Sep 15, 2009

Meeting House or Church:The Hermeneutics of Discontinuity and Reform

Online Edition:
September 2009
Vol. XV, No. 6

Meeting House or Church:
The Hermeneutics of Discontinuity and Reform

by Denis McNamara

The following is Chapter 13 (with minor edits) of Catholic Church Architecture and the Spirit of the Liturgy by Denis McNamara, published by Hillenbrand books (© 2009 Archdiocese of Chicago: Liturgy Training Publications, 3949 S. Racine Avenue, Chicago IL 60609, e-mail [email protected] or visit Reprinted with permission of the publisher.)

Dr. McNamara is assistant director of Chicago’s Liturgical Institute of St. Mary of the Lake/Mundelein Seminary, and has served on the Art and Architecture Commission of the Archdiocese of Chicago. He is the author of articles on art and architecture for many journals (including the Adoremus Bulletin and Sacred Architecture), and his 2005 book Heavenly City: The Architectural Tradition of Catholic Chicago appeared on the Catholic Bestseller List.

Dr. McNamara makes a specialty of bridging the gap between the Church’s great artistic tradition and the documents of the Second Vatican Council by understanding today’s liturgical architecture as sacramental buildings that show the continuity of the Old Testament temple tradition as well as a foretaste of the heavenly Jerusalem. He has also done groundbreaking research on the sacramental meaning of the classical architectural tradition.

It would be a mistake to arrange and decorate the interior of the church in such a way as to create the atmosphere of a comfortable and cozy bourgeois residence…. It should bespeak forcibly the grandeur of God which surpasses all earthly measure, so that it may exalt the worshipper above the sphere and atmosphere of his daily private life; and yet, it must still leave one with the friendly feeling of “the goodness and kindness of our Savior.”…

Directives for the Building of a Church, 1947
German Bishops’ Liturgical Commission (Theodore Klauser, principal author)1

We should no longer build places specifically devoted to the cultic event, or structures which have what is thought of as ecclesiastical character; … there can be no more church building in the sense that is meant when we talk about “houses of God,” shrines, temples, naves, chancels or sacred edifices. We need to return to the non-church.

Edward A. Sövik, Architecture for Worship, 19732

In 1907 noted architect Ralph Adams Cram published a highly influential essay titled “Meeting Houses or Churches?” in which he tried to convince modern Protestant readers that church buildings were not meeting houses, but sacramental buildings. 3 His intended audience was the Reformation denominations that denied the deep sacramentality of liturgical art and architecture. Little did he know that had he lived another thirty years beyond his death in 1942 he would have had to try to convince many of the practitioners of the Roman Catholic Church of the very same points that he had aimed at Baptists and Unitarians at the time of World War I.

The two excerpts cited above display the radical shift in the definitions of church architecture, which affected (and still affect) the Church after the Second Vatican Council. Solemn and public architecture gave way to intimate and domestic; and ecclesiastical architecture, as an inheritance of the entirety of salvation history, ceased to be part of an organically developing, continuous reform. It became something else. And this “something else” has been the topic of discussion in church building committees ever since.

“Modern” Churches

People often call this something else “modern” for lack of better word. But quite often this is not a question of architectural style, or even of Modernism itself. Many churches built in the twentieth century were recognizably modern, yet still churchly. Many of architect Edward Schulte’s churches, for instance, maintained their churchly character even as he drew more and more from contemporary trends.

Ernest Pickering’s book on architectural design from the 1940s showed a page with four church drawings, three of them quite daringly modern for the time, but all four fit quite convincingly under the heading “Ecclesiastical Character”. Even the most radical of the early Modernist church builders maintained this ecclesiastical character by designing buildings of a large scale, great height, and solid and prominent altar even as they made greater use of concrete and largely abandoned traditional styles. Into the 1950s and even into the early 1960s, many churches made use of differing degrees of Modernism as a stylistic choice, but always chose to maintain a churchly character.

One can find many reasons to discuss the appropriateness of Modernism as an architectural style for Catholic churches. Being rooted in socialist, rationalist, functionalist, and revolutionary beginnings, it often does not provide an articulate architectural vocabulary for the church building. But for the most part, even the most modern churches of the first half of the twentieth century were intended to be churches.

The best Modernist churches of the 1950s, for example, used a high level of craft, rich marbles, stained glass, liturgical imagery, and a hierarchical sense of progression from entry to nave to sanctuary and altar. They remained recognizably “modern”, but they were decorated and ornamented and given the scale and material of public buildings.

