For nearly a century, Catholic churches and the faithful who use them have frequently been the collateral damage in architectural and theological debates. Even as early as the 1920s, the Modernist polemic argued that all buildings in a modern age should use the factory as their prototype, and therefore churches should use glass, steel, and concrete to conform to a perceived industrial spirit of the age. By the 1950s and 60s, ideas about participation drawn from the Liturgical Movement had become widespread, focusing at times on practical considerations of the altar, ambo, baptistery, and seating arrangements to the detriment of the larger sacramental meaning of the church building itself. By the 1970s, a body of bishops could publish the claim that a church building was a “cover enclosing architectural space” which “need not ‘look like’ anything else, past or present.” From the 1980s through early 2000s, the church building was frequently redefined as a large domestic interior, with furnishings and finishes meant to evoke a secular home, called an “environment,” that privileged a climate of hospitality. In recent years, the revival of traditional architecture has brought more traditional looking churches, often rightly supported by an appeal to the example of antiquity, the splendor due to God, or the dignity of worship. But arguments for the use of traditional architecture have frequently overlooked the biblical and sacramental nature of church buildings.
Interestingly, the Church herself provides texts related to church architecture which qualify as theologia prima, that is, a first-order or primary source from which other theological conclusions are drawn. Theologian David Fagerberg has written extensively on how the law of prayer is itself theologia prima, a fount and source of theology. While norms and laws given in the General Instruction of the Roman Missal and the Code of Canon Law have been occasional touchstones in recent church design, the Church’s liturgical books provide the most important repository of her liturgical theology, and, consequently, the Order of the Dedication of a Church and an Altar (ODCA) reveals the Church’s own mind on the nature of her architecture. In other words, theologia prima leads to understanding the nature of things, and reading the ODCA makes clear that the church building is more than a factory, a meeting house, an environment, a space, or a living room of God. Rather, it is a sacrament of the glorified Mystical Body of Christ.
“Special Image of the Church”
The opening decree promulgating the OCDA calls the church building “a special image of the Church, which is God’s temple built from living stones.” Accordingly, the very first words introducing “The Order of Laying a Foundation Stone” (LFS) urge that the faithful “be reminded that the structure to be built of stone will be a visible sign of the living Church, God’s building, which they themselves constitute” (1). It then footnotes two sources. The first, 1 Corinthians 3:9, calls the Church in Corinth “God’s building.” The second note refers to paragraph 6 of the Second Vatican Council’s document Lumen Gentium, which aptly summarizes this analogous relationship between Christ, the Church, and the church building: “Often the Church has also been called the building of God. The Lord Himself compared Himself to the stone which the builders rejected, but which was made into the cornerstone. On this foundation the Church is built by the apostles, and from it the Church receives durability and consolidation. This edifice has many names to describe it: the house of God in which dwells His family; the household of God in the Spirit; the dwelling place of God among men; and, especially, the holy temple. This Temple, symbolized in places of worship built out of stone, is praised by the Holy Fathers and, not without reason, is compared in the liturgy to the Holy City, the New Jerusalem. As living stones, we here on earth are built into it” (6).
Accordingly, the very first prayer in the ODCA asks that the people present may “grow into the temple of [God’s] glory” in the context of a church building because “places of worship built out of stone” signify that very reality (LFS, 13). The operative theological word here is temple, a building which serves primarily as the place where God dwells with his people, but secondarily as a building outside of fallen time and space which presents a microcosm of glorified, restored creation. In the Old Testament, the Temple of Solomon was a carefully designed building composed of costly stones perfectly assembled (1 Kings 5:15), and people marveled that its stones were so finely cut as to need no mortar. To enter the Temple was to leave the earth, return to the glorified Garden, and stand in the restorative Presence of God. The Temple was also called the “house” of God, not because it resembled domestic structures, but because God chose to dwell there with his people, much as the genealogical line of Christ was called the “house” of David.
The Temple’s fulfillment occurs when Christ says, “destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up,” followed by the author’s explanation: “but he spoke of the temple of his body” (John 2:19-21). Christ, then, was the new and perfect “place” where God dwelled with his people, particularly after the Resurrection, where Christ’s body was radiant with divine life. And the Church, which continues Christ’s mission in the world and so “is” Christ, shares a similar structure. Under Christ’s headship, its many members assemble perfectly and make Christ—that is, God’s Presence—known in the world. For this reason, Paul could describe the members of the Church as both “God’s building” and Christ’s Mystical Body (1 Corinthians 3:9; 1 Corinthians 12: 12-31; Colossians 1:18). 1 Peter 2:5 similarly urges Christians to be like living stones built into a spiritual house.
