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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  • The Crescat

    I think it’s important to note, in my post, I talked of liturgical beauty referencing the actual ritual of the liturgy – smells and bells, if you will – not necessarily just Baroque architecture and gilt shiny. I’ve been to mass at Trappists monasteries famous for their aesthetic minimalism but the liturgy itself with incredibly rich and evoked the senses.

    I think you may have missed my point.

  • Cordelia

    First-time commenter here…but I’ve been enjoying your blog for months. A post on architecture, however, is what it’s taken to draw me out of the woodwork! I’m a mid-thirties recent convert, American by birth but Canadian by marriage, from a background perhaps best described as disgruntled-Evangelical. For what it’s worth, I didn’t read your post as a being in any way opposed to Katrina’s…whose enthusiasm the other day also made me cheer. I despise most (but not all) modernist church buildings because they fail on both fronts – being neither beautiful in themselves, nor “saying” architecturally what a building ought to say about the human activity in gives home to…in this case, of course, the Mass. What I think we desperately need (and not simply for churches) is somehow a new vernacular style – something that makes a natural and grateful reference to our history, but isn’t just a copy of past glories in modern materials. If wishes were fishes! Until then, though, as long as we’re building with an eye to replicating a historical style, I also would propose Simplicity… But if you’ve already got something ornate – treasure it!

  • David J. White

    When I was in Italy, I got to the point where I really got tired of baroque churches, and rejoiced at the occasional discovery of a nice, simple romanesque church that had somehow escaped — in the words of Jesuit priest I used to know — being “baroqued”.

    What the church architects of the 1970s and 1980s didn’t seem to understand though, is that simple can done in a dignified, elegant way; “simple” doesn’t have to mean “merely utilitarian”. A room furnished by the Bauhaus and a home furnished by Target or Wal-Mart can both be simple, but there is a difference.

  • R.C.

    Can I put in a word for quality?

    The difficulty I have with Catholic Churches of my experience here in the South is not that they lack flashy opulence, although they do.

    The difficulty I have is that I grew up in evangelical churches where people tithed on their pre-tax income not out of guilt trips but out of a sacrificial love for Jesus and the general feeling that that’s part of living a normal Christian life…and as a result the churches I grew up in had WELL-MAINTAINED facilities and WELL-TRAINED, NON-VOLUNTEER staff and STILL managed to regularly out-give the nearby Catholic parishes when it came to assistance to the needy in our community.

    The music wasn’t done by unpaid teenagers. The sound systems weren’t feedback-ridden kludges smaller than what I had in my college dorm room. The flooring wasn’t scuffed factory-floor tile.

    If Catholics — who after all are slightly more well-to-do on average than Protestants in general, although I think the Anglicans have the edge on everybody income-wise — would just tithe in a serious way, it seems to me that the parishes could give more to the poor AND not look ratty and half-hearted.

    Because, coming from the churches I’d been in during my childhood, that’s the impression I get. Ratty. Half-hearted. During RCIA the deacon told me that my parish was in fact a Catholic version of a “mega church” with over a thousand persons in Mass every Sunday, and I was shocked, because while I admitted that that number of persons attended, the atmosphere of the poorly-maintained 70′s era facilities resembled what I’d always associated with a church that was winding down: A church with few kids and few converts that’d soon have an average parishoner age of 65 and eventually close down. You know: That sort of “Oh, well” atmosphere.

    Whether Solomon’s temple was flashy or modest, I doubt it gave you a feeling of “Oh, well.”

    So: Baroque, classical, Gothic, whatever: I leave stylistic decisions up to others. Between flashy and spartan there’s a good balance to be achieved…sort of understated elegance, perhaps?

    But whatever the style, I’d love it if Catholic Churches would be maintained and built in such a way as to communicate that those involved thought that God mattered, that excellence mattered, that they weren’t just half-heartedly going through the motions, and that they gave a damn.

  • Cordelia

    R. C. – The stinginess of the average Catholic parishioner shocked me, too, when I discovered it! At a meeting devoted to “building our parish community” (a parish we no longer attend…but that’s another story), I nearly gave everybody heart attacks by casually mentioning that the Protestant churches I’ve attended all considered a 10% tithe to be the basic minimum. I’m serious – heart attacks. Except that they didn’t really believe me…