Just to be clear, it is perfectly reasonable to critique the philosophical underpinnings of many of the founding minds of Modernism, with their inherent anti-traditionalism and rejection of history. But most American architects building churches in the mid-twentieth century were not doctrinaire about the philosophical roots of Modernism. They simply gave a parish a church in a “modern idiom”, and the average passerby recognized it as a church. Even a church design published in 1957 based on the lines of the fallout patterns of an atomic bomb looked like a church!4 Moreover, where one might not recognize a building as a church, as with Marcel’s Breuer’s monastery chapel at St. John’s Abbey in Minnesota, at least it looked important.

But a radical shift occurred after the Council, so much so that a Catholic liturgical journal could write the following about a Catholic church: “Saint Paul’s is really a ‘church house.’ In spite of its particular function as a place of celebration, it remains on the same scale as the neighboring houses. Really a landmark of the church of tomorrow.”5

In 1968 Frederic Debuyst, editor of the influential journal Art D’Eglise, wrote, “The churches of tomorrow, if they are to be really good churches, will have to look more like houses than like the churches of today or yesterday.”6 Nearly two decades later, another author praised a church building for being “virtually indistinguishable from common industrial structures”.7

Never did the Second Vatican Council or any of the Church’s documents that led up to or followed it ever hint that a church should be radically redefined as either a private residence or a factory. But somehow the “spirit” of the Council became the catchall for the adoption of ideas foreign to the Council itself. This “spirit” still lingers in our own time.

Today the field of Catholic liturgical architecture is dominated by competing approaches that tend to fall along lines that are often called “progressive” and “traditional”, but the ideas they represent are much deeper than questions of architectural style or individual preference. Each represents a differing understanding of liturgical theology; though both claim to be adhering to the same Second Vatican Council. The first approach sees the church building as primarily domestic in inspiration, a neutral, comfortable, hospitable “environment” where the primary symbol is the people celebrating, with a theological basis believed to be drawn from the supposed house churches of the first and second century. The other sees the church building as fundamentally public in nature, with a grandeur and dignity rooted in the traditional architecture of history, which must “look like” and “feel like” a church.

Pope Benedict XVI spoke of this sort of “either/or” dichotomy as one of the primary obstacles to the serene reception of the liturgical reforms of the Council. He pondered the question: Why has the implementation of the Council thus far been so difficult in large parts of the Church?8 He cited a quote from Saint Basil, who, after the Council of Nicea in 325 spoke of the “the confused din of uninterrupted clamoring”, which had “filled almost the whole of the Church, falsifying through excess or failure the right doctrine of the faith.” Does this not sound like the discussions of liturgy in recent years, which have earned the deeply oxymoronic name “liturgy wars”? How could that which is supposed to be the source and summit of the Christian life, the bringer of cosmos to chaos, become the source of “war”? Benedict’s answer: In the implementation of the Council, two contrary hermeneutics — that is, two methods of interpreting the meaning of the Council’s texts — came face to face, and differing theological understandings resulted from the one Council. And since church architecture is the built form of theology, it should come as no surprise that differing architectural theologies emerged as well.9

Pope Benedict called one way of interpreting the Council the “hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture”. The other he called a “hermeneutic of reform”. (He does not use the phrase “hermeneutic of continuity”.) In each approach, liturgical reform is intended and taken for granted in light of the Liturgical Movement, of which the young scholar Ratzinger was a proponent. But the hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture, he said, risks “ending in a split between the preconciliar church and the postconciliar Church”.

The hermeneutic of discontinuity argues that the texts of the Council cannot really be trusted to express the “spirit” of the Council because the texts were results of compromises between liberal and conservative bishops. The Council documents, then, are thought best understood as only imperfectly expressing the Council’s goals. Therefore, the “true” spirit of the Council is not found in the texts, but in the impulses toward the new that are contained in them. Thinking of the Council’s texts as somehow hobbled and limited means that one needs to “go courageously beyond the texts” to understand the Council. The problem here is not the attempt to discern the meaning of the Council’s texts, but the nature of the method itself. Going “beyond” the Council means that “a vast margin was left open for the question of how this spirit should subsequently be defined, and room was consequently made for every whim.” It is hard to deny that the “expression of every whim”10 has been all too true in liturgical matters in recent decades.