The comparison is clear: Christ’s own personal body was glorified, made of many members, and through it God dwelled in the world. Christ’s Mystical Body, the Church, sacramentally manifests Christ’s glory, is made of many members, and renders Christ present in the world. The church building follows suit: it is made of many architectural members rightly assembled which become a “sign of the living Church” brought to glory. Church building, then, is not a mere pleasant nicety, but an integral part of Christian revelation which God builds through us, as the ritual itself recalls: “you entrust the construction of sacred buildings to your faithful…grant that they may grow into the temple of your glory…assembled by your hand in the heavenly city” (LFS, 30). Just as the Father builds the Mystical Body through Christ, he builds church buildings through his Church, and they signify Christ’s Body in the world.
The theology of the church building is developed and unambiguously presented in the introduction to Chapter II of the ODCA, under the heading, “The Nature and Dignity of Churches.” The word “nature” is a flashing light in ecclesiastical documents, telling the reader about the fundamental meaning of the mystery celebrated. Citing John 2:21, the introduction reads: “Through his Death and Resurrection, Christ became the true and perfect temple of the New Covenant and gathered a people to be his own” (“The Order of the Dedication of a Church” (DC), 1). In other words, Christ perfectly fulfilled God’s promise to dwell on earth with his people and make them one with the Father. Importantly, it notes that “this holy people…is the Church, that is, the temple of God built of living stones.”
The unambiguous ontological conclusion follows: “Rightly, therefore, from ancient times the name ‘church’ has also been given to the building in which the Christian community is gathered to hear the Word of God, to pray together, to take part in the sacraments, and to celebrate the Eucharist“ (DC, 1). Here the theologia prima available in the Church’s liturgical books leaves no room for ambiguity, decimating the common mantra that the Church is only truly the people, so therefore the church building has no value beyond practical necessity. It also invalidates the commonly used anti-sacramental terms “environment” and “space” for church buildings. According to the Church’s own books, the church building is a tangible, material sign of the Mystical Body of Christ, and the space that it encloses takes its character from its tangibility determined by the decisions of its architect. As an image of the glorified Mystical Body of Christ, it is, like Christ’s own person, “at once the house of God and the house of the People of God” (LFS, 22).
The introduction goes further in elucidating the true nature of the church building, calling it a “special sign of the pilgrim Church on earth and an image of the Church dwelling in heaven” (DC, 2). Here is explained the broad meaning of Christ’s Mystical Body and the full liturgical assembly in general: it includes and signifies the people assembled in the earthly pews and those brought to heavenly glory: the angels and saints. Fittingly, the Introduction also paraphrases Sacrosanctum Concilium 122, noting the building should be “a sign and symbol of heavenly realities” (DC, 3). In sacramental theology, a sign points to another reality somewhere else, while a symbol makes present and active the reality it signifies, meaning that the church building is not simply a reminder of the nature of Christ’s Mystical Body but is expected to rise to the level of sacrament, broadly conceived. And the implications are clear. God’s earthly people are meant to grow into membership in this body through the sacraments of the Church, and the church building foreshadows the glorified unity of heaven and earth which awaits them at the end of time.
Liturgical Prayers as Theologia Prima
The prayers and readings of the Order of the Dedication of a Church and an Altar overflow with theological content, from the prayer at the laying of a foundation stone which speaks of the “holy Church” as “built on the foundation of the Apostles with Christ Jesus as the chief cornerstone” (LFS, 17) to the readings from the Book of Kings on Solomon’s Temple (LFS, 19) to Isaiah prophesying of the coming of Christ as the “precious cornerstone as a sure foundation” (LFS, 19). The Universal Prayer for the laying of a foundation stone takes a sweeping biblical view, asking God to “gather his scattered children” (LFS, 30) in an echo of his gathering the tribes of Israel. These scattered children are like the uncut stones scattered across a building site, waiting to be “hewn and dressed by God’s hand” (LFS, 30) and become ready to be assembled into the building itself. This sheds light on 1 Peter 2:5, in which Christians are equated with “living stones being built up as a spiritual house.”
But the greatest richness of theological content lies, perhaps, in the Preface to the Eucharistic Prayer in the liturgy of the dedication of the church itself (DC, 75). In five short sentences, it summarizes the entire theology of the church building, beginning by explaining why churches exist at all. While acknowledging that God has “made the whole world a temple” of his glory so that his name “might everywhere be extolled,” the first sentence notes that church buildings are permitted by God’s graciousness: “you allow us to consecrate to you apt places for the divine mysteries.” The word “consecrate” traditionally indicates that things pass “from common or profane order to a new state, and become the subjects or the instruments of Divine protection.” Unlike the homogenous space of the world, the space inside a consecrated church is made “apt,” or especially fitting, for the celebration of God’s own saving work. And so, the second sentence notes, this “house of prayer, built by human labor” is dedicated joyfully to God’s majesty.
