It’s no secret that the state of contemporary religious architecture in America is bad. Really bad. The American idea of inevitable progress runs into a brick wall when we compare the quality of our architectural output a century ago with the stuff we are building now. Every denomination’s churches have suffered”but the most severe damage done by the sundry theoretical crazes of recent decades may be to Catholic architecture.

The question, of course, is why. And the answer”well, we might start by looking here:

It was a large rectangular room with white walls, deep windows, and a stone floor; the space was devoid of any decoration. As remodeled, the only furnishings were a hundred small cuboid black stools. The disposition of the room could be easily changed for different functions. For example, if a discussion, recital, or conference were being held, the stools were rearranged as in an auditorium, but if the eucharist was being celebrated, a provisional altar was set up in such a way that the people could gather around it on three sides. The presider closed the circle by facing the community from behind the altar. The liturgy as celebrated in the space was certainly a celebration of the whole assembly; it was expressed with great simplicity and flexibility. Hospitality surely took precedence over monumentality, and the community took precedence over objects.

The space being described here is the main hall in the Schloss Rothenfels-Main, headquarters of Germany’s Catholic Youth movement, as redesigned in 1928. Of course, that was long ago and in another country. But R. Kevin Seasoltz, a Benedictine liturgical scholar at St. John’s University in Minnesota, insists in his new book, A Sense of the Sacred: Theological Foundations of Christian Architecture and Art , that this room deserves our emulation now, for it marks the first instance in which the “renewals in architecture and liturgy were brought together.”

Architecture, did he say? What architecture? All I see from Seasoltz’s description is a reduction of interior design to an anorexic conceptual exercise”and this despite the fact that its architect, Rudolf Schwarz, collaborated on this protominimalist project with a renowned liturgical specialist, Romano Guardini.

Perhaps, if even Guardini couldn’t compel an ideological architect to embrace a richer sense of meaning, we shouldn’t complain too much about Seasoltz. But A Sense of the Sacred is a deeply deceptive book, for it aims to force drastic changes upon our churches in the name of architecture”when those changes are desired above all for their political and ecclesiological effect.

The New Testament proclaims that the members of the church are the body of Christ. The original meaning of “church,” or ekklesia, is the “called-out” community of believers, chosen for redemption. “If material edifices have any intrinsic Christian meaning,” Seasoltz argues, “it is because of the community who assembles there and what they do when they are gathered”namely, hear the Word of God proclaimed, break that Word for one another, and celebrate the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ in the various sacrimental rites.”
Now, it is true that the primeval significance of the gathering place for Christian worship is not that of a divine domicile, as with, say, pagan temples. But it is equally true that the Christian churches”and especially the Catholic Church”has accumulated additional layers of meaning over time, layers that Seasoltz is eager to strip away. Indeed, to argue that it is only as a place of assembly that a Christian church building possesses a legitimate identity is to succumb to the functionalist delusion that wrought havoc on church design during the latter part of the twentieth century. And this is precisely Seasoltz’s contention.

Though he is averse to any sense of unworthiness among the faithful taking part in the Mass, Seasoltz does offer an engaging historical survey of Christian liturgical practices from the earliest times, along with their physical settings . It is well known that the primeval church relied on household rooms for worship. Yet why should this require us now to build multipurpose, functionalist worship spaces like the hall at the Schloss Rothenfels-Main? By Seasoltz’s own account, Christians opted for converted house churches and new church buildings with exclusively sacred uses, not to mention clearly defined sanctuaries and elaborate mural decorations, as soon as the Church’s growth and relative freedom from persecution permitted.

Oddly, the theological and liturgical doctrines underpinning Seasoltz’s views on sacred art and architecture do not get top billing in A Sense of the Sacred. That honor goes to the culture. “Certainly the church possesses an intrinsic identity of its own, but it is dependent on cultural phenomena as it seeks to give an expression of its own identity in terms that can be appropriated by contemporary people,” the author avers.

A postmodern who wears his political correctness on his sleeve, Seasoltz constructs anodyne cultural identities for “primal” cultural groups”Native Americans, African Americans, Hispanic Americans, and, most absurdly, Asian Americans. “Primal” is academic parlance for “primitive,” and these groups have ceased to be that. Nevertheless, Seasoltz needs his noble savages to make his cultural construct fly. So we are treated to memorable sentences like this one about Native Americans: “They are mysteriously devoted to nature, especially the soil”they sit on it and walk on it with their bare feet.” Or this: “Africans and African American Christians are often quite aware of the various powers of evil in their lives and their environment.” Needless to say, Western civilization comes in for much rougher treatment.

