to Artists of 1999 in which the Holy Father refers amply to the Church’s patrimony of art and architecture: “When the Edict of Constantine allowed Christians to declare themselves in full freedom, art became a privileged means for the expression of faith. Majestic basilicas began to appear, and in them the architectural canons of the pagan world were reproduced and at the same time modified to meet the demands of the new form of worship. How can we fail to recall at least the old Saint Peter’s Basilica and the Basilica of Saint John Lateran, both funded by Constantine himself? Or Constantinople’s Hagia Sophia built by Justinian, with its splendours of Byzantine art?”17 One expects to find a reference to the history of architecture in BLS, especially since the Church has helped to write much of that history over the past two millennia. Again, John Paul’s letter is full of that sensibility, a Catholic sensibility of a document immersed in the Tradition. However, on this score BLS gets failing marks. There is almost no awareness of the history of architecture, whether explicit or implicit; and examples of church architecture are more likely to be found on a shelf at a bookstore than in this document. These shortcomings are due to the fact that this is not a document with a love, nor even an appreciation, of Tradition, but rather a well-crafted essay of a rubrical nature. That being said, it comes as no surprise that BLS includes no pictures of architecture per se.

Evidently during the drafting of BLS, some argued that to include images would slant the document in a particular direction, whether toward traditionalism or modernism. The images of minimilist churches were, of course, one of the great weaknesses of EACW. For a document to be Catholic and to uphold the highest standards, it would be wise if it included images of a variety of churches and altars from a spectrum of time periods, styles, and countries. This is, of course, one of the glories of the universal Church: it is ever ancient and ever new. These examples could all be drawn from the finest churches throughout the world as agreed to by people of good will, thus discrediting the mediocre, the average, or the merely recent. (It is interesting to note that in his Letter to Artists, the one place that Pope John Paul II does not use specific examples is in reference to church architecture after Vatican II.) While I appreciate the fact that BLS does not have illustrations slanted toward modernism as its predecessor EACW had, the lack of examples points out an inherent limitation of the document. An essay on art and architecture which leaves out images and examples is incomplete, and anyone who reads BLS will need to supplement it with history books and other books on church architecture.18

In conclusion, I would acknowledge that Built of Living Stones is more faithful to Church documents and an improvement over the 1977 document Environment and Art in Catholic Worship. While it includes many provisions of universal law, which are quoted or footnoted, it makes many points which are simply pastoral suggestions and are not binding.19 In general, BLS seeks to be flexible, offering a variety of solutions to design issues, but these should not be analyzed nor taken too seriously. There are some major lacunae, such as leaving out the important subject of historic preservation of art and architecture.20 BLS can be rightly criticized as emphasizing numerous non-architectural issues, while saying very little about architecture. For example, one of the most cherished and important aspects of church architecture, its exterior design and siting, is almost totally ignored by the document. It is my hope that architects and pastors, building committees and bishops, will not ignore the exterior of the house of God, and will go beyond the limitations of BLS by studying the catechisms written in stone throughout history. BLS is a step forward in the writing on church architecture, but by itself it offers little hope that we will build churches worthy of the Almighty once again. For that to happen, we will have to look to the pastors, the bishops, the laity, and the architects who are bringing about a new renaissance in church architecture.