A response to Dr. Peter Kwasniewski’s comments on Christ Cathedral

Editor’s note: Dr. Peter Kwasniewski recently published a post very critical of the renovation of Christ Cathedral in Orange, California, “The Dark Symbolism of California’s Christ Cathedral.” Msgr. Arthur A. Holquin, who was instrumental in the renovation project, has published the response below at his blog. It is reprinted at Pray Tell with his permission. It is to be noted that strong opinions are expressed in both pieces; Pray Tell asks all readers and commenters to contribute to the discussion in a constructive manner.

On July 17th, the Diocese of Orange solemnly Dedicated its new Christ Cathedral in Garden Grove, California. This was the culmination of a nearly five year, utterly unique project of renovating and repurposing the former Protestant ‘Crystal Cathedral’ to serve as the liturgical Mother Church for the Diocese. 

Undoubtedly, such a monumental and challenging project in this day and age, would inevitably prompt reactions from the architectural and liturgical critics that abound. Since its completion, the Diocese and its leadership, have been gratified by the generous and positive responses of those who have had the opportunity of experiencing as well as worshiping within this transformed ‘Catholic’ environment. 

The designers, architects and liturgical consultants, however, were not as naive as to think that in this day and age of liturgical tensions fueled by strong ideological feelings and convictions regarding 21st century architecture for worship versus those who are committed to ‘reforming the reform,’ that our project would not prompt vigorous and spirited debate and discussion. We have read with interest these comments and critics who have brought their professional backgrounds as architects, artists and liturgist to bear on their assessments of both the positive as well as perceived negative aspects of this renovation project.   

While one would hope that within the household of believers, charity and civility would characterize the vigorous conversations our project has occasioned, sadly, the toxic nature of so much of the polemic these days has witnessed some isolated criticisms that are beyond the pale of civility and have made pointed personal attacks, questioning the orthodoxy of the Bishop as well as all those associated with this renovation project.   

Specifically, in this regard, the recent comments on Christ Cathedral by Dr. Peter Kwasniewski, appearing in One Peter 5, present such a seriously flawed and personal attack, prompting this response, to assist in setting the record straight. As a frequent contributor to The New Liturgical Movement, a cursory review of Dr. Kwasniewski’s musings and essays reflect that there is no ambiguity as to where he stands regarding the post-conciliar Church, its theology, the reformed liturgy and the contemporary liturgical art that has characterized much of the last and present century. He doesn’t like it! Fair enough. As is often said, ‘the Church is a big tent!’ In the world of sacred art, one could be enamored with the striking beauty of Chartres Cathedral and less attracted aesthetically by the Chagall Chapel of Saint-Paul de Vence. Personal taste and sensibility understandably vary.  

It is one thing, however, to voice one’s own artistic preferences – likes and dislikes, verses, arrogantly raising them to be the final arbiter of what is or what is not beautiful, worthy, fitting, and congruent with the glory of God in sacred worship. Sadly, the author has crossed that line. 

However, I take great objection and umbrage at the central accusation that he has made regarding the entire Christ Cathedral project, as evidenced in the following statements: 

What is clear is that a choice was made to avoid normative Christian symbolism and to make use of signs associated with other religious traditions — elements that narrate a tale as shocking and scandalous as any report covering the abuse crisis. 

But even if a cloaked message were not the objective of the artwork, the entire edifice remains a scandal, if for no other reason than the low quality of the work commissioned, the ugly manner in which holy persons are depicted, and the near comical awkwardness with which the mysteries of the Catholic Faith are proposed. It places a modernist caricature of the Faith before the eyes of those unfortunate enough to enter within it. 

The author would have the reader believe that there was a sinister cabal at work among the Bishop, architects and liturgical consultants, to purposely deconstruct the true essence of the Catholic liturgical tradition in shaping this neo-architectural whore of Babylon as part of a modernist plot to subvert orthodoxy!   

The author’s overactive imagination, fueled by perhaps one too many bad Dan Brown novels, is truly an embarrassment to anyone who purports to be a serious and conscientious student of the Church’s rich liturgical, artistic and architectural patrimony. 

