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What is a Catholic Church Supposed to Look Like?

In my last article at OnePeterFive, I analyzed “The Dark Symbolism of California’s Christ Cathedral.” In the intervening weeks, only one response has been attempted from the other side. I use the word “attempted” deliberately, because it was not a refutation, but a repetition of the same three principles that have served as the progressive mantra for decades: 1. Always trust the experts. 2. Always trust the clergy. 3. Always trust the Zeitgeist. Those of us who have suffered under a reformed liturgy designed by experts; who have seen the Church ravaged by clerical abuse of various kinds; and who have tasted modernity’s bitter fruit, choked on it, and spit it out — well, let’s just say we are not buying this mantra any more. Its expiration date passed long ago.

The manifestation of a hideous church in our midst, no less than the graceful appearance of a beautiful one, prompts thoughtful Catholics to ask the question: what should a Catholic church look like, after all? Can we articulate principles within our tradition that would enable us to answer this question reasonably and persuasively?

It can never hurt to start with the obvious: it’s called a church. That means it’s supposed to represent to us and remind us of the Church (with a capital C). What do we say in the Symbol of Faith about the Church? We identify her four “notes” or essential characteristics: she is “One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic.” Almost in the same breath, we then link the Church to her life-giving sacraments and the ultimate goal to which our membership in her carries us: “we acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins, we look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.” These few words of the Creed sketch out for us an entire understanding of church architecture.

The Four Notes of Church Architecture

“One.” Catholics believe that one and the same Church perdures across all the ages. No matter how varied the times, nations, races, languages, customs, and cultures, there is still one and only one Church of Christ, founded on the rock of St. Peter. So the church building and its furnishings ought to convey a sense of something one, visibly and tangibly one, that is greater than all of our differences. We concretely express this mystery by architecture that, regardless of stylistic variations, shows forth a body of elements derived from ecclesiastical Tradition. In spite of all differences of architectural style — Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque, Neoclassical, “Other Modern” — there have always been what you might call “artistic constants” [i]. These constants largely have been lost in the past fifty years, so it is particularly urgent to recover them if we are going to feel that we belong to a Church truly one across time and space. A good building is good catechesis on the identity and unicity of the Church. Needless to say, those who do not believe there is only one Church, or those who want the Church of today to break decisively with the supposedly regressive and repressive Church of yesterday, will go out of their way to thwart as many artistic constants as they can, which is exactly what happened at Christ Cathedral.

“Holy.” This characteristic is arguably the most important when it comes to architecture. A church should represent and reflect and remind us of the holiness of God, the holiness to which we have been called and in which we share. Hence, verticality — the upward thrust of architectural and decorative elements — is crucial in a sanctuary. When we enter a well designed church, our mind, our feelings, are immediately drawn upward to God, the Holy One of Israel; to the Divine, the Transcendent, the Infinite. We are helped to leave behind for a short time the mundane and profane world in which we sometimes feel trapped; we are reminded that our Christian vocation stretches beyond the workaday world, beyond even the good of loving our neighbor through spiritual and corporal works of mercy. Our home, our abiding city, our goal as rational creatures and members of Christ’s Mystical Body, is God alone, joined to His beatitude, resting in His eternal joy. The church building and especially the sanctuary serve as witnesses of that eternal promise, hope, joy, and calling. We should always feel as if we are crossing into another world when we enter a Catholic church: “the life of the world to come, Amen.

“Catholic.” This term means “universal” — that is, embracing the whole world, all ages, all peoples. But there is more. Catholic means not idiosyncratic, privatized, closed off, content with one’s own local mediocrity. Being Catholic drives us to excellence in communion with the great saints, priests, bishops, popes, and laity of all ages prior to ours and looking ahead to ages yet to come; indeed, it goes beyond history into the Church Suffering in Purgatory and the Church Triumphant in Heaven. Reflecting as well as it can that vast communion of saints to which we belong by the privilege of our baptism, church architecture should therefore never be characterized primarily, much less exclusively, by what is local, regional, or temporary in taste, but should partake of a universality and nobility that all Catholics would be able to recognize and rejoice in as their own. We are beckoned to think beyond ourselves and our limitations, aspiring for the best that our collective tradition has to offer us. This doesn’t mean that every church ought to replicate Saint-Foy, Chartres, or St. Peter’s Basilica, much less that any single historical style can be identified with the Faith (even if an exceptionally strong case can be made for the Gothic). It does mean, however, that phenomena like shoddy workmanship, ho-hum blandness, low-key primitivism, or chilly modernism can never have a legitimate place in the art forms employed by the Church to express her catholicity.

