Sacred Scripture and Tradition: Theologically-based Architectural Principles for a New Millenium

by Jamie Hottovy, appearing in Volume 7

After thirty years of liturgical renewal, we are well placed to assess both the strengths and weaknesses of what has been done, in order more confidently to plot our course into the future which God has in mind for his cherished people,” Pope John Paul II poignantly observes.1  These strengths and weaknesses must include an examination of the way church architecture has taken form during the period since Vatican II.  In order to appreciate fully the direction the Church has taken with respect to sacred architecture, some major theological principles articulated at Vatican II must be considered, such as the use of Scripture as a foundational basis for architectural custom and praxis, as well as the development of Tradition as a model for the organic development of ecclesiastical architecture.

 The church building plays an integral sacramental role in the liturgy.  A church’s structure and design is neither a secondary consideration nor simply a functional shell to protect the worshipping community from the elements.  “The celebration of the Eucharist is to be performed in a sacred place, unless in a particular case necessity demand otherwise.”2  The church building has a sacred function; it is to be suited for sacred celebration.3  The Catechism of the Catholic Church builds on this foundation:  “It is in these churches that the Church celebrates public worship to the glory of the Holy Trinity, hears the word of God and sings his praise, lifts up her prayer, and offers the sacrifice of Christ sacramentally present in the midst of the assembly.  These churches are also places of recollection and personal prayer” (1199). 

The Rites of Dedication of a Church and Altar do not place primary emphasis on the building’s function, but rather describe the Church in its various mysteries: fruitful, holy, favored, exalted, participating in the worship of God, partaking in the sacraments, and gathering in the hope of salvation.  There is a sense of sacredness, of the consecrated, of mystery, all of which are realities that reflect how the Church understands herself and all of which have unlimited possibilities of being captured in sacred architecture.

What theological principles does the Church offer to guide architecture so that it can serve its proper function?  A primary principle that imbues the architectural heritage of the Church is the use of Scripture as a foundational basis for architectural custom and practice.  Scripture informs our architectural expression.  The pages of both the Old and New Testaments are filled with descriptions of, allusions to, and imagery of architecture and its vital role in worship.  A treasury of symbols and signs are expressed in Church architecture, such as representations recalling the Garden of Eden, the Flood, the Exodus, and many more.  Architecture and art glean an abundance of the Church’s theology and praxis from the wealth of this sacred source.  Lumen Gentium 6 describes the various facets of the symbols of the Church as taken from the art of building, all of which pervade the Scriptures:

The Church is called the building of God (1 Cor. 3:9).  The Lord compared himself to the stone which the builders rejected, but which was made into the cornerstone (Mt. 21:42; cf. Acts 4:11; 1 Pet. 2:7; Ps. 117:22).  On this foundation the Church is built by the apostles (cf. 1 Cor. 3:11) and from it the Church receives solidity and unity.  This edifice has many names to describe it: the house of God in which his family dwells; the household of God in the Spirit (Eph. 2:19, 22); the dwelling-place of God among men (Rev. 21:3); and, especially, the holy temple.  This temple, symbolized in places of worship built out of stone, is praised by the Fathers and, not without reason, is compared in the liturgy to the Holy City, the New Jerusalem.  As living stones we here on earth are built into it (1 Pet. 2:5).  It is this holy city that is seen by John as it comes down out of heaven from God when the world is made anew, prepared like a bride adorned for her husband (Rev. 21).   

These architectural references are just an introduction to the many ways Revelation reveals the sacredness and mystery of God’s house.  In the church building God is intensely present.  Here the sacraments are celebrated.  Here Christ is present in the tabernacle.  The church structure is the meeting place between God and His people.  Christ used architectural imagery and analogy to describe Himself because those examples were tangible, familiar, and graphic.  Architecture is part of the human experience, and it lends itself to various layers of symbolism and meaning.  The church building—the City of God—points to the eschatological: the place of worship is revelatory of the kingdom of God to come.

From Divine Revelation we can glean much of the consciousness of what the Church is and how it is to be made manifest, not only in its physical reality but also in its spiritual reality.  The Prayer of Dedication found in the Rite of Dedication of a Church and an Altar is steeped with references to scripture:

Here is reflected the mystery of the Church.

The Church is fruitful,

made holy by the blood of Christ; 

a bride made radiant with his glory, a virgin splendid in the wholeness of her faith,

a mother blessed through the power of the Spirit.

The Church is holy,

your chosen vineyard:

its branches envelop the world, 

its tendrils, carried on the tree of the cross, 

reach up to the kingdom of heaven.

The Church is favored,

the dwelling place of God on earth:

a temple built of living stones, founded on the apostles  

with Jesus Christ its corner stone.

The Church is exalted,

a city set on a mountain:

a beacon to the whole world,

bright with the glory of the Lamb, and echoing the prayers of her saints.4

“The entire Prayer of Dedication proclaims a theology of the Church that is at the same time a faithful virgin and a mother made fruitful by the power of the Holy Spirit.  The Church is a vineyard no longer restricted to one people, but open to the whole world.  Existing here on earth, it is also in union with the heavenly city.  Like the temple of old, it is the sign of God’s presence, but that presence is now actualized in this place, because it is a structure in which Christ dwells, holding it together by the life that his Holy Spirit communicates to it.”5  These multivalent images also refer to the elevated design of the church building, which should reflect these mysteries of the Church.  The church structure participates in the attainment of these realities.  

 Scripture also is used throughout the Commons of the Liturgy of the Hours, the official prayer of the Church.  In the Commons one can find prayers dedicated to various saints and holy places, such as feasts of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the apostles, the martyrs, many virgins, and the dedication of a church.  These prayers are arranged hierarchically, and the dedication of a church is listed first.  Such placement highlights the priority that the place of worship has as a place of God’s presence and glorification by His people.