Pope Benedict claims that the hermeneutic of discontinuity is not simply one interpretive method among many equals, but a fundamental misunderstanding of a Church council, as if it were some parliament that removed the old regime and replaced it with a new mandate. Seeing the Church this way is not right, he argues, because the basic nature of the Church comes from the Lord and does not change in its essentials. The Church indeed adapts from time to time for better sacramental and pastoral understanding, but it does not cease to be what it was and become something else. Therefore its fundamental Truths and liturgical expressions maintain consid- erable stability.

By contrast, Pope Benedict says, the hermeneutic of reform is the proper key to understanding the Council. This approach sees that renewal comes through clarification of inherited Tradition in continuity with the Church founded by the Lord. Benedict reminds us that the defining characteristics of this hermeneutic were expressed by Pope John XXIII at the opening of the Council itself when he stated that the goal of the Council was to “transmit the doctrine, pure and integral, without any attenuation or distortion”. The doctrine of the Church, liturgical and otherwise, is not to be locked up in a cage as if the Holy Spirit was no longer at work in the Church. The “precious treasure” of the Faith, therefore, should indeed be reappraised in light of the current age with adherence to all the teaching of the Church “in its entirety and preciseness”.

So what we have here is indeed a pious skepticism11, trustfully holding on to that which is old, but still seeking to see new facets of the same inherited gem. Importantly, the hermeneutic of reform is decidedly not an antiquarian restorationism, but a proper understanding of the Council and its intentions. By definition, a reform combines continuity and discontinuity, since any reform requires that something old is replaced or fulfilled by some new insight. But reform always presumes substantive continuity with that which came before, both in externals and spirit.

This line of inquiry leads to concrete responses in liturgy and its architecture. The hermeneutic of discontinuity is strongly entrenched, so that most people see in the liturgy an air of casualness — the vernacular, the priest “facing the people”, etc. — as the defining features of Vatican II. But Pope Benedict recalls that the Council itself says nothing of the direction of prayer or congregational creativity, and he states that Latin is to be conserved while vernacular may be given wider scope.12 In fact, he writes, if Mass were said ad orientem (the priest and people both facing liturgical east), in Latin with some vernacular, using Gregorian chant, it would take a liturgical scholar of significant sophistication to even notice that the current Missal of Paul VI were being used at all.

The solution to the liturgy wars, he proposed, is to look again with gratitude at the Second Vatican Council and interpret and implement its texts with a proper hermeneutic. Since a lesser hermeneutic has operated in differing degrees in the last fifty years or so, a fresh look is needed to determine how we can enter a more mature stage in understanding Vatican II. Those attached to the hermeneutic of discontinuity will no doubt find this difficult. Those who genuinely oppose the reforms of the Council will find this difficult as well. In either case, those who build churches today need some way to assess the meaning of the Council’s teaching on liturgy and to discover that it was the entire tradition of the Church, polished anew by the Liturgical Movement, which gave us Sacrosanctum Concilium. The hermeneutic of reform will always work in concert with this inheritance.

The Hermeneutic of Discontinuity and the House Church

For a time, a major publisher of Catholic liturgical materials published a series of booklets about Catholic churches called “The Meeting House Essays”. One author entitled her book Shaping a House for the Church, another called his From Temple to Meeting House, and yet another, God’s House is Our House.13

Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago wrote in 1984 that a church building was “a kind of living room of the family of God … our room when we assemble as the Church. Here we are at home.”14 Others consciously refused to use the word church to refer to a church building because of its supposed origin in secular houses of early Christians.

Edward Sövik’s hugely influential book Architecture for Worship called for a “return” to the “non-Church”, which he chose to call a “centrum” so that he wouldn’t have to use the word church at all. His writings advocated every possible device to prevent these “centrums” from acquiring a sacral character. Though an Evangelical Lutheran himself and convinced of Lutheran principles about sacramental theology, his writings and ideas were espoused by Catholic architects and theologians.

The 1978 document of the United States Bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy called Environment and Art in Catholic Worship (EACW) embraced much of his philosophy and showed buildings designed either by Sövik’s office or under his inspiration.

