Friday, July 21, 2006

Ten myths that deserve a good whack

For those who want to see beautiful new Catholic churches built, and beautiful old ones kept that way, I'd strongly recommend Duncan Stroik's article Ten Myths of Contemporary Church Architecture. It was originally published in Mr. Stroik's periodical Sacred Architecture, but is conveniently available online here.

A few excerpts:

[Myth] 1. The Second Vatican Council requires us to reject traditional church architecture and design new churches in a Modernist style.

This myth is based more on what Roman Catholics have built during the past thirty years than on what the Church has taught. Even by professional accounts, the church architecture of the past decade has been an unmitigated disaster. However, actions often speak louder than words, and the faithful have been led to believe that the Church requires buildings to be functional abstractions, because that is what we have been building. Nothing could be farther from the intentions of the Council fathers who clearly intended the historic excellence of Catholic architecture to continue. It is most important to keep in mind that "there must be no innovations unless the good of the Church genuinely and certainly requires them, and care must be taken that any new forms adopted should in some way grow organically from forms already existing." (Sacrosanctum Concilium) ...

[Myth] 2. New churches must be designed in accordance with the document Environment and Art in Catholic Worship, published by the Bishop's Committee on Liturgy in 1977.

Due to the lack of any alternative, this pamphlet has become the veritable bible for many new and renovated churches. This document, which was never voted on by the American Bishop's conference and holds no canonical weight, is based more on the principles of Modernist architecture than on Roman Catholic teaching, or her patrimony of sacred architecture. Among its weaknesses is an overemphasis on a congregational view of the Church, an antagonism towards history and tradition, and a strident iconoclasm. Because of the controversial nature of the document, the Bishop's Committee on the Liturgy is presently drafting a new and hopefully improved version.

[Myth] 6. The fan shape, in which everyone can see the assembly and be close to the altar, is the most appropriate form for expressing the full, active and conscious participation of the body of Christ.

This myth comes out of the extreme view that the assembly is the primary symbol of the church. While the fan shape is a wonderful shape for theater, for lectures, even for representative government - it is not an appropriate shape for the liturgy. Ironically, the reason often stated for using the fan shape is to encourage participation, yet the semicircular shape is derived from a room for entertainment. The fan shape does not derive from the writings of the Second Vatican Council, it derives from the Greek or Roman theater. Up until recently, it was never used as a model for Catholic churches. In fact, the first theater churches were 19th century Protestant auditoriums designed so as to focus on the preacher.