America magazine, not generally known for its traditionalist sympathies, has an interesting feature on the resurgence of traditional church architecture. Michael E. Desanctis opens his piece, appearing in the May 28 issue, by asking: “are new church designs taking us backward?” His answer: sometimes, but not necessarily. When it comes to the affirmative answer to that question, he makes clear that he’s wary of those who like to pretend that time and history have no impact on the relevance of certain forms of expression. But he also gives a fair amount of credit to the latter position, even hinting that it may have correctly identified a flaw in overzealous readings of Vatican II:
…[T]o renew or reinvent itself, the church did not need to erase all physical traces of its past.
In recent years, this view has taken physical form in church architecture. Not only has dissatisfaction with the status quo grown. But anticipation of changes to the texts and texture of parish liturgical prayer has also spawned a revival of traditional-looking churches to replace the ubiquitous, Modernist structures of the previous half-century. Perhaps the same impulse within the church that has caused such changes in ritual practice as the decanting of the blood of Christ from “cup” to “chalice”—both literally and in the revised translation of the Roman Missal—is also behind the return to traditional architecture. [...]
Fortunately, the neo-traditionalists stop short of proposing a one-size-fits-all program for converting the physical environment of the liturgy back into a former version of itself. This point is best illustrated by two examples, the first a modification of the conciliar model, the second a departure from it.
Now, given the two examples he explores (St. Michael’s Church in Wheaton, IL and St. John Neumann in Farragut, TN), I think it’s fair to say that we’d have differing views on how much constitutes too much concession to the past. In general, while recent moves like the relocation of the Tabernacle to the center of the sanctuary and a kind of grassroots hunger for greater beauty in local parishes represent definitive gains, I’d say there’s still a long way to go in recovering forms which were pointlessly and (in many instances) callously tossed out. St Michael’s, though in some ways commendable and likely an improvement over what occupied the site previously, still looks rather like a dreaded “drywall church” (his words), and its use of Gothic elements is haphazard. And the fundamentally “suburban” character of these two examples–ringed as they are with massive parking lots–does not help to establish a sacred milieu.
But on the basic principle, agreement: if the goal is simply to be “anti-modern,” or “turn back the clock,” the design of a church (as in many other areas) will ultimately do justice to neither the past nor the present. Least of all, of course, because it’s simply not possible to recreate a bygone era–every reaction is a kind of revolution. So I think “neo-traditionalist” is an apt term; not only does it differentiate orthodoxy from reactionism, but it leaves a fair amount of ambiguity about what shape that renewal can take. The neo-traditionalist position on church architecture spans a vast range of style and taste: John Paul II, for example, was known for inaugurating churches that looked unlike much else in the style book. Many others favor classic forms reinterpreted so as to be immediately recognizable but subtly altered so as not to look like Disney-fied reproductions of Ye Olde Catholicism.
See Desanctis’ full piece, which includes a slideshow with very promising images of a new university chapel, here.