A prominent priest and liturgical consultant dedicated his most recent book to Sövik.15 One author praises Sövik’s St. Leo’s Catholic Church in Pipestone, Minnesota (1969), as an example of a non-church built for a Roman Catholic congregation, which reflects the “concerns present in the wake of post-Vatican II developments” because it places the clergy in the midst of the laity and avoids an “altar-dominant space”.16 Yet another author praised this same church for avoiding “pompous, authoritarian otherworldliness” because of its squat form and its lack of ornamentation!17 Others found it a sacred duty to remove old high altars as signs of a “pre-conciliar” ritual sacrality and radically re-order the plan of the church so that the people are “gathered” around the “table” in imitation of a secular dinner party in a private home. Purifying the sacred vessels became known unofficially in sacristies and seminaries as “doing the dishes”.

Within this theological and architectural milieu, the priest-celebrant was consciously referred to as a presider, because “presiding” was thought more accurate than “celebrating”.18 The role of the “presider” was not understood as in continuity with the very same priesthood of only fifteen years earlier, but involved a “whole new job description”.19

Images of butterflies, dandelions, ceramic chalices, and leavened bread appeared in liturgical books and hand missals. All traces of connection to the Christus totus, the whole Christ which includes the liturgy of heaven, was abandoned or nearly so, in favor of the notion that “the human community assembled is the most important liturgical reality in the environment”.20

Liturgical architecture was no longer thought of as sacramental or having holiness proper to itself by virtue of its consecration, but instead it acquired “sacredness from the sacred action of the faith community” that used it.21 The subject of the liturgical action was redefined to be the congregation alone, no longer understood as the exercise of the priestly office of Christ to whom the Church was grafted as a Mystical Body. In certain writings, even the object of worship, God the Father, was neglected in favor of a truly striking anthropocentrism.

But these ideas were not simply coming from people on the margins of experimental theology. The aforementioned document on liturgical architecture, Environment and Art in Catholic Worship, called the gathered assembly the most important symbol in the liturgy.22 Because the congregation alone was redefined as the most important symbol, the building in which it met could be redefined as a non-didactic “environment” or “worship space”, just as a hothouse serves as an environment for a plant. It provides the air, humidity, and moisture but is otherwise neutral. Therefore, the primary concern for a church building was making people feel comfortable and welcome in a climate of hospitality that reminded them of their own homes. The building itself was radically desacramentalized, being called a “cover for enclosing the architectural space” in order to give it no theological import whatsoever. And in perhaps the single most damaging line written about liturgical architecture in the twentieth century, a church was called a “‘skin’ for liturgical action which need not ‘look like’ anything else, past or present”.23

Because “the most powerful experience of the sacred” was claimed to be found in the persons celebrating, “that is, the action of the assembly”, the authors of EACW said, churches should be “designed as general gathering spaces”.24 This document proposed a truly amazing revolution in the theology of church buildings.

[Note that EACW was a publication of a subcommittee of the then-Bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy (now the Committee on Divine Worship). It was never brought to a vote of the full body of bishops. EACW was replaced by Built of Living Stones, by the plenary vote of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops in 2000.]

There have been many arguments made for and against EACW.25 Understanding its emphases provides one of the clearest guideposts for understanding much of the church architecture of the last thirty years. Its choices are highly biased and romantic, somehow envisioning the so-called “house church” as an ideal model, and therefore re-imagining the “environment for worship” on flawed premises.

The questions raised in the 1960s and 1970s are worth noting, evaluating, and purifying — exaggerated as they often were — because revolutions do not arise from a vacuum. People of genuine good will believed that reform was necessary. However, a certain clarity arises as the liturgical reform passes through its adolescence. The old “either/or” categorization so crucial to a generation that came of age in a time of clericalism and ritualism simply does not apply today, and the last few generations have been living in the counter-balancing excesses of the period.

Recovering Wholeness, Balance

The great challenge today is not to reject out of hand all recent discussions — including the “revolutionary” tone of several decades ago and the so-called “restorationist” tone of more recent years — but to bring a proper sense of wholeness and balance to the issue of liturgy and liturgical architecture. Restoring the sacral character to the liturgy and the church building does not mean that “participation” will be taken from the people or that people will sit behind columns. In fact, we must be on guard against an uncritical return to pre-conciliar conditions. But, conversely, understanding that individual Christians offer the Mass with the priest as baptized members of the Mystical Body does not mean that the ministerial priesthood must be diminished.

