The Truth About “Cold,” Modernist Church Architecture

Discussion about Modernist church architecture is often charged with emotion and rooted in personal taste. Why is this the case and how do we move beyond it?

There’s a persistent refrain one hears from certain corners of the Church today that goes something like this: The wholesale reconfiguration of the Catholic place of worship presumably called for by the liturgical reforms of the Second Vatican Council was unnecessary. It proceeded from an erroneous reading of the council’s intentions by a cohort of liberally minded pastors, liturgists and architects and others eager to “renovate” out of existence everything that once mattered to the faith. Thus, the beautiful buildings in which the faithful throughout this country once gathered, full of features quoted from the Church’s long history of artistic achievement, have been replaced in recent decades by Modern-styled churches that are ugly (“ugly as sin,” in fact, one popular critique of the current scene alleges) and devoid of anything the average worshiper would recognize as distinctly “Catholic.” These newer churches are altogether “cold,” “stark,” and “sterile” places, according to their detractors. They are considered mere “soul garages” too closely resembling the Pizza Huts and Burger Kings with which they are now expected to rub shoulders as outposts of a “Church in the Modern World,” especially in the bland, commercialized expanses of the American suburbs.

Immaculate Conception Church, Clarion, PA (1977)

Critics of the course sacred architecture in the United States has taken since Vatican II insist their concerns have more to do with metaphysics than aesthetics, though it’s precisely the look and feel of many newer churches they regard incapable of reflecting the celestial nature of the Church’s rites. Modernist architecture of the sort that pervades the secular landscape, they argue, can’t possibly offer its users a semblance of anything heaven-bound—though how they know precisely what this amounts to is anyone’s guess. To this they attach the loss of reverence lately observed in the Catholic “house of God,” which, in their minds, has devolved into a mere “house for the People of God,” one step removed in their minds from the “fellowship halls” of mainstream Protestantism. They likewise lament that the Church has fallen prey to the ideological free-for-all and relativism that characterize our time, against which objective standards for beauty—let alone for truth and goodness—tend to crumble. If they are inclined to interpret the “signs of the times” at all, as the bishops of Vatican II encouraged all Catholics to do (Gaudium et spes, no. 4), it seems only to point out the deficiencies in contemporary society rather than to welcome those insights on a range of topics that men and women of our day might offer the Church. One gets the impression by reading their published writings on sacred architecture that they’d be happiest were Catholic church buildings to be stand-alone structures entirely empty of worshipers, like the picture-perfect homes featured in house-and-garden magazines. The riot that emanates from the pews of churches these days, caused in no small part by the fidgetiness of the modern assembly and its insistence on playing an active role in every aspect of the Mass, only despoils for them that segment of Catholic real estate charged with enshrining in its requisite tabernacles the Real Presence of Christ permanently reserved there.

A troubling aspect of the line of criticism employed by anti-Modernists is its blindness to the implications of the Incarnation and, by extension, to the breadth of Catholic sacramentality at work beyond “the seven sacraments,” which renders nothing in the material world, save sin, incapable of disclosing the sacred.

“Oh, why can’t the Church of today be as it was long ago?” these historicists lament in the vein of those sages rebuked in the Book of Ecclesiastes (Ecc 7:10), “and what’s so wrong with at least pretending to live in an era less hostile toward the Church than our own by surrounding ourselves with enough anachronisms of the liturgical and architectural sort to sustain the illusion?”

Immaculate Conception Church (Interior), Clarion, PA (1977)

There is, to be sure, some validity to the complaints that Catholics of a traditionalist bent level against the state of sacred architecture. One can certainly find examples of both new and updated church buildings marred by at least some features that are less than attractive. There is, likewise, an informality of dress and comportment many laypeople carry with them into their places of worship nowadays, a result of the casualness that permeates the American lifestyle, that militates against efforts by pastors and parish liturgy planners to distinguish the rites for which they oversee from other forms of popular assembly. The problem is compounded by the fact that significant numbers of Catholics are not only aware of the jeans-and-sneakers approaches to worship promoted by the ever-multiplying Evangelical congregations in their vicinities but have shared in them sporadically with little sense of how these differ from the ritual habits of their own Church. One examines the faces of those in the typical Communion procession, as joyless a parade in many of our parishes as can be imagined, and wonders whether it’s not partly, as critics argue, some aspect of their “Vatican Two-ized” architectural surroundings that leaves worshipers looking less inspired than if they’d entered the ticket line for a ball game or Broadway show. But what of the centuries-old church buildings dispersed throughout Europe? Have they, in all their supposed artistic superiority over Modern-styled structures, proven any more successful in stemming the departure of weekly worshipers from their interiors?

It’s not helpful that so much of the criticism of Modern-styled liturgical settings relies on generalization. Catholic social media sites, for example, are replete with comments by self-described defenders of the Church, many of them members of the clergy with no apparent expertise in the areas of aesthetics, design, or architectural criticism, that amount to little more than de gustibus opposition to all things Modernist. They are quick to denounce the cultural milieu from which Modernist modes of thought and art first emerged a century ago, a swath of northern Europe full of free-thinkers and social engineers determined to elevate humankind to a place formerly reserved for God alone. They find no contradiction, however, in encouraging today’s church designers to work, say, in the Classical style of Ancient Greece and Rome, cultures that erected the most splendid temple buildings while killing off their young through the practice of exposure, while trafficking in slaves, repressing women and indulging in pederasty as one of many forms of sexual immorality. Bad people yield bad art, anti-Modernists hold, unless, apparently, the art in question is one your side prefers.