Of course, our culture is not primarily primal, and one does wonder about the lack of any discussion of the impact of mass media in Seasoltz’s analysis. For the record, he sees the defining cultural trend of the moment as a modern-to-postmodern transition. Given the limitations or dangerous delusions of classical and modern culture, that is for the best, in his view. He acknowledges the nihilistic strains in postmodern culture. But it also entails “a return to primal culture, to nature, to the images of good and evil, and to symbols, myths and rituals that are thought to enable people not only to deal responsibly with the mystery of iniquity in human life but to triumph over that evil.” The postmoderns who interest Seasoltz are thus New Age types”romantic neoprimitives, primals without the fangs.

Seasoltz’s divination of the emerging cultural dispensation just happens to dovetail with his anthropological conviction that “religion and religious experience are communicated, shared, and sustained not primarily through creeds and theological statements but through symbols, myths, metaphors, and rituals.” In the “emphasis on the community as the true subject of liturgical celebration,” Seasoltz notes, modern Catholic scholars have seen “a sound pastoral response to the intense individualism and pragmatism of much of Western society.”

Seasoltz therefore seeks to deemphasize hierarchical distinctions between clergy and people during the liturgy. He wants the faithful arranged antiphonally around the altar, with the presiders facing the people, so that all can behold the “unity of Christ’s body.” “Nourished” and “transformed” by the eucharistic feast, the laity will seek the transformation of the world they live in. Needless to say, Seasoltz aims to reshape the worship setting in a way that will help drive the symbolism of the Eucharist home. His formula for church design boils down to the erection of unmonumental buildings in which worshipers are not distracted from the “primary symbols” of the Eucharist”themselves”and the “cultic actions” in which they are engaged.

One big problem, Seasoltz acknowledges, is that a lot of Catholics just won’t get with the program. It’s as if their abhorrence of modernist churches were a replay of Galileo versus the Inquisition. “In recent times,” he laments, “there has been a nostalgia for the unity and security that classical culture brought to the Roman Catholic Church.” Some Catholics subject to this “nostalgia,” he says, “can accommodate their lives to contemporary technology, sociology, economics, and psychology, but they want classical religion, especially as it was expressed in late medieval and Tridentine theology and liturgy.”

Surely living in a postmodern world characterized by “a multiplicity of constructs””by “complexity and contradiction,” to employ Robert Venturi’s phrase”should have reconciled Seasoltz to such untidy realities. But his “pluralism,” contrary to his take on postmodernism as embracing “traditions,” rejects Western artistic traditions predicated on enduring, objective forms and conventions. His “pluralism,” in other words, is a sham.

Look at the photographic examples Seasoltz includes of churches and sacred artworks that reflect his design concepts, and you understand why Catholics might look to the past for better things. A Benedictine monastic church in South Carolina is an insubstantial postmodern rendition of a basilica church, the plus-sign muntins in its windows serving as anorexic symbols of the faith. Interiors of new churches in Ireland and England do not read typologically as “Catholic church” or even “church” at all, and are bound to leave the unenlightened stone cold.

In the reconfigured interior of the 150-year-old Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist in Milwaukee, the apse is empty apart from new organ casework, because the sanctuary”with its high altar, baldachin, and communion rail”is no more. The tabernacle has been moved to a side chapel. The former sanctuary thus resembles an orchestral platform, as befits the renovated cathedral’s suitability for “nonliturgical events.”

If Archbishop Rembert Weakland and the renovators in his employ wished to relieve worshipers of “distractions” from the liturgy’s “primary symbols,” one wonders why they hung a truly histrionic sculptural composition above the altar”which, by the way, they brought out to the crossing and surrounded with the antiphonal arrangement of chairs Seasoltz advocates. This composition consists of a very large crown of thorns taking the form of a multitude of metallic spikes, through which a skewed spike-cross with a long, thin shaft is pitched on a diagonal, with a spindly, primitivized corpus precariously tacked onto it. It is obviously a major distraction. (Seasoltz acknowledges this criticism in his text, without rebutting it.)

There is precious little beauty or transcendence on view in these photographs, and indeed Seasoltz doesn’t even pretend that the new architecture they illustrate meets those criteria. It just reflects “sound liturgical theology and practice.”