Sacrosanctum Concilium (SC) tells us that liturgical participation requires precisely the exercise of the baptismal priesthood, which is more than a mere external busyness. Taking a cue from Mediator Dei, it also states that the faithful should “not be there as strangers or silent spectators”, but “should give thanks to God; by offering the Immaculate Victim, not only through the hands of the priest, but also with him, they should learn also to offer themselves; through Christ the Mediator, they should be drawn day by day into ever more perfect union with God and with each other, so that finally God may be all in all” (SC 47).

Offering the self as a victim to Christ means participating actively as part of the Mystical Body, as being joined to the Son who offers Himself to the Father through the exercise of His priestly office in the liturgy so that God’s presence might bring unity, peace, and the fulfillment of the history of salvation. Here is active participation in the mystery of the liturgy! And how much more it is than arguments based on political terminology of “pre” and “post” conciliar language about the “bad old days” or the “good old days”.

Our job is to glorify God and be transformed by divine life today, and our liturgical art and architecture ought to show this glorification now, because “in a church, everything is different from that which we constantly see around us and in our homes.… The walls are painted with sacred images; everything shines brightly; everything raises the spirit.…”26

Quite often we are still circling around the fringes of the Council’s treasures. It is time to drink deeply from its wells!

Our challenge now is to assess today’s prevailing principles in light of a proper reading of the Second Vatican Council. Actually reading the great scholars of the Liturgical Movement — Prosper Gueranger, Romano Guardini, Pius Parsch and Virgil Michel just to name a few — and understanding its reforms in liturgical art and architecture makes clear that we have often betrayed the intentions of Vatican II through an antiquarianism that overly glamorized the house church.

Re-balancing liturgical priorities is right and just, and grows from a hermeneutic of reform. Radically redefining the nature of church buildings is a thought-process rooted in a hermeneutic of discontinuity. Nothing in the Council documents, Mediator Dei, or in the mainstream Liturgical Movement argued for the redefinition of liturgical architecture as something that was to avoid otherworldliness or emulate industrial buildings. In fact, the whole point of the Liturgical Movement was to increase the notion of otherworldliness so people would know they were part of a Mystical Body that participated in a sacrifice that was an exercise of the priestly office of Jesus Christ with the heavenly hosts of angels and saints.

One is reminded yet again of the Council’s call for art and architecture to be “signs and symbols of heavenly realities” (SC 123) and to help the faithful understand that they shared “in that heavenly liturgy which is celebrated in the holy city of Jerusalem” with the “warriors of the heavenly army” (SC 7, 8) for the glorification of God and the sanctification of the faithful. Here is the language of the Liturgical Movement. Here is the reality in which people were meant to participate actively, consciously, and fruitfully; both internally and externally (SC 11, 19).

For this reason the altar, tabernacle, and crucifix were made more prominent, sight lines were improved, and the vernacular was given wider scope. A “noble beauty” (SC 124) was intended to make these realities more compelling by being complete, ordered to God, and radiantly clear.

Devotional images were to be retained but in appropriate places. Art of the modern day could be used if it adorned “the sacred building and holy rites with due honor and reverence” (SC 123). Sacred furnishings were not to be disposed of, for they were understood as “ornaments of the house of God” (SC 126).

Read again the words of Vatican II: God’s beauty. Holy rites. Sacred building. House of God. Sacred images. And yet we were (and are still) asked to build empty dining rooms with wooden tables for altars. Worse yet, we were asked to build the “non-church”. All in the name of the Second Vatican Council, which proposed the very opposite!

Outside of the theology of the Reformation, the church building has never been understood as a home grown large. In the time of the Acts of the Apostles, the early Christians repeatedly returned to the temple for prayer, as scripture tells us. Their public singing of hymns and psalms in the Acts of the Apostles has clear ties to the worship of the temple and remains in the Mass to this day. The church more likely grew from the synagogue tradition as well, as Louis Bouyer has written: “The New Testament was born not only out of the Old but from it…. And the Church, the material temple in which this assembly of God is to meet … had its immediate preparation in the Jewish synagogue.”27

The synagogue was a ritually public building of significant architectural import, not a domestic building. But in a sense, this line or argument is a straw man, because the validity of ecclesial action does not depend solely on an antiquarian precedent. Certainly the Church looks to her tradition to find inspiration and understanding, but clearly eschews antiquarianism and trusts that the Holy Spirit gives new insight to the Church in different ages.28 Our age is no different. The Church welcomes the offerings of the age, but always checks them for appropriateness for sacred worship. Sometimes this takes thirty or forty years to sort itself out.

