theological justifications for austere churches…

theological justifications for austere churches… December 9, 2011

… I’m truly blessed to be a member of a wonderful parish. I enjoy inviting friends and family members, Catholic and not, to church with me. Their reaction is always the same, “What a beautiful church!“.

Last night I was discussing with my step-mom, who’s Greek Orthodox, the terrible state of my Abuelita’s parish in Virginia. They’ve removed the kneelers and the only thing decorating the walls is a single felt banner with the name of the parish glue-gunned on with felt lettering. I guess this is so the congregants can remind themselves they are actually in a church since all other outwardly signs have been removed. The tabernacle is no longer in the sanctuary but in a private prayer chapel off the narthax and the felt banner hangs where the crucifix once was. My Abuelita doesn’t drive and this parish is less than a mile from her home so it’s this or nothing. I take her here when I go up for a visit.

My dad remembers my Abuelita’s church before it was robbed of it’s riches, and so began an evening of nostalgic conversation about church beauty over hot noodles and wine. The number one comment I get from people who’ve come to church with me is how wonderful it is to a see a church that looks like a church. This coming from even my most liturgically liberal friends. The second thing they comment on it the overwhelming atmosphere of reverence and solemnity seen in the liturgy, the postures of the priest, and the heavenly choir.

Not a single one of them, not even The Unfortunate Liberal Friend from Our Lady of the Bongos and The Atheist [bless his heart], said “Ack! Ornate stain glass windows, detailed Gothic pulpit! Get it away! It’s hideous and burns!”

So what happened? Seriously I want to know. I know there has to be more to it than the denouncement that the money used to purchase Catholic finery could better serve the poor because if that were the case there would be nothing beautiful or magnificent to behold anywhere. And really there are only a small proportion of Catholics who feel that way.

Where are the Church documents and theological studies that say church beauty is detrimental to our salvation? What was the justification to remove all the beauty? And if Vatican II is all to blame I’d love to read the documents stating all churches must be made naked and ugly.

I’m genuinely asking.

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  • Eurospin28

    If you’re ever in San Diego county, make sure to visit St. Margaret of Scotland’s Church. It’s in Oceanside and the website is

  • Jeanne Chabot

    Amen… I ask the same questions… I really do need to re-write that article I wrote in French the other day into English, it had a lot to do with this theme.

  • Some things immediately that come to mind:

    Gothic and Baroque styles are not always thought to be beautiful, sometimes they’re considered gaudy, and they’re certainly expensive. Much more expensive than a minimalist aesthetic.

    Sacred spaces have been built in the style of the day for as long as humans have been building them. Certain modern styles exalt minimalist approaches.

    Minimalism has a certain beauty to it…

    Meister Eckhardt once said something to the effect of, “the more you speak of God as ineffable, the less you say about God as ineffable.” There is a sense that in God’s divine simplicity, images, statues, and ornate ambos do not come any closer to the reality of God than does a stout, blank wall and plain wood benches.

    The final piece that I can imagine is that an austere church, without the gold, or expensive artwork, does not cause scandal through an ostentatious display of wealth in stark contrast to the physically impoverished people it may hope to minister to.

    I don’t believe that this in any way negates the validity of beautiful buildings like those I am fortunate enough to have in my own archdiocese, but it is a valid justification, as far as I’m concerned.

    • Christine

      This is the sort of reasoning that has led to the wreckovations we see in 90% of parishes today. To compare whitewashed, minimalist churches devoid of all sacred imagery to the gorgeous churches of old is like saying the music of Britney Spears is just as aesthetically pleasing as that of Beethoven. Is our aesthetic sense so terribly blunted that we can’t tell the difference between ugliness and beauty anymore?

      And those “physically impoverished people” of which you speak would have disagreed with you entirely, as in many cases they rather poured their earnings, meager as they were, into beautiful, ornate chapels worthy of the dignity of God than worship in a denuded box.

    • John Gordon

      I’m sorry to have to ask this, but are you nuts? We go to Mass to worship the king and creator of EVERYTHING! There is no way that we could have too much or too many beautiful decoration. (But too much felt, yes!)

      Minimalism may have “a certain beauty” in the right place. And Catholic Churches are not the right places

      • Anonymous

        I kind of like minimalism, in certain areas. A clean, open floor plan… whitewashed walls so you can add accent colours or hang art on it… so it makes the cool furniture stand out.

        Yes, I’m talking about designing a living room. And a church is not a living room. It is a CHURCH. Nobody walks into my living room and says “oh, wow, it’s beautiful.” They say, “Oh, wow, it’s so well-lit!” or “hey, who plays the harp?” No wonder-and-awe in my living room.

