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.


  1. As an active protestant, one who continues to protest even current protestant behaviors seeing they have not fully reformed from old Catholic traditions that nullify, contradict, and trump what inspired scripture calls for, I must disagree with your concerns. With scripture as my only source of authority, I see no basis for thinking there is a "sacramental presence of Christ. I believe this is a huge distraction from what the scripture refers to as the "indwelling" presence of Christ in every believer and the interceding presence of Christ at the right hand of God the Father. Buildings and the alleged sacred behaviors that happen in them are a huge distraction from and a substitution for the amazing dynamic God designed for His people to grow in holiness and to reach all nations with the good news of forgiveness in Christ alone.

    I believe you have confidence and emotion invested in things God's Word has never asked for. Men, even men with titles who are said to be "godly" can come up with very false ideas. The scripture you give to the left of your sight tells us part of this story.
    "For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men." God's Word should always trump men's ideas and claims. Both the Catholic church and the current institutionalized protestant church are very weak, walking in severe error on this point. The people of God are left dumbed down and non-reproductive in their faith.

    There is a holy skepticism that makes for a "noble faith" rather than a foolish one.
    Acts 17:11
    Now the Bereans were of more noble character than the Thessalonians, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true.

    The plumb line for faith is the scriptures. What men tell us must be examined personally, and daily because of the verse you quote above.

    If you seek wisdom from God, call on Him in the name of Jesus. Only He can intercede for you.
    Heb. 7:25
    Therefore he (Christ) is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them.
    Heb. 9:24
    For Christ did not enter a man-made sanctuary that was only a copy of the true one; he entered heaven itself, now to appear for us in God's presence.

    Examine what I say comparing it with the scriptures to see if it is true.

  2. Bad Catholic,

    This is an interesting post. Thank you for inviting me to read it.

    In my own personal experience, I've been in several majestic church buildings - both Catholic and Protestant. I don't deny, for example, that the Cathedral in Savannah is a beautiful building.

    However, when I read of the New Testament church, I don't see any emphasis whatsoever on church buildings. The people gathered together in homes. Some say this was because of persecution. I suppose that's possible, but the reality remains that they gathered together in people's houses.

    Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of many symbols and prophecies in the O.T. The temple, for example, pointed ahead to Jesus. The book of Hebrews is all about Jesus fulfilling these symbols and being better than them. Because Jesus is the fulfillment, we no longer need these - including modern big temple-like buildings (both Protestant and Catholic).

    I must go with what I read of the New Testament church. Therefore, although I don't argue that modern church buildings can be very beautiful, I would rather see everyone come together in homes.