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.

Possibly the most controversial topic covered in the draft is the placement of the tabernacle. This was the issue that most animated the bishops in their discussion of the draft last November, with 15 bishops speaking out in favor of a prominent location for the Blessed Sacrament. While a great improvement over EACW's rationalistic handling of the subject, Domus Dei still presumes that the Blessed Sacrament chapel is always the best solution for placement of the tabernacle.

In the past decade, we have seen a popular revival of eucharistic adoration, along with a large number of articles and books on the subject. Considering the past 30 years of experience with Blessed Sacrament chapels in the United States, a general lack of belief in the Real Presence among Catholics, and the growing desire by many of the faithful to give the tabernacle a place of honor within the sanctuary, this is clearly a timely issue. The tabernacle, which houses the Real Presence of Christ, is thus one of the most significant objects within the church and deserves to be accorded architectural prominence. In architecture, prominence is often expressed by placing significant elements on the central axis of a building. Following the custom in the Americas, a tabernacle is logically placed in the sanctuary on the central axis of the church.

In its treatment of the principles of art and architecture, the document could use further study and balance. Its emphasis on beauty is to be commended, but it suffers from a faulty conception of beauty that promotes novelty and the personal expression of the artist at the expense of the good, the true, and the harmonious. As Andres Segovia once said, "It is not difficult to be original. It is difficult to be original with continuity." Reflecting contemporary artspeak, the draft lauds art that has an edge, is difficult, or makes people uncomfortable. Fra Angelico, Raphael, Bernini, and a few other artists would beg to differ. A greater reliance on Catholic writings about beauty, especially Pope John Paul II's recent Letter to Artists, would help to correct this imbalance.

In its rejection of convention in art and architecture, the document is generally elitist in tone and risks promoting works of art and architecture that do not speak to the faithful much less to the nonbeliever. Furthermore, Domus Dei's seemingly functionalist reading of the church building encourages a minimalist aesthetic, limited iconography, and no emphasis on the exterior of the church. In other words, this draft of Domus Dei continues to promote the same sterile designs we have built during the past decades, including those illustrated in EACW.

It is very positive that the American bishops are revisiting the issue of church art and architecture and debating it so passionately. It is hoped that the bishops, as well as the Bishops' Committee on Liturgy, will encourage further consultation. Of particular benefit would be consultation with architects, art historians, and preservationists who know and love the long tradition of Catholic architecture.

more from beliefnet and our partners
Close Ad