When I was a choirboy, one of the most ethereal motets we sang was Anton Bruckner’s setting of a text from the old Mass for the Dedication of a Church, Locus iste a Deo factus est [This Dwelling is God's Handiwork]. Once, there were no shortage of Catholic churches where Bruckner’s Locus iste could be sung without a sense of irony. That’s no longer the case, alas, given the train wreck that is Catholic church architecture in America these past two generations.
I am not nostalgic about the pre-Vatican II liturgy. It was often celebrated in execrable Latin with saccharine music and little sense of ritual propriety; “lost like a Jesuit during Holy Week” was a happy put-down of rubrical incompetence that, in truth, applied far beyond the Society of Jesus. Still, sloppy liturgy was often celebrated in magnificent churches: embodiments of the conviction that this place was, indeed, God’s handiwork, and that here the human met the divine in a singular way.
Nor is all the bad architecture we find in today’s Church a by-product of the Second Vatican Council. St. John’s Abbey Church in Collegeville, Minnesota, is a case in point: designed in a brutalist form of the International Style by Marcel Breuer, it was begun in 1953, when no one imagined a Vatican II. And for all that St. John’s Abbey has given the Church in America, Breuer’s composition strikes me as a telling example of how certain architectural forms simply do not lend themselves to Christian worship, because they cannot convey a sense of the transcendent or of this world’s permeability to the transcendent. Of course, measured against the Pizza Hut-imitation churches that now clutter the U.S. Catholic landscape, St. John’s Abbey Church has a certain…distinction. But that is damning with very faint praise indeed.
All of which is by way of grumpy introduction to something splendid: a wonderful new book, Heavenly City: The Architectural Tradition of Catholic Chicago. The text, by Denis McNamara of Chicago’s Mundelein Seminary, explains how Catholics built magnificent urban churches, once upon a time, and why those churches are decorated the way they are; James Morris’s stunning photographs bring the results to light for those unfortunate enough not to spend enough time in the Great American City.
Heavenly City is so beautifully illustrated that I can imagine using it as a source of prayer – as many Catholics pray with icons today. It would be fatuous to pick a favorite from the riches that McNamara and Morris lay before the reader. Suffice it to say that they offer almost seventy examples of churches, built in various styles over more than a century, which testify to their builders’ belief that a church is the domus Dei et porta coeli [the house of God and the gate to heaven], not simply the domus ecclesiae [the house of the Church].
And that, I suggest, is the key to understanding the demise of church architecture in our time: like much else that has gone awry with the once-bright promise of mid-century liturgical renewal (which was rarely taken more seriously than in some of those Chicago churches), the idea that the liturgy is something we do, rather than our privileged participation in something God is doing, is the nub of the problem. Or as one prominent liturgist recently wrote, “If material edifices have any intrinsic meaning, it is because of the community who assembles there and what they do when they are gathered – namely, hear the Word of God proclaimed, break that Word for one another, and celebrate the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ in the various sacramental rites.” In other words, it’s all about us. Or mostly about us, with the occasional nod toward the incarnate Word of God, whose Body and Blood we receive in the Most Holy Eucharist.
Heavenly City reminds us that, because our churches are homes for the Blessed Sacrament, it is God himself who gives those buildings their real and full depth of meaning. If we remembered that, we might start building beautiful churches again.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.