Feb 15, 2003

The Fading Orthodoxy of Modernism and the remaking of Catholic Church architecture

Online Edition

– Vol. VIII, No. 10: February 2003


The Fading Orthodoxy of Modernism and the remaking of Catholic Church architecture


by James Hitchcock

Liturgists understandably bristle at the joke about the difference between a liturgist and a terrorist ("you can negotiate with a terrorist"), but a new book —

Building from Belief

, by

Michael E. DeSanctis

(Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2002) — seems almost intended to justify the joke. The author is a liturgist and art professor, a professional church "renovator", and a consultant on liturgy to the diocese of Erie, Pennsylvania. The book contains a warm endorsement by

Bishop Donald Trautman

of Erie, chairman of the Bishops’ Committee on Doctrine, who wrote its preface.

The thesis of the book, subtitled "Advance, Retreat and Compromise in the Remaking of Catholic Church Architecture", is routine. Traditional church architecture no longer serves its purpose, because it speaks of an obsolete kind of faith. Modern architecture not only embodies an appropriately modern religious outlook, it deepens and strengthens the faith and makes it visible and credible to the larger world. Unfortunately, many Catholics (most?) resist these necessary changes and must be brought to accept them.

The thesis, despite having been repeated for decades like a mantra, turns out to be fundamentally incoherent, even self-contradictory, a fact that the author seems vaguely to understand but that he cannot address.

The theological basis for this argument is the claim that traditional worship was individualistic and so completely centered on the Real Presence of Christ in the eucharistic elements that it failed to understand that Christ is primarily present in the worshipping community itself. Modern church architecture is designed to remedy this, perhaps its most important achievement being that it molds the parish into a true community.

But alas!, as the author repeatedly records, most of time the modernization of churches has the opposite effect. Proposals for remodeling lead to strife and bitterness, even to the loss of parishioners. If the new architecture really does create community, it is community restricted to self-selected people of modernist sensibilities.

One of the fallacies of older styles, as liturgists endlessly argue, is the sense of separation they fostered between the priest and the congregation, and the new architecture breaks down this "clericalism." Yet, as DeSanctis never tires of repeating, there can be no real architectural "renewal" in a parish unless the pastor wants it and is willing to use every ounce of his authority to achieve it, over the objections of many of the laity. Church renovation is a subject on which father still knows best.

One of the consecrated words of liberal Catholicism is "dialogue" but it scarcely appears in this book, and, for good reason — experience has shown that allowing lay people to express their opinions about church remodeling leads to the "wrong" results. Parishioners must rather be confronted by experts who inform them of what must be done and explain why any reservations they have are ignorant and wrong-headed. (Full disclosure: the author of this essay and the editor of this journal are among those so dismissed in the book.)

Thus, according to DeSanctis, we must "educate! educate! educate!"; but it is not education as liberals ordinarily conceive it. While liberal Catholics insist that popes cannot simply issue decrees, liturgists insist with equal fervor that this is precisely what priests and bishops must do to overcome lay resistance to change. Church dogma requires the consent of the faithful, but church renovators are apparently infallible, their educational program a process of repetitive proselytizing, until resisters finally give up.

A revealing example is one of DeSanctis’s success stories, a pastor who overrode lay resistance to renovation and now says, "I just like being in [the building]…. I’ll just go into the church and sit there looking at the light, the forms, the colors" At one time a priest would have said that he slipped into church to pray in the presence of Our Lord. Now the significance of the structure is a merely aesthetic experience that could be gained anywhere, its validity derived from the personal feelings of the priest.

As liturgists have done for 35 years, the author cites the authority of the Second Vatican Council, without bothering to cite inconvenient passages in

Sacrosanctum Concilium

. Instead, absolute authority is vested in provisional documents like

Environment and Art in Catholic Worship


Among the subjects barely alluded to is money. Liberals charge that the Church is too attached to wealth and should make a greater commitment to the needy. Many people object to church renovations because they are extremely expensive, requiring huge expenditures on structures that are quite adequate and have the added virtue of being already paid for. But whatever else they do, church renovators realize considerable income from their enterprises, and they seem to think that parishioners are obliged to find the money.

