Dec 31, 2007


Online Edition Vol. IV, No. 1: February-March 1998


A Critical Look at "Environment and Art in Catholic Worship"–With Hope for the Future

by Denis McNamara

When Catholics look at their recently built or renovated churches and see their customary altars replaced by granite slabs, large expanses of painted concrete wall, and tabernacles pulled from the sanctuaries only to be replaced by chairs, rarely do they realize that the source of this liturgical decision-making is a committee of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (NCCB).

When the NCCB’s Bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy issued their influential 1978 church design guide entitled Environment and Art in Catholic Worship (EACW), they presented as authoritative a vague and contradictory document unabashedly favorable to architectural Modernism which strongly de-emphasized the transcendent and sacramental nature of Catholic worship.

Without other recent documents on ecclesiastical architecture to turn to for advice, many priests, architects, liturgists, and building committees have used EACW as their sole authority for church design and renovation. With the weight of the NCCB apparently behind it, and bands of liturgical consultants convinced of its claims, EACW is arguably the single most influential, and often times damaging, document to affect recent American Catholic architecture.

After twenty years of experience with EACW and expressions of serious concern about its appropriateness, a task force of the NCCB has spent two years working on a new document to replace it, and (it is hoped) to correct the document’s theological and aesthetic weaknesses.

EACW presents several serious flaws which fall into three major categories.

The greatest flaw of the document centers on its unbalanced presentation of the church building as the "skin for a liturgical action" (§42) to support the claim that "the most powerful experience of the sacred is found in the celebration and the persons celebrating"(§29). EACW de-emphasizes the transcendent and sacrificial nature of the Mass, and substitutes for a sacramental understanding of the church building a functionalist model whose job is to set a mood and provide for a hospitable environment.

Second, EACW’s suggestions often prove vague and contradictory. Inexplicable claims that the church building should "feel "a certain way, address the "whole person," partake of a "beneficial tension," and reveal "something special" dot the document and offer very little guidance to the architect in making the building appropriate and worthy of God. Text and photos come together in opposition, where words suggest one thing and the photographs display another.

Third, Environment and Art partakes of a simplistic adoption of architectural Modernism, powerfully evident from the many high-quality photographs used to illustrate its principles in the original edition*, without consideration for its degree of appropriateness for sacred use. Without explicitly claiming so, EACW establishes as worthy of imitation an apparently sanctioned reductivist aesthetic based on an incomplete definition of liturgy and a radically secular architectural philosophy.

*Environment and Art in Catholic Worship, Bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy, United States Catholic Conference, 1978.

We Are Not Celebrating Ourselves

EACW’s description of the content of liturgy in the section entitled "The Worship of God and Its Requirements" provides the foundation around which the document’s other arguments revolve. However, one could argue that this foundation might better fit an evangelical Protestant church. This document of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops defines liturgy as the gathering of

each Church– to praise and thank God, to remember and make present God’s great deeds, to offer common prayer [and] to realize and celebrate the kingdom of peace and justice. The action of the Christian assembly is liturgy (§9).

Nowhere in the entire section dedicated to the worship of God does one find the words Mass, sacrifice, Blessed Sacrament, Eucharist, priest, Christ, or even Jesus. The supreme act of worship of the Catholic Church, which is at once a memorial and Holy Sacrifice, and the "source and summit of Christian life" (CCC, 1324, LG 11) is reduced to "the action of the Christian assembly" (§9) in a "personal-communal religious experience" (§17) which flourishes in a "climate of hospitality." (§11) With no definition of what exactly comprises the "action of the assembly," one reads that the only component of the Mass is the synaxis, or Eucharistic assembly, without mention of the priest acting in persona Christi as reaffirmed by the Second Vatican Council (CCC, 1548). While EACW describes liturgy as the action of "a community at a given place and time" (§10), Sacrosanctum Concilium calls the liturgy a "foretaste of that heavenly liturgy" in which "we sing a hymn to the Lord’s glory with all the warriors of the heavenly army" (sc, 8).

With the Mass reduced to a gathering of praise and memorial and its transcendent and mystical elements removed, the authors of EACW found no need to recommend church designs which were much more than functional and comfortable.

