Discussion of liturgy usually stalls on the surface. More than perhaps any
other dimension of Catholic life except personal morality, liturgical practice
tends to arouse spontaneous strong reactions from people, even from those who
are not ordinarily very " churchy. "
Consequently it often remains a matter of personal preference. "I don't like
it." "It's not the way I was raised." "It doesn't do anything for me." "Why do
we have to change?" While such responses are not irrelevant, they also invite
the response that mere personal desire should not govern the Church's worship.
But the liturgists have been disingenuous, often failing to state explicitly
the assumptions behind their "reforms." Thus the stripping of old churches is
defended on the grounds merely of greater simplicity, more economical use of
space, or (the final trump card) policy changes which have simply been mandated
by the hierarchy.
But, speaking among themselves, liturgists are quite blunt in admitting how
revolutionary their programs really are, to the point where most Catholics, if
they understood the real agenda, would probably find ample principled reasons to
justify their personal feelings.
The desacralization. of church buildings in the United States was only
intended, and in part is traceable to casual American pragmatism. Beginning with
the Gothic Revival of the 1840's and lasting until World War I, Gothic was the
preferred style of American Catholics, as it was, somewhat anomalously, of many
Protestants as well. Between the world wars Gothic declined, and a variety of
other styles was tried, especially a kind of Italianate Romanesque -red-brick
rectangular buildings with shallow tile roofs and square bell towers. After
World War II there were experiments with self-consciously "modern" church
architecture, much of which today can be seen as relatively traditional (marble
altars against one wall, side altars and shrines, regular rows of pews, etc.).
But as the Catholic people rapidly moved from city to suburb after 1945,
pastors hit on what seemed a brilliant solution to the problem of rapid growth -
they built schools first, celebrating Sunday Mass in the gymnasium, and only
churches. In many parishes where numbers required it, Mass continued in the
gymnasium even long after a church had been built. Most significantly, the newer
churches were planned mainly with an eye to economy. They were undistinguished,
indeed quite uninspired, in order to make their construction affordable. (Even a
small, plain Gothic church has a sense of the holy about it which most suburban
"supermarket churches" do not.) Largely unexamined was the ominous fact that
Catholics of the post-war period were apparently not willing to sacrifice for
their churches nearly as much as their ancestors who built the great urban
Often unconsciously, Catholics began to lose the sense of a sacred place even
before the deliberate liturgical reforms of the post-Conciliar period. Social
conditions played a role in another way as well, as churches were more and more
kept locked outside the times of Mass, because of crime.
The fundamental question about church architecture, which is seldom candidly
addressed by liturgists, is whether there is such a thing as sacred space and,
if there is, what its nature might be.
When specialists in church remodeling enter a venerable structure, remove the
side altars, most of the statues, and the communion rail, replace the high altar
with a communion table, and relocate the tabernacle to some place where it is
hardly noticeable, they are consciously exorcising the parishioners' sense of
sacred space. Their intention is that in time Catholics should lose that sense,
as the palpable vandalism (as many people see it) done to their buildings itself
serves to demystify the structures.
When speaking candidly, liturgists now admit that in an ideal situation there
would be no church building at all, merely a meeting space suitable for a
variety of uses, of which formal worship is only one. They content themselves
with systematically stripping existing churches only because it is not feasible
to destroy them completely.
The document Environment and Art in Catholic Worship (EAICW), which has
ambiguous status as an official statement of the Bishops' Conference but which
is nonetheless used to intimidate those who object to such changes, does speak
of the church building as a sacred space, but explains that "Such a space
acquires a sacredness from the sacral act of the faith community which uses it."
Here the issue enters theological deep waters.
Traditional Catholic teaching holds that the church becomes a sacred place
because it is blessed or consecrated for that purpose, and God himself hallows
the space in response to his people's prayers. Thus it is sacred space even
before the faith community begins to use it. Since it is sacred space, it should
not be used for profane purposes, and the fact that for most of the week there
is no visible activity in it can in no way be seen as a waste of resources.
While believers can pray anywhere, the sacred place is the most appropriate
place to do so, especially in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament.
The liturgists' view of sacred space parallels their view of sacred actions
and is implicitly a denial of traditional Catholic sacramental realism. The
child is baptized by a divine action, not merely as a welcoming gesture of the
community. Divine power is conferred on the priest in ordination, not merely the
election of the community. The reserved Sacrament is given all honor because it
truly is Christ's Body and Blood. The church building remains sacred even if it
is used to stable horses. (Hence traditionally there. were ceremonies for the
reblessing of a church which had been defiled and for the deconsecration of
Liturgical reformers cannot address these issues candidly because to do so
would be to admit that they view sacredness not as something which comes down
from on high but solely as something which bubbles up from human communities. It
has no objective reality but is a reflection of the deepest yearnings of those
EAICW pronounces that "The liturgical space ... does not seek to impress, or
even less, to dominate ..." But why not? The real answer is that
self-consciously modern people prefer not to acknowledge the omnipotent God who
rules the universe but instead understand him as merely the deepest dimension of
themselves. Thus in a real sense the sacred is supposed to be, as the pioneer
anthropologist Emile Durkheirn thought, the community worshipping itself.
John Buscemi, a specialist in church renovation, thinks grand churches are no
longer appropriate because the Church no longer is, nor does it seek to be, the
dominant force in the culture. But that is to misunderstand the historical
point. The great cathedrals did not symbolize the fact of domination by the
Church over culture but the ideal that the entire world be ruled by divine law.
In a sense the cathedral could be seen as a counter-foil to the castle or, in
Renaissance times, the town hall - the claims of God over merely human claims.
Buscemi's formula reflects the timidity of contemporary liberal Christians who
think they have nothing of importance to tell the secular culture and that their
proper role in society is to endorse the agenda of enlightened non-believers. It
replaces triumphalism with defeatism. (The argument that grand ecclesiastical
buildings no longer move people is untrue. St. Patrick's Cathedral does not
cease to impress because it is now somewhat dwarfed by Rockefeller Center.)
The history of church architecture shows that there is no single style which
speaks exhaustively of the divine, and different ages have created new sacred
styles. But the Modernist style has yet to create its masterpiece. It is
doubtful if a consciously secular age can create a great religious work, but the
theological presuppositions of many of those engaged in the effort seem to
subvert that possibility at its very root.
James Hitchcock, a regular columnist for Catholic Dossier, is
professor of history at St. Louis University. He is also the author of numerous
books, including Recovery of the Sacred (Ignatius Press).