DeSanctis is correct in claiming that Catholics today have little understanding of their symbols and to that degree traditional forms do not speak to them, except in the general sense that those symbols are sacred. But this is another unacknowledged failure of liberal reform. The Liturgical Movement prior to about l965 precisely aimed to initiate Catholics into a deeper understanding of their symbols. But soon after the Council it radically reversed itself, and decades of abysmal religious education, on all levels, have produced the kind of ignorance DeSanctis describes.

People often oppose the liturgical agenda because they sense that it departs from orthodox Catholic beliefs, a claim that DeSanctis ridicules and at the same time implicitly admits. He does not use the term "Real Presence" but refers to Christ’s "sacramental presence", a term even Calvinists could accept. He minimizes the importance of the tabernacle, describes traditional piety in sneering tones, and settles for the true but limited understanding of the Eucharist as the process in which believers encounter Christ in each other. He even admits that changes in modes of worship involve changes in belief, without exploring the full implications of this or acknowledging that traditionalists therefore have good reasons for being suspicious of the programs he espouses.

The belief that Christ is present in the worshipping community has been an important recovery of the post-conciliar period. However, instead of seeking to synthesize it with the doctrine of the Real Presence, liturgists have done everything possible to undermine the latter belief. DeSanctis acknowledges that in church renovations "we empty churches of


obscuring Christ’s presence in the baptized assembly" [emphasis added].

Undocumented claims about Vatican II are not the only way in which misleading versions of history are placed at the service of the author’s thesis. Thus the Council of Trent, that favorite

bête noir

of liberals, is blamed for having lost the sense of Catholics as spiritual searchers. That implies, however, that such a sense was characteristic of the Middle Ages, in which case it must have been expressed in church architecture. But medieval churches were, of course, built in the Romanesque and Gothic styles, which the author deplores as subversive of that very sense of searching. He also implies that churches were continually built in the Gothic style until about l950, when in fact few Gothic buildings seem to have been built between the sixteenth and the nineteenth centuries. DeSanctis has to ignore the Gothic Revival because it was not blind traditionalism but the dynamic rediscovery of a neglected form once again seen to have great value.

But it is in his championing of his favored subject — modernism — that the author unwittingly reveals the incoherence of his position and his inability to remove its contradictions. This is not a failure of intelligence or knowledge but a product of his rigidly dogmatic commitment to the fading orthodoxy of modernism — a classic example of the definition of a fanatic as someone who, as he loses sight of his goal, redoubles his efforts. Readers will find here a passably good critique of modernism but will then wait in vain for the author to explain why he continues to espouse it.

DeSanctis dismisses, in an aside, the style of church architecture common forty years ago, which blends in with "the contemporary commercial landscape". But lay people at the time were almost unanimous in their dislike of such styles and were beaten into submission by the very tactics DeSanctis here advocates. Why, however, should the experts of l960 now be recognized as misguided but the experts of today followed without hesitation?

In some ways, he avers, modernity is bad and works against authentic worship, making people individualistic, materialistic, present-minded, excessively informal, and many other bad things. But if this is the case, then people obviously need guidance as to why they should embrace some aspects of modernity and eschew others, and the author supplies no such guidance. Many of the things that traditional Catholics object to in modern liturgy grow precisely out of the culture which the author deplores. (He regrets the prevalence of casual dress in church, but it is hard to see why he should.)

American Catholics, he points out, are deeply affected by modern culture, as in their love of technology, which makes it difficult to explain why they resist modern art. His answer is that they expect art and religion to connect them to the past. This may be true, and he does not consider the essential Catholic belief in tradition, in the continuity of history, in the imperative of remaining connected to the past.

In the end DeSanctis’s problem is, paradoxically, that he is not modernist enough, merely representative of those persons aptly characterized as "stuck in the Sixties". An inevitable development from modernism is "post-modernism", the recognition that modernism permits no certitudes of any kind, including those of modernism itself. DeSanctis decries post-modernism, because he thinks that modernism is the ultimate truth, whereas honest post-modernists acknowledge that they possess no lock on truth and that traditionalists too can participate in the dialogue.