The churches chosen to illustrate EACW look as they do because they are no longer seen as the House of God, or domus Dei, but only as a hospitable covering for liturgical action, which itself is reduced to a simple assembly of people. Without fitting concern for the transcendent nature of the liturgy, EACW focuses on the immanent features of the gathering, which therefore justifies its emphasis on a "climate of hospitality" as a prerequisite of good liturgy. According to EACW, hospitality demands

a situation in which people are comfortable with one another, either knowing or being introduced to one another; a space in which people are seated together with mobility, in view of one another as well as the focal points of the rite (§11).

This directive explains recent church seating arrangements and the almost fanatical belief that altars must be centrally located and as close to the people as possible. This emphasis on hospitality comes at the expense of the other reality of a Mass focused on Christ in the ritual action of the priest acting in persona Christi, with a congregation unified by their belief in the grace available in the Eucharist rather than simply the social aspects of assembly. While all architects should make their churches inviting, the invitation should, first and foremost, be for an united encounter with Christ.

Another section of the document called "A House for the Church’s Liturgical Celebrations" emphasizes the mechanistic view of church architecture, even presenting a church building as a simple outgrowth of the congregation, its liturgical action, and its furniture (§39). Ignored is any understanding of how the church building might embody facets of the very nature of God as known through number, geometry, and proportion, or at least be a reminder of the worthy Christians of the past through engagement with history.

Severely underestimated is the recognition that every church serves, to some degree, as a shrine for the Blessed Sacrament, a public testimony to the Faith, and a constant evocation of the supernatural ideal to which all Catholics aspire. Rather than ask its architect to design a building worthy of Christ and the sacraments, EACW encourages the congregation to acquaint the architect with "its own self image" (§45).

In 1993 Bishop John D’Arcy of Fort Wayne-South Bend indirectly tackled the theological flaws running through EACW when he authored a response to a pamphlet distributed to the congregation of a newly renovated college chapel in his diocese. The Bishop never mentioned EACW by name, though the original pamphlet cited it explicitly. His response indirectly addressed one of the central and most unbalanced statements in Environment and Art in Catholic Worship:

the most powerful experience of the sacred is found in the celebration and the persons celebrating (§29)

Citing Sacrosanctum Concilium, Bishop D’Arcy’s response proved forceful and direct:

the liturgy is, first of all, the action of Christ, the Savior, the Head, and Bridegroom of the Church; the shift away from the liturgy as centered in God to the liturgy centered in ourselves is a misrepresentation, which, if accepted, would bring about spiritual harm. In the Eucharist we are celebrating the love of Christ poured out for us on the cross. We are not celebrating ourselves.

While Bishop D’Arcy was indeed not responding to EACW, the critique falls quite squarely on its shoulders. Despite EACW’s claim that the "experience of mystery which liturgy offers is found in its God-consciousness and God-Centeredness," (§12) its text concentrates almost completely upon the worshipper rather than the worshipped. Again citing Sacrosanctum Concilium, Bishop D’Arcy established the primary experience of the sacred as found in the presence of Christ in the priest, the Eucharistic species, and the assembly (sc, 7). EACW’s neglect of the teaching presented so clearly at the Second Vatican Council has brought much liturgical, and therefore architectural, confusion.

Architectural consequences

The architectural consequences of EACW follow logically from the stated theology of the document. Its powerful photographs in conjunction with the claim that no liturgical symbol is more important than the "assembly of believers" (§28) easily lead to the corollary that the church building serves only as a covering for hospitable assembly, and relegates crucifixes and tabernacles to secondary status. EACW’s singular focus on the church building as the domus ecclesiae at the expense of the domus Dei follows logically from one culminating statement in section II: "to speak of environmental and artistic requirements in Catholic worship, we have to begin with ourselves-we who are the Church" (§27) By contrast, Sacrosanctum Concilium asks that arts in Catholic worship "be oriented toward God" and achieve their purpose of adding to "God’s praise and glory in proportion as they are directed the more exclusively to the single aim of turning men’s minds devoutly toward God" (sc, 122).

While the condition and the needs of the particular congregation remain important, EACW never asks the faithful to go beyond themselves, to see the beauty, majesty, and mercy of God in the crucifix, tabernacle, stained glass, vestments, priest, or even the Holy Eucharist itself. Rather than begin with ourselves, EACW might ask worshippers to begin with Christ.

With this incomplete foundation claiming the singular primacy of the assembly, it comes as no surprise that the architecture growing from the premises in EACW should be utilitarian and banal, despite the claims otherwise within the document itself that "something special" should always be sensed in sacred objects (§12).