Indeed, the church building is a place where people meet, but churches are “not simply gathering places” (CCC 1180), but are places that show us how God’s dwelling with humanity looks now and will look at the end of time when the plan of salvation is fulfilled. The justification today for building glorious churches is not the shadowy typology of the Temple of Solomon or the ordinariness of a private home, but because we exist in the time of the Resurrection, where the veil is torn, we can know the realities of the heavenly Holy of Holies by way of sacramental image. The church is also a house, but it is more akin to a palace to which we are welcomed as a royal people with the King. Aquinas tells us that even though Christ and the apostles met in a secular house for the Last Supper, we still need a consecrated church building because the building signifies the Church, “and is termed a church; and so it is fittingly consecrated, both to represent the holiness which the Church acquired from the Passion, as well as to denote the holiness required of them who have to receive this Sacrament.”29

The building is not a neutral meeting hall, but a signifier, and an incredibly important one.

Domus Dei — Domus Ecclesiae

The Old Testament speaks repeatedly of the temple as God’s “house”, where God dwelled. And though it started in the tent of Moses’ tabernacle, it was no ordinary tent; its symbolic richness and complexity were clearly revelatory. God Himself asked for a temple of serious public architecture where every detail had a meaning as a typological precursor to Christ. The subsequent move of God’s presence from the limitations of the temple to the “living stones” of the ekklesia [Church] does not abolish the law of liturgical architecture, but fulfills it. The church building became a sign of the ekklesia, an icon of the people restored, filled with divine life, doing something different, important and heavenly. As such, it garnered the architectural symbolism of decoration, ornament, and building types proper to its day. It also revealed an eschatological dimension that required the assistance of “high” art, with systems of structure (decoration) and meaning (ornament), showing restoration on the natural level and the presence of the heavenly beings on the supernatural level.

The church building is indeed the domus ecclesiae, the house of the People of God, the place where they know they belong because they have become God’s adopted children. However, it is also the domus Dei, because it is still the place where God dwells, not only in the people who gather there as part of the Mystical Body, but in the Word enshrined there and the priest who acts in persona Christi — in the person of Christ. Moreover, the Blessed Sacrament reserved there in a tabernacle completes and fulfills the notion of God’s abiding presence on the kapporeth [Heb.: “mercy seat”] of the Ark of the Covenant without taking anything away from the presence of Christ in His people who need to take the message to all nations. “The Eucharistic Presence in the tabernacle does not set another view of the Eucharist alongside or against the Eucharistic celebration, but simply signifies its complete fulfillment”.30 To deny this theological and artistic richness is to deny the very heart of active participation to the faithful and smacks of elitist neo-clericalism and snooty professionalism.

So our building is still temple and synagogue. We participate in the Liturgy of the Word as a fulfillment of the synagogue, then we move to the Liturgy of the Eucharist where the Victim is offered by the faithful with the priest as a Mystical Body in the unbloody offering of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. This liturgical reality makes demands on us as people who offer it in spirit and in truth as one unified body welcomed into this mystery. But we also remember we are hospitably welcomed into the sacrificial offering of Christ, which returns to us transformed as a glorified, festive banquet of the Eucharist. This new reality, though offered once and for all, has yet to bear all of its fruits in time and space. The “already but not yet principle” remains at work. To say it one more time: In the time of image, the building remains an image of the fullness of the time when all is restored and divinized.

Precisely because the church building is so multivalent, it is easy to become “caught” on only one of its many strains and carry it to exaggeration. What an individual thinks of the temple’s influence on the origins of Christian worship will be a highly important factor in what kind of church building he finds suitable. After the Council, many thought that the notion of church building as synagogue and welcoming “house” was important, and indeed it was. But to limit the church building to just one of its facets is to do it a disservice, as it denies the faithful full participation in what is rightly theirs: all of the facets of the liturgy. Any early Christian knowledgeable in the entire biblical tradition would never have seen the Eucharist as a mere fellowship meal in a secular dining room.

This notion of continuity provides the reason why Eusebius could rejoice in the early fourth century over a highly developed sense of ritual that flourished under Constantine. It did not, and certainly could not have, sprung up ex nihilo [from nothing] at Constantine’s conversion, nor could its art and architecture.

