Ten Myths of Contempory Church Architecture

by Duncan G. Stroik, appearing in Volume 1

1. The Second Vatican Council requires us to reject traditional church architecture and design new churches in a Modernist style.

This myth is based more on what Roman Catholics have built during the past thirty years than on what the Church has taught. Even by professional accounts, the church architecture of the past decade has been an unmitigated disaster. However, actions often speak louder than words, and the faithful have been led to believe that the Church requires buildings to be functional abstractions, because that is what we have been building. Nothing could be farther from the intentions of the Council fathers who clearly intended the historic excellence of Catholic architecture to continue. It is most important to keep in mind that “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.” (Sacrosanctum Concilium)

Just as to do Catholic theology means to learn from the past, so to design Catholic architecture is to be inspired and even quote from the tradition and the time-tested expressions of church architecture. The Second Vatican Council makes this clear in stating that, “The church has not adopted any particular style of art as her own. She has admitted styles from every period, in keeping with the natural characteristics and conditions of peoples and the needs of the various rites. Thus in the course of the centuries she has brought into existence a treasury of art which must be preserved with every care. The art of our own times from every race and country shall also be given free scope in the Church, provided it bring to the task the reverence and honor due to the sacred buildings and rites. Thus it is enabled to join its voice to that wonderful chorus of praise in honor of the Catholic faith sung by great men in past ages.” (Sacrosanctum Concilium)

2. New churches must be designed in accordance with the document Environment and Art in Catholic Worship, published by the Bishop’s Committee on Liturgy in 1977.

Due to the lack of any alternative, this pamphlet has become the veritable bible for many new and renovated churches. This document, which was never voted on by the American Bishop’s conference and holds no canonical weight, is based more on the principles of Modernist architecture than on Roman Catholic teaching, or her patrimony of sacred architecture. Among its weaknesses is an overemphasis on a congregational view of the Church, an antagonism towards history and tradition, and a strident iconoclasm. Because of the controversial nature of the document, the Bishop’s Committee on the Liturgy is presently drafting a new and hopefully improved version.

Image: Author

3. It is impossible for us to build beautiful churches today.

This is a bit like saying that it is impossible for us to have saints in the modern age. Of course we can and should build beautiful churches again. We live in an age which has sent men to the moon and large sums of money are spent on museums and sports arenas. We should also be able to construct buildings of the quality of the early Christian basilicas or Gothic cathedrals. In recent secular architecture we are witnessing a great revival of traditional architecture, craftsmanship and construction. There are a growing number of young talented architects who are designing buildings in the classical tradition (many of whom would be delighted to design sacred buildings). Students at the University of Notre Dame, who are all trained in the Classical tradition, are in great demand by architecture firms and clients.

Also to the point, there are any number of churches which have been built over the past two decades which exemplify the principles of durability, convenience and beauty including: San Juan Capistrano in California, 1989; Brentwood Cathedral in England, 1992; the Benedictine Abbeye Sainte-Madeleine in France, 1989; the Church of the Immaculate Conception in New Jersey, 1996; the Church of Azoia in Portugal, 1995; the Church of St. Mary’s in Texas, 1997; the Church of St. Agnes in New York City, 1997; The Pittsburgh Oratory, 1996, etc.

4. We can’t afford to build beautiful churches today. The Church doesn’t have the money it had in the past.

In fact, Roman Catholics are the wealthiest denomination in the country today. We have more CEO’s and civic leaders than any other religious group. We have never been wealthier, yet we have never built such cheap churches. This reflects American giving priorities; from 1968 to 1995 the portion of personal income members gave to the Church dropped 21 percent. The people of God need to be encouraged to generously support the construction of houses of prayer. Bishops and dioceses should be encouraged to promote the highest quality rather than placing a cap on construction costs. The faithful should be willing to spend more on the house of God than on their own houses and build with a quality exceeding other public buildings. One story of great philanthropy concerns Holy Spirit Church in Atlanta which received a generous sum of money from a few of its parishioners enabling them to build a very elegant substantial brick Romanesque church in the early 1990’s. Other parishes, in order to build a worthy and beautiful church, have taken the time to raise substantial budgets or have chosen to build in phases.

5. The money spent on churches is better spent on serving the less fortunate, feeding the hungry and educating the young.

If the church were merely a meeting place this view would be legitimate. However, a beautiful church is also a house for the poor, a place of spiritual feeding, and a catechism in stone. The church is a beacon and a city set on a hill. It can evangelize, by expressing the beauty, permanence, and transcendence of Christianity. Most importantly, the church building is an image of our Lord’s body, and in constructing a place of worship we become like the woman anointing Christ’s body with precious ointment. (Mark 14:3-9).

6. The fan shape, in which everyone can see the assembly and be close to the altar, is the most appropriate form for expressing the full, active and conscious participation of the body of Christ.

