Displaced Tabernacles: Bishop’s Document Needs Revision

For almost 18 centuries, Christians built chapels and churches without any universal legislation from Rome. With almost no written direction to the pastors and architects, Christians built beautiful, durable churches that accommodated the liturgy wonderfully and that we are the grateful beneficiaries of. Why then do we need a document on art and architecture today? Looking back on the last four decades of Catholic architecture, supposedly inspired by the pronouncements of the Second Vatican Council, we have to wonder if a new document would improve things.

What should we make of the American bishops’ intention to publish a document on art and architecture, entitled Domus Dei (House of God)? Surely, this is a subject in which the Church has great competence and a responsibility to teach. As Vatican II states, “Holy Mother Church has always been the patron of the fine arts and has ever sought their noble ministry, to the end especially that all things set apart for use in divine worship should be worthy, becoming and beautiful, signs and symbols of things supernatural.” In addition, sacred buildings make up one of the Church’s most important temporal investments.

As a document that strictly concerns the buildings designed, renovated, and owned by the Church, Domus Dei may garner less interest from the secular media than, say, the bishops’ pastorals on the economy, nuclear weapons, or the recent vote on Catholic education. However, it does have great ramifications on the liturgical and devotional life of American Catholics (with no little effect on their pocket-books). A document on architecture should also be of great interest to bishops, priests, parishes, and architects, especially since in many parts of the country there is a millennial church and school building boom.

However, I believe we are working at a grave disadvantage. We are living in a time not known for the quality of its modern churches. Rather, ecclesiastical architecture since before Vatican II has been a disaster by most architectural standards. The typical modern Catholic church is characterized by its low-quality construction, banal exteriors, minimalist spaces, and disfigured religious art.

Into this situation came the Bishops’ Committee on Liturgy in the mid-1970s to clarify the issues and offer some direction. However, its committee document, Environment and Art in Catholic Worship (EACW), tended to confirm the ascendancy of abstract modernism and supplied an abstracted theology of the assembly to back it up. Deemed useful by the liturgical establishment, which helped commission it, EACW spawned books, conferences, pamphlets, and new and renovated churches based on novel theories of church architecture. In statements foreign to the Catholic tradition, EACW defines the church as “a shelter or ‘skin’ for liturgical action” and states that a church “does not have to ‘look like’ anything else, past or present.” Architects, often not having a strong liturgical or architectural formation in things Catholic, gladly went along with EACW, which seemed to mirror their training in architecture school. With a pithy text and 40 pictures, it has been used successfully by liturgists and architects to convince parishes that Vatican II requires modernist worship spaces.

Twenty-three years later, we have a draft of a new document intended to replace EACW, this time commissioned by all the American bishops. In November 1999, the bishops had a chance to discuss the first draft of Domus Dei, perhaps the first time in history that the American bishops as a body have discussed the importance of art and architecture. What an appropriate development at a most propitious time, the beginning of the third millennium, to chart a new course for sacred architecture. It can be hoped that with a beautiful new Catechism in print, it is also time to build beautiful new catechisms in stone.

The draft of Domus Dei was authored by a task group of the Bishops’ Committee on Liturgy made up of directors of worship, theologians, a liturgical consultant, an architect, and an architectural historian. It is divided into four chapters: theological principles and history, design principles, the design process, and religious art.

This draft document of the Bishop’s Committee on Liturgy is an improvement over EACW. First, it is to be commended for referencing a large number of ecclesiastical documents relevant to Catholic art and architecture. Second, Domus Dei considers a much broader treatment of issues, including architectural history, the arts, the seven sacraments, devotion, and practical considerations in commissioning a church. However, along with these many positive aspects, there are also many passages and an underlying point of view that are difficult to reconcile with a full understanding of sacred architecture.

Church-Building Theology

A notable aspect of Domus Dei is that it begins with a treatment of the liturgy and the theology of the church building. One of the shortcomings of the second half of the 20th century is that our churches, just like other buildings, have been conceived of in functional rather than theological terms. Unfortunately, Domus Dei continues with this limitation. While not merely emphasizing number of seats, visibility, and the bottom line, it tends to see the church only as a functional house for the liturgical rites. While the liturgical rites are central to our understanding of church architecture, a good church building does not go out of fashion if the rites change or if a church changes its status (i.e., becoming a cathedral), as exemplified by the longevity of the ancient churches of Europe. Designing the church solely around the specific rites is rather myopic and does not acknowledge the many other purposes of the building.

