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Some Musings on Worship, Aesthetics and Ethics in the Architecture of Catholic Churches Some Musings on Worship, Aesthetics and Ethics in the Architecture of Catholic Churches
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2017-09-05 08:39:22
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St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome

Catholicism has a 2000-year old history. This may sound stereotypical, but I have always imagined its rich history as endowed by magnificent churches with high, arched ceilings, statues of saints galore, massive crucifixes, incense, and gigantic, gilded, and beautiful altars. Perhaps the best example of this is St. Peter Basilica in Rome. If a building could embody the very essence of Catholicism it is this; but that is not to exclude the thousands of Baroque churches in Southern European countries and the famed Gothic cathedrals of France and Germany.


A Catholic Gothic Cathedral                     A Catholic Baroque Church

Today, however, more often than not, in entering a Catholic Church one is likely to be met by a rather bland type of modern architecture. One is likely to mistake it for a Protestant church with its penchant for a simple style. Even that of an auditorium can function as an initial church.

The Great Altars have been replaced by a simple block of marble or wood, the statues of saints have been removed, not to speak of the incense no longer used. This is considered a great improvement over a Church of old bent on ostentation of wealth unconcerned with the plight of the poor.

In modern parishes aesthetics is no longer considered a main concern, perhaps pointing to the loss of the connection between the True, the Good, and the Beautiful, those transcendental forms as conceived by the ancient Greek philosophers. The mass celebrated exclusively in the vernacular language hints at the loss of a universal language, Latin, which pointed to the unity of the universal Church. The concern seems to be purely for the ethical, for community building outside the walls of the church without, however, too much outward display of the faith.

Aesthetically speaking one can discern the difference immediately by observing the architecture of a church. If it has kept its Great Altar, chances are that it has also kept the Latin Mass. The English-only church has removed the Great Altar long ago and considers it passé. Politics seems to be more important than aesthetics.

Some families shop around till they find the parish that conforms to their politico-ethical preferences: does the pastor speak more about climate change or more about abortion? Does the parish school still adhere to a rigorous curriculum or one that is watered down? Is the music at mass accompanied by guitar or organ? We’ll choose accordingly. And so, inevitably, we have ended up with the so-called “cafeteria Catholics,” who pick and choose according to his preferences.

This state of affairs goes back at least to Vatican II during the 60s and 70s. I submit that despite those admirable moral considerations, those new modern churches represent an aesthetic loss, revealing something even deeper in the changes that have occurred since the Vatican II Council. That is to say, the loss is not only aesthetic.


Two Modern Catholic Churches

What seems to have been lost sight of is that the Great Altar of Gothic and Baroque churches has a traditional symbolical value: it is an outward sign of inward devotion, like the Rosary and other sacramentals. The question arises: why did then a Church that put so much emphasis on aesthetics for millennia suddenly shift the emphasis? Does that shift perhaps indicate the crisis of faith evident in many parishes?

Let’s look at some specific example of this problematic: in the traditional Latin Mass the priest faces the altar in the same direction the congregation does, and his movements are choreographed down to which fingers handle the Eucharist. The altar, the point where heaven and earth meet, was designed accordingly.

In the architecture of today’s modernistic churches one observes churches-in-the-round. Before Vatican II they were practically non-existent. The physical design of the old churches dictated that ornate artwork on the walls, domes, and arches pulled the eye upward and sparked meditation on the divine mysteries; the altarpiece was placed in the apse to orient the congregation properly, while incense drew together and sanctified the individual properties into one event.

Today a different order and hierarchy seems to be in place, focused inward rather than upward. The importance of physical design on the structure of the Mass seems to be lost on 21st century postmodern Catholics. But how a building is designed is integral to its function. Ask any architect.

By reorienting the altar to meet the people, the Mass is now about the people themselves. The Mass becomes more of a performance art and less a way to worship. Applauses are acceptable. The rationale behind this reorientation is that the Church should be doing more to meet people where they are at, instead of asking them to meet an often inaccessible Church. That is true indeed, but re-orienting the very structure of the Mass to focus on the congregation, ended up de-ordering the priority of the Mass which exists not to offer a spectacle but to worship God.

In the old Mass there was a clear prioritization. Everything that happened within it had a reason behind it. Each Mass progressed as a timeline recounting salvation history through Old Testament prayers and readings culminating in re-presentation of the “new and eternal covenant” in the Eucharist.

The modern Mass may be more accessible because narrated in the vernacular language but its priority may be in the wrong place. If a parish is fortunate enough to have priests, why does it need Eucharistic ministers present at every Mass? Why do the songs, far from inspiring, as Gregorian chant (sung in Latin) used to be, sound like a cheap Christian film? Why is the altar so plain and uninspiring?

The great altars are gone forever together, with kneeling for communion and incense and Gregorian chant, but the Catholic Church may have lost more than mere altars and their artistic treasures. It may have lost an appreciation for the spiritual and religious impact that aesthetics can have in a sacred space. Aesthetics has unfortunately been put on the postmodern backburner in favor of innovation which would bring the Church into the modern era, just as beauty has been put in the backburner in modern museums in favor of shock and innovation. This is considered the “enlightened” and “progressive” approach for what comes at the end is always the best of all possible worlds.

The question that remains to be addressed, by reformers and traditionalists alike, is this: how has this trendy innovative approach, at the expense of the traditional transcendental universalist approach, worked out so far? Suffice here to say that I for one remain under-whelmed.


Check Dr Emanuel Paparella's NEW BOOK
"The Caligula Presidency: A Satirical Debunking Critique"
is online now and you can download it for FREE HERE!



Check also Dr Emanuel Paparella's other EBOOKS
Aesthetic Theories of Great Western Philosophers
& Europe Beyond the Euro
You can download them all for FREE HERE!


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