Zeal for Thy House

May 1999By John-Peter Pham

John-Peter Pham, a priest of the Diocese of Peoria, is the author of four books and over a hundred scholarly articles.

Architecture in Communion: Implementing the Second Vatican Council Through Liturgy and Architecture.  By Steven J. Schloeder. Ignatius. 267 pages. $24.95.



Lex orandi statuat lex credendi (“the rule of prayer establishes the rule of belief”) — or, colloquially, how you pray is how you believe. So goes an ancient dictum of the Church. To put it in architectural terms, we might say: What’s in the house of worship is what’s in the worshiper’s mind.

So to many observers it has seemed that the minimalist structures freshly erected and — worse yet — the churches “renovated” over the past few decades signal the triumph of humanism and its theological sister, neo-Modernism. How else is an objective observer to explain the sudden and successful assault on such centuries-old features of sacred architecture as the domus Dei and the porta caeli? When so-called specialists — with the approval of ecclesiastical authorities — strip from thousands of churches the side altars, the shrines, the statues, and the icons, demolish the Communion rail, replace the high altar soaring upward with a plain table facing outward, and move the tabernacle off into a corner, what is their intention? Is it to replace our sense of the sacred with a redundant sense of the secular? And does this new lex orandi legitimately express the lex credendi of the post-Vatican II Catholic Church?

Catholics who are still standing, dazed, amid the recent collapse of church architecture may be surprised to learn that, in fact, the Second Vatican Council was explicit and warm in its praise of the fine arts, which are, says Sacrosanctum Concilium (SC), “rightly classed among the noblest activities of man’s genius.” The Council declared: “This is especially true of religious art and of its highest manifestation, sacred art. Of their nature, the arts are directed toward expressing in some way the infinite beauty of God in works made by human hands. Their dedication to the increase of God’s praise and of His glory is more complete, the more exclusively they are devoted to turning men’s minds devoutly toward God” (SC, n. 122).

Despite this mandate, many church renovations are banal, uninspiring, and even bizarre. As for new constructions, such as Mario Botta’s all-but-empty Cathedral of the Resurrection in Evry, France, the faithful have shown their sensus fidelium and voted with their feet — a warning, perhaps, for those pushing Rafael Moneo’s planned Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles.

Amid the growing dissatisfaction and the lack of clear direction in liturgy, architect Steven J. Schloeder’s Architecture in Communion is a welcome contribution to the debate on how churches ought to be built. Rather than merely asking why contemporary churches are so uninspiring, Schloeder places the church building in its proper theological, historical, and liturgical context. Although he is neither a theologian nor a canonist — so that at points his argument is incomplete — Schloeder does articulate Vatican II’s vision, especially in regard to the relationship of the Church to the arts and to her artists and architects.

After laying this foundation Schloeder examines the specific requirements of the church building, beginning with the sanctuary furnishings (especially the altar, the crucifix, the ambo, and the chair) in their liturgical, canonical, and symbolic aspects. Here he touches (delicately) the raw nerves of Catholic parochial life in America: Which way should the altar (and liturgy) be oriented? What should one do about the altar rail? Should there be a traditional crucifix or only a bare cross? Where should the tabernacle be placed? The Magisterial and theological documentation assembled by Schloeder in this section alone is worth the price of the book.

Particularly valuable also is Schloeder’s concluding chapter of reflections aimed at helping both the architect and the ecclesial community reconsider the iconographic sense of the church building. He argues that while the Council reaffirmed that “the Church has not adopted any particular style as her own” (SC, n. 123), there is a certain history — a tradition — involved in the crafting of Catholic churches. It is a process rooted in Catholic thought and seeking to express Catholic values. Over the centuries there has evolved a rich and subtle language of liturgical and architectural symbols. Schloeder shows how this language — which is both Catholic and catholic — was adopted by the builders in the early Church and developed through the patristic, medieval, renaissance, baroque, and revivalist periods. Suddenly, in our day, this evocative and beautiful Catholic tongue has been suppressed by the Modernist movement in architecture, which speaks Secular, and the Experimentation-in-Liturgy movement, which speaks Protestant.

Schloeder calls us to regain a sacramental understanding — contrasted to the dreary functionalism of much present-day liturgy and architecture — which sees the liturgy and the arts as vehicles through which God communicates His love to man. As Schloeder notes, “Only as we regain this sacramental appreciation of the liturgy, of the sacred image, and of the building as an icon, will we again be able to build churches that nurture the human spirit with beauty and meaning.”

Schloeder’s fine book put me in mind of an eloquent passage by Cardinal Newman which might inspire us in our quest to recover the intangible sacred in the tangible reality of church architecture: “The Temples of God are withal the monuments of His Saints…. Their simplicity, grandeur, solidity, elevation, grace, and exuberance of ornament…bring to remembrance the patience and purity, the courage, meekness, and great charity, the heavenly affections, the activity in well-doing, the faith and resignation, of men who did but worship.… O happy they, who, in a sorrowful time, avail themselves of this bond of communion with the Saints of old and with the Universal Church! O wise and dutiful, who, when the world has robbed them of so much, set more account on what remains! We have not lost all, while we have the dwelling places of our forefathers, while we can repair those that are broken down, and build upon old foundations, and propagate them on new sites! Happy they, who when they enter into their holy limits, enter in heart into the court of heaven!”



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