Online Edition – Vol. III, No. 6: September 1997
by James Hitchcock
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 that 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 partly intended, and in part is traceable to casual American pragmatism. Beginning with the Gothic Revival of the l840s 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 l945, 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 later built churches. In many parishes where numbers required it, Mass continued in the gymnasium even long after a church had been built. Most significant, 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 structures.
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. The intention is that in time Catholics should lose that sense, while 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 [EACW], 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.
Most 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 that had been defiled and for the deconsecration of unused churches.)
Liturgical reformers cannot address these issues candidly because to do so would be to admit that they view sacredness not as something that comes down from on high but solely as something that bubbles up from human communities. It has no objective reality but is a reflection of the deepest yearnings of those communities.
EACW 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 Durkheim 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. Saint 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 that 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 professor of history at St. Louis University, is a regular columnist for Catholic Dossier, where this essay originally appeared (May-June 1997). He is also the author of numerous books, including Recovery of the Sacred (Ignatius Press). The essay is reprinted here with permission. More of Dr. Hitchcock’s columns can be read online on the Women for Faith and Family web site.