As a member of the liturgical team charged with working with the architects and designers for the renovation project since its inception, permit me to put the record straight, if there be a scintilla of ambiguity or doubt: “No, Dr. Kwasniewski, the careful planning, design and execution for the repurposing of the former “Crystal Cathedral” into Christ Cathedral, had no ulterior motive other than to reflect not only the liturgical norms and directives for the shaping of a cathedral church in this post-conciliar period, but also, to draw upon the artistic genius of the artists of this age to capture visually something of the ineffable beauty and mystery of the Holy Ones whose lives have been transformed by the Mystery of Christ. There is no ‘counter-catechism’ here, but rather a ‘house for all God’s holy Church,’ drawing God’s people ever more deeply into the Eucharistic mystery that continues to shape our identity as a people of faith down through the ages. Perhaps the simple fact that our new Cathedral now draws some 14,000 to 15,000 faithful a week for weekend worship is a testimony to its power to inspire and edify by its beauty. 

The Rev. Dr. Robert Schuller, to whom the Diocese of Orange is indebted for providentially bringing to full circle his campus as now the seat of our local Church, was a member of the Reformed Church.  One of their esteemed theologians of the 20th century, Reinhold Niebuhr, once said that, “Frantic orthodoxy is never rooted in faith but in doubt. It is when we are not sure that we are doubly sure.” Perhaps, Dr. Kwasniewski could pause a bit from hurling anathemas in the name of orthodoxy and rediscover the virtue of Christian humility. 

Monsignor Arthur A. Holquin has a BA and MDiv from St. John’s Seminary in Camarillo, with an STL in sacramental theology as well as a Master’s in religious studies from the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven. He was ordained from the diocese of Los Angeles in 1974, and became a priest of the diocese of Orange at its founding in 1976. He has served as diocesan liturgy director, evangelization director, and rector of the cathedral. He has taught at the seminary in Camarillo and Loyola-Marymount University. He served as primary liturgy consultant for the Christ Cathedral renovation project. In 2010 he was diagnosed with a rare motor neuron disease which has gradually impacted his mobility and speech.

31 comments

  1. I would note that, for me, the most problematic aspect of Peter Kwasniewski’s post is the way in which it mixes artistic/aesthetic judgments with which one might agree or disagree (and some I agreed with, others I did not) with speculations about motives of people about which he could not possibly know anything. I get that the appeal to “iconology” is meant to make those speculations seem objective, but it seems to me that this is just window dressing on calumny and, as Msgr. Holquin points out, reminiscent of Dan Brown’s character, the Harvard “symbologist” John Langdon. Though I often disagree with Dr. Kwasniewski, his writing usually seems worth engaging intellectually. In this case, though, not so much.

    1. Fritz — I don’t find any reference to Robert Langdon in Msgr.’s reply, just to “a bad Dan Brown novel.” I personally do not find much of Peter’s writing worth engaging intellectually.

  2. Fritz – very diplomatic. Not sure I would give Kwasniewski’s comments this type of platform. To be direct – any in depth documented research on his writings can only lead to a conclusion that he is a sedevacantist; rejects VII; and, as Francis says, publishes rigid, ideological tracts best described as self-absorbed Promethean Neo-Pelagianism. His rigidity reflects his need to “play” being judge of orthodoxy wrapping himself in the mantle of self-reverence.

    As Francis states repeatedly – witnesses grow the faith; not self-appointed judges – “Old Jesuits fight Jansenists, those crypto-Calvinists who insisted on a rigorous moral life as evidence of divine election.”

  3. Readers of this page know Peter’s prejudices and biases, so what he wrote should be no surprise. May I suggest that in the future, we simply do not feed the troll. As of last year, I haven’t replied to one of his posts here, as tempted as I am at times. The more he is responded to, the more important he feels he is and that his positions have some merit. And besides — nothing anyone writes is going to convince him otherwise. Leave him and those of his ilk to their meanness and smallness of mind and heart.

  4. “Pray Tell asks all readers and commenters to contribute to the discussion in a constructive manner.”

    I think it’s important to avoid destructive commentary such as Dr K’s. Too much attention given to it. It’s a shame on two levels, because the man has an ear for good music. Too bad the politics make it an exercise in self-destruction

  5. But, Msgr. Holquin has not answered Dr. Kwasniewski’s presentation in any substantive way; he has only ridiculed the author and his analysis, while offering nothing more than a flat denial of the clear implications. Holquin’s penultimate paragraph rings with all the credibility of the tailors’ claims that the emperor’s new clothes were just the thing. The fact of the matter is, there is a much longer and reputable history of concrete exposure of cabals seeking to deconstruct Catholic traditions, than there is of any modern liturgical art coming anywhere close to inspiring the mind’s assent to the fullness of the Truth.
    If Kwasniewski spoke wrongly, then Holquin must bear witness to the wrong; as it is, he is only striking out at him.