        However, people walk into a beautiful church (there are many in my area and I know how to find them) and are stunned silent. They speak in whispers if they choose to speak. That kind of wonder-and-awe is what belongs in a church.

    • I come from a poor mission church. I’m from the south and it was built during segregation to minister to the “other side of the tracks.” It’s beautiful but simple. The life of the very poor is ugly enough, why take an opportunity for beauty away? A respite is a good thing. Sunday is a day of rest for the eyes, too. Real beauty never offends. It awes.

    • Christine

      The claim that minimalist architecture is less expensive is simply not true. See this, for instance:

  • Christine

    What happened?

    In a word, modernism.

    If you want the details, read Michael Davies’s “Pope Paul’s New Mass”.

  • pacifica_00775

    I think in the US it started with the distribution of a “book” (more like a pamphlet) in the 1970’s about Church Architecture. It never really had approval from the USCCB but they referred to it when “re-decorating”. I’m trying to find the exact name and author… So far I have never been able to find anything exactly in VII docs about felt! Maybe it falls under the “where certain traditions are, they can be kept.” The Hubby did more extensive research when he converted. I’ll ask him.

    • RLeón

      I think you may be referring to the “Environment and Art in Catholic Worship”

  • Karyn@daysofgraceandstumbling

    I’ve been to Cistercian monasteries that are quite stark, yet still very uplifting and beautiful. A sister told me that is part of the Cistercian/Trappist aesthetic. I think it’s all in forgetting what a Church building is supposed to do–lift us up to God. If you take a building that was designed to have certain decorations–niches for statues, long walls for the stations of the cross, an extended ceiling above the altar for the Crucifix–and then strip them of those very things, that’s what makes it look stark.

    • The carthusians are the same. The problem is the laity are not at the spiritual discipline as trappists etc who are practiced at prayer, contemplation and spiritual concentration. Not to say that the laity are not capable of it, but we don’t make it a practice or have to. If I wanted to totally remove myself from my physical senses at worship I would join a convent I suppose.

    • Christine

      Cistercian austerity reflected in architecture is worlds apart from modern-day minimalism.

  • robertgwirth

    I go pretty regularly to a little and old French-Canadian parish church that has been lovingly restored. It’s gorgeous – and goopy with stations and statues and stained glass, lovely old woodwork and a redecorated dome and sanctuary with fleurs-de-lys all over the place. Catholic spirituality is “goopy” compared to that of other Western denominations, so we have goopy churches instead of bare auditoriums. Now the Ukrainian Catholic church less than a mile away is pretty goopy too, and utterly beautiful, but in a whole different way. The austere approach is not for everyone, I would think for very few, and the Church in her wisdom knows that.

  • “Ack! Ornate stain glass windows, detailed Gothic pulpit! Get it away! It’s hideous and burns!” Oh, cruel, nassty Catholicses, gollum, gollum, gollum!

  • craltieri47

    Kat, the architecture of a church building is supposed to represent, to reflect, to embody, the ecclesiology. Are “modern” churches authentically representative of, do they adequately embody, the ecclesiology of the II Vatican Council (say, in the way that 16th and 17th century buildings and renovation projects did for the Council of Trent)? That is, I think, the real question at issue here. I tend to think they often rather represent the (now fairly thoroughly debunked and/or gutted) liturgical theories of the Consilium, itself generally acknowledged greatly to have exceeded its mandate.

    I will not speak to the issue of ornament: there are some very truly beautiful churches in the world, which are only sparsely adorned. I will say, however, that their austerity is not generally of the Spartan variety.

  • craltieri47

    *prevailing ecclesiology

  • Simple or ornate styles do not really matter. Both approaches can hold great beauty, great ugliness, or great indifference. I think the problem is with our modern definition of beauty, that beauty is subjective. Like moral relativism, one of the Big Lies of our modern world is that there is no such thing as objective beauty either. Our souls love beauty, yearn for beauty, and recognize beauty because it points in a direct line to the author of all things good and beautiful.

  • All this picture needs is a guard pacing the balcony.

    • OMG…. you just made me think of something. Awhile back I did a photo contest called “Is it a Church or Prison”. It was remarkable that no one got them all right and I have some very smart readers.

      When I was studying criminal psychology and worked for the police dept I did a very lengthy research paper on the psychological purpose of prison aesthetics and building structure – specifically designed to thoroughly depress the inmates. I’m going to update this post with that and some of Matthew Alderman’s great comments on architecture from my facebook page.