This myth comes out of the extreme view that the assembly is the primary symbol of the church. While the fan shape is a wonderful shape for theater, for lectures, even for representative government, it is not an appropriate shape for the liturgy. Ironically, the reason often stated for using the fan shape is to encourage participation, yet the semicircular shape is derived from a room for entertainment. The fan shape does not derive from the writings of the Second Vatican Council, it derives from the Greek or Roman theater. Up until recently, it was never used as a model for Catholic churches. In fact, the first theater churches were 19th century Protestant auditoriums designed so as to focus on the preacher.

Image: Author

7. The church building should be designed with noble simplicity. Devotional chapels and images of saints distract and take away from the liturgy.

This principle has been used to build and renovate churches in a most iconoclastic manner. The art historian, Winckelmann used “noble simplicity” as early as 1755 to describe the genuine work of art that combined sensual and spiritual elements as well as beauty and moral ideas into one sublime form - which for him was embodied in classical Greek art. Thus “noble simplicity” must not be confused with mere functionalism, abstract minimalism or crude banality. Sacrosanctum Concilium states that sacred art should turn men’s minds devoutly toward God, and “that in encouraging and favoring truly sacred art, they should seek for noble beauty rather than sumptuous display.” The General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM) states that “church decor should aim at noble simplicity rather than ostentatious magnificence.” The concern over distraction grows out of the Modernist aversion to figural images and a desire to be didactic rather than symbolic. But GIRM states that “buildings and appurtenances for divine worship ought to be beautiful and symbolic.” The Second Vatican Council states that “the practice of placing sacred images in churches so that they can be venerated by the faithful is to be maintained.” The GIRM elaborates “from the very earliest days there has been a tradition whereby images of our Lord, his holy Mother and of saints are displayed in churches for the veneration of the faithful.”

8. The Catholic Church should be building the most avant-garde architecture of its day, just as it has throughout history.

For fifteen hundred years, and even up until World War II, the Roman Catholic Church was considered the finest patron of art and architecture. The Church formed Christian artists and architects who in turn influenced the architecture of the secular realm. During the last half century, however, the roles have changed, and the Church has been following the lead of the secular culture and architects who have been formed in a non-Catholic world view. Whereas previously the development of Catholic architecture was inspired by and in continuity with works from the past, the Modernist concept of the “avant-garde” means progress through a continuous breaking with the past.

The Church documents ask bishops to encourage and favor truly sacred art and to imbue artists “with the spirit of sacred art and of the sacred liturgy.” The present revival of interest in liturgical architecture by the faithful indicates that Holy Mother Church may regain her rightful place as the preeminent patroness. In this role she has “always claimed the right to pass judgment on the arts, deciding which of the works of artists are in accordance with faith, piety, and the laws religiously handed down, and are to be considered suitable for sacred use.” Also, “bishops should be careful to ensure that works of art which are repugnant to faith, morals, and Christian piety, and which offend true religious sense either by depraved forms or through lack of artistic merit or because of mediocrity or pretense, be removed from the house of God and from other sacred places” (Sacrosanctum Concilium).

9. In the past, people saw the church building as the domus Dei or house of God, today we have gone back to the early Christian view of the church as domus ecclesia or house of people of God.

Catholicism, it has been pointed out, is not a religion of “either/or” but of “both/and”. In contrast, it is an antinomial view, derived from the Enlightenment, which claims that a church cannot be both God’s house and the house of His people, who are members of His body. When the church is thought of merely as house of the people of God, it becomes designed as a horizontal living room or an auditorium. These two historic names, domus Dei and domus ecclesia, express two distinct but complimentary natures of the church building as the presence of God, and the community called together by God. “These visible churches are not simply gathering places but signify and make visible the Church living in this place, the dwelling of God with men reconciled and united in Christ.” (The Catechism)

10. Since God dwells everywhere, He is just as present in the parking lot as in a church. Therefore, church buildings should no longer be seen as sacred places.

This is a very attractive contemporary idea which has more to do with pop theology than with Catholic tradition. From the beginning of time, God has chosen to meet His people in sacred places. The “holy ground” of Mount Sinai became translated into the tent in the wilderness and the Temple in Jerusalem. With the advent of Christianity, believers constructed buildings specifically for the divine liturgy which would reflect the heavenly temple, the upper room and these holy places. In Canon Law “the term church signifies a sacred building destined for divine worship to which the faithful have a right of access for divine worship, especially its public exercise.” As “a place set apart” for reception of the sacraments, the church itself becomes sacramental having as its focus the sanctuary, which means a holy place. Just as the ceremonies, elements such as the altar and ambo, and the art are all referred to as “sacred” so are the buildings designed for them. Therefore to seek to remove the distinction of the church as a sacred place for sacred activity is to diminish our reverence of God, which the buildings should help to engender.