Wrecking Churches: Iconoclasm or Continuity?

There are few better illustrations of the clash between conservative values and progressive ideologies than the church architecture wars of the last fifty years. Although traditional architecture was dismissed by most Christian denominations, the conflict comes into focus most clearly within the Catholic Church.

The Second Vatican Council in the 1960s ushered in the most iconoclastic ideology since the Protestant revolution. Across the Western world, in a spirit of enthusiastic reform, Catholic churches were erected with no reference to the past. A new wave of ideologically driven priests teamed up with modernist architects to create round churches, fan-shaped mass centers, multi purpose worship spaces and utilitarian cement block boxes. In an attempt to imbue some sense of the sacred they plopped ill shaped spires on the roof, created sweeping towers topped with crosses or punched holes in the walls with abstract stained glass.

Not only did the sincere, but ignorant priests and architects build new churches that looked like teepees, stranded space ships, or ice cream cones that had fallen upside down, they made matters worse by “renovating” existing churches according to their progressive creed. Their iconoclasm was complete. They covered tiled or marble floors with cheap wall-to-wall carpet. They ripped out neo-Gothic altarpieces, removed statues of the saints, painted over murals, dumped relics in the trash, junked the candlesticks, votive candle stands and fine vestments. Everything was to be simple, bare and back to basics. Austerity was in. Posterity was out.

The “wreckovation” as conservatives refer to it, continued into the 1990s. The authorities of the Archdiocese of Chicago, for example, effected this simplification of the chapel of the Pontifical Josephinum Seminary in Ohio.

 

The revised design is actually one of the more tasteful solutions. In parish after parish the pastor simply ripped out the artwork and furniture—destroying the buildings that had served their Catholic community for generations. The wholesale destruction was an act of mindless vandalism that always accompanies progressive ideologies.

Progressive ideologies can always be spotted because their devotees destroy the past rather than renew it. By definition, revolutionaries revolve, they do not evolve. To create their brave new world they must destroy the old one. Their new age is fueled by rage and the smiling revolutionaries cannot create anything without destroying everything.

The changes in churches were never loved because they were derived in destruction. Like the Protestant revolution in sixteenth-century England, the innovations which were supposed to benefit the people were imposed on the people by clericalist ideologues who ironically believed they were “of the people.” Furthermore, the changes the progressives force on everyone are doomed to fail because they are a fashion, and all fashions will soon be unfashionable.

The imaginative conservative, on the other hand, does not fall for fashion, but neither does he preserve the past for its own sake. He understands that change happens. Renewal is constant and necessary. However, he sees the renovation as a refreshment of the past and a rejuvenation of what has been shown to be tried, true, and tested. The imaginative conservative brings the past forward into the present to create a foundation for the future, because he knows that which will truly last into the future is that which has already proven its durability in the past.

It is not a surprise therefore to find that the current round of church renovations are a return to tradition. Faithful pastors are now ripping up the cheap carpet, polishing the tiles floor, putting statues back and restoring sanctuaries in a sympathetic modern style that promotes reverence and aids worship without being a slavish copy of the past or a crude antiquarianism for its own sake.

New churches are also being built that are traditional in style, yet cognizant of the demands of modern worship. Michael Tamara writes here of the plans to build traditional churches in the Carolinas and elsewhere. My own parish of Our Lady of the Rosary in Greenville, South Carolina will be the location for a beautiful new church built in a Romanesque style.

This new church will feature a set of classic stained-glass windows salvaged from a church in Massachusetts, and will include new artwork by contemporary Catholic artists. Antique stations of the cross and statuary will be salvaged and restored while new furniture and fittings are designed and built in a spirit of continuity that rejuvenates the tradition.

The lessons are clear: Despite its calm demeanor and gentle approach, progressivism is founded on rage. The status quo is the culprit and the established order must be overthrown. The imaginative conservative, on the other hand, seeks to correct what is wrong not by revolution, but renewal. What is beautiful, good, and true from the past is restored to its original reason so that it might do good service in the present and into the future.

Editor’s note: This column first appeared December 14, 2014 on the Imaginative Conservative website and is reprinted with permission. Above are before and after images of the chapel at the Pontifical Josephinum Seminary in Ohio.

Rev. Dwight Longenecker

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Rev. Dwight Longenecker is the parish priest of Our Lady of the Rosary parish in Greenville, South Carolina. His latest book is The Mystery of the Magi: The Quest to Identify the Three Wise Men (2017). Check out his website and blog at www.dwightlongenecker.com.

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