In describing church buildings, Eusebius can speak simultaneously of the Temple of Solomon, the temple of living stones and the heavenly city of Jerusalem. He sometimes called church buildings “houses of prayer”, or “houses of the Lord”, but almost as often called them “temples”. Echoes of the temple are heard as he calls the altar the “Holy of Holies” and the bishop who built it the new Bezalel and Zerubbabel, the builders of the Temple of Jerusalem named in scripture. Moreover, he calls the Church the “living temple” composed of “living and moving stones”, well-built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets and with Christ Himself as cornerstone.

Going even further, he compares the building of a church to the building of the temple, which was made “after the heavenly types [were] given in symbols”, calling a church built in his own time the “magnificent temple of the highest God … corresponding to the pattern of the greater as a visible to an invisible.…”31

The making of a church, then, was to make an image of the heavenly temple. Here we find type, image, and reality understood in terms that would later be called sacramental theology. Today we can call it architectural theology.

We can learn from Eusebius as we can from all intervening generations. Each epoch in history, either by its virtues or failures, has something to teach us about the inexhaustible nature of God and the demands of proper worship. The early Christians and the Byzantines gave us a vision of architectural glory, which was deeply rooted in biblical ideals. John Damascene clarified the great theological gift of the icon. The medievals gave a distinct sense of the heavenly Jerusalem as transcendent and deeply incarnational, adding much to the understanding of the saints and the sacraments. Trent further opened up liturgical symbols to the people in rich iconography and dramatic architecture. The nineteenth-century revivals, while often overly focused on architecture rather than theology, nonetheless brought with them a highly developed sense of semiotics and churchliness. Various popes have further commented on the liturgy and church buildings as the need arose, picking up speed in the twentieth century with Pius X’s claim that active participation in the liturgy would be manifested by singing the liturgy and receiving the Eucharist frequently. Pius XII further urged liturgical clarification and attempted to curb the excesses of the reform movement. Any art history book can chronicle the many styles and expressions that have graced the Church over the millennia, but every way of building is either useful to us now — or not — because of its theological continuities with apostolic tradition, not because of its architectural innovation.

The word style has been used infrequently in this book, for the very reason that “styles” are composed of a set of facts that are themselves contingent, changing, and time-bound. Style is the way claritas (Lat. clarity, transparency) manifests itself in time and place. Some styles are better at claritas than others by virtue of how well they express theological realities, while other styles remain highly dependent on the conventional understanding current at a place in a specific time. Some are more self-conscious of being “about” time and place than others. But style should always remain secondary to proper liturgical theology, and proper liturgical theology always comes from the inspiration of the Holy Spirit with the approval of the Church. Understanding the church building properly means understanding the liturgical and theological tradition of the Church in light of its continuities, then focusing those Truths so that the eye may see them in better focus. Here we find the hermeneutic of reform, not the hermeneutic of discontinuity. And here we find the path to the serene reception of the Second Vatican Council in art and architecture as well as the liturgy in general. An era of liturgical and artistic beauty is ready to flower, the energy of its petals bursting through the plump buds loaded with the integritas of right belief so as to reveal the claritas of right praxis.


1 “Directives for the Building of a Church” was composed by The Rev. Theodore Klauser, Rector of the University of Bonn, by order of and in cooperation with the Liturgical Commission of the Catholic bishops of Germany. It appeared first in English in Orate Fratres, December 1949, and was included in J.B. O’Connell, Church Building and Furnishing: The Church’s Way, University of Notre Dame Liturgical Studies Series, v. 2 (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1955).

2 Edward A. Sövik, Architecture for Worship (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing, 1973), 7, 39.

3 Ralph Adams Cram, “Meeting Houses or Churches”, The Gothic Quest (New York: Baker and Taylor, 1907).

4 Architectural Record, Religious Buildings for Today (New York: F.W. Dodge Corp., 1957).

5 “St. Paul’s Church, Waterloo, Belgium”, Liturgical Arts 39 (August, 1971), 115.

6 Frederic Debuyst, Modern Architecture and Christian Celebration (London: Lutterworth Press, 1968), 30.

7 Michael De Sanctis, “Renewing the City of God: The Reform of Catholic Architecture in the United States”, Meeting House Essays (Chicago: Liturgy Training Publications, 1994), 20, 23.

8 Address of Pope Benedict XVI to the Roman Curia, December 22, 2005, reproduced in Origins: CNS Documentary Service 35 (January 26, 2006), 536.

9 Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger has addressed the differing theologies of worship, noting in particular that the notion of the Christian liturgy as sacrifice has been under attack in recent years.