    1. Conspiracy theories don’t need proof. The accusation is enough. “You, sir, are a Secret Freemason!”
      “I am not.”
      “That’s exactly what a Secret Freemason would say!”

  6. I agree with Fritz: ” I often disagree with Dr. Kwasniewski, his writing usually seems worth engaging intellectually”. Not so worthwhile here, but a historical comparison might shed light on the matter at hand.

    The church of Notre-Dame de Toute Grâce du Plateau d’Assy (Our Lady Full of Grace of the Plateau d’Assy) was built on the plateau d’Assy in French Savoy between 1937 and 1946 for patients and staff in the numerous sanatoria for tuberculosis in the area. Marie-Alain Couturier op (a hate figure for Evelyn Waugh: he always referred to him as “Fr. Dressmaker”, which is what his name can mean, although Tailor/Taylor would be a more obvious and less sarcastic choice) acted as artistic director, and garnered works from Pierre Bonnard, Fernand Léger, Jean Lurçat, his student Paul Cosandier, Germaine Richier, Georges Rouault, Jean Bazaine, Henri Matisse, Georges Braque, Jacques Lipchitz, Marc Chagall, Constant Demaison, Ladislas Kijno, Claude Mary, Carlo Sergio Signori, and Théodore Strawinsky. They were by no means all believing or practicing Christians, but were all renowned artists.

    The result was highly controversial, and some of the condemnations make Kwasniewski’s piece seem a model of restraint. A tract that was circulated shortly after the church’s completion gives an idea of what went on, and includes a quotation from Cardinal Costantini, who had attacked the project in the “Osservatore Romano” (and whose cause for canonisation has been introduced) calling the sort of art characteristic of this church “visual blasphemy”. The tract can be seen on this page (along with photographs of the inside and outside of the church), about half-way down, over the legend “Tract d’Angers”: http://peintresdeco.canalblog.com/archives/2012/11/25/25661836.html

    But another (future) cardinal, Charles Journet, whose cause for canonisation has also been introduced, took a different view. Like his friend and fellow Thomist, Jacques Maritain, he praised what had been done on the Plateau d’Assy, along the lines of what Maritain wrote in “Art et scolastique” (1920): “Il serait vain de chercher une technique ou un style ou un système de règles ou un mode d’opérer qui seraient ceux de l’art chrétien. L’art qui germe et qui grandit dans une humanité chrétienne peut en admettre une infinité.” Journet’s article “L’église du plateau d’Assy”, appeared in “Nova et Vetera” 26 (1951/2), p. 122-125, and can be found here: https://books.google.fr/books?id=c6arDgAAQBAJ&pg=PT559&lpg=PT559&dq=Charles+Journet,+%E2%80%9CL%E2%80%99%C3%A9glise+du+plateau+d%E2%80%99Assy%E2%80%9D&source=bl&ots=Yl1a_BgKZ9&sig=ACfU3U0M7Ql9-JS54RQM4-CyOnBGyqF1tg&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwjI3um366zkAhUyxoUKHWeYDHYQ6AEwAnoECAUQAQ#v=onepage&q=Charles%20Journet%2C%20%E2%80%9CL%E2%80%99%C3%A9glise%20du%20plateau%20d%E2%80%99Assy%E2%80%9D&f=false
    Dr. Kwasniewski could read it with profit.

    1. Thank you for the link to Journet’s article. [When you reach page 2, Google tells you you can’t see any more. However, it you scroll down to the last page all the missing pages become visible.] His thesis, that true artists lend us their creativity and enhance not only our faith but also their own, is right on the money. The take-home phrase comes right at the end: “Everything which is authentic begins to be Catholic.”

  7. Monsignor Holquin does not engage substantively with any of Peter’s critiques.

    Now of course one could argue that Peter’s critiques are not worthy of substantive response…but then silence is the appropriate course of action, not an ad hominem attack on someone. Such an attack (besides being an exercise of bad manners) might well raise the reasonable conclusion that Peter’s piece struck a nerve.

    Calling Peter a “sedevacantist” who “rejects Vatican II” and who is one of those “ilk who are mean in mind and spirit” only furthers the ad hominem nature of Monsignor’s piece, to no productive end.

