Re-examining Beauty in Catholic Churches

The uniquely Catholic language of beauty may regain the main factor it's been lacking since the 20th century: universal institutional support.
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The uniquely Catholic language of beauty may regain the main factor it's been lacking since the 20th century: universal institutional support.

By Michael F. Tamara

The Catholic Church was the single greatest force in shaping western culture and civilization for well over a millennium-and-a-half. The rich and diverse language of beauty that blossomed during that epoch should be cause for ongoing celebration and development, especially within the very bosom from whence it was nurtured and strengthened.

After all, this language of beauty represents transcendence, serenity, stability and order: all attributes that are, one would presume, indispensable in communicating and reinforcing a religion that relies heavily on both faith and reason. In light of this, much ink has been poured out over the years in an effort to understand the sudden ubiquitous endorsement of architectural Modernism by Catholic leaders in the 20th century.

The Church has never claimed preference for any one particular style. So, it may initially seem reasonable that Modernism would be "baptized" in the same manner as the pre-Christian stylistic languages of classical Rome, North Africa or the Middle East, for instance. However, the latter category already possessed an inherent correlation to natural order through human scale and perceptibility, thus being readily adaptable to the central Christian belief in the Incarnation, and the sacramental worship that proceeded from it.

In contrast, Modernism emerged largely due to thinking that clashed with traditionally held notions of humanity, and was agnostic toward a revealed hierarchy in nature and a knowable order and meaning to existence. To Christianity, this is alien territory, at the very best.

In the wake of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) – though not the intention of the Council – widespread confusion became the norm in the Catholic world. A major casualty of this period was the aforementioned language of beauty and order, deserted exclusively in favor of often sub-par attempts at Modernist design. In an apparent effort to catch up with the times and become more relevant by worldly standards, almost everything became acceptable as long as it didn't resemble anything that came before, or anything "churchy" in the familiar sense.

However, since the turn of the century, a growing percentage of priests, religious and laypeople are of a generation with no living memory of the way things were before or during Vatican II. This allows for them to be able to look at the current situation, and the spirit of novelty and experimentation that led to it, with a fresh and more objective mind, free of exaggerated nostalgia for either the "old" or the "new" ways. It's a mind that simply views everything continually through the lens of 2,000 years of Church history, and actively seeks what Thomas Aquinas identified as integritas, consonantia and claritas – integrity, harmony and clarity – in all things.

These rediscovered ideas inevitably translate to a more traditional understanding of the faith, which, by now, is ever-so-slowly beginning to visibly carry through into the way the sacraments are celebrated, as well as the buildings that house them. This has become evident, to some degree, at all levels of Catholic life.

Recent renovations that have been prevalent around the blogosphere, such as Holy Name of Jesus Church in Brooklyn, NY, are certainly notable for the dramatic transformations they've undergone. Equally as notable, however, is just how supportive the parishioners are, often shattering fundraising goals when they see what their church could look like again.

Another project in Brooklyn, the recently rededicated Co-Cathedral of St. Joseph, exemplifies how a beautiful old church can be rescued from the fate of likely demolition, while being made more radiant than ever before. Beyond the Diocese of Brooklyn, there are other local sees where a rediscovery of tradition, if not a stated goal, is at least perceivable as an emerging theme.

The Diocese of Lincoln, NE, has guided a couple dozen parishes in reintroducing traditional symbolism and furnishings into older churches that had previously undergone insensitive remodels, or were built more recently with sparse aesthetics. The Diocese of Raleigh, NC, is in the planning stages of a brand new cathedral with a cruciform plan and Romanesque details, after having just dedicated the new, large parish church of St. Catherine of Siena in Wake Forest last year. And over the past decade, the Diocese of Arlington, VA, has seen the construction of numerous new churches, each one progressively more traditional, such as Our Lady of Hope in Potomac Falls and St. Raymond of Peñafort in Springfield (2006), Holy Trinity in Gainesville (2008), and St. John the Apostle in Leesburg, VA.(2012).

In a time when many older religious communities that moved away from tradition are now struggling for survival, those that have embraced their roots and heritage have median ages in the 30s and 40s, and cannot build fast enough to keep up with their steady growth. The Benedictines of Clear Creek in Oklahoma and the Carmelites of Wyoming are cases in point. Both have embarked on ambitious monastery complexes, each one in various phases of design or construction.

The reemergence of traditional sacred architecture has even appeared in the collegiate world. Over the past several years, Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paula, CA, and, perhaps more unexpectedly, the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, have both dedicated iconic campus chapels with carefully studied designs heavily reliant on the language of beauty and order.

Does this phenomenon represent a permanent shift in mentality? "Not so fast," one might say. There are still more ribbon cuttings for minimalist, informally laid out worship spaces, than there are new, solidly traditional churches.

Yet, while it is far too early to tell where this small grassroots renaissance may lead, there is at least one common theme wherever it emerges: youth. As younger clergy with more proactively traditional inclinations come of age, becoming bishops and cardinals, that uniquely Catholic language of beauty may very well regain the main factor it's been lacking since the 20th century, which is universal institutional support.

Will a once proud and loving mother indeed seek out her abandoned child anew with open arms? Time will tell.

Michael F. Tamara is pursuing a professional license in architecture. He holds a BA in architectural studies and art history from Hobart College in Geneva, NY, and an M. Arch I from Syracuse University. He has studied in Rome and Florence.