Liturgical architecture and art, not unlike the liturgy which they serve, have evolved substantially over time and have developed varying expressions relative to liturgical needs and cultural affinities. Taking periodic stock of these developments is a commendable and much needed exercise, since not all art and architecture will stand the test of time.
In his beautiful and thought provoking book Catholic Church Architecture and the Spirit of the Liturgy, Dennis McNamara does just that as he evaluates what has happened in the arena of liturgy and church architecture since the Second Vatican Council.
The unmistakable thread running through Dr. McNamara’s book is that there is one true faith, one true liturgy, and one truly sacred style of architecture: the classical tradition. The importance of architecture in this triad is emphasized by the extension of the old adage: lex orandi – lex credendi to also include lex aedificandi (pp. 11-17). McNamara, however, places lex orandi between brackets and argues for a stronger connection between lex credendi and lex aedificandi. He suggests that the law of our faith should dictate the way we build (p. 9). Indeed, sacred architecture expresses and impresses a certain theology, whether intended or not. However, the primary function of a church is to serve the liturgy that is celebrated in and around it. As such, the building always provides a theological statement, even if that is not its initial intent. Thus, lex orandi – lex credendi – lex aedificandi are necessarily bound together and go hand in hand.
The greater part of the book consists of a detailed and carefully crafted argument for the classical tradition as the best suited lex aedificandi for the Catholic lex orandi – lex credendi. Having argued this point, McNamara goes on to paint a very bleak picture of what has happened to the liturgy and church architecture after the Second Vatican Council before offering a clear alternative: the classical tradition. In addition to decrying the use of non-Catholic architects, modernist architectural and artistic principles, and unworthy materials, he raises two notable concerns. The first is that the post-Vatican II theology of liturgy is too horizontal, overly emphasizing the role of the assembly to the detriment of the role of the priest-celebrant. The second is that churches built after Vatican II were intended to look like every other building in the neighborhood and feel like home rather than stand out as places of worship and call people to contemplation and adoration (pp. 195-209). He ascribes the latter to a betrayal of “the intentions of Vatican II through antiquarianism that overly glamorizes the house church” (p.204).
In response I would like to comment on three of McNamara’s supporting arguments for his overall thesis. First, he argues that church architecture must be revelatory of the Heavenly Jerusalem which is most successfully accomplished by the classical tradition. Second, he argues that church architecture has to reflect the divine attributes of truth, beauty and charity. He again claims that this is best achieved in the classical tradition. Third, he argues that Catholic liturgy and architecture should be subject to the principle of ‘historical continuity’ which culminates in and continues to draw from the classical tradition.
Church architecture and its relationship to the Heavenly Jerusalem (pp. 71-81 and throughout the book).
Dr. McNamara eloquently connects the liturgy and the Heavenly Jerusalem as he likens the liturgy to an “anticipated experience of that heavenly Jerusalem, the fulfillment of God’s promises to Israel, a blessed vision of peace where sin and death no longer cause anger, pain, strife and discord” (p. 213). He further suggests that in the church building we can “see an image of that heavenly reality available to us,” and when entering the building “we enter into its glorious presence to be renewed by God.” (p.213)
One cannot but agree that in order to have such an anticipated experience of heaven the liturgy and the building need to reflect an “aesthetic of heaven” (p.192). However, here is where I depart from McNamara. McNamara’s aesthetic of heaven is most fully and even exclusively embodied by the classical architectural tradition and the presence of certain materials as “gold, silver, limestone, marble, silk, gems, linen, wood, paper, leather, ink and glass” (p.193). How can the experience of the Heavenly Jerusalem be limited to one architectural tradition and one grouping of materials? Is it truly impossible for other traditions and materials to reflect the essence of Heaven, which the Catechism of the Catholic Church describes as “perfect communion with the Holy Trinity” and “supreme happiness” (CCC1027)? ”What this will look like,” the Catechism goes on to say, “we cannot imagine except through biblical hints such as ‘life, light, peace, wedding feast, wine of the kingdom’” (CCC1027). Those who worship in adobe churches in New Mexico, or in churches inspired by African architectural principles and materials in Burundi, or in a Matisse Chapel in France may very well experience a desire for the Heavenly Jerusalem just as those people do who worship in the most perfect example of classical architecture.
The church building is to reflect the divine attributes of truth, beauty and charity (pp. 19-29 and throughout the book).
The divine attribute of truth is revealed both through Holy Scripture and Tradition. First, turning to Scripture we find the Temple of Jerusalem described in great length. Although the first Christians continued to pray in the Temple, the liturgy most characteristic of Christianity did not take place there. About the place for Baptism and Eucharist, arguably the two most architecturally demanding forms of Catholic worship, we find just this: “Look there is water, what is to keep you from baptizing me?” (Act 8:26-40) and “He will show you a large upper room furnished and ready.” (Mk 14: 15 and Lk 22: 12).
In contrast to the limited information provided in the Scriptures, our Catholic architectural tradition is extremely rich and shows great variety ranging from house churches to Basilicas, Romanesque and Carolingian churches, Gothic marvels, Renaissance “temples,” Baroque wonders, Rococo delights, revivalist and neo-buildings, diverse 20th and 21st century churches and many other architectural styles indigenous to non-European countries that have served the liturgy well. Indeed, the church throughout the ages has benefitted from very diverse architectural techniques and traditions which have served the liturgy well and which have been true to Catholic theology.