Since assembly is primary, the tabernacle no longer need be on the altar, which serves only for action rather than reservation (§78), and it can be moved off-axis or even out of the body of the church. The questionable claim that the Eucharist’s "active and static aspects of the same reality cannot claim the same attention at the same time" (§78) is consistent with the description of the "ancient tradition of reserving the eucharistic bread" (§78). This description of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist seems to add to the notion that the Blessed Sacrament can be secondary rather than that in which is contained "the whole spiritual good of the Church" (Presbyterorum Ordinis, 5). The erroneous incompleteness of the document has led to liturgical confusion and unnecessary architectural waste and destruction.

Vague and Contradictory

Outside the realm of theological debate is the often vague and seemingly contradictory nature of the text and its relationship with the photographs.

The first sentence of the document states that "faith involves a good tension" between the human and divine (§1). While it is true that humans cannot ever adequately grasp the entirety of God, the term "tension" suggests an unidentified relationship in flux, where antagonists push and pull against one another without defining the nature of the interaction between God and man. It could certainly be defined more completely and more directly by examining almost any document of Church teaching, as the recent Catechism of the Catholic Church explains: "God, infinitely perfect and blessed in himself, in a plan of sheer goodness freely created man to make him share his own blessed life" (CCC, 1).

Rather than establish the relationship between God and man as a "tension," EACW could have defined the established relationship as one in which God desires to share His love and mercy, or emphasized that God calls men to seek Him, to know Him, and to love Him. EACW’s theologically incomplete and linguistically vague statements leave room for misinterpretation and deviation from ecclesiastical norms.

Early in the document, the authors of EACW assert "that all words and art forms can be used to praise God in the liturgical assembly" (7). While not vague in its wording, the overinclusiveness of the phrase proves muddling, since it needs significant qualification.

Words which in their very nature do not praise God (pagan goddess worship texts, for example) or do not prove fitting for the dignity of the liturgy (such as slang and profanity), do not fit EACW’s assertion about "all words." A similar case can be made for "art forms." Since the modern world has separated the Church from mainstream artistic establishment, without a proper definition of "art," EACW leaves its explication to the secular artistic establishment. Since 1990s standards of "art" include homoerotic photography, crucifixes standing in jars of urine, and just about any form of individualistic anti-establishment expression, EACW can authorize almost any of the liturgical and artistic aberrations of recent years.

At the heart of this problem lies the Modernist fallacy which replaces genuine Catholic decorum (that which is fitting as established by God and the teaching of the Church) with the notion that appropriateness is determined by the contemporary Zeitgeist or "spirit of the age" (art and architecture must be "of their time.")

Unlike the documents of the Second Vatican Council, which abound with qualifiers restricting changes and actions to those which bring glory to God within theologically legitimate limits, EACW rarely expresses concern that the art and architectural forms be appropriate to the intended sacred use. EACW’s extreme praise of contemporaneousness emerges in its claims that "contemporary art is our own… and belongs in our celebrations as surely as we do…" (§33), without limiting it to appropriate contemporary art.

The blind faith in "our time" and "living art" is derived from the secular Modernist architectural establishment, whose philosophical tenets rise from nihilist and determinist philosophies of early twentieth-century political radicals. EACW does not question whether the art produced by our age is good and appropriate for the liturgy, and therefore fitting for Christ Himself.

Similarly, the authors of EACW claim that one "cannot demand any universal sacred norms" for artistic expression, with a footnote citing Sacrosanctum Concilium‘s article 123 as its authority (§18). Not only does article 123 not conclude that one cannot demand universal norms, it claims the very opposite. Comparative quotes reveal the transformation between documents. The actual quotation from Sacrosanctum Concilium which provided the source for EACW reads:

The Church has not adopted any particular style of art as her very own; she has admitted fashions from every period according to the natural talents and circumstances of peoples, and the need of the various rites… The art of our own days, coming from every race and region, shall also be given free reign in the Church, provided that it adorns the sacred buildings and holy rites with due honor and reverence. (No. 123, emphasis added)

EACW uses the above paragraph to formulate this statement:

An important part of contemporary Church renewal is the awareness of the community’s recognition of the sacred. . . . Because different cultural and subcultural groups in our society may have quite different styles of artistic expression, one cannot demand any universal sacred norms. (§18)

The Council Fathers truly did provide for sacred norms, even using the word itself several times in Sacrosanctum Concilium‘s chapter headings. Their normative artistic instructions occurred not in the realm of style, but in the realm of idea, the idea of proper decorum. The Fathers asked for art which is good in that it glorifies God in His Church, not art that represents merely the fads of "our time."