Thus DeSanctis can scarcely bring himself to acknowledge that reputable architects are now designing "retro" buildings for a variety of purposes, including worship. He praises priests in their fifties and sixties as much more enlightened than their younger confreres, without asking the obvious question — why younger priests, who have no nostalgic memories of the pre-conciliar Church, should be attracted to traditional Catholicism. Whatever his chronological age, DeSanctis is in the ranks of those driven almost frantic by the thought that the revolutions they once mounted in the name of "youth" are now being repudiated by many of the young.

Some experts are more equal than others. The author extravagantly admires architects, whom he portrays as unsung heroes abused by philistines, but he has no good word for the growing number of architects who have moved beyond the kinds of modernism that DeSanctis considers mandatory and are revivifying classical styles. If lay critics are simply ignorant, those with a comprehensive understanding are also dismissed, if they stray off the modernist reservation.

The issue extends well beyond worship, the conflict in Catholic parishes merely one manifestation of a wider dissatisfaction with modernist styles that enjoyed compulsory adulation for decades but about which many people now cry "enough!" In a prestigious secular university, for example, a law school built thirty years ago and pronounced an architectural masterpiece has already been torn down and replaced with a "retro" building. From the beginning those who actually used the structure found it ugly, depressing, and lacking precisely in that virtue it was supposed to embody — utility.

DeSanctis deplores the fact that symphony patrons prefer familiar styles of music. But concert-goers are a cultural elite who can hardly be dismissed as ignorant philistines. Modernistic music (for example, the work of Arnold Schoenberg) has had a century in which to prove itself yet remains unattractive, even inaccessible, to most people.

Modern people prefer to live in modern houses, DeSanctis asserts, but that is not quite true. For decades the educated classes have been gravitating toward older structures, which they lovingly restore to their original forms.

DeSanctis acknowledges that egoism has been a characteristic of the modern artist, but once again he draws no conclusion from that fact. In principle one can admit that there ought to be modern religious idioms, and there are some that are powerful and authentic. But resistance to the modernist liturgical agenda is often motivated by the perception that the reformer has a grandiose sense of his own talents and is more than willing to wreak havoc in a parish in order to prove himself. The rhetoric of religious modernism is full of promises to "deepen the people’s faith" and "bring Christ to the world", without offering the slightest evidence that it can fulfill those promises, or even provide criteria by which such claims could be evaluated.

Nor is it at all clear how architects and other renovators gain the authority that they claim. Some, as DeSanctis readily admits, are not even Catholics. Most, when they receive a commission, ask for general information concerning the parish’s concept of the building’s use, instructions that are bound to reflect the divisions within the parish. Most architects have no more than a superficial understanding of Catholic liturgy, and they conceive their work — and expect it to be judged — according to architectural rather than religious standards. The most DeSanctis can say is that artists are "open to mystery", as most believers allegedly are not.

But to what mysteries are they open? DeSanctis recognizes that modernism is in effect nihilistic and quotes an art critic who says that modern art "invites us to applaud the destruction of values which we still cherish". Modernism is deliberately destructive of the past, which DeSanctis readily admits is a serious problem for Catholics.

Since he cannot grapple seriously with this dilemma, however, he pulls back at the edge of modernism, refusing to explore its full implications. To a great extent modernism, in all its manifestations — artistic, philosophical, political, scientific — is overtly anti-religious, and it is quite possible that the failure to create satisfying modern religious art is due to the simple fact that modernism at its heart is disbelieving, that doubt is its very definition.

A few of the leaders of artistic modernism — Igor Stravinsky, T. S. Eliot, W. H. Auden — were believers but, paradoxically, believers of a very traditional kind. Just as liberal churches and liberal religious orders are failing to attract members, so also there is no evidence that modern forms of religious art in any way have the effect of drawing skeptics to believe. The only liberal Christian artist DeSanctis can find is a minor novelist named John Gardner, who, if he was a kind of believer, nonetheless admitted that modern artists are hostile to religion because "every religion has a code, even if it’s a loose code".

