Churches of Tomorrow

American Catholics and the Church of Tomorrow: Building Churches for the Future

by Catherine R. Osborne
2018 University of Chicago Press, 288 pages, $45.00 hardcover
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In 1961 the Anglican Peter Hammond famously addressed in his book Liturgy and Architecture the relationship of church design to a reassessment of the church’s purpose. But until recently, the relationship between modern architecture and liturgy has still been largely overlooked. With its focus on the culture of American Catholicism, this new volume by Catherine Osborne makes a highly valuable and scholarly addition to a rising awareness of the connections between modern church architecture, liturgy, and the sacred arts in the twentieth century. 

Broad in scope and researched over many years, this illustrated volume focuses on the contributions of American “Catholic modernists” in the last century. Osborne, who most recently taught in the department of Theological Studies at Loyola Marymount University, draws on holdings in libraries and archives from universities and dioceses, as well as interviews with many architects, artists, priests, and church members across the country. 

She focuses on such questions as: How did many American Catholics come to believe that modern church design could help shape a discussion of modernization within the Church at large? What criteria did twentieth century American Catholics—especially those educated in theology and liturgical practice—use to judge sacred art? 

At the center of her story is the work of Maurice Lavanoux (1894-1974), the editor of the journal Liturgical Arts, who served for forty years as secretary of the Liturgical Arts Society, a New York-based group which promoted the “advancement” of the Catholic arts. Amplifying and translating theological debates from Europe into an American context, he was influential in promoting the application of modernist design principles in Catholic church architecture, and for understanding the cultural manifestation of the Church as a living, changing body rather than a timeless and fixed entity. 

As Osborne points out, his efforts helped many American Catholics see the necessity of moving beyond redundant discussions of the Neo-Gothic Revival. He urged instead the view that modern church architecture can be a means of engaging with deeper theological questions about the role of the Church in changing societal movements, values, and technological and material innovations. 

In particular, Osborne documents an alignment between the advances in building technology that followed the Second World War and the Catholic Church’s embrace of a more modern theological perspective. Church leaders hoped that a more contemporary approach to church design would also spark a renewal of Catholic congregational life: advances in engineering would have theological implications. Undergirding Osborne’s far-ranging investigation is her argument that this collective sense of progress laid the groundwork for the social importance of modernist church design, which in turn helped to account for the reciprocal advocacy of creative change in sacred art and theology. 

This reviewer would have liked a closer description of actual built projects, and an analysis of how the many issues described by the author could be read in terms of a church buildings’ spatial ordering, circulation, structure, and details. Osborne does for instance include intriguing details of new, even experimental forms of Catholic worship space at mid-century, including Mark Mill’s surreal proposal for a Chapel on the Moon (1967); Cardinal Bea’s proposal for a submarine chapel; or Paolo Soleri’s 1970 study Arcology: The City in the Image of Man

Such visionary projects illustrate what Osborne calls the “Teilhardian moment in American religion and architecture.” She extends her exploration of Catholics’ concern for their physical environments into a discussion of urbanism and theology, as well as Catholic interpretations of Harvey Cox’s The Secular City (1965).


The book helpfully expands our understanding of the works of American architects and artists who built and designed for Catholic worship (including Marcel Breuer, Pietro Belluschi, and Barry Byrne), and the arguments that shaped an evolving understanding for the role of religious art and architecture. A valuable and fine-grained account of a broad subject, it will be a useful resource to architects and artists engaged in designing contemporary Catholic worship spaces, as well as those interested in the history of modern church architecture, liturgical arts, and the patterns of change in American Catholic culture.