  • I lived in a parish is DE where ornate was those awful felt banners, it would have been far more suited to basketball games than the holy sacrifice of the Mass! I have visited St.Ann’s in Charlotte, the sacred beauty of that church is truly inspiring. I also love attending the mass at Belmont Abbey, it too has a sacred beauty, but in a different, more rustic manner, but still equally inspiring. I will not blame the fact that these other churches, stripped of all their beauty on the 2nd Vatican Council, I blame it on those extremist that felt it didn’t go far enough. I can’t kneel, but dang it folks, removing the kneelers is a line to far. Of course it won’t stop a faithful person from kneeling, nor will the stares from those who no longer kneel. I don’t read or speak Latin, but I love the old mass, and no matter where you were in the world, if you were at a Latin rite parish, the mass was the mass, and if you had your missal you had no problem fully participating in the mass. I see the stripping of the churches as an attempt to bring the Church down a peg to two by some people(The same ones that insisted on the changes in the Latin mass), folks that thought it was flying to high, so to speak. Of course this is only my opinion.

    • Anonymous

      Linda, have you ever seen a photo of the Abbey Basilica before it . . . became what you see now, to put it as neutrally as possible? My husband, who teaches there, has a photo of the

      • Anonymous

        Dang! I was trying to change my ID — my husband was signed in, apparently, and I don’t know how to change this! Anyway, he teaches at the Abbey and has a photo of the original church interior as his computer wallpaper. It was not rustic, back in the day.

        Sally T.

  • Mooga Booga

    In my humble opinion, church decor is less a case of “go big or go home” than”go smart or go home.” For every church as beautiful as your abuelita’s, there are about a hundred that try for the effect and miss — sometimes very badly.

    Phoenix’s cathedral of Ss. Simon and Jude is one of the try-hards. The statues look like tchotchkes on some 90-year-old Wisconsin lady’s dresser. The stained glass looks like Lite Bright. I’d take a bare wall over that any day, even there were a water stain on it.

  • Mark Abeln

    The central doctrine of Modernism is atheism.

    Isn’t that enough of a reason to reject it?

  • Dan

    Someone on here mentioned Modernism as the culprit of Catholic churches that now look like all purpose community centres.
    That is pretty much the truth.

    The average Catholic in the pew loves beautiful classic Catholic Church design inside and out.
    Unfortunately the average Catholic does not hold the power of the keys of church design in most dioceses.
    Most of the people that call for and get hideous, unsacred church design, are disaffected modernist clergy and laymen who have lost the Faith a long time ago, if they ever had it, and these people are small in number but whine and complain the most as liberals are wont to do.
    This small group of people hold the purse strings of the Chancery [as an Apostle with the initials J.I. did 2000 years ago] and want to remodel the Church into what they think it should be namely a lavendar club of boys and girls that is more “I’m alright Your Alright, and lets pretend, than what the Church really is: the extension of Christ on earth that is here to literally save souls from the bowels of Gehenna.

  • Anonymous

    I have gone to several retreats at St. Meinrad’s archabbey which is a mixture of austere and beautiful

    I also have the great good fortune to live very near the Fathers of Mercy whose new chapel is awesome: (scroll down)

    My own parish church is old and was the victim of some dreadful messing around with (they took out the altar rail – sob), but for the most part is still beautiful and father says Mass with such reverence.

  • Bernard Fischer

    I believe part of the justification of spartan churches that caught on in the 1960’s to 1990’s comes from two schools. There is the Modern architectural movement (not Modernism as in the heresy) which eschews ornate trappings in favor of the “form follows function” and “a house is a machine for living” ethics. Coupled with that was a ethic which elevated the congregation over the building. So you don’t “go to Church” because the Church isn’t a building.

    Put those two together and the church building is really just a box to keep the congregation in for the limited time of the Mass. The other trappings like statues, stained glass, ornate capitals on the columns, filigree and so on, only serve to distract the congregation from (a) the communal aspect of the liturgy and (b) the action at the pulpit and altar. It probably never occurred to anyone that a person might want to stop by on his own to pray outside the liturgy. Community > Individuality.

    Although I can’t prove this, I also suspect that in the 1960’s and 1970’s many new suburban Catholic churches, which were being built at the time, were relatively well off. The Boomer generation was entering it’s own and had money and there was a drive to get respected architects to put these new boxes up. Those respected architects were not necessarily Catholic or even religious in any way. If architecture is “poetry in stone” and your architect doesn’t know the language you’ll get some pretty strange poetry, indeed.