“Apostolic.” The unity or oneness of the Church is rooted in the apostles and in the Deposit of Faith given to them by Christ, which we may call Apostolic Tradition: the fundamental content of the Faith, passed down from orthodox bishop to orthodox bishop across all centuries in the ministry of preaching and teaching. The church building, for its part, passes down that same Tradition in artistic form, in a kind of silent visual preaching. A church must be one and holy in a specific way, namely, one in holy fellowship with the apostles. Similarly, as Joseph Ratzinger argues, a legitimate liturgy must be derived from apostolic roots, grown organically from them, rather than something fashioned later on by a man or group of men.

Baptism, Forgiveness, Resurrection, and Life

The Creed connects the four notes of the Church with the profession of “one baptism for the forgiveness of sins,” as if to say: the very purpose of the Church militant is to go out and sanctify men, bringing them into the Kingdom of God by baptism and keeping them healthy in that kingdom through a life of prayer and further sacraments: “holy things for the holy,” as the Byzantine liturgy says of the Eucharist. If we lapse from holiness, the Church our Mother offers the merciful remedy of the sacrament of Penance to restore us to communion with God. Baptism and the Holy Eucharist, the entrance of the sacraments and their culmination, proclaim to us the essential “business” for which a church building is consecrated, set apart from all other buildings: it is where holy rites and mysteries are performed. Architecture and liturgy are connected in a highly definite and mutually reinforcing way.

Accordingly, a church should be, in its overall appearance and in its details, a fitting home to such rites and mysteries. It itself should be “sacramental” — a visible, unambiguous, powerful sign of the rich mercies of God, poured out for us in the seven sacraments of the New Law. It should be as much as possible a glorious place, a place resplendent with an aura of sacredness, dignity, solemnity, majesty. That is why, from the earliest records of church architecture and furnishings, we find such a prominent place allotted to gold and silver, precious stones, mosaics, and elegant woodwork, joined later on by statuary, tapestries, and stained glass.

“We look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.” Through His Church, Jesus Christ preaches ineffable mysteries that transcend the grasp of reason. We should feel overwhelmed by the mystery of our Faith; it’s not a warm cozy little pet on a leash, but an awesome “weight of glory” (cf. 2 Cor. 4:17) that summons our whole being into a new reality: the reality of the Divine, of Eternity, of Infinity. The church building should pull its weight, so to speak, in proclaiming the awesomeness, the profundity, the beyondness of the mysteries of faith, so that we may be continually challenged by the sovereign reality of God confronting our narrow, horizontal, worldly thoughts. A good church is a wordless preacher, a patient teacher, an imposing yet gentle guide.

When we look at our artistic heritage, do we find definite ways in which this proclamation has been and ought to be achieved? Absolutely yes.

The first principle of good church design is verticality. This will apply above all to that Holy of Holies within the church, the sanctuary. When you enter a church, your bodily eye should be captured by the vertical elements in the sanctuary and drawn upward by them, which in turn stirs the heart to thoughts of the divine. The verticality that is such an emphatic aspect of all traditional Western church architecture bespeaks the holiness and transcendence of God as well as the sacredness — that is, separation from worldly use and dedication to God alone — of what goes on in the sanctuary. Belonging to this verticality are also elements that cast into relief special parts of the church, like italics or boldface type on a page of text — for example, a baldachin over the high altar and an elevated tabernacle with a veil. Such features act as magnets to draw the attention to where it belongs: the altar of that sacrifice by which we are saved, the crucifix that puts before us the price of our redemption, the Most Holy Eucharist in which the Word dwells among us. As pilgrims in a fallen world, our very thoughts and desires should be on pilgrimage eastward to the eternal fatherland where the sun of justice never sets; we must be shaped and molded by all those mysteries that both bring this kingdom into our midst and also beckon us beyond ourselves and our world into that kingdom, which is “not of this world” (Jn. 18:36).