Thus by DeSanctis’s own evidence Catholics are completely justified in suspecting that modernism in art is inherently inimical to all creeds and all moral laws and is thus incompatible with anything resembling authentic Catholicism. If that is the case, self-consciously modernistic religious architecture does not offer worshippers a more authentic religious experience but merely celebrates the fundamental human sense of being lost, that from which the Gospel offers salvation. Being "religious" then means being "open" to inherently opaque reality, where Christians have no more insight than anyone else. Far from making the Church more credible to the world, modernist religious architecture proclaims that the Church has nothing to teach the world that the world does not already know.

DeSanctis quotes a priest asking, "Why do we have to talk about ‘worship spaces?’ Why can’t we just call it a church?", a question DeSanctis treats as one more example of philistine obtuseness, although it actually gets to the heart of the matter.

Given the modern liturgists’ premises, why indeed should there even be "worship spaces"? If Christ is mainly present in the community of the baptized, why cannot the community gather in gymnasiums, auditoriums, parks, or any other convenient place? By so doing they would emphasize still more effectively their belief that Christ is present only in the community itself. An interest in modern "worship spaces" betrays an anachronistic "churchiness" that liturgists should be attempting to stamp out.

Perhaps the ultimate question, again never addressed, is whether, if Christ is present primarily in the community of the baptized, He becomes present fully only when the community gathers for the Eucharist according to the rites of the Catholic Church. Why can the community not gather for a potluck supper and an evening of singing, readings from favorite authors, and discussion of current issues, without having to follow certain rituals whose roots go back two thousand years?

Nor does the claim that Christ is present in the worshipping community make the faith more credible to the modern world. Told that Christ is there present, the non-believer is likely to glance around and reply archly, "I don’t see him". From the non-believer’s viewpoint such a claim is merely another instance of the wishful credulity of the believer, dressing up the human experience of community in pretentious theological language.

The emphasis on the presence of Christ in the community in turn begs another increasingly urgent modern question — the authenticity of other religions, an issue that has led some modernist Catholics to the point of speaking disparagingly of "Christo-fascism". DeSanctis appears to assume the normativity of the Christ-centered community, although modernist approaches to religion cannot support this.

This kind of half-understood modernism always ends with the modernist rejecting everything of tradition that he finds irrelevant and retaining whatever he finds meaningful, his own sensibility the final criterion of truth.

Catholicism is a historical-incarnational-sacramental religion, and modernism strikes at the heart of the faith because it relentlessly undermines those things.

For the true modernist the past can only be an irrelevant burden, and DeSanctis quotes certain people to that effect. Although he is not completely forthcoming about his own views, there is a strong implication that, just as the church buildings of the past have nothing to say to the present, so also the historic creeds no longer speak to modern man in his posture of searching. The doctrine of the Real Presence is not explicitly rejected, but the attentive reader must conclude that the author considers it an unfortunate misunderstanding with which the Church was saddled in the early centuries.

The Catholic modernists’ reluctance to affirm forthrightly that the Eucharistic elements are the Body and Blood of Christ is the ultimate manifestation of their half-conscious rejection of the sacramental principle itself – they cannot believe that the spiritual is mediated through the material. (For example, DeSanctis seems to have little use for images of any kind and dismisses as unfortunate compromises certain modern churches that include prominent crucifixes.)

Most fundamentally, the buildings he admires are praised primarily for their architectural qualities – color, line, space. They are not structures consecrated to God and therefore holy. They remain only buildings, to be admired solely in their own terms. In the end the Catholic modernists’ view of church architecture turns out to be no different from that of the sixteenth-century Puritans, nothing less than a rejection of the sacramental principle as the Catholic Church has always understood it.


James Hitchcock is professor of history at Saint Louis University whose bi-weekly syndicated column appears in the Catholic press and online on the Women for Faith & Family web site (

James Hitchcock Column

). His two-volume work on

Religion and the Supreme Court

is forthcoming from Princeton University Press.


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James F. Hitchcock

James F. Hitchcock, emeritus professor of history at St. Louis University, which he attended as an undergraduate, received his masters and doctorate degrees from Princeton University. An archive of various articles of his can be read here. Dr. Hitchcock has authored several books, including The Supreme Court and Religion in American Life; The Recovery of the Sacred; What Is Secular Humanism; Catholicism and Modernity: Confrontation or Capitulation?; and History of the Catholic Church: From the Apostolic Age to the Third Millennium