The bottom line on the artistic dispensation he offers seems to be that churchgoers must meekly submit to their dosage of visual castor oil. Needless to say, Seasoltz implicitly ranks himself among the mandarins duty-bound to serve it up”which makes for an intriguing contradiction between his insistence on breaking down the hierarchical distinctions between clergy and laity in the liturgy and his insistence on reinforcing those distinctions in imposing his notion of appropriately postmodern art and architecture on Catholic communities. “Good quality,” Seasoltz declares, “is perceived and appreciated only by those who are willing and able to assume a contemplative distance from experience and to hear, see, touch, and taste symbols for what they truly are.” Indeed, “the meaning of the cultural forms that architecture and art assume is not immediately clear because, like all symbols, the forms must be interpreted””by the mandarins. Amid the postmodern miasma of a “multiplicity of constructs,” then, a Delphic caste of artists, architects, academics, pastors, and liturgical consultants must divine which “cultural forms” are acceptable and which not. This delicious little bureaucratic formula is tailor-made to disenfranchise rather than empower the laity.

The implicit authoritarianism is even more pronounced because the design concepts Seasoltz espouses lack the objective foundation that tradition might provide. Seasoltz can offer only a terribly generic recipe for appropriate church design. “There are important elements in the liturgical environment,” he writes in his conclusion, “that contribute significantly to the overall experience of mystery, especially the seating of the assembly and the placement of the major liturgical actions, as well as light, acoustics, color, spaciousness, silence, stillness, and even temporary decorations. The architectural and artistic environment is appropriate when it is beautiful, hospitable, and inviting”when it creates a certain sense of emptiness and appears to be incomplete when the celebrating assembly is absent.”

The absence of specificity and concreteness in Seasoltz’s design criteria underlines the fact that they are grounded mainly in subjective values like “honesty,” “genuineness,” and, above all, “authenticity.” A new church that meets with his approval can look like just about anything”a deracinated basilica, a home, a barn, or, as with the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles, an overdesigned university chem lab with a bizarre belltower and a stage for a sanctuary. Just so long as it isn’t monumental and doesn’t embrace principles of design that have imbued churches with meaning for well over a thousand years.

To reconcile Christians to this conceptual house of cards, Seasoltz offers an atrociously misleading account of recent developments in art and architecture. Significantly, we get very, very little information about the churches”especially the Catholic churches”erected in the decades preceding modernism’s triumph.

We’re told pre-Vatican II churches in America reflected “the ethnic tastes of European immigrants.” They were, “as was the custom, furnished by catalogue sale houses that catered to sentimental tastes.” The unsuspecting reader might well conclude that American Catholic church design was typically of a piece with the “inferior kitsch that priests and religious regularly purchased.”

Another recent book, Heavenly City: The Architectural Tradition of Catholic Chicago , shows just how wrong that conclusion would be. Written by Denis R. McNamara, an architecture historian and liturgical consultant at the University of St. Mary on the Lake, the large-format volume is superbly illustrated with color photographs by the British photographer James Morris. It offers nearly seventy examples of Catholic sacred architecture from 1856 to 1962. The churches are designed in a wide variety of traditional idioms: Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque, Byzantine, Neoclassical, Romanesque, Moderne, and even Colonial Revival. Even where flaws in design or execution are apparent, the richness of the artistic conception”especially in the interiors” shines through in one example after another.

With the advent of modern frame construction in steel or steel-reinforced concrete, Seasoltz would have us believe, “the diverse styles that were produced in the nineteenth century were in many ways simply decorative additions to architecture; the overall impression was one of rather chaotic eclecticism.” Poor Seasoltz doesn’t know the difference between architecture and structural engineering.

To be sure, the great majority of the churches in McNamara’s book incorporated modern frame technology, though a layman would be hard pressed to tell. Frame construction allowed for larger column-free spans, permitting unobstructed views of the sanctuary that nurtured the congregation’s “active participation” in the Eucharist, a Vatican II theme already sounded in Pope Pius X’s 1903 motu proprio concerning sacred music . And that “rather chaotic eclecticism,” as McNamara’s book makes clear, had the signal virtue of reflecting a rich architectural heritage grounded in humanistic principles of design, a situation far preferable to the dehumanized architectural chaos so widespread in urban America today.

Among the many able architects who built the churches in Heavenly Cities, Joseph W. McCarthy and Henry J. Schlacks stand out for their formidable grasp of mass, proportion, and style. McCarthy was particularly inventive; his feeling for interior color and atmosphere was simply phenomenal. Later in his career he seamlessly incorporated the Moderne into grand classical designs, and he also produced churches in a simplified Gothic idiom with an unerring instinct for decorative detail.

