Firm Foundation

A church architect is committed to ‘built theology.’

Church architect Steven Schloeder has advanced degrees in both architecture and theology, and he is concerned with both the practice and theory of sacred architecture.

After working for international architecture firms both in the United States and England, he founded Liturgical Environs in Phoenix to serve Catholic parishes across the United States. He also authored the widely acclaimed book Architecture in Communion (Ignatius, 1998). He recently shared the current trends in church architecture.

How did your interest in architecture and theology begin?

I discovered architecture when I was 11, influenced by my father’s library of books by Frank Lloyd Wright. I grew into a “Catholic” understanding of architecture at Arizona State University when I had to confront the apparent arbitrariness of my professors who seemed very subjective in their grading but could not even give an objective definition of “architecture.”

Where did you get positive direction?

Father Frank Larkin, a Viatorian priest who wintered in Phoenix, encouraged me to develop a philosophy of architecture. He introduced me to Catholic thinkers like Jacques Maritain, and encouraged me to think about the call of Vatican II for the laity “to renew the temporal order.” He challenged me to discover what that meant for me and my architecture. I think my work as a Catholic architect is vocational, a response to a prayer to how I as a Catholic should serve the Church and the greater culture.

You took an interesting approach to your graduate degrees.

For my master’s thesis at the University of Bath in England, I decided to look at what Vatican II actually said about church architecture. I sensed a disconnect between what Vatican II proposed and the way we were building new churches. Out of that came my book.

I was invited to do a postgraduate degree in theology at [the University of California at] Berkeley and decided to examine the reasons for the massive changes to church architecture across the 20th century. This was a study of the various cultural, philosophical and theological shifts that shape our contemporary experience as Catholics and how they have impacted church architecture (especially modernism).

What happened to church architecture after Vatican II?

In the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, the liturgical currents were towards the asymbolic: rejecting hierarchical models and historical styles and modeling churches as “gathering spaces.” I argue against that and for a recovery of traditional architectural language. From my reading of Vatican II’s Sacrosanctum Concilium (Sacred Liturgy) and Lumen Gentium (Light of the Nations), I concluded that we must respect the church building as an expression of the ecclesia, which is ordered, hierarchical, symbolic.

The ecclesia is understood through a series of interwoven metaphors — body of Christ, temple of the Holy Spirit, heavenly Jerusalem, etc. These symbols should be the point of departure when thinking about church architecture. Modernism in architecture does not respect this.

What’s the remedy?

Twofold: the recovery of both an authentic Catholic anthropology and an authentic understanding of liturgy. Pope Benedict reminds us the Mass is a participation in a divine and transcendent reality — Christ offers himself to the Father for the salvation of the world, with the saints and angels in adoration of the Trinity. So Catholic architecture is, above all, a sacramental question.

St. Paul has a wonderful discourse on the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:12). The church itself can be understood as a sort of “body”: a composition of individual parts that make up a whole just like the body. Each thing in the church — the altar, sanctuary, ambo, nave, baptistry, front door, bell tower — should have its own function and identifiable form, its own particular location, as does the human body.

This gets back to the anthropology. We are symbol-knowing, symbol-using and symbol-making beings. So to deny symbolism as a primary way of knowing, which is what modernism does, ultimately denies our humanity. And there’s our desire for beauty. We have to recover an authentic view of the human person, which gets into the theology of the body.

That also sounds like John Paul II’s influence.

I am definitely a son of John Paul II.

I was 18 when he became pope. My whole formation as an adult Catholic thinker is in respect to his pontificate. His book Source of Renewal was very influential on my thinking of what Vatican II authentically means.

How do you translate the ideas into your designs?

St. Therese Catholic Church in Collinsville, Okla., was my first project as a church architect. Msgr. Patrick Brankin, the pastor, wanted a church to help inform people about their faith and understand Catholicism through the building.

We approach the church as “built theology.” The tympanum over the main doors shows this is the Lord’s house. On the sides of the doors are confessionals because reconciliation is the proper way to enter into the liturgy. The altar is at the intersection of the central nave and chancel (with the Blessed Sacrament chapel) because that’s where Christ meets humanity.

The theology informs the relationship of the spaces and the shape of the building. The relationships in the arrangement of the church help the Christian understand his place in the body of Christ.

Is there any particular “Catholic style”?

I’m very leery about attaching any particular historical style — neo-Gothic, neo-Romanesque, neo-Classical — and ascribing that to what Vatican II is about.

Church architecture is not about historical style even, though those historical styles have informed our cultural memory. It’s really about a building which expresses the body of Christ and the temple of the Holy Spirit.

All the historical styles work because they participate in this great sacramental language of Christian architecture. We believe these have been cultivated under the protection of the Holy Spirit.

Do you incorporate historical architectural elements in your designs?

Of course, because we are part of a great tradition as Catholics. At St. Paul Parish in Pensacola, Fla., we respected the French Cajun architectural history — even though it’s not a Gothic church by any stretch of the imagination — but we were making allusions to the community’s cultural memory.

A church is an icon simultaneously of the universal Church and the local church. As an icon of the local church it has to do with the cultural memory of the community, the vernacular architecture of an area, the site and climate, local building materials. I would design a very different church in Pensacola than I would in Phoenix.

You even reclaim some beautiful sacred objects for churches like St. Therese’s.

I got wind of seven beautiful old stained-glass windows available from Philadelphia. They fit perfectly proportionally as if the building were designed around them. The providence of the Little Flower is what I credit this to.

What about the modern question of tabernacle placement?

Simple explanation — there cannot be a conflict between the liturgy of the Eucharist and the placement of the tabernacle in the sanctuary. Liturgists are often arguing why the tabernacle should not be in the sanctuary. But the reason why there’s no conflict is the tabernacle is its own chapel. The tabernacle is not a monstrance. It is opaque and optimally veiled. This creates a psychological separation between the reserved Eucharist and the liturgical action. A lot of liturgists seem to miss this point. The priest can’t be “turning his back to the Lord” if the tabernacle doors are closed.

Centrality is the language of the body. The head is at the highest point. Symmetry and centrality are based upon our symbolic understanding of the human body. These things are so deeply ingrained and imbued in the psyche that to deny symmetry is to deny something primal about the human being.

Should churches remain architectural catechisms, as they once were?

Indeed. Stained glass was a catechism for the medieval illiterate, but not just them, but for ourselves, educated modern people.

Throughout the course of the week, the layperson is bombarded with secular, profane imagery from TV, movies, magazines and billboards. The point of liturgical and devotional imagery is to help us refocus on the things of God.

Big blank walls and whitewashed churches actually hinder this since they will be like a movie screen. Our imagination will roam freely rather than focus on the liturgy. Religious imagery is very important for Catholic anthropology. We cannot deny the human being in this.

What’s one favorite memory of a successful design?

A few years ago I returned to St. Therese’s, and Msgr. Brankin introduced me at Mass. A lady came up and said, “I want to thank you because this building speaks silently about our faith.” That to me is what it’s all about.

Staff writer Joseph Pronechen is

based in Trumbull, Connecticut.

MORE INFO: To see Schloeder’s work, visit