Its this: the attitude to the physical. Frank and Leonard quite rightly show us the tabernacle and the temple as buildings that were rich in their architecture and furnishings. They were rich in form and content–in other words, not only were the built with rich materials like gold, onyx, silver, pearl, fine cedar and marble and stone, but they were rich in symbolism and significance. Everything carried multiple levels of meaning. The temple and everything in it was a rich and varied and abundant sermon in stone.
Catholic churches used to be like that too. What has happened? We’ve downgraded the physical. We’ve said those things don’t matter. In fact, there’s a sort of modern iconoclasm. We not only say these physical things don’t matter we distrust them. We tear them down and throw them out in favor of bare auditoria with seats in. Protestants have always done so from the beginning, but now Catholics have done so too.
Why is that? It is not simply a need to do things on the cheap. It is not simply a need to be utilitarian and build a practical and sensible structure. At the root it is a distrust in the physical means of grace. It is a distrust and dislike for what Catholics might call “the sacramental principle.” The sacramental principle is the idea that God comes to us through the physical world. The physical world is how he comes to us and reveals himself to us. This is the whole meaning of the story of creation and God’s revelation through history which culminates in the triumph of God’s revelation through the physical world–which is the incarnation of his Son of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
The sacramental principle keeps this alive in the world. Catholics say insist that matter matters. God still comes to us through the physical realm. That’s why some of us (despite the degradations of modernism) insist on building beautiful churches, why we insist on beautiful vestmenst, statues and stained glass, lighting candles, kneeling to pray, burning incense and wearing crucifixes. This is why we as Catholics believe that through water one is united with Christ, through bread and wine we participate in his body and blood, through oil we are forgiven and healed, through physical love we are united with our spouse, through the laying on of hands we are ordained and made deacons, priests and bishops.
The underlying reason for the poverty of modern Catholic church architecture is more troubling than merely the fact that people have erected cheap, ugly buildings for worship. The underlying reason is that modern American Catholics have actually departed from their own Catholic belief in the sacraments. They have adopted a materialistic mindset–that modern heresy that considers the physical world to be meaningless–something to be consumed or denied any significance. For too many Catholics the church building is just an auditorium to hear a platitudinous sermon on Sundays and likewise the consecrated host is a “Jesus cookie”–a symbolic wafer and no more.
If they really believed the consecrated host was the Body Blood Soul and Divinity of their Lord and Savior Jesus Christ they would fall down and worship and adore.
And they would build a beautiful temple for him to dwell in.