Catholic churches—how should we build them in this enlightened and sophisticated 21st century?
Actually, it’s no mystery. And it’s not up to subjective interpretation: there are principles and plenty of precedent for the construction of Catholic church buildings. Well, if you want to know how we should construct a Catholic church (and perhaps more importantly, how not to do it), you need look no farther than this fascinating book. I bought Ugly As Sin by Michael S. Rose last month out of a catalog for only $5. The full title is Ugly As Sin: Why They Changed Our Churches from Sacred Places to Meeting Spaces—and How We Can Change Them Back Again.
The interested reader of this blog might want to know who the “they” referred to in the title are. Tragically, and horribile dictu, “they” are the bishops and priests of the last half-century. Although Mr. Rose does not dwell overlong on this particular point, he does explain some of the ideological skullduggery of some U.S. bishops in the late 1970s, their noxious ecclesiastical/architectural ideas, and the immediate consequences of their actions and decisions. Also, he mentions that in the aftermath of the Second Vatican Council a particular American bishop was personally warned by a letter from Vatican officials to respect and maintain the beauty of his cathedral. (Which warning he proceeded to disregard, subsequently dismantling treasured architectural elements of the historic Cathedral at his whim.)
When churches were built or “renovated” (a.k.a. “wreckovated”) in the last fifty years, marble high altars were jack-hammered, Communion rails were ripped out and junked, and sacred statues were thrown into rivers. It makes me sick to think of. Well, we all of us know what they did, because our parish churches are unmistakeable, visible, irrefutable evidence of it. The old churches don’t look like they used to, and the new ones look like spaceships, barns, auditoriums…really anything but churches. So the real question is…why? Why did this happen? Why did they do this?
As always, the poison of wicked ideas was the cause. Among a majority of American clergy the poisonous notions of the church as a fraternal social work organization, inspired by Christ the social reformer, was widely embraced. So they built buildings that were up-to-the-minute fashionable to be meeting places for their social justice clubs. Sacrament and sacrifice, divinity and distribution of grace (God’s life in our souls) was downplayed if not dismissed altogether. It was first a mental and spiritual disembowelment of the Faith, and then they disemboweled the churches, the physical representations of the Faith in wood and stone. Tellingly, American clerics commissioned ideas and advice from such architects as the prolific and progressive Evangelical Lutheran Edward Sövik. (Mr. Rose traces his ideas and influence in Chapter 4, which is both heart-breaking and enlightening.)
There is so much information in this book. How can we reduce all of it to some easy-to-remember points we can use to talk to and to educate others? Thankfully, the author gives us an easy template. Mr. Rose says all Catholic churches should (1) have vertical elements reaching to and pointing us toward Heaven, (2) must be made durably and solidly in order to last for centuries, as a sign of the eternal truths of the Faith, and (3) with iconography of all sorts, should display in physical form these same eternal truths. These points, first laid out for us in Chapter 1, subsequently guide us through the book. These principles inform our evaluation as the author mentally tours a traditionally-styled church building with us, assessing its elements and structure, commenting on its appropriateness as a church, a House of God, in Chapter 2. After that mental examination, in Chapter 3 the author similarly leads us into another building, where we examine a paradigmatic modern church, that “worship space of the people,” in light of the three original principles from the first chapter. As I mentioned above, Chapter 4 goes on to explain some of the history and the bad theology behind the hideous new structures distorting today’s Catholic landscape. And finally Chapter 5 describes what we need to do and what we can do to “make our churches Catholic again”—to make them sacred and devoted to the worship of the Almighty, as He Himself prefers to be worshiped.
As many photographs within the book beautifully witness, even before it was first published in 2001, work had already been going on in the United States to restore wreckovated churches and to revive beauty and sacredness in parishes across the country. Of course, now after the pontificate of our beloved Pope Benedict and the recent explosion of vocations of young and faithful priests, we can see that such efforts have increased and continue, with the support of many concerned laypeople. If you have the opportunity to help with a restoration in your area, do so! If you can be a voice for the sacredness and beauty of the Catholic Faith in the construction of a new Church in your area, be one! Start by reading this book. Then you’ll be prepared to answer questions and educate others as to what we ought to do and why when building a Catholic church. Such an education has, for me, been worth far more than $5.