A more fundamental concept of the building is found in the documents of Vatican II (Lumen Gentium, The Dogmatic Constitution on the Church), which describes the church as an image of “the Holy City, the New Jerusalem.” Following tradition and ecclesiastical documents, an essay on architecture should include a full discussion of the church building as icon, in which visible signs express invisible realities. In the Rites for the Dedication of a Church, the church building is described as “a special kind of image of the Church itself” that reminds “people that the structure built of stone will be a visible sign of the living Church” and “reflects the Church dwelling in heaven.” Thus, an ecclesiology that considers the hierarchical ordering of the Church could help provide an understanding of the image the church building represents.

In addition to being an icon of the Church, a sacred building is also an image of the Word made flesh and, therefore, a dwelling place of God. It is ironic that while the document is entitled Domus Dei, the concept of the church as a “house of God” cannot be found developed within. This ancient title for a church points to the requirement that architecture must somehow make perceptible the world of the Spirit through material construction. Other theological terms found in Scripture, Church tradition, and the Rites are also ignored in the document. This includes terms such as “temple of God,” “His holy dwelling,” “an offering to God,” and “house of salvation and grace,” all of which refer to a building that is transcendent, beautiful, and built of the finest materials.

Antipathy Toward Historic Architecture

Undergirding the text of Domus Dei is a philosophical modernism at odds with both Church documents and the history of sacred architecture. In fact, Domus Dei comes across as promoting an architecture antagonistic to the history of sacred architecture. Within the document, there is an overemphasis on “the new” and “the original” without any concomitant appreciation for tradition and continuity. It seems reasonable to expect that a document on Catholic art and architecture would laud tradition as the wisdom of the past on which every new work is grounded and continuity as necessary to connect our architecture with previous and future generations.

While it seems beneficial to include a very abbreviated history of architecture, this section is deeply flawed and based on faulty scholarship. The document states, “Emperor Constantine offered the basilica, formerly a marketplace or law court, for the use of the Church.” This implies a renovation of existing basilicas, whereas Constantine actually commissioned his architects to invent new buildings for the Christian religion. A simplistic reading of history is also used to promote a church architecture without sacred characteristics, as in “Christians marked their differences with the culture by their use of secular buildings for liturgical purposes.” In fact, Roman basilicas were not secular buildings in the modern sense, often having shrines and altars within, and Christian basilicas such as St. John Lateran or the Church of the Holy Sepulchre would never have been confused with the basilicas of Trajan or Maxentius. Though there is very little evidence for centralized altars before the Renaissance, the document states that early Christians built centralized buildings “where the altar could be in the center,” probably to lend credence to the modernist predilection for a “church in the round.” Architectural revivals in America are seen in mainly political terms, responding “to challenging cultural situations and new engineering opportunities” rather than as a natural human desire for continuity and tradition. The many visitors to St. Patrick’s in New York might be surprised to read in Domus Dei that this cathedral’s only significance is that it reflects “the symbolic power of rising Catholic communities.”

In general, Domus Dei betrays an antipathy toward historic styles and revivals and suggests that contemporary architecture can only mean industrial materials and modernist abstraction. In a standard defense of the Zeitgeist, Domus Dei states “care must be taken that the proclamation of the death and resurrection of Christ using ancient artistic styles does not identify Christianity with the past or limit it to one culture or region.” How then, we might ask, can art ever be truly inculturated or catholic (i.e., universal)? And why shouldn’t Christianity identify itself with the past, the life of Christ, salvation history, and the cloud of witnesses?

In addition, the document lacks sensitivity in discussing the renovation of historic churches and what Vatican II calls “the treasury of art which must be preserved with every care.” This shortsightedness is of particular concern given the destruction of many fine churches in our country since Vatican II. It is sadly ironic that while the text seems to emphasize inculturation, history, and active participation, Domus Dei offers few examples of the rich variety of architectural solutions that can be found in American history, including the buildings built by Hispanic, Slavic, Italian, German, and other immigrants.

