Saturday, October 2, 2010
Ugly As Sin
Anyone who has been Catholic for any length of time has been in one. It looks like a shopping mall or a school or an office building. On the inside, you pass something called a baptistry that resembles a hot tub. The altar has been dragged to the center of the Church, often there are chairs in a circle with no kneelers, and who knows where they have put Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament. There are no statues of the Blessed Mother or the Saints and if there is a crucifix at all it’s either going to be a bare “plus sign” or a modern art monstrosity. Who in the world thought that this would be a good design for a Catholic Church, which alone of all buildings in the world, is the home to the Sacramental Presence of Christ?
This is the question which Michael Rose addresses in his 2001 book Ugly As Sin: Why They Changed Our Churches from Sacred Places to Meeting Spaces and How We Can Change Them Back Again . Rose is a trained architect and is the author of Goodbye Good Men, a book which should be read by every American Catholic.
In Ugly As Sin, Rose first takes us through the purpose of Church architecture and how the traditionally designed Catholic Church leads the mind and heart of the worshiper to God. Rose follows a pilgrim through a classic Catholic Church and explains how each element of the architecture creates an atmosphere of prayer. Then, in what I found to be a great work of satire as well as a serious discussion, Rose takes the same Pilgrim on a visit to a Church built in accordance with the 1978 document “Environment and Art in Catholic Worship” or EACW issued by the U.S. Bishop’s Committee on Liturgy. Rose quotes Notre Dame professor Duncan Stroik who said that EACW was “a document of architectural reductionism that reflects a liturgical reductionism. It’s fearful of symbols, complexity, history, art, and even architecture.”
Rose details how EACW was the primary culprit behind the virtual destruction of the interior of a number of pre-Vatican II churches, with high altars and priceless works of art being ripped out and discarded. EACW is a toned down version of a 1973 book by Lutheran architect Edward Sovik called Architecture for Worship. Sovik’s motivation was to deconstruct Church buildings so that there would be no Church building, just a “multi-purpose meeting space.” Sovik did not believe in the Sacramental Presence of Christ in the Church, and did not believe that consecrated Church buildings should be special from other buildings. Rose’s summary of Sovik is as follows: “ . . . here was a Protestant architect with a decidedly Protestant viewpoint advocating the reform of Catholic church architecture to conform with Protestant theology and ecclesiology.”
Rose sets forth how bad church architecture breeds bad theology: “Our pilgrim is neither awed nor humbled here in the worship space of the people. He can sense, too, that no one else is awed or humbled. The casualness in dress and demeanor at the modern church is striking, surely a result of the casualness and informality of the modern church itself.”
Fortunately, Rose recounts that old churches are now being restored and new churches are being built to look and feel like churches. At last, perhaps the smoke of Satan is being driven out of the Sanctuary of God.