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This is the first part of a three-part series. Read Part 1, “Restore the Liturgy; Start With the Building,” here; Part 2, “What is the Nature of a Church Building,” here; Part 3, “The Eternal Majesty of a Catholic Church,” here.
For nearly a century, Catholic churches and the faithful who use them have frequently been the collateral damage in architectural and theological debates.
Even as early as the 1920s, the Modernist polemic argued that all buildings in a modern age should use the factory as their prototype, and therefore churches should use glass, steel, and concrete to conform to a perceived industrial spirit of the age. By the 1950s and 60s, ideas about participation drawn from the Liturgical Movement had become widespread, focusing at times on practical considerations of the altar, ambo, baptistery, and seating arrangements to the detriment of the larger sacramental meaning of the church building itself.
As Randall B. Smith points out in “Don’t Blame Vatican II: Modernism and Modern Catholic Church Architecture,” (Sacred Architecture 13, 2007) liturgical scholar H.A. Reinhold summarized the planning of church buildings with the phrase: “Form follows function. Bring the congregation close to the altar, bring the congregation close together, eliminate obstructions.”
By the 1970s, a body of bishops could publish the claim that a church building was a “cover enclosing architectural space” which “need not ‘look like’ anything else, past or present.” (Bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy, Environment and Art in Catholic Worship, National Conference of Catholic Bishops, 1978, par. 42) From the 1980s through early 2000s, the church building was frequently redefined as a large domestic interior, with furnishings and finishes meant to evoke a secular home, called an “environment,” that privileged a climate of hospitality. (Among others, see Richard Vosko, God’s House is Our House: Reimaging the Environment for Worship (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2006); Marchita Mauck, Shaping a House for the Church (Chicago: LTP, 1989).
In recent years, the revival of traditional architecture has brought more traditional looking churches, often rightly supported by an appeal to the example of antiquity, the splendor due to God, or the dignity of worship. But arguments for the use of traditional architecture have frequently overlooked the biblical and sacramental nature of church buildings.
Interestingly, the Church herself provides texts related to church architecture which qualify as theologia prima, that is, a first-order or primary source from which other theological conclusions are drawn. Theologian David Fagerberg has written extensively on how the law of prayer is itself theologia prima, a fount and source of theology. See David Fagerberg, Theologia Prima: What Is Liturgical Theology (Chicago: Hillenbrand Books, 2004).
While norms and laws given in the General Instruction of the Roman Missal and the Code of Canon Law have been occasional touchstones in recent church design, the Church’s liturgical books provide the most important repository of her liturgical theology, and, consequently, the Order of the Dedication of a Church and an Altar (ODCA) reveals the Church’s own mind on the nature of her architecture. In other words, theologia prima leads to understanding the nature of things, and reading the ODCA makes clear that the church building is more than a factory, a meeting house, an environment, a space, or a living room of God. Rather, it is a sacrament of the glorified Mystical Body of Christ.
“Special Image of the Church”
The opening decree promulgating the OCDA calls the church building “a special image of the Church, which is God’s temple built from living stones.” Accordingly, the very first words introducing “The Order of Laying a Foundation Stone” (LFS) urge that the faithful “be reminded that the structure to be built of stone will be a visible sign of the living Church, God’s building, which they themselves constitute”.
It then footnotes two sources. The first, 1 Corinthians 3:9, calls the Church in Corinth “God’s building.” The second note refers to paragraph 6 of the Second Vatican Council’s document Lumen Gentium, which aptly summarizes this analogous relationship between Christ, the Church, and the church building: “Often the Church has also been called the building of God. The Lord Himself compared Himself to the stone which the builders rejected, but which was made into the cornerstone. On this foundation the Church is built by the apostles, and from it the Church receives durability and consolidation. This edifice has many names to describe it: the house of God in which dwells His family; the household of God in the Spirit; the dwelling place of God among men; and, especially, the holy temple. This Temple, symbolized in places of worship built out of stone, is praised by the Holy Fathers and, not without reason, is compared in the liturgy to the Holy City, the New Jerusalem. As living stones, we here on earth are built into it” (6).
Accordingly, the very first prayer in the ODCA asks that the people present may “grow into the temple of [God’s] glory” in the context of a church building because “places of worship built out of stone” signify that very reality (LFS, 13). The operative theological word here is temple, a building which serves primarily as the place where God dwells with his people, but secondarily as a building outside of fallen time and space which presents a microcosm of glorified, restored creation.
In the Old Testament, the Temple of Solomon was a carefully designed building composed of costly stones perfectly assembled (1 Kings 5:15), and people marveled that its stones were so finely cut as to need no mortar. To enter the Temple was to leave the earth, return to the glorified Garden, and stand in the restorative Presence of God. The Temple was also called the “house” of God, not because it resembled domestic structures, but because God chose to dwell there with his people, much as the genealogical line of Christ was called the “house” of David.
The Temple’s fulfillment occurs when Christ says, “destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up,” followed by the author’s explanation: “but he spoke of the temple of his body” (John 2:19-21). Christ, then, was the new and perfect “place” where God dwelled with his people, particularly after the Resurrection, where Christ’s body was radiant with divine life. And the Church, which continues Christ’s mission in the world and so “is” Christ, shares a similar structure. Under Christ’s headship, its many members assemble perfectly and make Christ—that is, God’s Presence—known in the world. For this reason, Paul could describe the members of the Church as both “God’s building” and Christ’s Mystical Body (1 Corinthians 3:9; 1 Corinthians 12: 12-31; Colossians 1:18). 1 Peter 2:5 similarly urges Christians to be like living stones built into a spiritual house.
The comparison is clear: Christ’s own personal body was glorified, made of many members, and through it God dwelled in the world. Christ’s Mystical Body, the Church, sacramentally manifests Christ’s glory, is made of many members, and renders Christ present in the world. The church building follows suit: it is made of many architectural members rightly assembled which become a “sign of the living Church” brought to glory. Church building, then, is not a mere pleasant nicety, but an integral part of Christian revelation which God builds through us, as the ritual itself recalls: “you entrust the construction of sacred buildings to your faithful…grant that they may grow into the temple of your glory…assembled by your hand in the heavenly city” (LFS, 30).
Just as the Father builds the Mystical Body through Christ, he builds church buildings through his Church, and they signify Christ’s Body in the world.