Recognizably sacred imagery and elements — for example, a prominent crucifix of the pierced Savior, statues of saints, many real candles, a dominant and dazzling tabernacle — stress continuity with the apostolic faith, in this way guarding the unity of the Church and offering an ongoing catechesis without the need for verbosity. Some traditional elements of churches have been neglected over time and deserve to be restored, such as a proper ambo for the proclamation of the Word of God. In ancient and medieval churches, the ambo was often a massive, elevated, highly decorated structure; how readily one could believe that the lector was chanting the very words of God, when his perch was so lofty and sublime! A dignified ambo proclaims the unique dignity of Sacred Scripture even before any word has been uttered: as the saying goes, the ambo speaks for itself, disposing the listeners to reverence the Word proclaimed from it.

More generally, any church should be suffused with, and transmit into the souls of those who abide in it, the three principles of the beautiful: proportion, integrity, clarity [ii]. Designs should be balanced in their elements and colors, whole in their conception and execution rather than partial or piecemeal, and convey a clear, unmuffled message — i.e., “we are Roman Catholics: we believe in the saving death of Jesus made present to us in the Sacrifice of the Mass, we believe in the intercession of the saints” — instead of the vaguely Christian atmosphere of a Protestant building, the neutral emptiness of a civic meeting hall, or the ledger-line right angles and beige tones of corporate rooms.

A last guideline might be mentioned: affectionate attentiveness to detail. Within the limits of the possible, one should not overlook details such as carved or stenciled designs for statuary niches, on the backdrop of a wall-mounted crucifix, or along walls, columns, ribs of vaults, and ceilings; patches of appropriate color on or around statuary; Persian-style carpets; handsomely carved chairs and benches. All these things are ways of saying, again without the need for words: “This building is unique; its content is priceless; what goes on here is awe-inspiring and sublime; we are in the court of the Great King; nothing is too good for this place.” Our world suffers from a glut of information and, in strict parallel, the culture of the modern Church suffers from an excess of heavy-handed didacticism. What is needed far more is the symbolic language woven of visual beauty, ritual solemnity, silence, and traditional music. This language has and will always have a far deeper effect on the souls of worshipers than any amount of explaining could ever do.

Vatican II Strongly Agrees

Judging from what the neo-modernists, aided and abetted by their hierarchical and artistic allies, have managed to do to churches in the name of “implementing the Council,” a traditional Catholic might be forgiven for thinking the Second Vatican Council is to blame for the invasion of sterility and ugliness into the domain of sacred art. Admittedly, the Council has its problems, but I agree with Benedict XVI that we should not swallow the tendentious, at times deliberately fallacious, interpretations of the Council given by “anarchic utopianists” [iii]. The Council was not wrong about everything. Pertinent to our subject, the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy Sacrosanctum Concilium (1963) has something important to tell us about sacred art and what it should be like:

Very rightly the fine arts are considered to number among the noblest activities of man’s talent, especially religious art and the culmination of the same, namely sacred art. These arts, by their very nature, look toward the infinite Divine Beauty which in some way they express by human works; and they achieve their purpose of redounding to God’s praise and glory in proportion as these works have no other aim than turning men’s minds most devoutly to God.

Holy Mother Church has therefore always been the friend of the fine arts and has continually sought their noble service, with the special aim that all things set apart for use in divine worship should be truly worthy, becoming, and beautiful, signs and symbols of supernatural things, and has trained artists [to the same end]. In fact, the Church has, with good reason, always reserved to herself the right to pass judgment upon the arts, deciding which of the works of artists are congruous with faith, piety, and laws religiously handed down, and thereby fitted for sacred use.

The Church has been particularly sedulous to see that sacred furnishings should worthily and beautifully serve the dignity of worship, [from that vantage] admitting changes in material, form, or ornamentation brought in by the progress of technical arts with the passage of time. [iv]

More surprising still, the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (3rd ed., 2001) — the guidebook to the Novus Ordo Mass —s tates that “sacred buildings and requisites for divine worship should … be truly worthy and beautiful and be signs and symbols of heavenly realities” (n. 288). For this reason, “the character and beauty of the place and all its furnishings should foster devotion and show forth the holiness of the mysteries celebrated there” (n. 294). This extends to the materials used: “In selecting elements for church appointments, there should be a concern for the genuineness of things [rerum veritas] and a striving for that which will be for the instruction of the faithful and the dignity of the entire sacred place” (n. 292). It is all about the very purpose of a church: the worship of Almighty God, and the representation of the divine realities, revealed truths, and transcendent mysteries this worship is about, or, better said, is totally enmeshed in.