As for the divine attribute of charity, suffice it to quote the Most Reverend Michael Francis Medley, Bishop of Owensboro, who spoke of the architectural grandeur of the cathedral church and its relationship to charity during his ordination Mass on February 10, 2010. “Our church, indeed, has a triumphant face. But such triumph is but drama and theater if we do not embody, day in and day out, year in and year out, our witness to the poor and vulnerable in our midst: to the vulnerable unborn, to children and youth who turn to us for formation, to the hungry, to the homeless — the abused, the immigrant, the stranger and the powerless. So long as our witness to them is powerful and prophetic, our triumphant song and liturgy is pleasing to God.”
The relationship between architecture and charity is clearly not a stylistic issue. Rather, it is based on such characteristics as accessibility and hospitality which both the building and the community ought to posses in order to be truly Catholic and to serve the liturgy well.
The attribute of beauty is the most difficult to define. Still, what is certain is that it cannot be held hostage by one (albeit important) architectural tradition. McNamara proposes Thomas Aquinas’ three criteria for beauty as necessary characteristics for good architecture: integritas or the way in which the art reflects the integrity of the message and embodies integrity itself; claritas or the way in which the art reveals the message rather than obscures it and uses clarity in its shapes, forms and colors; consonantia or the way in which each element of the building and the art works together, as well as the way in which the message and the architecture resonate. To these three criteria one might consider adding: fortitudo or the way in which the art gives expression to the weight of its own message; humilitas or the way in which the art realizes it’s role as messenger rather than becoming the message itself; hospitalitas or the way in which the art is accessible and hospitable to the viewer and user. The latter three are great companions to the former and safeguard sacred architecture from becoming too self-indulgent, loosing its connection with the liturgy it ought to serve.
Historical continuity (pp. 195-209).
The concept of historical continuity has readily been adopted by those promoting a “reform of the reform” as well as by those searching for a more clearly defined liturgical and Catholic identity. They accept that the Second Vatican Council is simply the next step in the history of the church and as such is to be accepted. However, they also hold that the interpretation and implementation of Vatican II by many bishops, theologians and liturgists wrongly created a break in the historical trajectory of the Catholic Church. This misinterpretation, they argue, has resulted in an architectural and liturgical wasteland.
Key to this argument is the interpretation of Vatican II. Evaluating the past 50 years and trying to use honest tools to do so is not an easy task. Anscar Chupungco offered the following insights in an address on January 21, 2010 at the University of New Castle in Australia. He said that those critiquing the liturgical implementation of Vatican II “should know how to critique liturgical developments in the light of Vatican II’s liturgical principles, like the central position of the paschal mystery, the place of God’s Word, active participation with all this implies (use of the vernacular, congregational singing, lay ministry), and the ecclesial dimension of the sacraments and sacramentals. These constitute the guiding principles to decide whether things are liturgically acceptable or not.”
Indeed, an evaluation of post- Vatican II liturgy and sacred architecture from the perspective of historical continuity is, using Dr. McNamara’s words, not best served by a betrayal of “the intentions of Vatican II through antiquarianism that overly glamorizes” pre-Vatican II conditions. Rather, the impact of Vatican II should be interpreted based on principles divined by the Council Fathers themselves.
In summary, McNamara is right to argue for the kind of architecture that reveals a glimpse of the Heavenly Jerusalem. He is also right to propose that the kind of architecture and liturgy that does this best is informed by historical continuity, embraces the divine attributes of truth, beauty and charity, and is characterized by integritas, claritas and consonantia. It is surprising, though, that he touts one architectural tradition as the one true expression of these principles.
For some 2000 years the Catholic Church has embraced a multiplicity of liturgical styles and architectural forms in order to respond to the needs of the time and the rich diversity within the church. The most inspired and inspiring times in those 2000 years have been when the church took to heart that to serve the whole world in each successive age it can be neither regressive nor insular – either in its liturgy or its architecture.
It is completely understandable that an individual or a group of Catholics might prefer to worship in churches that adhere to the classical tradition. However, it is not acceptable to propose this preference as a mandate for the entire Catholic Church. Neither history, nor tradition, nor Church teachings impose one architectural style. On the contrary, the Church has invited and continues to invite artist and architects of every age and of every place to “promote new works of art that are in harmony with the character of each successive age” as long as this art “nourishes faith and devotion and accords authentically with both the meaning and the purpose for which it was intended.” (GIRM 289)
Those who continue to search for authentic forms of contemporary architecture to house 21st century Catholic liturgy and express 21st century Catholic theology should take these latter admonitions to heart. They should also learn from our rich Catholic tradition, read the signs of each specific time and place, and continue on their journey, never forgetting the essential connection between: lex orandi – lex credendi – lex aedificandi. This is because truly Catholic lex aedificandi evolves with the Catholic lex orandi – lex credendi of each time and place.
Dennis R. McNamara, Catholic Church Architecture and the Spirit of the Liturgy (Chicago: Liturgy Training Publications, 2009), Foreword by Scott Hahn, 256 pages.