Editorial: Operosam Decoramque Reconstructionem

by Duncan G. Stroik, appearing in Volume 5

Disregarding the warnings and legislation of the Holy See, many people have made unwarranted changes in places of worship under the pretext of carrying out the reform of the liturgy and have thus caused the disfigurement or loss of priceless works of art.   Opera Artis

Prominently located on one the most spacious piazze in Rome is the ancient church of Santa Maria in Trastevere.  This three-aisled basilica, constructed with columns from the Roman baths of Caracalla, is said to be one of the first churches in the Eternal City dedicated to the Virgin.  It is a poignant example of how the art of different epochs can work together to produce a masterpiece of sacred art and architecture.  One of the many patrons who endowed Santa Maria with their beneficence was Pope Gregory IV (827 - 884), who raised the presbytery, constructed a crypt for relics and built a new ciborium over the altar.  This substantial opera artis, work of art, can be seen as in harmony with the original basilica as well as giving it a stronger identity.  A document of the period refers to Pope Gregory’s interventions as operosam decoramque reconstructionem, a refined and elaborate decorative restoration.  Later popes, cardinals and laymen commissioned further elaborate restorations by adding mosaics, coffering, cosmatesque floors, a narthex and side chapels so that today Santa Maria is a work of art produced by the Universal Church down through the ages.

Tradition, as Chesterton has written, is the democracy of the dead, and those asleep in Christ continue to inspire us through countless beautiful churches in Europe and the New World.  It is a characteristic of modern cultures, however, that tradition is often seen as posing a barrier to progress, and this is perhaps nowhere more evident than in our treatment of historic churches and cathedrals over the past forty years.  In a time when some of our early twentieth-century public works such as Grand Central Station in New York have been elegantly restored, we seem to be witnessing an unbridled Modernist jihad to substantially renovate traditional churches.  This is rather shocking within an institution known for its unwavering defense of and embodiment of tradition.

The typical agenda of the liturgical renovators is well known: bring a freestanding altar into the nave, diminish the definition of the sanctuary, replace the high altar with a priest’s chair, move the tabernacle into a less prominent location, have fan-shaped seating, and remove any “non-liturgical” art.  The reasons given for these unfortunate and even violent interventions range from encouraging active participation to making the church less distracting from the liturgy, as well as pleas to the spirit of Vatican II. What is to explain the animus felt toward beautiful Gothic and Classical structures by liturgists and pastors?  They seem to be suffering from a type of Oedipal complex.

Up until a few years ago, I would have said that Catholics were finally catching up with the secular realm in our embrace of historic preservation.  Yet the number of renovations of historic cathedrals presently going on leads me to believe that we are being revisited by the ghost of Cranmer.  And just as in sixteenth-century England it was the lay faithful who fought to preserve their religious heritage by illegally hiding crucifixes and saving statuary from decapitation, so it is today.  According to the 1971 letter from the Vatican, Opera Artis, “It grieves the faithful to see that more than ever before there is so much unlawful transferal of ownership of the historical and artistic heritage of the Church , as well as theft, confiscation, and destruction.”  The lay Catholic preservationists point out correctly that none of the aspects of the typical agenda are mandated by Church law and that in many cases the renovation process has caused strife and divi-sion among the body of Christ.  This division is scandalous and ironic given that one of the stated goals of most renovations is to have a “worship space which fosters community.”

With the potential “disfigurement or loss of priceless works of art” in the words of Opera Artis, would it not be appropriate for the Vatican to call for a moratorium on all renovations of historic churches? Perhaps a “cease fire” is the more applicable term.  Yet I believe that if we study the history of Catholic architecture we can glean some principles for a refined and elaborate restoration of our churches and cathedrals.  First, architects and patrons must regain a certain humility towards sacred works of the past.  They should acknowledge that our sacred buildings are gifts from previous generations.  Humility recognizes the quality of churches in all different styles, whether they are our personal favorites or not.  Second, any renovations need to respect the existing architecture of the church.  Each building has qualities of spatial configuration, orientation, and architectural language which must be respected and maintained.  When we propose moving an altar into the middle of the nave or against the side wall we are fighting against the architectural characteristics of a longitudinal church and creating confusion among the faithful.  Third, all new works should be in aesthetic harmony with the existing architectural language , so that after a renovation is complete it is difficult to tell what is new.  This does not necessarily require that everything must be in the same style, history shows that many of our preeminent churches have been constructed in a variety of styles over time yet can work together to produce harmony.  Fourth, whatever is replaced or added needs to be of a similar or higher quality to that which al-ready exists, both in its design and materials.  Fifth, it is crucial that we cultivate an appreciation for the sensus fidei, respecting the faithful in their attachment to particular works of sacred art and elements of architecture.  For a pastor to decide not to use an ornate pulpit or a marble altar rail is one thing, but to remove these elements means taking away the option for people in the future.  Replacing a beloved icon of the Madonna with something deemed more tasteful may not serve the devotion of the faithful.

The Catholic Church, as great promoter of the living tradition, should once again become a leader in the movement to preserve our historic structures.  Why? Because Catholicism understands that the Faith is handed down to us by the Church , and likewise the architecture we have been given is a material symbol of that faith, a physical witness of the devotion of our forbears.  Perhaps it is time to form a National Trust for the Preservation of Sacred Art and Architecture which could assist bishops in gauging the significance of diocesan art and recommend appropriate ways to restore or renovate the house of God.  Churches in Europe often fall under such a governmental review board, but in the United States there is no protection for the interiors of churches.  Such an organization should be formed with the American bishops and could make use of the experience of the Holy See in this regard as well as that of the international preservation movement.  May we regain our senses, preserve the Church’s rich patrimony and in humility continue to add our own works of art to that patrimony.