Conspicuously lacking in EACW are the same qualifiers for artistic expression found in the documents of the Second Vatican Council. While the authors of EACW make a weak call for appropriateness defined as "capable of bearing the weight of mystery, awe, reverence and wonder" (§21), at the same time they make welcome "any art" or "any words" with "no sacred norms." Additionally, it does not repeat these qualifications for appropriateness throughout the text. The inconsistency does not help to make EACW a clear guide for architects and decision-making church committees.

Overemphasis on "Feelings"

Among the many other vague notions of the text, including calls for "something special" (§12) in all aspects of the liturgy, for words and gestures which "come from the deepest understanding of ourselves" (§14), and for an undefined "sensitivity to the arts" (§26), one entire category of vagueness follows upon the notion of "feeling" as expressed in EACW.

When speaking of "the human experience," EACW asks the Church to "reemphasize a more total approach to the human person by opening up and developing the non-rational elements of liturgical celebration," and suggests this happen through concern for "feelings of conversion, support, repentance, trust, love, memory, movement, gesture, wonder." (§35) Instead of recommending the legitimate pleasures of the senses in beautiful and transcendent art, music, and ceremonial, EACW’s authors remind the reader that the " feeling of liturgical action is as crucial as the craft of the designer . . ."(§48), and that liturgical space should have a "good feeling"(§52). The design of gathering space where worshippers can gather after assembling for the liturgy is recommended to build "the kind of community sense and feeling recognized now to be a prerequisite of good celebration."(§54)

Design is recommended which takes into account the "need for a feeling of contact with the altar, ambo and celebrant’s chair"(§63). Benches or chairs should "maximize feelings of community and involvement"(§68). Finally, church decorations are seen as "creations of forms, colors, and textures" whose purpose is "to appeal to the senses and thereby create an atmosphere and a mood rather than to impress a slogan upon the minds of the observers . . ."(§100).

While properly channeled emotions can inspire piety and energize faith, the emphasis the authors of the document place on feelings inverts the traditional hierarchy of our powers as human beings by giving primacy to the emotions rather than the rational powers of intellect and will.

As the Catechism of the Catholic Church states, feelings are "morally qualified only to the extent that they effectively engage reason and will" (CCC, 1767). Yet according to EACW, decoration need only set a mood without a message, thereby engaging the lower capacities of man, such as the external knowing powers of sight and touch without raising the experience to the internal knowing powers of memory, imagination, and eventually the will and intellect. Therefore, the primacy of hospitality (making people feel comfortable with one another) and the social aspects of gathering come at the expense of the higher functions of the human mind and the transcendent realities which surpass mere assembly. With no mention of the Mass, even its gathering component, as headed by Christ (CCC, 1348) and joined with the "heavenly liturgy" (CCC, 1326), EACW limits itself to feelings without insisting that they be governed by reason (CCC, 1767).

Since feelings can be unstable, fleeting, and intensely personal, the primacy they receive in EACW makes for similar liturgy and architecture: idiosyncratic, extraordinarily changeable, rooted solely in today at the expense of the eternal, and despite an occasional nod to tradition, without the intimate connection to the past which makes the Church universal and transhistorical.

Modernist Manifesto­The Photographs

The original 1978 edition of Environment and Art contains 39 powerful, high-quality photographs, many with captions taken from the body of the document’s text. In some instances, the photographs do their job well in that they convey the meaning of the text in forcefully direct examples which greatly reinforce its claims. In other cases, they contradict the stated text. In either case, they form a visual source book for architects and patrons about how a church is "supposed" to look. EACW promotes a "look" derived directly from the anti-historical and minimalist standards of the secular architectural establishment.

The photograph section begins by making special note to the viewer:

while viewing these examples this fundamental truth should be kept in mind: When the Christian community gathers to celebrate its faith and vision, it gathers to celebrate what is most personally theirs and most nobly human and truly Church.

In speaking of this "fundamental truth" one need not discuss at length that the statement is vague, confusing, and does not properly proclaim that liturgy celebrates what is most perfectly God’s, which by His mercy He has given to us. A series of photos follows displaying barren, utilitarian new buildings and selected reductivist renovations.

Partaking of the claims of radical Modernist architects and intellectuals, the photographs present new churches which eschew any clear association with historical precedent. Composed of concrete slabs and cinder block walls, misshapen primitive sculpture, asymmetrical arrangements of tabernacles, altars, and crosses (not to be confused with the very rare image of a crucifix) they exude a forbidding severity which would please the most stringent zealot of the Bauhaus.