As the prayer continues, it makes two further claims: “here is foreshadowed the mystery of the true Temple, here is prefigured the image of the heavenly Jerusalem.” The word “mystery” can be translated as sacrament. The “true Temple,” of course, carries multiple meanings, but in each case, it signifies the intimate union of God with his creation, from the Garden of Eden as “temple” where Adam and Eve lived in easy relationship with God to the Temple of Solomon as microcosm of glorified heaven and earth. But the term “heavenly Jerusalem,” of which the church building is the image, absorbs and completes the previous terms. “Heavenly Jerusalem” is identical with heaven itself at the end of time, when the rift between God and humanity that has festered since the Fall is completely overcome, and God and his people are so unified as to be called “married” in the Wedding Feast of the Lamb (Revelation 19:7), an eternal state of unified, glorified, transfigured bliss made possible by Christ. This Christological, theological, and eschatological claim is then sealed by the next sentence: “For you made the Body of your Son, born of the tender Virgin, the Temple consecrated to you, in which the fullness of the Godhead might dwell.” The Church is Christ’s body, and the church building is an image of that body brought to glory.
The final paragraph of the preface continues the notion of heaven as Jerusalem, calling it a “holy city.” Like a body and a building, a city is a corporate entity made of many members which must be properly arranged under proper headship to thrive. “Built on the foundation of the apostles with Christ as the chief cornerstone,” the rest of the city is “to be built of chosen stones given life by the Spirit and bonded in charity.” “Chosen stones” refers to the many members of Christ’s body, given life by the Spirit the way a soul gives life to a body. In yet one more architectural analogy, the members are bonded together by God’s love—another name for the Holy Spirit—the way stones would be joined by mortar, or absence of mortar, as with the Temple of Solomon. When the City-Church-Body is fully assembled, the prayer proclaims, God will be “all in all” for “endless ages,” and the “light of Christ will shine undimmed forever.” It is easy to see how a great church images this theological reality: every stone is in its proper place after being shaped by workers’ hands, and gem-like color and radiance shine forth while the worshipers inside sing together the perfect praise of God made possible by Christ and the Holy Spirit.
A Place for Eternity
Church architecture and its allied arts, then, allow worshipers to participate in time and space in that which is outside of time and space: the realized perfection of God’s eternal plan for salvation. Much more than a meeting house, more than a neutral backdrop for liturgical action, more than a living room, the church building is part of the rite itself, a theological contribution for the eye in the way that sung prayer addresses the ear. In each case, the mind is engaged, the soul is uplifted, and God’s self-revelation is encountered. And in each encounter, Christ’s saving power is applied and serves as a stroke of the Savior-mason’s hammer, preparing each Christian little by little to be placed in the great “cathedral” of heaven which is the Christ’s glorified Mystical Body. The Church’s liturgical books give the theological principles, and God then gives to man the task of sharing in his plan: building up the kingdom until he comes.
Liturgical scholar H.A. Reinhold summarized the planning of church buildings with the phrase: “Form follows function. Bring the congregation close to the altar, bring the congregation close together, eliminate obstructions.” See Randall B. Smith, “Don’t Blame Vatican II: Modernism and Modern Catholic Church Architecture,” Sacred Architecture 13 (2007). ↑
Bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy, Environment and Art in Catholic Worship, National Conference of Catholic Bishops, 1978, par. 42. ↑
Among others, see Richard Vosko, God’s House is Our House: Reimaging the Environment for Worship (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2006); Marchita Mauck, Shaping a House for the Church (Chicago: LTP, 1989). ↑
See David Fagerberg, Theologia Prima: What Is Liturgical Theology (Chicago: Hillenbrand Books, 2004). For commentary on its application to church architecture, see Denis R. McNamara, Catholic Church Architecture and the Spirit of the Liturgy (Chicago: Hillenbrand Books, 2009), chapter 1. ↑
“Order of Laying A Foundation Stone or the Commencement of Work on the Building of a Church,” chapter 1 of Order of the Dedication of a Church and an Altar (Washington, DC: United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2018), chapter 1, paragraph 1. The full Order of the Dedication of a Church and an Altar contains 7 chapters, each of which has a different chapter number and name. This essay cites chapter 1 as “LFS,” and chapter 2, “The Order of the Dedication of a Church” is cited as “DC.” ↑
For a succinct but thorough description of the theology of temples, see entry “Temple,” in New Catholic Encyclopedia (McGraw-Hill Book Company and The Catholic University of America, 1967-1996). For a more thorough academic investigation of the Temple, see Yves Congar, The Mystery of the Temple (London: Burnes and Oates, 1962). ↑
This dualist approach to the Church and church architecture is so widespread, particularly in Protestant Evangelical circles, that is almost impossible to pin it to one source. For a representative sample of popular polemic, see John Pavlovitz, “Remember, The Bible Never Mentions a Building Called ‘Church’,” Relevant Magazine, June 24, 2019; https://www.relevantmagazine.com/faith/remember-bible-never-mentions-building-called-church/, accessed 14 December 2020. This flawed theology was nonetheless evident in the aforementioned Environment and Art in Catholic Worship, for example, paragraph 29 which claims that the “architectural floor plans” of the early Church were designed as “general gathering spaces.” ↑
This fountain of theological imagery is similarly echoed in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which notes that churches “are not simply gathering places, but make visible the…dwelling of God with men reconciled and united in Christ.” (CCC, 1180). ↑
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.”