    1. Monsignor Holquin does say, as one who was involved in the design, that what Dr. Kasniewski says is false: there was no attempt to incorporate Masonic/pagan/New Age/ etc. imagery into the Cathedral’s design. I don’t know what more direct refutation one could make of that particular set of charges. Now you might say that Msgr. Holquin is lying, that of course that’s exactly what the hatcher of a Masonic plot would say. But at that point refutation becomes impossible.

      1. +1 Fritz.

        Peter Kwasniewski does reject Vatican II on liturgy – consistently and rigorously. The evidence from the past few years, which is well-documented in his online and published materials, is persuasive to me, and I will not argue the point further here.

      2. PK not only rejects Vatican II on liturgy, he’s been going further back in time to his Goldilocks reference point. For now, it seems to be the 1920 Roman Missal but, having observed over the last 2 decades or so similar journeys of others who’ve drifted into those eddies, I won’t be shocked if the sacramental and liturgical revolutions of Pope St Pius X come in for deeper skepticism (it starts out as reconsideration, of course) at some point in the future (so far, PK has nibbled at them indirectly). I imagine he’s professionally freer to drift this way now since he stopped being a faculty member at a Catholic college but now has looser institutional affiliations.

  8. Does anyone know if PK was asked to leave his teaching post? It just seemed to happen. Considering the direction he has been taking I wouldn’t be surprised. I always find it interesting that on those rare instances he does post here and those of you who are more knowledgable than myself respond to he will never follow up. He seems to really back off when Fr. Anthony comments.

    1. “Follow up” can be difficult on a blog that allows such frankly outrageous accusations as calling Peter a “sedevacantist,” “mean in small and heart”…but which shuts down any serious discussion of certain aspects of the interpretation of Vatican II’s statements on the liturgy with an ipse dixit air that borders on the self-parodical.

    2. I wouldn’t encourage speculation on that score, but prefer to stick to the open record, which keeps growing as the mimeograph turns, though a considerable portion of that is self-quotation in some form.

  9. Lee, I would agree PK is not a sedevacantist. I have no problem with people disagreeing if it is respectful with charity and civility. PK doesn’t hesitate to continually be negative about VII and the OF. If it were his choice the entire council would be dismissed. Interesting for someone who is orthodox. Invalidate a council of the church??? The things he and others say about Pope Francis are quite vile and disrespectful. Orthodox good Catholics? Critiqueing the new cathedral is fine. We all have out preferences and to say where he thinks there are issues is fine. I was surprised actually how well it turned out. However, I do have issues with certain things. To say that it was an attempt attempt to incorporate Masonic/pagan/New Age/ etc. symbols is ridiculous. Again, I don’t care for some of the liturgical art but to make such nasty comments.

    I have a friend in his mid 30’s who is a convert, about 15 years ago. He like likes the EF but has no problem attending the OF either in latin or english. We were discussing the things extreme right catholics such as PK are saying. He told me that more and more traditional Catholics are distancing themselves from their rhetoric as they feel they are going to far and ruining things for the average traditionalist who just wants to celebrate mass and engage in devotions using the old ways. If they are so unhappy there are alternatives rather than cause more internal disorder than we already have.

    1. Agree- with all your points Jim Michaels. Unfortunately it’s part of a broader trend in partisanship (including a fair share on this blog) not only in the Catholic church (or any church) but in societies as a whole and appears to be global. Not to be apocalyptic, but the picture is not good.

  10. Simply saying that the allegations made Dr K are untrue is not a convincing argument. I do not suppose they are true, but can we have some more pictures showing evidence of Christian symbology. There is a large ΑΧΡΩ in the baptismal pool, which not many people will stop to contemplate. What else? I expect a Catholic church to be scattered with Christian monograms – ΧΡ, IHS, ΑΩ, and symbols – crosses, fish, pelicans, lambs …, where are they? It used to a requirement that stations of the cross be each surmounted by a cross, these seem not to be, why? It used to be a requirement that the consecration spots where the church was chrismated were marked by visible cross symbols, where are they? If these things are present, that would constitute a refutation, and I would like to see it.

    1. Not only are the allegations untrue, I disapprove of this site giving them a hearing, even via a response printed elsewhere. This is all part of a psychological racket perpetrated by people who have bought into the Culture of Complaint wholesale. As for this thread, if you’re a parishioner or have visited this church as a pilgrim, you have something to say. And that’s about it.

