Vatican II and Your Parish Church: Good Questions, Part 1

When I give presentations in parishes or teach in the classroom, I am often asked many intelligent questions by students, building committee members, architects, pastors, and parishioners. These questions have given me great insight into the needs and desires of the People of God. The questions that follow are among those most frequently asked, and shorter summary answers are provided here for the reader’s convenience. Read part 2 here.

Didn’t the Second Vatican Council do away with traditional, beautiful churches? What about “noble simplicity”?

The documents of the Second Vatican Council relating to art and architecture are in complete continuity with the Church’s great tradition, even as they set certain guidelines for the liturgical renewal. The document on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, asked that sacred art be composed of “signs and symbols of heavenly realities” that were meant to be expressive of “God’s boundless beauty” (SC 122). It also asked that all sacred arts be “in accordance with faith, piety, and cherished traditional laws” (SC 122). It is interesting to note that the Council never used the phrase “noble simplicity” to refer to liturgical art and architecture. It actually asked that churches strive for “noble beauty” (SC 124). The term “noble simplicity” was mentioned in the Council’s documents in relation to the rites (SC 34). So, beauty is in fact the goal of new church architecture, according to the documents of the Second Vatican Council.

Is it possible to build traditional churches today? Can we afford it? Does the architectural and artistic talent exist?

Since the advent of postmodernism in the 1960s, the architecture world has been reexamining the place of traditional forms for new work. A large and flourishing movement generally known as New Classicism has been operating successfully for more than two decades. In recent years, designs for new traditional Catholic churches have been appearing with greater frequency. The Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in La Crosse, Wisconsin, the university chapel at Thomas Aquinas College, California, and the monastery of the Benedictines in Clear Creek, Oklahoma, have proven that traditional architecture is possible today. Scores of other projects are doing the same. Seeking out high-style “star architect” modernism (as was done for new cathedrals in Los Angeles and Oakland) has emerged as a strikingly outmoded approach for building new churches.

Traditional architecture need not be more expensive than other quality ways of building. Cutting-edge modernism is often extraordinarily expensive because of its demands for custom materials. Traditional architecture can be elevated with more elaborate designs and richer materials, or it can be reduced with simpler designs and materials, which nonetheless partake of legitimate traditional design.

The most important consideration in building a traditional church is to hire an architect who specializes in traditional work. Many architects will promise something “traditional” to a church client by adding a few pointed windows or extra moldings to an otherwise modernist design. This sort of design should be completely rejected or else the result will be the “strip mall classical” or “Disneyland Gothic”.

Isn’t using traditional styles for architecture just copying the past? Isn’t there room for new development in church architecture?

There is always room for development in Catholic architecture, just as there is always room for development of doctrine as we come to understand better the revelation of Christ. But simply absorbing current trends in theology is not an answer; they must always be tested against the inherited teaching of the Church. The same is true in architecture. The Church welcomes new technology and styles of the current day, provided that they bring due honor and reverence to the rites (SC 123). Using new artistic and architectural conventions simply because they are new does not always engage a proper level of theological inquiry. Similarly, using old forms just to be antiquarian is not adequate either. New traditional architecture should never be an exact copy of an old building. The past serves as a treasury from which to draw, and we should not be afraid either to depart from it where necessary or use it quite faithfully when appropriate.

Since the people are the “living stones” of the Church, why would we need anything other than a simple meeting hall for Mass?

The people are indeed the living stones of the earthly Church. However, the documents of the Second Vatican Council remind us that the Sacred Liturgy is an exercise of the priestly office of Jesus Christ, head and members (SC 7), where we “take part in a foretaste of that heavenly liturgy which is celebrated in the holy city of Jerusalem toward which we journey as pilgrims, where Christ is sitting at the right hand of God, a minister of the holies and of the true tabernacle; we sing a hymn to the Lord’s glory with all the warriors of the heavenly army” (SC 8). The job of liturgical art and architecture is to make a building that not only serves the needs of the earthly congregation, but also allows them, through the use of sacred images, to see the full community of the liturgy: angels, saints, the Trinity, and even the souls in purgatory. The building itself is a sacrament of the city of heaven, described in scripture as orderly, perfected, radiant, gem-covered, and golden. A church building, therefore, aids in our full, conscious, and active participation by showing us by way of foretaste the very realities in which we are participating. The church building not only shows us our earthly reality, but allows us to glimpse the realities of our destiny at the end of time when God has completely restored the world.

This appeared at Adoremus Bulletin.
Photo: Wiki-commons.

Denis McNamara

Denis R. McNamara is formerly the Executive Director of the Center for Beauty and Culture at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas. He is the author of Heavenly City: The Architectural Tradition of Catholic Chicago and Catholic Church Architecture and The Spirit of the Liturgy.