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Apart from the post-Vatican II liturgy wars, few topics are more likely to set off fierce disputes within Catholic dioceses than architecture—or, more precisely, proposals for renovating church structures and interiors.

One doesn’t have to be an enthusiast of Counter-Reformation baroque to recognize that, from the late 1950s onward, a contemporary stripping of the altars was carried out in many Western countries in the name of renewal. In The Spirit of the Liturgy, Joseph Ratzinger called it a “new iconoclasm” that “eliminated a lot of kitsch and unworthy art, but ultimately . . . left behind a void.” For decades, it seems, beauty was out, and a mixture of infantilism and neo-Stalinist brutalism was in.

These days, lay Catholics aren’t shy about challenging those who want to “update” (as the euphemism goes) church interiors. Even many self-described progressive Catholics are against ripping out altar rails, relegating the tabernacle to a side chapel in the basement, or adorning the sanctuary walls with art that bears more than a passing resemblance to a five-year-old kindergartner’s doodlings. 

Plainly much more is at stake in these debates than aesthetic disputes. They touch on conflicts ranging from the purpose of the Mass to what a church should convey about the content of Christian faith. Church architects understand that a building's design can influence what believers and non-believers alike think about Christianity. So do plenty of ordinary Mass-going Catholics who believe that their churches should be neither museums for tourists nor the ecclesiastical equivalent of the set of Battlestar Galactica.

Some of these tensions burst into public view recently, when plans for reconstructing the interior of Paris’s Notre-Dame Cathedral were leaked to the British press. The proposed redesign includes a “discovery trail” that will take visitors through fourteen themed chapels, each with a text projected upon the wall and a contemporary work of art, to “create a fecund dialogue between contemporary creation and the church”—whatever that means. The plan also proposes shunting aside many classical sculptures and most of the confessionals, using sound-and-light shows to create “emotional spaces” and explain basic Christian teachings in multiple languages, installing luminous “mobile benches” (which can be moved aside to make more room for tourists after Mass), and adding a stained-glass window and chapel wall overlain by a contemporary abstract painting of clouds.

The proposed changes were submitted to France’s Commission nationale du patrimoine et de l’architecture last week, as per an agreement between the archdiocese of Paris and the French government about who gets to decide what about the cathedral restoration. The commission approved the redesign with two exceptions: The statues must not be removed from the redesigned chapels, and the plan for mobile benches must be reviewed. The commission also offered verbal assurance that no object or painting that was inside Notre-Dame before the fire will be removed from the cathedral.

Catholic and non-Catholic designers and art critics alike have expressed dismay at the plans, denouncing them as, among other things, the equivalent of a “politically correct Disneyland” and a “woke theme park.” The man behind the plans, Fr. Gilles Drouin, has defended the redesign by arguing that we can’t assume the 12 million tourists who will wander through the cathedral each year will know much about Christianity in general or Catholicism in particular. The new interior, he asserts, will make Christian teaching more accessible to contemporary visitors.

Fr. Drouin is right that profound religious ignorance is the rule rather than the exception for contemporary Western Europeans. Furthermore, Catholic churches are not supposed to be forever frozen circa 1756. Every generation of Catholics can contribute to the ways that their churches give glory to God. But church architects and liturgists must realize that no matter how hard they try, they’ll never be able to “out-contemporary” their secular peers in attempts to make the faith speak to the so-called moment. And anyone seriously interested in evangelization through church design should consider that using electronic sound and light shows to disrupt the current architectural harmony of Notre-Dame, which has inspired both Mass-goers and visitors for centuries, is likely not the best way to communicate the transcendent beauty of the faith to tourists.

A slightly different outlook guided the nineteenth-century restorer of Notre-Dame, Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, as he sought to repair the damage inflicted by iconoclastic French Revolutionaries in the 1790s. In his designs, he aimed to convey a deep sense of the sacred, the transcendental, and the mystery of the sacraments that express and contain the visible and invisible reality of God—the God who, Christians believe, first revealed himself to the Hebrew people before entering directly into human history in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. His neo-Gothic style strove to integrate faith and art, with the emphasis upon inspiring those entering the cathedral—rich and poor, devout and skeptic—to pray, the pillars and spires pointing upward to the one who is the proper object of prayer. Viollet-le-Duc also wanted those who visited Notre-Dame to encounter sublime images and art that would remind them of the saints who intercede for us and serve as models of holiness.

In other words, Viollet-le-Duc’s designs—also expressed in his restoration of churches like Mont Saint-Michel in Normandy and Paris’s Sainte-Chapelle—were neither exercises in pure nostalgia, nor attempts to “speak to the moment.” They were about conveying the beauty and truth of Catholic faith. Nor, I would add, has nostalgia driven the tasteful restoration of many churches in France over the past twenty years. Plenty of church interiors throughout France have been refurbished in ways that not only dispense with the absurdities in vogue in the 1970s and ’80s, but also combine traditional art and modern designs to convey a sense of wonder and open up human reason to the amazing possibility that there is a Creator who loves us and takes us seriously. 

That, I’d suggest, is the standard by which we should be judging the interiors of Catholic churches. Whether it ultimately prevails in the refurbishment of Notre-Dame de Paris remains, alas, to be seen.

Samuel Gregg is research director at the Acton Institute.

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