  11. I read this article when it was first put out by onepeterfive and found it bizarre. I was surprised it was by Dr Kwasniewski, whose writing I often enjoy even when I disagree with him. I did think some of his aesthetic criticisms were valid, such as the cartoonishness and joylessness of the doors and other sculptures (the very characteristics of post Vatican II art that explain why so many still love saccharine 19th Century plaster statues). He should have stuck with that rather than assume evil motives. It was also nice seeing pictures of the Cathedral that were not professional “glamour shots,” which did much more to make me feel critical of the building’s design than any of Dr K’s arguements did.

    1. In my opinion, that should have been your first article rather than the uncharitable and “loose cannon” one suggesting certain symbols may have been promoting Masonry or worse (I had seen other explanations elsewhere – at the same time, I am also disappointed Msgr. Holquin didn’t at least address one of them as an example of how the symbol was not Masonic and how it had a Christian meaning or was re-purposed in such fashion). Of course it was disappointing that this otherwise closely moderated website permitted a comment calling you a Sedevacantist when that can be seen to be false simply by reviewing a sample of even your more recent writings. As someone who has also admired some of your writing, I do think your own trend is starting to veer into dangerous waters.. Just my two cents.

  12. Those of us who are relatively younger would just like to point out:

    1) truly incomprehensible buildings and renovations have been made and forced on us since we were children at great expense. These forms of architecture are so clearly different from the Church’s tradition that even as children we knew something was up.

    2) Dr K has provided a generation of Catholics who grew up with ugly buildings, ugly liturgies, ugly liturgical wars, and two sex abuse scandals with at least a reference point to make sense of the disorder that is so clearly present in the Church. We thank him.

    1. I would agree that plenty has gone wrong, or has been less than ideal, since Vatican II. When I feel judgmental toward my elders, which I certainly have done too much of in my monastic journey, I remember that the task put to us by Vatican II was so monumental that it is bound to take generations for us to get it right. Then I try to think about the many success stories, alongside the difficulties which are just good opportunities for us all to learn good lessons.

      Because the Vatican II liturgical reform, including all its liturgical principles and teachings in SC and the whole mountain of postconciliar liturgy documents, is the magisterium’s teachings and is irreversible – which means it can be developed further but the whole thing won’t be undone or revoked – I think the task in coming years and decades is to find the right kind of beauty, classical or modern or whatever, that serves the theological principles of the Church’s Vatican II understanding of liturgy. There is much to do and we need all hands on deck!

      Pax,
      awr

      1. Because the Vatican II liturgical reform, including all its liturgical principles and teachings in SC and the whole mountain of postconciliar liturgy documents, is the magisterium’s teachings and is irreversible – which means it can be developed further but the whole thing won’t be undone or revoked

        That isn’t actually true BTW – And if it were the reforms of Vatican II itself would be difficult to justify.

        That type of limited development really only applies to teachings which are infallible in one way or the other – Everything else really can simply be revoked / reversed by the magisterium (more or less politely). Just as Vatican II in some cases removed accretions / developments, and returned to earlier or alternative principles, so indeed could some future Pope or Council.

        Vatican II’s reforms are worth defending, but it does us no good to do so in a way which undermines their own basis.

      2. We’ll have to disagree on this point. I suppose hypothetically V2 could be revoked substantially, but the likelihood of that is so vanishingly small that I don’t find it helpful to put it out as a possibility.

    2. I do not thank him. The list of problems here had their start long before Vatican II, including ugly liturgy (Low Mass), and countless abuse scandals (most of which we never heard about). Dr K’s “reference point” is on the edge of the Catholic experience. I think he would do well to refrain from the personal criticisms of individuals he does not know, and stick to what he does know. With respect to the moderators, I still think this thread is a waste of time and electronic space.

      Fr Ruff is right: Vatican II was a start, not an end. It’s the one thing many reform2 Catholics seem to get wrong consistently. All hands, amen: the job is not done yet.

  13. I had a more elaborate post in mind, but it ultimately boils down to this: I have an emotionally difficult job and the usual struggles and joys of being a father and husband. I don’t have the luxury of devoting all my time to making the Novus Ordo “work” and I don’t have generations to try and pass the faith on to my son. The only call for “all hands on deck” should be to live the Gospel as best we can – to love God and neighbor and serve others. If the liturgical reform can’t help us achieve that, then it is ultimately worthless regardless of how much hope and good intentions went into it. If the old Mass and devotional life – no matter how flawed or corrupted it might have been at the eve of the council – does it better, then it should be allowed to flourish.

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