The last church in McNamara’s book”Saints Faith, Hope, and Charity”was designed by Edward J. Schulte and dedicated in 1962. Located in Winnetka, its interior features an abundance of figurative sculpture in a somewhat medieval style strikingly set against brilliantly colored stained glass with intricate but abstract patterns. Schulte’s edifice has significant flaws and many virtues. It is typical of an evolutionary ethos that shaped much sacred architecture before “the spirit of Vatican II” was somehow imagined to prescribe a revolutionary approach.

This church perhaps helps explain the evident lack of concern about the state of architectural affairs in the concluding chapter on sacred art and liturgical furnishings in Vatican II’s Sacrosanctum Concilium document. In Heavenly City we behold walls, vaults, domes, and stained-glass windows replete with images of the Godhead, saints, angels, and idealized natural forms and symbols. Such embellishments inspire in the faithful the sense that the liturgy conjoins the earthly and heavenly realms. However dimly, their splendor foreshadows the inconceivable majesty of the Heavenly Jersualem. The emotional response they elicit makes the faithful feel closer to God, as does the presence of the Blessed Sacrament within these churches.

Add to this the iconic presence of the church building within the community and it quite inevitably signifies not just the domus ecclesiae but also the domus Dei et porta coeli. It is true that the latter meaning is not prescribed in the New Testament. It is rather a function of deeply ingrained human instinct”an instinct that’s about as “primal” as it gets”and of Catholic inculturation of human instinct in the truest sense of the word. This meaning is also entirely consistent with the Church’s institutional identity as herald of the redemption of man and nature alike and of the life of the world to come, which identity Seasoltz fails to give its due.

Chicago’s Polish immigrants, toiling away in the stockyards and steel mills, dug into their meager savings to build fine baroque churches modeled on Polish prototypes from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Because Seasoltz is hooked on a postmodern sociology of artistic production in which who produces the art, or whom the art is thought to be produced for, matters more than the art’s intrinsic merit, he just can’t fathom the significance of this. It hardly mattered that the Polish aristocrats who built the prototypes presided over “a totally different kind of social order.” The art in these Polish churches”such as John A. Mallin’s remarkable mural painting in the dome of St. Hyacinth Basilica in northwest Chicago, with its more than 150 figures extending over nearly three thousand square feet”generally involves a decidedly baroque conception of grandeur, and the public it edified was altogether less elite than Seasoltz’s sociological theory would indicate.

The magnificence is what matters, not its supposed social origin, which is why any number of the churches in Heavenly City have been restored, or “de-renovated,” in a manner to which the mandarins of church architecture would strenuously object. Heavenly Cities serves as a timely reminder that the humanist tradition in architecture and art speaks to mankind, not to classes of men. It has always lent itself to new, indigenous interpretations. And the high quality of the architecture in McNamara’s book is the result of the Catholic Church’s sound reliance on a noble heritage.

For someone like R. Kevin Seasoltz, of course, this is a recipe for failure, and A Sense of the Sacred makes no mention of the traditional movement in architecture, urbanism, and fine art that has been gradually gathering force for a quarter century. The architects now picking up where McCarthy and his traditionalist contemporaries left off are doing some impressive work. It isn’t easy. The postmodern regime is institutionally entrenched, and the destruction modernism has wrought on the traditional building arts and crafts, and thus on the economic underpinnings of civilized architectural practice, has been massive. One recent project that warrants mention is a chapel designed by the Washington, D.C., firm of Franck Lohsen McCrery Architects for the ninety-year-old St. Joseph’s Cathedral in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. The chapel’s glory is the new twenty-seven-figure mural painting in the sanctuary, Christ Revealing His Sacred Heart Amongst the Heavenly Host with Assembled Saints and Blesseds, by Leonard Porter.

One source of Seasoltz’s problem with traditional architecture is theology”faulty theology. The symbolic power of the Eucharist is very likely impaired when the “primary symbols” are “persons” or the “community” rather than the consecrated Host”anonymously grouped with “things” in Seasoltz’s lexicon. The Real Presence in the bread and wine is conceptually compact and intimately expressive of Christ’s sacrifice. But when the community is “the true subject of liturgical celebration,” the sacrificial dimension of the Eucharist is easily obscured and the door opened to a ritual exercise in self-esteem enhancement or even a not-so-subtle form of idolatry.

Another part of the problem has to do with fashionable artistic theories getting in the way of common sense. There’s an elementary reality a great many Catholics have long since grasped, if only intuitively: Adherence to tradition generally yields a far higher return on creative effort than does the negation of tradition. Reconnecting Catholic architecture to its ancient heritage will help preserve the liturgy. It might even help preserve architects’ sanity, or what’s left of it.

Catesby Leigh is an architecture critic in Washington, D.C., and author of the forthcoming Monumental America (Spence).