Is Modest Hottest for Churches?

The first Catholic church I ever entered as an adult was St. Mary’s, in Tempe, Arizona. Built in 1903, it’s the oldest Catholic church anywhere in the Valley of the Sun. Until a recent tricking-out, it was the very soul of simplicity, with hardwood floors and pews, and a single statue of the Blessed Mother standing just before the sanctuary. It had its decorative touches — tall, arched windows through which poured the warm morning sunlight and a beautiful rose window depicting the Agnus Dei in stained glass — but the general effect was one of restraint.

I loved it. In fact, very quickly, it became my personal ideal of how a church should look. I may spare a nod for kitsch as an occasional guilty pleasure, but when I’m looking for a regular worship space, I’ll take understatement every time. Put it down to my parents, both of whom aspired to be WASPs. My mother was almost delirious when she learned one of my second-grade classmates was descended from not one but two figures in Trumbull’s painting of the Battle of Bunker Hill. I hated the kid, but absorbed enough of her value system to buy The Preppie Handbook at the age of 11, and to dress straight from its pages until, as a rebellious high-school senior, I began a postulant year as a black man.

But here — and for real this time — I’m in the minority. The “P” in “WASP” doesn’t stand for “Papal.” Catholics dream of dwelling in marble halls, or at least of praying in them. Pomp or extravagance is one of the few qualities that appeals to Catholics of all liturgical and theological persuasions. The neo-baroque chapel of Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity designed by Duncan Stroik for St. Thomas Aquinas University carried a price tag of $23 million. That’s peanuts compared to the outlay for Los Angeles’ postmodern Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels. With a $5 million altar and a $3 million pair of bronze doors, the place earned the nickname “Taj Mahony” after the arcbhishop who commissioned construction.

But both of those buildings went up in happier times. Nowadays, Church leaders are at pains to remind the rest of the world that our religion amounts to more than what takes place in actual houses of worship. One of the major complaints regarding the conscience exemptions built into the contraception mandate of the Affordable Care Act goes: our mission as Catholics doesn’t end with inculcating religious values among co-religionists. It extends far afield — to the provision of social services to non-Catholics who may have no interest in our religious values. By failing to recognize that, the Obama administration is reducing religion to…well, whatever takes place in church, during a Mass.

Lately, Catholics seem to be asking themselves seriously what will happen if the courts and the popular will leave that definition intact. On July 4, the final day of the Fortnight for Freedom, Archbishop Chaput spoke of secular government as a barely necesary evil. “All belongs to God and nothing – at least nothing permanent and important – belongs to Caesar,” he told his audience. “Because just as the coin bears the stamp of Caesar’s image, we bear the stamp of God’s image in baptism. We belong to God, and only to God.”

Make no mistake, there’s a new negativity here. Back in the Fall of 2011, in an address at Assumption College, Chaput stressed Catholicism’s compatibility with the Founding Fathers’ vision, and held out hope that Catholics might provide the “moral force and intellectual depth” needed to restore the City on the Hill. Last week, the archbishop sounded more pessimistic. He did remind Catholics that “Patriotism is a virtue. Love of country is an honorable thing.” But the remark has the feel of a disclaimer against the general drift of his thoughts.

In National Catholic Reporter, Michael Sean Winters approves, relieved that somebody in charge recognizes the disconnect between the Church and the values of the American founders. “Just because they spoke of freedom and we speak of freedom,” he writes. “Does not mean that we are speaking the same language.” Until recently, it would have been unthinkable to say aloud that the Church, though in America, is definitely not of it, and in fact quite a bit better than it.

So where are we supposed to go from here? That’s what makes this moment so nerve-wracking and so exhilarating — nobody really seems to know. In Crisis Magazine, Ismael Hernandez proposes that the Church stop accepting federal funds for its charitable activities. More than that, it should cease to recognize the federal government as a partner in creating a just social order. On the transience of this world, Hernandez surpasses even Chaput at his gloomiest. “We must understand that our work, in the end, is not to be measured empirically by a record of services provided,” he writes. “It is the profound moral worth of our ideas and the humbling closeness of our presence that counts the most in our work.”

Hernandez continues: “A bold decision to affirm [our ideas], even by rejecting some funding, will generate a renewed enthusiasm about being Catholics and at the service of the poor.” Now that’s a proud and comforting boast: rejecting Pharaoh’s coin won’t necessarily lead to a general downsizing of hospitality houses, etc.

I can’t say whether the bishops will follow this program exactly, but they do seem to be heading toward a declaration of independence from American society as a whole. Take their recent investigation of the Girl Scouts, or the dissolution of their ties to Leadership Conference of Civil and Human Rights. Refusing to do business with the feds would represent one logical conclusion. And here’s where I think a certain retrenchment in architectural spending would send a number of positive messages:

First, it would re-affirm that the Church must make a priority of corporal works of mercy entirely on its own dime.

Second, it would discourage our frustration with the American experiment from mutating into nostalgia for throne, altar and hangman.

Fortunately, here in the Metro Phoenix Area, there’s no shortage of Catholic churches that are perfectly attractive without being showy. With few exceptions, they don’t look like state prisons or inner-city schools, or spaceships. Each one has a few decorations to recommend it — maybe an elegant corpus or altar, or a couple of stained-glass windows. Certainly every one has a nice lawn. Plenty have perpetual adoration chapels, but for the most part, the monstrances are simple. If you were a Jacobin or a soldier in the army of William the Silent, you wouldn’t dream of plundering one, except maybe for spite.

If the flashy models of the New Classicist movement bear comparison to Ava Garder at best and Anna Nicole Smith at worst, these local beauties span the ground between Natalie Wood and Allison Hannigan. I choose that metaphor advisedly. These places don’t whack you over the head with their charms; they grow on you. Sitting in the pew, taking in the atmosphere, can feel like gazing into a very soft and sympathetic pair of eyes, which is not the worst quality for a worship experience.

With the notable exception of St. Mary’s, most of these church buildings date back to the early 1970s, which means they evoke a past worth getting nostalgic for. Or at any rate, a moment in that past, because from this distance those years, between Humane Vitae and Roe v. Wade, look like the ones in which the relationship between America and the Catholic Church held the most promise. If that promise was broken, the people to blame are not the people who worshipped in those churches. They’re the ones who voted in Barry Goldwater, John McCain, John Kyl, Jan Brewer and Joe Arpaio. For the pinko hippie killjoys, look back East, to the homeland of the gothic revival.

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