The Last Holy Father Also Agrees

Pope Benedict XVI, in his apostolic exhortation on the Eucharist Sacramentum Caritatis (2007), underlines the connection between beauty and liturgical celebrations in all their aspects, including the architectural space that surrounds them:

The manner of celebrating [the liturgy] should foster a sense of the sacred and the use of outward signs which help to cultivate this sense, such as, for example, the harmony of the rite, the liturgical vestments, the furnishings and the sacred space. … The profound connection between beauty and the liturgy should make us attentive to every work of art placed at the service of the celebration. Certainly an important element of sacred art is church architecture, which should highlight the unity of the furnishings of the sanctuary, such as the altar, the crucifix, the tabernacle, the ambo, and the celebrant’s chair. Here it is important to remember that the purpose of sacred architecture is to offer the Church a fitting space for the celebration of the mysteries of faith, especially the Eucharist. … Everything related to the Eucharist should be marked by beauty. Special respect and care must also be given to the vestments, the furnishings, and the sacred vessels, so that by their harmonious and orderly arrangement they will foster awe for the mystery of God, manifest the unity of the faith, and strengthen devotion. [v]

Holy Mother Church goes so far as to say that the liturgy should be like Heaven on Earth. Latin Catholics familiar with the Byzantine Rite, and Eastern Catholics who cherish and practice it as their own, are blessed with the experience of a liturgical tradition that exhibits with peculiar poignancy, fervor, and artistic beauty this connection between earthly shadows and heavenly realities. Would that most Latin Catholics today could have in their own churches an experience like this! For a sizeable minority, the Eastern Divine Liturgy has become a true haven, an escape from now-universal ritual abuses and the banality of unremitting horizontalism.

Benedict XVI was a foe of such abuse and banality, a constant promoter of that ever youthful spirit found in all authentic worship, Byzantine and Latin. Consider what he says in the same apostolic exhortation:

The beauty of the liturgy is part of this mystery; it is a sublime expression of God’s glory and, in a certain sense, a glimpse of heaven on earth. The memorial of Jesus’ redemptive sacrifice contains something of that beauty which Peter, James, and John beheld when the Master, making his way to Jerusalem, was transfigured before their eyes (cf. Mk 9:2). Beauty, then, is not mere decoration, but rather an essential element of the liturgical action, since it is an attribute of God himself and his revelation. These considerations should make us realize the care which is needed, if the liturgical action is to reflect its innate splendour. [vi]

In the same vein he remarked in a general audience:

What is beauty, which writers, poets, musicians, and artists contemplate and translate into their language, if not the reflection of the splendor of the Eternal Word-made-flesh? Dear brothers and sisters, may the Lord help us to rediscover the way of beauty as one of the ways, perhaps the most attractive and fascinating, to be able to find and love God. [vii]

Entering a church, we should think immediately of our Lord Jesus Christ, of God and of eternity, and of the destiny of our soul. A church must be different from all other spaces: “The faithful, crossing the threshold of the sacred building, entered a time and space that were different from those of ordinary life,” Pope Benedict says of Europe’s medieval cathedrals. Speaking of a Romanesque monastery church in particular, he observed:

Truly it would not be presumptuous to say that, in a liturgy completely centred on God, we can see, in its rituals and chant, an image of eternity. Otherwise, how could our forefathers, hundreds of years ago, have built a sacred edifice as solemn as this? Here the architecture itself draws all our senses upwards, towards “what eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined: what God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Cor 2:9). In all our efforts on behalf of the liturgy, the determining factor must always be our looking to God. [viii]

The Way of Beauty

In 2006, the Pontifical Council for Culture issued a document entitled The Way of Beauty, Privileged Pathway for Evangelization and Dialogue. The title did not fill me with confidence when I first came across it, but I gave it a shot and found myself impressed with its doctrinal teaching on the role of beauty in the liturgy. Having urged that the liturgy be returned to its true splendor — implying that it has fallen away from it in the less than splendid postconciliar years — the pontifical council says:

