Online Edition – Vol. III, No. 2: April 1997
Vatican II Did Not Intend the Destruction of Churches and Altars
How often have you entered a Catholic church built sometime before the Second Vatican Council (1963-65) and been saddened and offended by what has been done to it? Judging only from an artistic point of view, one finds that the lines of sight originally organized to lead one’s gaze from the rear to the front of the building, to the altar, have been disturbed, and they no longer direct the viewer to the purpose and function of the structure. The altar has been removed and replaced by a table, often misplaced by being set to the right or the left of center and in a lower place, making it difficult to find and relate to.
Further observation reveals other elements have been eliminated as well: the communion rail, statues and side altars, pews removed or placed at uncomfortable angles. Other objects have appeared in positions never intended for them: the tabernacle mounted on a pedestal and placed on the side, a piano, chorus risers, microphone equipment and music stands and furniture. The chaste formality and dignity of the sanctuary destroyed, the area now is cluttered with a variety of sound-making devices for a variety of musical participants.
Architects of earlier years conceived their churches with a unity of design and a center of attention, geared to the enactment of the Roman liturgy. They found means for emphasizing the sanctity of the building by using precious stone, gold and silver, painting and sculpture as signs portraying the holiness of God’s house and His presence therein. Symmetry, balance, distance and proportion create the conditions expected of a holy building. With such elements in place, a building so constructed would re-enforce the light, the acoustics and the ceremonial needs of the liturgy and the music. There integral parts of worship produced the reverence, beauty and prayer which mark and characterize the true liturgy. To interfere with the plans of a well-constructed church destroys the architect’s unity of purpose and the resulting beauty. One is offended by attempts to reconstruct what was already competently done, just as one would be upset by trying to make a single- breasted jacket into a double-breasted one. In the end, one has neither and only a botched-up disaster.
In 1978, an advisory board to a committee on the liturgy of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (NCCB) prepared a pamphlet entitled “Environment and Art in Catholic Worship”. The authors, in commenting on the seventh chapter of the conciliar constitution on the sacred liturgy, attempted to put into effect their ideas of church construction and renovation. As with a similar advisory board in the area of sacred music, the document was produced in reply to an invitation of a bishops’ committee. It had no legal or authoritative character, and was not binding as law, having no greater weight than the opinions of those currently members of the advisory body. And yet, the document was printed and circulated and quoted as if it enjoyed equal authority with the statements of the ecumenical council itself. Herein lies the basis for the damage done to American churches, some beyond repair. This text became the guide manual for those who promoted these ideas, and very soon it was taken up by the clergy and many church decorators. In an unbelievably short time it caused more harm to our churches, especially in the Midwest, than the Vandals did in northern Spain in the fifth century.
Now, it has been announced that a new document on the same subject, ecclesiastical “space,” will be forthcoming after nearly twenty years during which “Environment and Art in Catholic Worship” did so much harm to our churches and chapels. There are, however, a few things that must be kept in mind to prevent even greater iconoclasm in this country.
1) The liturgy reformers of Vatican II did not intend the destruction of our churches or altars. Rather the new directions for the ceremonies of the Mass and office were given with such freedom that they could now be enacted in almost any space. The recent discussions in Europe, which produced several articles in liturgical and musical journals, clearly prove that the turning of altars versus populum has been misunderstood and not intended by the Church especially when altars of significant artistic value are already in place. Nor are two altars in the same sanctuary considered theologically or artistically proper.
2) Being a sacramental religion, Catholicism makes great use of the material and the artistic to bring the faithful to a knowledge and love of the dogmas to be believed and lived. We need beauty for worship. It is to be found in buildings, vestments, statues, linens and paintings. Stained glass, gold and silver, vessels, flowers, candles and tapestries are all part of our Latin rite. Crockery for the Eucharistic vessels, unadorned and coarse vestments do not foster the faith that worship needs. The old conviction that only the best of man’s art could be used in God’s worship must be restored.
3) As one would never tolerate the reconstruction of the Sistine Chapel or Michelangelo’s
, nor the rewriting of the symphonies of Beethoven or the operas of Mozart, so the works of lesser artists and architects should not be subjected to such destruction as has been perpetrated in the past thirty years. We must respect the past and those who have left it to us, while we might in our own day build an art of our century that hopefully will take its place in the long history of man’s achievements, especially in the service of the Church. But the destruction of our churches will go down in history along with the iconoclasts of former eras. The Vatican Council never intended to destroy true art, but rather to foster it and preserve it.
4) We must be warned against mere opinions being passed off as ecclesiastical law or the will of our bishops. It must be clear by whose authority further changes are mandated. We fortunately have learned from the sad experiences of the past. The laity, more than the clergy, have suffered as they witnessed the abuse of their heritage and the sacrifices made by their forebearers to create a decent place of worship. In their trust they accepted the directions of their pastors with reverence and obedience. Unfortunately, too often the parish clergy were in ignorance of the liturgical laws and as a result they had foisted on them these aberrations which have so disillusioned a whole generation of Catholics, whose faith has been sorely tested. In too many instances people have failed the test, and have been driven out of the Church they knew and loved.
5) Our bishops are our masters in liturgical renewal. They alone, with the approval of the Holy See, can determine what and how the liturgy is to be celebrated. They have spoken through the documents of the Second Vatican Council, which, together with the papal and curial statements since the closing of the council, direct us and we must obey. There are some who do not wish to accept what has been given us, but rather have their own ideas which they try to promote by publishing them as if they were authoritative. Advisory boards are perfectly in order and wise, but they merely report their findings and suggestions to the committee that called them into being, and that committee in turn reports to the general body of bishops for a vote, which requires a certain majority and finally the approval of the Holy See. Both in the area of art and that of music, the clergy and laity have been led along by opinions passed off as authoritative documents. Beware of new “documents!”
6) Finally, ask why these changes are being proposed and even demanded. Certainly there is ignorance of the liturgical law on the part of the clergy, and many priests depended for information solely on the directions of their bishops, many of whom in turn are dependent on their advisors, who further in turn have accepted too much of the propaganda that has emanated from the national headquarters in Washington. Only God can judge reasons and motives. He sees the heart and we see only the face. Unfortunately however, one cannot ask how much faith remains in those who wish to alter our worship to make it conform with their faith.
(Monsignor Schuler is a member of the board of advisors of
He has been president of the Church Music Association of America and editor of
since 1975. He has been pastor of St. Agnes Church in St. Paul, Minnesota, since 1969.)