The first church building presented in the photograph section is composed of concrete and brick slabs in an arrangement promoted by any number of the secular architectural practitioners of the late 1960s and 1970s (Photo no. 4 NOTE:Numbering correspond to the original text).

Its low, flat roof, lack of any Christian symbolism, and its choice of materials reveal it as an impoverished, inarticulate building which tells the viewer little of its worldly purpose and even less of its transcendent purpose. It flatly denies the call of Sacrosanctum Concilium to provide "signs and symbols of heavenly realities" (SC, 123), and instead simply points to the Modernist-imposed call to be "true to its age" in its use of industrial materials and rejection of history. Ironically, its caption reads that "quality is perceived only by contemplation, by standing back from things and really trying to see them, trying to let them speak to the beholder."

Aside from the questionable assertion that inanimate objects :"speak," the architecture itself is one which by its very nature is devoid of both the signs of analogical relationships and the symbols of heavenly reality in anagogical relationships. Its very design provides little to contemplate, for its absence of articulate bearers of meaning makes it mute.

Typical of the document is a series of interior photographs whose content flatly denies the claim made by their accompanying texts. One caption claims that "contemplation sees the hand stamp of the artist, the honesty and care that went into an object’s making, the pleasing form and color and texture" (nos. 5 and 6).

First, the fallacy of intention does not hold, as "honesty and care" alone do not necessarily make a worthy or appropriate object. Second, the two images intended to exemplify honesty, care, and pleasing color and texture instead depict barren, smooth, white churches filled with machine-made modernistic furnishings which reveal little or no "hand stamp of the artist" other than that provided by the circular saw of a lumber mill.

One image displays a machine-cut rectangular slab of granite serving as a eucharistic pillar with a small, unadorned box serving as the tabernacle, all set against a white concrete block wall.

That this 1978 document presented industrially-produced objects as the best and most appropriate for the modern day is understandable considering the philosophical sway that architectural Modernism had over the architectural "experts" consulted in writing it. That a concrete block could be cited as a place to search for the "hand stamp of the artist" simply defies common logic.

Similarly, a photograph of barren interiors and choir stalls made from machine-cut planks serves to exemplify how one should "sense something special in everything that is seen and heard, touched and smelled and tasted in liturgy." Mediocre, mechanically-produced objects certainly are "special" in that they are readily distinguishable, though it might be more valuable to ask if they are fitting and good.

Other photographs display large, empty churches devoid of altar rails, with centrally placed celebrant’s chairs and absent or off-axis tabernacles, severely angular altars and furnishings, and sculpture more reminiscent of primitive tribal art than the highly developed traditions of the Western Church (nos. 32, 34).

The document does address sympathetic renovation of existing structures, but even so, remains drenched in the historicist mentality of discontinuity common to architectural Modernism. One example shows a Gothic Revival church renovation project which does leave intact three elaborate reredoses (decorative screens surmounting the altar). However, it paints over the wall stenciling, removes the actual altars, relegates the tabernacle to a side shrine under a statue of the Blessed Mother, moves the altar of sacrifice off center, and places a throne-like chair on the central axis in front of the former tabernacle location (nos. 12-19).

The pieces cease to function as parts of current liturgical practice and simply serve as desiccated artifacts of a seemingly outdated piety. Without kneelers, a rail, candles or any other furnishings for devotion, the statues of the saints become quaint museum pieces to be seen but not used. Rather than inspire the priest, the reredos of the high altar provides a pleasant backdrop on which he turns his back. The highest status setting in the building, the high altar in an elaborate sanctuary, no longer houses the Blessed Sacrament, but instead frames the celebrant’s chair.

Even in their partial state of preservation, the architectural appointments in this church no longer maintain a continuity with the past, rather, they speak of the past as just that, passed and distinct from us. In addition, they do not establish and amplify the proper relationship between Sacrament, priest, and people, or between celebrant’s chair and tabernacle.

Most of EACW’s photographs show predictable Modernist-inspired aesthetic conventions combined to support its claims under photograph 25 that "the building or cover enclosing the architectural space is a shelter or ‘skin’ for the liturgical action." The associated church building pictured follows the directive nicely: two angular brick blocks with a black metal cross above.