Tabernacle Placement

Possibly the most controversial topic covered in the draft is the placement of the tabernacle. This was the issue that most animated the bishops in their discussion of the draft last November, with 15 bishops speaking out in favor of a prominent location for the Blessed Sacrament. While a great improvement over EACW’s rationalistic handling of the subject, Domus Dei still presumes that the Blessed Sacrament chapel is always the best solution for placement of the tabernacle. This is particularly surprising given the fact that all ecclesial documents since Vatican II allow for a diversity of solutions and the more recent documents, such as the Code of Canon Law and Inaestimabile Donum (Instruction Concerning Worship of the Eucharistic Mystery), do not even evince a preference for such a chapel. In fact, while pretending to be thorough, Domus Dei does not include full canonical texts and quotes selectively and egregiously omits any reference to Inaestimabile Donum in its treatment of the tabernacle. As was pointed out by Cardinal Law and Cardinal George, Rome is coming out with a new edition of the General Instruction on the Roman Missal on Pentecost Sunday. It is believed that, in keeping with the recent edition of canon law, the recommendation found in the General Instruction for a Blessed Sacrament chapel may be rescinded.

In the past decade, we have seen a popular revival of eucharistic adoration along with a large number of articles and books on the subject. Considering the past 30 years of experience with Blessed Sacrament chapels in the United States, a general lack of belief in the Real Presence among Catholics, and the growing desire by many of the faithful to give the tabernacle a place of honor within the sanctuary, this is clearly a timely issue. The tabernacle, which houses the Real Presence of Christ, is thus one of the most significant objects within the church and deserves to be accorded architectural prominence (and probably more than the ambo or the priest’s chair). In architecture, prominence is often expressed by placing significant elements on the central axis of a building. Following the custom in the Americas, a tabernacle, beautifully designed and prominently enframed, is logically placed in the sanctuary on the central axis of the church.

Promoting Novelty

In its treatment of the principles of art and architecture, the document could use further study and balance. Its emphasis on beauty is to be commended, but its treatment suffers from a faulty conception of beauty that promotes novelty and the personal expression of the artist at the expense of the good, the true, and the harmonious. As Andre Segovia once said, “It is not difficult to be original. It is difficult to be original with continuity.” Reflecting contemporary artspeak, the draft lauds art that has an edge, is difficult, or makes people uncomfortable. Fra Angelico, Raphael, Bernini, and a few other artists would beg to differ. Church teaching, from Sacrosanctum Concilium (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy), on removing “works of art which are repugnant to faith, morals, and Christian piety, and which offend true religious sense either by depraved forms or through lack of artistic merit” as well as the general principle that there should be organic development and no innovations unless the good of the Church requires them, should be included in this section for balance. A greater reliance on Catholic writings about beauty, especially Pope John Paul II’s recent Letter to Artists, would also help to correct this imbalance.

In its rejection of convention in art and architecture, the document is generally elitist in tone and risks promoting works of art and architecture that do not speak to the faithful much less to the nonbeliever. There is a hazy understanding of hierarchical church elements such as the sanctuary, the difference between major and minor axes, the effect and meaning of vertical proportions in churches, and the classical and Gothic languages historically used in sacred architecture. Furthermore, Domus Dei’s seemingly functionalist reading of the church building encourages a minimalist aesthetic, limited iconography, and no emphasis on the exterior of the church. In other words, this draft of Domus Dei continues to promote the same sterile designs we have built during the past decades, including those illustrated in EACW. This biased approach seems to stem from a lack of knowledge and appreciation for the diverse riches of the Church’s patrimony, most unfortunate in a document on Catholic art and architecture.

Start Rewriting

While the draft document Domus Dei has much to recommend it, there are serious flaws that compromise its usefulness. Domus Dei would benefit from a total rewrite of Chapter 1, substantial revision of Chapters 2 and 4, and careful emendation of Chapter 3. It is very positive that the American bishops are revisiting the issue of Church art and architecture and debating it so passionately. It is hoped that the bishops, as well as the Bishops’ Committee on Liturgy, will encourage further consultation, first of all by making the draft accessible in print. Of particular benefit would be consultation with architects, art historians, and preservationists who know and love the long tradition of Catholic architecture. In short, this draft of Domus Dei has been helpful in pushing forward the discussion of issues concerning the future of Catholic architecture, and one hopes that this process will result in a document that will help us build houses of God as icons of the Church and of the New Jerusalem.

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