He chronicles how the clarity of the Mass as sacrifice grew in the early Church under figures such as Saint Clement and was eventually canonized at the Council of Trent. “In consequence”, he writes, “it is said there is an urgent need for firm action to counteract the dogmatization of this error in order that desacralization may finally be accomplished; that the sacramental ministry may be replaced by a functional one; that the still flourishing remnants of the former magic — sacrifice — may be banished; that a nonmagical, rationally structured ‘efficient’ office that will at last achieve what Jesus intended may be established in the spirit of Jesus.”

He continues: “Its real goal — often scarcely realized by itself — is to free itself from the burden of history….” See Joseph Ratzinger, Principles of Catholic Theology (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1987), 250 – 251. With this premise in mind, we can see that many of the theological premises of “progressive” Catholicism (and therefore church architecture) have direct ties to this anti-historical, anti-sacral way of thinking. We might also recognize that the Modernist movement in architecture grew from similar principles; namely, an Enlightenment-inspired desire to be free of history and any trace of the “magic” of non-discursive thought.

10 Address of Pope Benedict XVI, 536.

11 Pious skepticism, a term used by architectural historian C. William Westfall, indicates an approach to inherited tradition that assumes a pious or fundamentally reverent attitude toward things carried forward from the past as trustworthy. At the same time it carefully inspects and adapts them for current-day usage. A pious piety accepts the inheritance of the past without the possibility of change or organic growth. A skeptical piety assumes a fundamentally skeptical approach to the inherited tradition while assuming the possibility of some value being found there. Skeptical skepticism assumes no value for the current day can come from the inherited tradition. The apostolic nature of the Church and its theology of unfolding knowledge of God over time place it in greatest sympathy with the approach of pious skepticism.

12 Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, Conference on the Tenth Anniversary of the motu proprio Ecclesia Dei, October 24, 1998.

13 Marchita Mauck, Shaping a House for the Church (Chicago: LTP, 1990), Harold W. Turner, From Temple to Meeting House (The Hague: Mouton Publishers, 1979), and Richard Vosko, God’s House Is Our House: Re-imagining the Environment for Worship (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2006).

14 Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, Our Communion, Our Peace, Our Promise (Chicago: LTP, 1984), 7.

15 Vosko, God’s House Is Our House, xvi.

16 Mark A. Torgerson, An Architecture of Immanence: Architecture for Worship and Ministry Today (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007), 174.

17 De Sanctis, “Renewing the City of God”, 20, 23.

18 Robert W. Hovda, Strong, Loving and Wise: Presiding in Liturgy (Washington, DC: Liturgical Conference, 1976), viii.

19 Hovda, Strong, Loving and Wise, 3.

20 Hovda, Strong, Loving and Wise, 49.

21 Bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy, Environment and Art in Catholic Worship (Washington, DC: NCCB, 1978), par. 41.

22 EACW, section heading II, par. 28-29.

23 EACW, 42.

24 EACW, 29.

25 For more on EACW, see Denis McNamara, “Can We Keep Our Churches Catholic?” Adoremus Bulletin (February-March 1998), and many others, especially Michael Rose, Ugly as Sin (Manchester, NH: Sophia Institute Press, 2001).

26 Alexis, Patriarch of Moscow, “Paschal Message to the rectors of the Churches in Moscow (1947)”, cited in Leonid Ouspensky, Theology of the Icon (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1978), 36.

27 Louis Bouyer, Liturgy and Architecture (South Bend, IN: Notre Dame Press, 1967), 8-9.

28 Pius XII, encyclical Mediator Dei §63: “Clearly no sincere Catholic can refuse to accept the formulation of Christian doctrine more recently elaborated and proclaimed as dogmas by the Church, under the inspiration and guidance of the Holy Spirit with abundant fruit for souls, because it pleases him to hark back to the old formulas. No more can any Catholic in his right senses repudiate existing legislation of the Church to revert to prescriptions based on the earliest sources of canon law. Just as obviously unwise and mistaken is the zeal of one who in matters liturgical would go back to the rites and usage of antiquity, discarding the new patterns introduced by disposition of divine Providence to meet the changes of circumstances and situation.”

29 Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, tertia pars, q. 83, art. 3.

30 Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, The Spirit of the Liturgy (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2000), 89-90.

31 Eusebius, Church History, X.4.25 – 26.



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.”