Even in relatively scholarly critiques of Modernist church design appearing, say, in the Sacred Architecture Journal, a publication linked to the University of Notre-Dame’s Classically-focused School of Architecture and explicitly devoted to “the renewal of beauty in contemporary church architecture,” or the e-journal Sacred Liturgy and Liturgical Arts, a kind of clearinghouse of “reform the reform”-mined commentary from promoters of the so-called “New Liturgical Movement,” one doesn’t find the sort of systematic analysis of specific church buildings on which sound architectural criticism traditionally relies. To dismiss out-of-hand and purely on ideological grounds an entire deposit of religious buildings reflective of the sensibilities and modes of construction of our day, as contributors to these and similar sources routinely do, is to forget how receptive the Church has been over the centuries to a wide range of architectural types, forms, styles and devices bearing no obvious connection to the sacred. It is likewise to overlook how inconsistent over the centuries in their preferences for liturgical language, vesture, art, music and architecture have been the Church’s high- and low-ranking clergy, who nevertheless presumed to dictate liturgical and artistic tastes to the flocks of believers under their authority with no say in the matter. For example, there is nothing sacral, sui generis, about the longitudinal floor plan terminating in a semicircular apse from which countless Catholic churches have risen since the time of the Constantinian church of the 4th century, when it was appropriated from the civic architecture of Ancient Rome. The same may be said of the pointed arch so closely associated with Gothic-styled buildings. Though the device is invested with lofty, religious associations today, its origin, like much in architecture, is primarily structural, the outcome of medieval builders’ trial-and-error experimentation with spanning tremendously wide and high spaces by means of stone and mortar.

St. Mary Roman Catholic Church, Star City, WVA (1966)

A more troubling aspect of the line of criticism employed by anti-Modernists, however, is its blindness to the implications of the Incarnation and, by extension, to the breadth of Catholic sacramentality at work beyond “the seven sacraments,” which renders nothing in the material world, save sin, incapable of disclosing the sacred. The charge that the paired-to-the-bone geometries exhibited by Modernist churches only befuddle those forced to behold them grossly underestimates the Church’s facility with abstraction, which is something its members are expected to demonstrate each time they approach in the Eucharist a precision-stamped sliver of “bread” or half-sip of altar wine as the body and blood of their savior. One has only to visit a Catholic cemetery today, a place filled with Modern-styled memorial monuments and mausoleums, to observe the reverence with which laypeople treat non-pictorial art of the most abstract kind. For example, was the Egyptian obelisk, once a staple of Catholic funerary art, ever anything but an abstraction (of a ray of sunlight)? What of the Christian cross, which free of a corpus, certainly ranks among the sparest of religious symbols? It may be easier simply to monitor the remarks an international Facebook group like “Modernist Churches,” whose members express nothing but enthusiasm even for failed attempts to pour ancient wine into the newest wineskins.

Interestingly, adult catechumens in my own parish, readily admit having been attracted to the faith precisely because of the Modernist pedigree of our church building.

When critics of post-Vatican II architecture do get around to identifying what it is exactly that bothers them about formal characteristics of Modernist churches, their comments often center on one of the hot-button issues that continue to dog Catholic liturgical renewal by appealing more to emotion than to reason. Among the latter concerns the spatial location of tabernacles, for which for the General Instruction of the Roman Missal offers only two options: in sanctuaries, apart from altars of sacrifice, or in chapels of reservation (no. 315). Using a kind of “out of sight, out of mind” logic, however, traditionalists find only the first option acceptable, as anything other in their minds, will further diminish popular belief in the Real Presence of Christ that dwells in their midst. This argument seems irreconcilable, however, with the Church’s practice for centuries of sequestering furnishings for the Rite of Baptism in rooms entirely removed from the main bodies of churches with no apparent effect on the laity’s attachment to this sacrament. The same holds for critics’ dislike of the “unfocused” and too “Protestant-looking” semicircular seating arrangements offered lay worshipers today in many newer churches, which seems at odds with their complete acceptance of the crescent-shaped configurations of chairs in basilica-style structures that have served the clergy for centuries.

The most expedient way to counter the claim that Modernist churches are no good for the American Catholic populace, however, is simply to acknowledge the number of parishes nationally whose worship has benefitted from inhabiting structures free of the faux-antiquity on which, critics suggest, church architects must continue to depend. Such communities abound in dioceses throughout this country, as the testimonies of local offices of worship make plain. The truth is that Catholics in the United States have admitted into their liturgical consciousness “the art of our own days” (Sacrosanctum concilium, no. 123) which the members of the Second Vatican Council judged neither “cold” nor “ugly,” nor intrinsically antithetical to the liturgical goals of the Church. Interestingly, adult catechumens in my own parish, readily admit having been attracted to the faith precisely because of the Modernist pedigree of our church building. A church designed, ironically, in 1969 by a graduate of the former Department of Architecture at the University of Notre Dame, then a bastion of Modernism under the chairmanship (1950-72) of professor Frank Montana. The Cor-Ten steel cross made of I-beams that tops its roof span needs no doo-dads culled from history to make its point. Modernist churches have become as normal and normative a part of American Catholic life as the vernacular Mass or so-called “Communion in the hand.” They have proven to be sources of pride, even affection, to the parish communities who inhabit them, mileposts in the spiritual-artistic journey of an stubbornly forward-looking Church, and proof that novelty can play as legitimate a role in the religious expression of 21st-century Catholics as anything marked by old age.


About Michael E. DeSanctis

Michael E. DeSanctis is Professor of Fine Arts and Theology at Gannon University in Erie, Pennsylvania, as well as the director of its honors program. He serves as a design consultant to Catholic parishes involved in the construction or renovation of places of worship and has written for a number of publications, including Emmanuel.