Excerpted from the May 2000 issue of Crisis magazine.

For centuries, Christians built chapels and churches without any universal legislation from Rome. With almost no written direction to the pastors and architects, Christians built beautiful, durable churches that accommodated the liturgy wonderfully and that we are the grateful beneficiaries of. Why then do we need a document on art and architecture today?

Holy Rosary Church in Indianapolis, Ind.: Traditional architecture

What should we make of the American bishops' intention to publish a document on art and architecture, titled Domus Dei ("House of God")? It does have great ramifications for the liturgical and devotional life of American Catholics. A document on architecture should also be of great interest to bishops, priests, parishes, and architects, especially since in many parts of the country there is a millennial church and school building boom.

However, I believe we are working at a grave disadvantage. We are living in a time not known for the quality of its modern churches. Ecclesiastical architecture since before the Second Vatican Council has been a disaster by most architectural standards. The typical modern Catholic church is characterized by its low-quality construction, banal exteriors, minimalist spaces, and disfigured religious art.

Into this situation came the Bishops' Committee on Liturgy in the mid-1970s to clarify the issues and offer some direction. However, its document, Environment and Art in Catholic Worship (EACW), tended to confirm the ascendancy of abstract modernism. Deemed useful by the liturgical establishment, EACW spawned books, conferences, pamphlets, and new and renovated churches based on novel theories of church architecture. In statements foreign to the Catholic tradition, EACW defines a church as "a shelter or 'skin' for liturgical action" and states that a church "does not have to 'look like' anything else, past or present." Architects, often not having a strong liturgical or architectural formation in things Catholic, gladly went along with EACW, which seemed to mirror their training in architecture school. With a pithy text and 40 pictures, it has been used successfully by liturgists and architects to convince parishes that Vatican II requires modernist worship spaces.

Twenty-three years later, we have a draft of a new document intended to replace EACW, this time commissioned by all the American bishops. In November 1999, the bishops had a chance to discuss the first draft of Domus Dei, perhaps the first time in history that the American bishops as a body have discussed the importance of art and architecture.

The draft document is an improvement over EACW. First, it is to be commended for referencing a large number of ecclesiastical documents relevant to Catholic art and architecture. Second, Domus Dei considers a much broader treatment of issues, including architectural history, the arts, the seven sacraments, devotion, and practical considerations in commissioning a church. However, along with these many positive aspects, there are also many passages and an underlying point of view that are difficult to reconcile with a full understanding of sacred architecture.

Interior of Holy Cross Church in Batavia, Ill.: Modern design

Undergirding the text of Domus Dei is a philosophical modernism at odds with both church documents and the history of sacred architecture. In fact, Domus Dei comes across as promoting an architecture antagonistic to the history of sacred architecture. Within the document, there is an overemphasis on "the new" and "the original" without any concomitant appreciation for tradition and continuity. It seems reasonable to expect that a document on Catholic art and architecture would laud tradition as the wisdom of the past on which every new work is grounded and the continuity necessary to connect our architecture with previous and future generations.

In addition, the document lacks sensitivity in discussing the renovation of historic churches and what Vatican II calls "the treasury of art which must be preserved with every care." This shortsightedness is of particular concern given the destruction of many fine churches in our country since Vatican II. It is sadly ironic that while the text seems to emphasize inculturation, history, and active participation, Domus Dei offers few examples of the rich variety of architectural solutions that can be found in American history, including the buildings built by Hispanic, Slavic, Italian, German, and other immigrants.