In Catholic Church Architecture, Tradition Shouldn’t Be Ignored
Some American architects are looking to the past in order to remedy the defects of the modernistic designs of recent decades.
WASHINGTON — When a ranking Vatican official criticized modernistic church architecture in June, James McCrery was glad to hear it. An architect who works just blocks from the White House, McCrery devotes his career to reversing a trend he describes as decades of church design that does little to glorify God or inspire the faithful.
“It’s a big-time problem,” McCrery said of architecture that dismisses centuries of Tradition and most symbolism of the Catholic religion.
He spoke with the Register after Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, head of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Culture, expressed similar concerns.
“The lack of integration between the architect and the faith community has at times been negative,” said Cardinal Ravasi. “Sometimes it goes wrong.”
Cardinal Ravasi’s words were made following the June 1 inauguration of the Vatican’s first art exhibit at the Venice Biennale. The exhibit focuses on the Book of Genesis through photography and paintings by Los Angeles artist Lawrence Carroll.
The Telegraph newspaper reported that Vatican officials hope the show might heal “what they call a century of ‘fracture’ between religion and art.”
“The problem is that, in Catholicism, unlike Protestantism, things like the altar, the images are essential, while architects tend instead to focus on space, lines, light and sound,” Cardinal Ravasi explained.
McCrery said modern architecture short-sells human beauty and Catholic imagery to indulge the imaginations of self-aggrandizing architects. He speaks of late 19th-century and 20th-century churches — particularly those built in Europe — that are nearly devoid of statuary. Some feature nondescript altars, stained-glass nature scenes and rounded pews that focus Catholics on one another instead of the altar and the Eucharist.
“We don’t have a big of a problem as in Europe, especially France and Italy, because our culture has not drifted as far toward modernism, theologically or architecturally,” McCrery said. “But we do suffer substantially from this problem.”
McCrery said pockets in the United States have started a return to traditional architecture over the past decade or two, mostly because of respect for Church Tradition by younger bishops and priests. He points out that other regions, most notably the West Coast, continue to build churches more amenable to styles of worship common among Protestants.
Modernistic architecture isn’t an issue at the brand-new Our Lady of Mount Carmel parish in Littleton, Colo. The church is in the Archdiocese of Denver, where new construction of more traditional churches has become the norm.
Denver Archbishop Samuel Aquila praised the traditional design of Our Lady of Mount Carmel after a March 23 inauguration and blessing of the building. The pews face worshippers toward a 24-foot-tall, 26,000-pound altar, with inlaid mosaic detail. Two marble altars stand parallel to the central altar, and all three are constructed of Carrara marble, the rock used by Michelangelo to carve David and other sculptures in the 16th century.
“It focused me on the Mass as sacrifice,” said Denver attorney Steve Fleischer, who attended the Mount Carmel dedication with his wife and their six children. “I felt that I was at the foot of Calvary with Mary. I just had this sensation that I was going forward to the altars and then up to heaven.”
After the inauguration, Archbishop Aquila told the Register that traditional design adheres to an honest interpretation of the Second Vatican Council’s Sacrosanctum Concilium (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy), which calls for a focus on the Blessed Sacrament and the altar.
“I believe we are seeing a restoration to what the Second Vatican Council calls for,” the archbishop said.
“The trend in Catholic church architecture in the United States is definitely, without question, becoming more traditional,” said Denis McNamara, an architectural historian specializing in American church architecture at the University of St. Mary of the Lake/Mundelein Seminary in the Archdiocese of Chicago.
Like McCrery, McNamara criticizes much of 20th-century church design and redesign as modernistic. Most of it, he contends, does little to inspire Catholics or to remind them about the history and meaning of the Church and its teachings.
He describes the past century and a half as an era in which it became trendy to hire modernist-inclined “star” architects, or in the traditionalist architect’s vernacular, “starchitects.”
“With the exception of a few recent cathedrals on the West Coast, the era of hiring a famous modernist star architect is over,” McNamara said. “The momentum has definitely moved to finding ways to invigorate traditional architecture while incorporating the authentic contributions of the liturgical movement and the Second Vatican Council.”
McNamara points to some of the more notable examples of new traditional Catholic architecture, including the Motherhouse Chapel of the Nashville Dominican Sisters, Our Lady of Walsingham Church in Houston, St. John the Apostle Church in Leesburg, Va., St. Michael the Archangel Church in Leawood, Kan., and St. Paul the Apostle in Westerville, Ohio.
“Just as Scripture provides perception of God for the ear, liturgical art and architecture offer it to the eye,” McNamara explained. “And it is precisely by viewing the church building as an image of heaven that we become accustomed to heavenly things. … The church building is intended to be a sacramental image of heaven and earth united at the end of time when the effects of the Fall are completely eradicated and God and humanity are united perfectly.”
This is the image described in the Book of Revelation, when the new city of Jerusalem comes down and is met by its bride, the Church.
“All properly developed architecture through the ages has used this image as the foundational model for church architecture,” McNamara explained. “And since heaven is radiant, perfected, glorified and populated with angels and saints, so are our church buildings” when properly designed.
Like attorney Fleischer, McNamara and McCrery grew up in suburban environments attending modern churches often referred to as “in the round,” in which pews face inward rather than straight toward the altar. McNamara said a truly “in the round” church comprises a full circle of pews that surround the altar. Far more common, he said, is “gathered seating,” typically also referred to as “in the round,” in which straight or rounded pews form part of a circle and focus much of each worshipper’s attention on other people in the assembly.
McCrery said “in the round” and “gathered seating” came about because of modern misinterpretations about the Mass and Catholic doctrine. The concept is grounded in a mistaken belief that the mystical body of Christ is no more than the people on earth, who, during worship, should focus on one another.
“That is a woefully narrow understanding of the mystical body of Christ,” McCrery explained. “The altar is the focus of the sacrifice of the Mass, and the ambo is the focus of the word. The church becomes the physical and visual manifestation of the body of Christ during the Mass. So the church building ought to do what it can to do the work of assembling the entire mystical body of Christ at the Mass.”
And it should focus the assembly on the mystical body, he said, without the distraction of forcing worshippers to look at one another rather than the altar sacrifice they came to worship. All church art, including the stained glass, should depict God, heaven and the Holy Family. Trees and other symbols of nature, he said, are better viewed live the moment one exits a church.
McCrery said the logic of his philosophy, which advocates a return to traditional church architecture, is simple.
“Tradition didn’t just all of the sudden happen,” he said. “It has been in the works for thousands of years. A chemist would not come to the elements with a fresh look every time, deciding the elemental chart is of no use or interest whatsoever in the modern era and that his personal creativity is something more valuable.”
Added McCrery, “That would be absurd. But it’s exactly where we’ve arrived after a century and a half of architectural lunacy.”
Wayne Laugesen writes from Colorado.