Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility

Building Catholicism, Literally

August 7, 2018


Several months ago, I had the pleasure of attending Mass with my family at St. John the Baptist Cathedral in Savannah, Georgia and taking a tour of Flannery O’Connor’s childhood home, which sits across a small gardened city square from the cathedral. Going into the tour, I knew little about Flannery. I hadn’t even read her writings. But since she’s a revered author and discussed regularly here at Word on Fire, I figured the tour would be well worth it.

As our guide walked us through the house and told us anecdotes about this author’s childhood, it became clear that young Flannery was feisty, disagreeable, and fiercely independent. She announced to her parents at the age of five or six that she was an adult. She excoriated her friends for being too childish and silly, and she loved to fight back. She was a contrarian. Young Flannery had all the marks of a kid who would reject the religion of her devout parents for no other reason than it was the religion of her devout parents. But she didn’t. My favorite anecdote about young Flannery concerns her habit of reading St. Thomas Aquinas nightly, often at late hours. “Turn off that light. It’s late,” her mother scolded. Raising her head up from the Summa Theologiae, Flannery retorted, “On the contrary, I answer that the light, being eternal and limitless, cannot be turned off.” Anyone who is familiar with the question, objection, and response format of the Summa immediately gets the humor and wit of such a sharp answer.

A middle-aged woman on the tour quizzed our guide about this peculiar young girl who was a contrarian as a matter of principle about seemingly everything except the Catholicism her parents handed on to her. Our guide’s response stuck with me: “You’re right that she had this instinct to fight expectations, conventions, and nearly everything her parents asked her to do.” Then, pointing to a window with a view of the cathedral spires, towering over all the other buildings in the area, our guide confidently told us, “But living here in the shadow of this cathedral had a profound effect on her, and she doubled down on Catholicism.”

Here was a professional expert on Flannery O’Connor’s childhood who suggested that young Flannery was evangelized by a church building as much as anything. It sounds odd, but we shouldn’t be surprised. Any number of architectural doctoral dissertations are replete with references to the effect of a “space” on human perception, psychology, understanding, emotion, etc. And this is true. I think every Catholic has had the experience of walking into a holy place and sensing an incredible spiritual rush. The composition of a space affects us. Thus, if we do Catholic architecture right, it naturally has a Catholicizing effect, as young Flannery demonstrates.

Unfortunately, I think the Church, at least in the United States and other Western countries, has utterly failed to do that with church architecture for at least half a century. A strange dimension of my conversion to Catholicism is that I sometimes wonder what I would be like if I were raised Catholic. Would I still be Catholic? When my mind ponders over this question, I inevitably find myself thanking God that, as a convert, my idea of Catholicism was totally uninformed by the typical suburban parish. And perhaps nowhere else are the problems of our typical suburban parishes more apparent than in their architecture, which are often bland, boring, and banal: a physical manifestation of the beige Catholicism that Word on Fire is so rightfully committed to fighting. If that had informed my idea of the Catholic Church in a hypothetical world where I was raised Catholic, would I have stayed Catholic? Who knows? But if a great cathedral could evangelize Flannery O’Connor, it stands to reason that an underwhelming church building could de-evangelize someone.

So what makes a church beautiful? A local parish in my area inaugurated a lecture series dedicated to Catholic thought and imagination with a talk that answered that question. The lecture was given by Professor Denis McNamara, a former colleague of Bishop Barron’s at Mundelein, who is the associate director of Mundelein’s Liturgical Institute. I encourage you to take a look at the recorded lecture here, but I’ll share some highlights.

 To briefly summarize St. Thomas Aquinas, something is beautiful when it reveals its ontology (its nature and being, especially as known in the mind of God). Something that most fully expresses its essential being and nature is more beautiful than a thing of the same kind that less fully expresses its being and nature. Thus, a beautiful ski lodge reveals ski lodge-ness. Although this seems simple and elementary, we need to remember that the logic applies even to things that many would find subjectively unpleasing to the eye. A beautiful centipede reveals centipede-ness; a beautiful warehouse reveals warehouse-ness. So to know what makes a good and beautiful church building, we need to know a church’s ontology. We need to know what church-ness is. Watch the lecture to get the complete answer, but here are two important takeaways.

First, the Catechism and Vatican II give us something like a doctrinal answer. A church building is a sign of “the Church [the body of Christ] living in a place, the dwelling place of God with men reconciled and united in Christ,” which shows “Christ to be present in this place.” Thus, a church building is sacred and should invite a sense of reverence, awe, and dignity as God’s dwelling place. It is also the living space of the Church as the people of God and should therefore be distinctive. Vatican II also tells us that churches should be “signs and symbols of heavenly realities,” a foretaste of heaven, and a sacrament of heaven. Notice that these documents do not say churches should be bland, boring, beige, sparse, and forgettable. Quite the contrary, they should be “signs and symbols of heavenly realities.” So what’s the reality of heaven? Well, for starters I think every Catholic would agree that it’s ordered rather than disordered, centered on God rather than something else, populated with angels and saints not empty, and radiant not dull. Accordingly, our church buildings should reflect those things in its structure and decoration. 

Second, there is an excellent rule of thumb that can be used both as a shorthand to apply the Catechism and Vatican II expositions on architecture as well as an intuitive sense of church-ness. Simply ask the question: If you take away all the crosses and other religious ornaments from a church building, how obvious is it that the building is a church? Unfortunately, many modern parish buildings fail this test, which perhaps explains why the crosses on top of and outside of church buildings have gotten bigger. Like a giant Walmart sign on a big box store, it is necessary to tell people what the building is because the building itself doesn’t convey it.

I tend to think this is also why many young Catholics seem to favor distinctive marks of Catholicism. With so many having grown up with church buildings that inspire beige Catholicism, young people yearn for a church atmosphere commensurate with the transcendence and dignity of the Mass. Recently, the university parish at the University of Nebraska needed to expand and decided to demolish the old 60s-era church and build a new one on the site. The conceptual design effort was student run, and this is what they chose, which I believe is an excellent example of church architecture. It’s the kind of church building that auto-evangelizes; the kind of church that implicitly or explicitly Catholicizes all who come across it. It’s the kind of church building that literally builds Catholicism and inspired curiosity, admiration, and attraction from the University’s Catholic and non-Catholic community alike.   

That is why, when we speak of evangelizing through beauty, architecture has a special place. Buildings are highly visible, noticeable, and unavoidable. And in our Catholic tradition, our church buildings occupy top spots in architectural achievements up and down the ages. Consider this post an impassioned plea to revive the greatness and beauty of Catholic architecture that still bedazzle and beguile people to this day.