 While one foundational principle that has tremendous influence on the Church’s architectural praxis is its reference to Scripture in varied forms of expression, another significant principle that informs Church architecture on many levels is the doctrine of the organic development of Tradition.

As noted throughout Vatican II, the Church is understood as a developing, organic institution.  From the time of Christ to the apostolic age and beyond, the Church has seen innumerable developments through the centuries.  “[T]he apostles, in handing on what they themselves had received, warn the faithful to maintain the traditions which they had learned either by word of mouth or by letter. . . .  What was handed on by the apostles comprises everything that serves to make the People of God live their lives in holiness and increase their faith.  In this way the Church in her doctrine, life, and worship perpetuates and transmits to every generation all that she herself is, all that she believes.”6  There is a corresponding development in the manifestation of her churches.  This organic development of Tradition is directly corollary with sacred architecture and art.

Reliance on Tradition is a common thread woven through the major documents of Dei Verbum, Gaudium et Spes, and Lumen Gentium; and it is touched upon in Sacrosanctum Concilium.  Such widespread mention illustrates the signifcance of the doctrine and shows how the development of Tradition touches upon many areas in the Church’s teachings.

The organic development of Tradition has a direct influence on the direction the architectural heritage of the Church should take.  This principle becomes a paradigm and model for the organic development of architecture and art, which are also steeped in tradition.  Based on this fact, Vatican II states that there are to be “no new 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.”7  This directive is framed as such because the Church considers any need for development with the utmost discretion and seriousness.

The whole of Vatican II’s liturgical reform was placed within a context of soberness:  “In order that the Christian people may more certainly derive an abundance of graces from the sacred liturgy, holy Mother Church desires to undertake with great care a general restoration of the liturgy itself.”8  The Church cautiously embarked on liturgical reform because she saw the grave need for change but wanted to be as prudent as possible in implementing that change so as to avoid any abuses or misinterpretations.9  This is a concern Pope John Paul II revisits: “Although at this stage of renewal the possibility of a certain ‘creative’ freedom has been permitted, nevertheless this freedom must strictly respect the requirements of substantial unity.  We can follow the path of this pluralism only as long as the essential characteristics of the celebration of the Eucharist are preserved, and the norms prescribed by the recent liturgical reform are respected.”10

Another fundamental consideration included in this principle is that certain changes to the church building are permitted, while other aspects of Church architecture cannot be changed because they are essential in manifesting the appropriate sacred space for the Mass and the sacraments.  “The liturgy is made up of unchangeable elements divinely instituted, and of elements subject to change.”11  There are elemental aspects that no one can change because they are directly instituted by God.  “Down to our times liturgy has been looked upon as a sacred heritage, to which additions can cautiously be made, but the basic structure of which, handed down by tradition, cannot be undermined.  The substance of the liturgical texts and institutions, which grew out of the life of the primitive Church, was laid down in fixed forms in the West as in the East towards the end of Christian antiquity.”12  The Church does not have the power to change these aspects in light of her understanding of Revelation and Tradition.

Appropriate considerations need to be made in order to facilitate the liturgy in its proper form.  As the liturgy may be revised, so, too, architectural design may be adjusted; otherwise, liturgical architecture cannot properly fulfill its role.  Changes implemented should not be for the sake of change only, but should be carried out thoughtfully and in accord with Church directives because the liturgy is not a matter of variety, change, or trend.  “[The liturgy] is concerned with an ever-deeper experience of something that is beyond change because it is the very answer that we are seeking.”13  Freedom in certain areas is permitted (such as for style considerations, availability of materials, or for cultural expression), but other intrinsic aspects of Church design cannot be changed because they are essential in manifesting the appropriate sacred space for the Mass and the sacraments.  Ecclesial structures must exist in conformity with the Church’s architectural heritage but in a way that is relevant to the present.  This dichotomy—with one aspect rooted in the past and the other adapting to the present and future—is an intrinsic reality of the Church that continues through the ages and affects many facets of church design.  

A further element of the organic development of tradition—respect for historical precedent of traditional architectural forms—should be upheld because it is established, enduring, and well-founded.  Traditional forms are to be utilized because they are successful models for the liturgy and they transmit the Catholic faith to the people.  In the Church’s tradition of development there is continuity with the past, the present, and the future.  Although the Church has encouraged new and contemporary forms of art and architecture, she has not turned her back on two thousand years of sacred architectural tradition.  The two can co-exist: modern churches with modern amenities can be built, but they can draw upon elements from the Church’s rich architectural heritage.  Churches can be simultaneously “modern” and “traditional.”  The Church’s architecture grew organically from centuries of development, of inventiveness, and of continuity.  “In the history of the Church, the ‘old’ and the ‘new’ are always closely interwoven.  The ‘new’ grows out of the ‘old,’ and the ‘old’ finds a fuller expression in the ‘new.’”14  The Council calls for an architectural exegesis, a critical interpretation and exposition based on tradition in order to find ways to reconnect ourselves to our heritage as well as to create a culture of spiritual unity and continuity.  There needs to be a balance between utilizing the Church’s architectural treasury while conforming to Vatican II directives.

Pope John Paul II proclaims a new springtime in the Church as we embark upon a new millennium.  He challenges the Church to reinvigorate her role as patron of the arts and architecture, and clarifies the role of the architect to create “spaces to bring the Christian people together and celebrate the mysteries of salvation.”15  The two underpinning principles of Revelation and Tradition as models for ecclesial architecture are fundamental starting points in attaining this goal.