The Three Natural Laws of Catholic Church Architecture

September 2009By Michael S. Rose

Michael S. Rose, Associate Editor of the NOR, is the author of six books, including Ugly As Sin, which was recently released in paperback by Sophia Institute Press (1-800-888-9344;, and from which this article is excerpted.

One basic tenet that architects have accepted for millennia is that the built environment has the capacity to affect the human person deeply -- the way he acts, the way he feels, and the way he is. Church architects of past and present understood that the atmosphere created by the church building affects not only how we worship, but also what we believe. Ultimately, what we believe affects how we live our lives. It's difficult to separate theology and ecclesiology from the environment for worship, whether it's a traditional church or a modern church. If a Catholic church building doesn't reflect Catholic theology and ecclesiology, if the building undermines or dismisses the natural laws of church architecture, the worshiper risks accepting a faith that is foreign to Catholicism.

Architecture isn't inconsequential.

That's why the Code of Canon Law explicitly defines the church building as "a sacred building destined for divine worship" (canon 214). The Catechism of the Catholic Church reiterates this point and goes further by stating that "visible churches are not simply gathering places but signify and make visible the Church living in this place, the dwelling of God with men reconciled and united in Christ" (#1180).

This is a tall order, to be sure, and the architect today naturally wonders how a mere building can accomplish so much. Fortunately, he doesn't stand alone in a perilous vacuum but has at his command more than fifteen hundred years of his craft on which to reflect.

When he turns to the Church's great architectural heritage, he discovers that from the early Christian basilicas in Rome to the Gothic Revival churches of early 20th-century America, the natural laws of church architecture are adhered to faithfully in the design of successful Catholic churches, buildings that serve both God and man as transcendental structures, transmitting eternal truths for generations to come.

Consider, for example, Notre Dame de Paris, the crowning jewel of Paris, arguably the most famous of Christendom's great cathedral churches. Countless chronicles, poems, novels, and artistic treatments have been devoted to this architectural masterpiece. Yet, considering it's neither the tallest, the biggest, nor even the most beautiful of cathedrals, Notre Dame's universal appeal isn't easily explicable on the natural order.

There's something more.

You have two options:

  1. Online subscription: Subscribe now to New Oxford Review for access to all web content at AND the monthly print edition for as low as $38 per year.
  2. Single article purchase: Purchase this article for $1.95, for viewing and printing for 48 hours.

If you're already a subscriber log-in here.

Back to September 2009 Issue

Read our posting policy Add a comment
In the essay, "Social Engineering Through Architectural Change," David Hamilton wrote that during World War II, "[g]rievous damage was done by Luftwaffe bombs, but the Nazis were outdone in gratuitous destruction by postwar urban planners. After the war, a sense of shame at our past and achievements became widespread amongst the intelligentsia and led to an ineluctable weakening of our national identity. Our elites began wittingly, or unwittingly, to dismantle the very idea of England. Social engineering started to be used in architecture and planning as much as in education and entertainment. Its aim was to change the physical and mental environment, and thereby change people, who were seen as plastic and malleable." [1]

With similar intent, Marxist goals in America in the 1960s included such items as:

"Continue discrediting American culture by degrading all forms of artistic expression. An American Communist cell was told to 'eliminate all good sculpture from parks and buildings, substitute shapeless, awkward and meaningless forms.'" "Control art critics and directors of art museums. 'Our plan is to promote ugliness, repulsive, meaningless art.'" "Eliminate all laws governing obscenity by calling them 'censorship' and a violation of free speech and free press." [2]

[1] Social Engineering Through Architectural Change by David Hamilton (July 2009)

[2] "Current Communist Goals," Congressional Record, Appendix, pp. A34-A35,
January 10, 1963, U.S. Rep. A.S. Herlong, item Nos. 22, 23 and 24 (identified as an excerpt from The Naked Communist, by Cleon Skousen).
Posted by: j17ghs
October 08, 2009 07:34 PM EDT
There is a church not far from where I live that looks like warehouse. Inside the building there are the required objects to classify it as Catholic, but barely.
There is nothing to indicate it is a Catholic Church. I refuse to attend at this structure. I drive twice the distance to attend mass in a building that looks and to some degree feels like a Catholic Church.
I keep wondering when will the tabernacle be returned to the center of the church. I really, really do not enjoy looking at the priest sitting where the tabernacle should be. For some reason this hits me as the height of arrogance.
Posted by: Barbara
September 20, 2012 11:31 AM EDT
Add a comment