As a functionalist monument, a "machine for praying," it keeps the rain off the assembly quite well. Contrary to the encouragement of the Second Vatican Council, it does not suggest a building "worthy, becoming, and beautiful" and expressive of "heavenly realities" (sc, 122). Contrary even to EACW itself, its industrial materials and lack of any symbolic program do not bear the weight of mystery, awe, reverence, and wonder (§21). As with the other buildings portrayed in EACW, it does not "look like a church" because it ignores the established architectural conventions and rules of decorum which assist the observer in discerning the use and status of the building.

Flaws Overwhelm EACW’s Stronger Points

One might ask if Environment and Art in Catholic Worship has any redeeming qualities as an architectural guide, and to a certain degree, it does. It cites (though otherwise ignores) one very important section of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy which calls for arts which adorn buildings and rites with due reverence and honor (§8). It speaks, however briefly, of transcendence and the otherness of God (§13). It calls for quality and appropriateness in sacred art and architecture (§19-23), and asks that the ambo be reserved for reading and preaching, and not for commentary and leading song (§74).

Then why is EACW such a flawed document? It remains bound to two flawed premises.

First, in a functionalist way with no legitimate precedent, it defines the experience of the sacred in the assembly only, emphasizing the church building as domus ecclesiae at the expense of the domus Dei.

Second, it partakes of the Modernist assumption that art of "our day" is always best without a serious inquiry into whether it is appropriate.

The result is a document which places the immanent features of the assembly on a higher plane than the transcendent aspects of worship.

Limiting Worship to Horizontal Dimension

In one of the most devastating sentences in the entire document, EACW claims that proper liturgical space "does not seek to impress," but rather should "facilitate the public worship and common prayer in the faith community"(§52). The mechanistic understanding of the church building can hardly find a more succinct definition.

Rather than impress the worshipper and the passerby with the majesty of God as represented in buildings dedicated to Him which inspire piety and awe, EACW’s ideal church encourages mere hospitality and assembly alone. Rather than focus on God and the transhistorical dispensation of the grace earned by His only Son, EACW asks the architect to design an assembly hall rooted in the congregation’s self-image where people can be in view of each other. Rather than ask the church building to serve as a great anagogical symbol pointing to the things of heaven and eternity, EACW asks for a building entirely earthbound, and even then removes it from the earthly analogical signs of history and recognizable conventions of sacred architecture.

EACW deems a building worthy when it "invites and needs an assembly of people to complete it" (photo 27) when one should expect the very presence of God to complete a building made by an assembly of people precisely in order to be fitting for the dignity of the same Christ who promised to be present when people gather in His name. Ultimately, proper architectural design is a reflection of the cardinal virtue of Justice, "the constant and firm will to give their due to God and man" (CCC, 1807).

Time Has Come to Correct Mistakes

As stated in the introduction to Environment and Art in Catholic Worship, the document was produced in response to the re-evaluation of liturgy following the Second Vatican Council and the release of the revised General Instruction of the Roman Missal. EACW was needed, it was argued, since "awareness of liturgical needs and objectives" was clearer than a decade earlier.

The same may be said about EACW two decades later. It was a provisional document said to respond to the call of the Council for each bishops’ conference to produce norms for its region. It was produced by the NCCB’s Liturgy Committee, but was not submitted for vote of the full body of American bishops. The document’s whole-hearted embrace of a questionable liturgical agenda and overreaction against traditional language, architecture, and liturgy are openly recognized by its many critics.

A long-awaited revision is now in the drafting stage. The new text, to be presented to the bishops in November of this year, is expected to replace the current statement, providing a reliable architectural guide that will be examined line by line by the entire body of the NCCB.

Many hope that the new statement will also replace EACW’s incomplete liturgical and architectural definitions with the true understanding of liturgy as the work of the whole Christ, head and body, celebrated unceasingly in the heavenly liturgy with the holy Mother of God, the apostles, and the saints (CCC, 1187).

With the heady, overly-optimistic days of liturgical experimentation long past, the stabilizing presence of the new Catechism of the Catholic Church, and a new architectural climate which often welcomes historical and traditional forms, there is reason to hope that the new document will present an improved and properly balanced understanding of the sacred liturgy.

When this balance occurs, good architecture will follow.

Denis Robert McNamara is a PhD candidate in architecture at the University of Virginia.


Denis R. McNamara

Dr. Denis McNamara is Associate Professor and Executive Director of the Center for Beauty and Culture at Benedictine College in Atchison, KS, and cohost of the award-winning podcast, “The Liturgy Guys.”