Two years ago the Pope's vicar general for the Diocese of Rome, Cardinal Camillo Ruini, admitted that Pope John Paul II is often “thoroughly perplexed” by contemporary Catholic church architecture.

“There is little sense of the sacred in the new churches,” the cardinal told an international conference on liturgical arts.

Duncan Stroik, associate professor of architecture at the University of Notre Dame, has long shared the cardinal's sentiments. Stroik, a professional architect, contends that few architects in the latter half of this century have been able to achieve a sense of the sacred in their designs of Catholic churches.

Stroik sees a general revival among the laity of interest in sacred architecture, a topic once thought to be the sole domain of liturgical design consultants and parish finance committees.

“More and more, common Catholics are recognizing that a house dedicated to God should have a sense of the sacred,” said Stroik. “That's something we have not been experiencing with our contemporary churches over the last 30-odd years. Consequently, many people have simply lost their appreciation for the sacred.”

In response, the Indiana architect recently formed the Institute for Sacred Architecture, a nonprofit organization comprised of architects, clergy, educators and others, interested in issues relating to contemporary Catholic architecture.

The institute publishes a quarterly journal, Sacred Architecture, and is planning conferences, exhibitions and pilgrimages.

Several members of the institute are also preparing a practical manual that will provide a statement of principles on sacred church architecture. The “catalog” will also provide reflections on these principles as they have been applied historically. The history of Catholic church architecture reveals that its development, until recently, has always been inspired by, and was continuous with, works of the past.

“The trend in contemporary church architecture, however, seems to be a continuous breaking with the past,” Stroik observed.


The manner in which many church renovations have been approached and carried out, is a volatile subject.

These renovations have been largely overseen by a new Church professional known as the “liturgical design consultant.” The Association of Consultants for Liturgical Space, the primary sanctioning body for the field, has certified only 103 liturgical design consultants in the United States. One such consultant is Franciscan Sister Sandra Schweitzer.

The basic necessity Sister Schweitzer sees is “a space that speaks of the hospitality of Jesus.” Contemporary church buildings, she believes, must be, above all, “welcoming, from the front doors to the seating.”

The 56-year-old Franciscan served as the design consultant on the renovation of Sts. Peter and Paul Cathedral in Indianapolis a few years ago. “With that project, we replaced the heavy, thick metal doors with interior glass doors that say, ‘You're always welcome in here.’”

The traditional pews with kneelers were replaced by chairs. “That allows for flexibility,” she explained.

The variety of liturgies — weddings, funerals, baptisms — must be honored, she said. “A traditional church arrangement cannot do this.” Traditional churches, she contended, are neither hospitable nor flexible.

Stroik strongly disagreed.

“The supposedly flexible arrangements which are now in vogue encourage the priest to be viewed as an entertainer,” he said. “There is no evidence that shows that the traditional cruciform church plan is unable to accommodate the rituals of the Church. It has done so for the past 1,500 years.”

Stroik said the new “flexible arrangements” actually fight against the seriousness of various rites and rituals of the Church.

Father Giles Dimock, professor of liturgy and sacramental theology at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C., is also concerned with these arrangements.

He said he believes they reflect the “minimalist approach taken by the modernist designers of the day.” Strict adherence to this minimalist approach, he added, results in a “bareness” that places the focus and emphasis of the liturgy on the assembly, rather than worship and the transcendental.

Father Dimock's assessment seems to be confirmed by the Indianapolis cathedral project. Although most of its statues and the Stations of the Cross were removed and sold to a Michigan antique store as part of the renovation project, Sister Schweitzer still maintains that there is room for the traditional objects of devotion, but “placement is key.”

“We don't want anyone to be confused between what happens on the altar and devotion to St. Joseph,” she explained.

Sister Schweitzer justifies her design decisions by appealing to “the principles of Vatican II and the American bishops' document Environment and Art in Catholic Worship” which, she said, provides a blueprint for “hospitable and flexible sacred spaces.”

Environment and Art was, in fact, not voted on by all American bishops. It was issued by a committee as a commentary and not a teaching document; as such, it carries no authority.

The ‘Classical’ Approach

Notre Dame professor Thomas Gordon Smith is also encouraged by what he calls the “strong grass-roots” movement to design churches based on traditional precedents.

Notre Dame's architecture students, who are required to design a Catholic church as a part of their five-year professional program, have been embarking on such projects for the past 10 years. Ten years ago, Smith was hired to renovate the university's architecture program.

Smith chose to revert to a classical curriculum. Notre Dame at that time became the lone architecture program in the country committed to the principles of classicism rather than those of the prevailing modernist, p ostmodernist and deconstruction methods, which either alienate or mock traditional form and function through their merely experimental approaches.

Notre Dame students are exposed to the ancient orders of Greece and Rome, the churches of the Romanesque, Gothic, and Renaissance, the sturdy buildings of the 19th-century American neo-classical movement and the architecture of the 20th-century beaux-arts, all of which are based on the principles of classicism.

Smith, who is currently designing Our Lady of Guadalupe Seminary in Denton, Neb., said there is an inherent connection “between classical architecture and the structures of the Catholic faith.” With both, he asserted, there is a great deal to learn from the past and to apply to the present. The seminary, which will be the new home for North American seminarians of the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter, is based on an Italian-Romanesque model.

“The results of the new program have been remarkable,” Smith said. It seems to have encouraged not a few young architects to specialize in that area. Much in the same way the Notre Dame program is promoting the classical approach, the new institute hopes to expand the role of tradition and classical principles through its work.

Stroik and Smith seem to have an advocate in Richard Proulx, the celebrated Chicago composer and musician. Proulx welcomes a return to the use of classical principles in church architecture.

“A return to classical models,” he noted, “will mean a return to classical acoustical ambiance.”

Proulx believes that American designers have “drummed out” proper acoustics in the “secularized” churches of the 20th century. Contemporary materials such as carpet and ceiling tile create “acoustical nightmares” for choirs and musicians, he noted.

“These materials deaden the sound and fight against what we say we want — active participation,” he noted. “Without proper acoustics, the individual hears only himself struggling to sing along, or struggling to pray out loud. The living room ambiance that is created prevents each person from hearing the assembly as a unified whole.”

Placement of the choir in church architecture is also important, Proulx said. Using the classical model, which he advocates, the organ and choir will both be located on an axis, usually in the rear gallery of the building. “It is very reinforcing for the organ and the well-trained voices of the choir to lead from above and behind,” he said.

What the Church Says

The Institute for Sacred Architecture would also like to revisit the documents pertinent to architecture from the Second Vatican Council and post-conciliar years, with an eye toward examining more carefully the directives set forth.

When Stroik works with a parish embarking on the design of a new church, he urges both clergy and parishioners to review Vatican documents such as Sacrosanctum Concilium and Opera Artis to find out more about the “singular witness to reverence toward God that is expressed in architectural monuments — sermons in stone.”

Sacrosanctum Concilium, the council's document on sacred liturgy, for instance, makes it clear that while “the Church has not adopted any particular style of art as her own,” she has inherited “a treasury of art which must be preserved with every care” (No. 123).

Said Father Dimock, “Catholics don't naturally want to worship in an empty auditorium.”

Michael S. Rose writes from Cincinnati.