Recently on Crux, Fr. Dwight Longenecker published a piece entitled, “Why a Catholic church should look like a Catholic church.” While there is much that is commendable contained therein, both the title and the piece itself engage in question begging with regard to what it means to “look like a Catholic Church.” I don’t know anyone who would defend the proposition “a Catholic church should not look like a Catholic church” (except maybe a Catholic in a situation where the Church is outlawed). What is at issue is not whether a Catholic church should look like a Catholic church, but rather what this means.
It is at first glance commendable to appeal, as Fr. Longenecker does, to the common sense of ordinary people to settle the question of what it means to look like a Catholic Church. The sum total of things that might go into “looking like a Catholic church” is vast and varied and the ability of people to perceive amidst that vast variety the Gestalt that says “Catholic church” is not to be ignored. As Justice Potter Stewart said regarding pornography, “I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description, and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it.” So when Fr. Longnecker says, “a Catholic church should look like a Catholic church” what he is really saying must be something like “a Catholic church should look like what your average Catholic thinks a Catholic church should look like.” This of course raises the issue of who counts as an “average Catholic” (apart from the third-grader mentioned in the opening paragraph), but at least the statement is not question-begging.
Yet there might be other ways of addressing the question of what it means to “look like a Catholic Church.” One way would be to follow the architectural principle that “form follows function.” This does not mean, as some modernist ideologues and those opposed to them seemed to think, that a building should be nakedly functionalist, stripped of anything that is not functional in the most pedestrian sense. But it does mean that the form a building takes should facilitate its purpose.
Now part of the purpose of a Catholic church is to foster a certain devotional affectivity by providing space for personal prayer that can feed on the rich Catholic tradition of using space and image to convey a sense of the interplay of divine transcendence and immanence. This is why a Catholic church cannot be functionalist in the sense of being stripped of all ornamentation; one of the functions of a Catholic church is to let its beauty speak of God to all who pass through its doors.
But fostering devotional affectivity, while important, is not the main function of a Catholic church. Providing a place for the celebration of the liturgy—whether the Eucharistic liturgy, the Liturgy of the Hours, or the other Rites of the Church—is its main function. So “looking like a Catholic Church” should mean, primarily but not exclusively, “looking like a place in which the Church’s liturgy can be well celebrated.”
Fr. Longenecker alludes to this when he writes:
although our new church is built in a Romanesque style, it is not simply a throwback to a pre-Vatican II age. The seating is planned around a central altar with good acoustics and sight lines to aid full participation of the laity in worship.
This is all to the good. However, though I do not know if the images and plans I have found for the church online represent its intended final form, I do wonder if in some cases a disjunction between what the average person means by “looking like a Catholic church” and what the liturgy requires has not led to some unfortunate choices. For example, the sketches of the baptismal area seems to show a font that looks like what the average Catholic who grew up in a church built before 1970 would expect, but which seems incapable of accommodating the practice of full immersion, which seems to be the preferred form in the baptismal rite (an example of the ressourcement to which Fr. Longenecker appeals) and should at the very least be possible for those who desire it.
Likewise, the plans seem to show both an ambo and a pulpit, but no obvious place for the presider’s chair:
As far as I can tell, the liturgy does not call for a separate pulpit for preaching, and given the way that the homily is integrated into the liturgy of the word one might well argue that the word should be preached from the same place it has been proclaimed. Likewise, the liturgy seems to presume that the chair from which the celebrant presides over the liturgy of the word should be integral to the design of the building, not tucked away somewhere as an afterthought. Also, the plans seem to show little thought being given to such things as providing a place for rites such as scrutinies of celebrations of the Hours, with only a small area in front of the altar where these might take place (one weakness of the “average Catholic” understanding of “looking like a Catholic church” is that it is focused almost entirely on the celebration of Mass and pays little attention of other liturgies).
Which is all to say that while the new church for Fr. Longenecker’s parish “looks like a Catholic church” in the sense of what your average Catholic expects a church to look like (and this is a genuine and important sense), it is not clear to me that it entirely succeeds in looking like a Catholic church in another (and I would argue more important) sense: that of having a form adapted to the demands of the liturgy. I personally don’t think these two senses of looking like a Catholic Church need to be at odds with each other. But, from a distance at least, it seems that Fr. Longenecker’s new church has opted for the first sense of “looking Catholic” over the second.