No less important is the promotion of sacred art to accompany aptly the celebration of the mysteries of the faith, to restore beauty to ecclesiastical buildings and liturgical objects. In this way they will be welcoming, and above all they will be able to convey the authentic meaning of Christian liturgy and encourage the full participation of the faithful in the divine mysteries. [ix]

It seems charming to me that in this passage, the full participation of the faithful, a notion that has been employed with the subtlety of a flagellating whip to enforce all manner of disorienting change, is here linked with having spaces and things that are actually worth being around because they are beautiful, because they are suited to mysterious realities, and because they communicate the meaning of what is taking place. Benighted me — I had been led to believe that my heartfelt participation would achieve new heights if only I could be standing in an empty whitewashed church with a block of stone for an altar and some wooden vessels. No distractions from what is essential! The Pontifical Council’s document shreds this kind of antiseptic minimalism: “The churches must be aesthetically beautiful and well decorated, the liturgies accompanied by beautiful chants and good music, the celebrations dignified and preaching well prepared.” Why? Because these things are “conditions that facilitate the action of the grace of God” [x].

Admitting that all of this is welcome advice based on sound judgment, I have found myself wishing more than once that Rome might issue legislative measures — equipped with sharp teeth — capable of preventing or at least minimizing further “renovations” of traditional churches and the construction of new modernist eyesores. Such intervention was called for in an “Appeal to His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI for the Return to an Authentically Catholic Sacred Art,” published in several languages in 2009 (well worth reading), but so far as I know, nothing ever came of this well intended initiative. Meanwhile, all over the world, beautiful sanctuaries continue to be wrecked in the name of Vatican II, and new space-alien laboratories continue to be erected, presumably in anticipation of Vatican III’s successful contact with extraterrestial life. Thanks be to God, such expensive departures from sanity are becoming fewer than they once were, yet one wonders why Rome in all these decades has never lifted a finger to stop the atrocities. Instead, to our shame, we are indebted to atheistic Ministries of Culture that forbade, in the name of history and artistic patrimony, the jackhammer and the bulldozer.

A Common Objection

But isn’t all this expenditure of money on the sacred arts wasteful, self-indulgent, irresponsible? Couldn’t we pool all this money and disburse it to the poor instead? Or, if such work has already occurred, couldn’t we sell the ornate chairs, the detailed statuary, the gold vessels and silk vestments, the marble, the tapestry or cloth hangings, the candlesticks and crucifix, the pipe organ, and so forth — couldn’t we sell all this and give the proceeds to the poor?

This objection was first raised not by a parish council, but by an apostate priest named Judas Iscariot [xi]. That was probably a sufficient reason it could never be taken seriously by the Church. A little reflection would carry us further into the heart of the matter. Pope John Paul II’s last encyclical, Ecclesia de Eucharistia, speaks to the point:

Like the woman who anointed Jesus in Bethany, the Church has feared no “extravagance,” devoting the best of her resources to expressing her wonder and adoration before the unsurpassable gift of the Eucharist. No less than the first disciples charged with preparing the “large upper room,” she has felt the need, down the centuries and in her encounters with different cultures, to celebrate the Eucharist in a setting worthy of so great a mystery. [xii]

It is all a matter of recognizing and letting our worldview be shaped by the incomparable importance and immeasurable dignity of what happens in a Catholic church, whether at the baptismal font or in the confessional or upon the altar of sacrifice. The church ought to look special because it is special; it ought to look different because it is different, radically different from every other building on Earth. For Catholics who know, in faith, that Jesus Christ is really, truly, substantially present in the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar, the church is truly God’s home on this earth, a veiled reflection of His city, throne, and court in Heaven. It is also a reassurance to us of the love of God and the meaning of life. As The Way of Beauty rightly says:

To offer true beauty to the men and women of today, to make the Church attentive always to proclaim, in season and out of season, the beauty that saves, that is experienced in those places where eternity has planted its tent in time, is to offer reasons to live and to hope for those who are lacking or risk losing them. A Church that bears witness to the ultimate meaning of life, a leaven of confidence at the heart of human history, appears already as the people of the beauty that saves, for it anticipates in these last times something of the promised beauty of God who will be all in all at the end of time. Hope, a militant anticipation of the future [fully] redeemed world, promised in the crucified and risen Son, is a proclamation of beauty. Of this, the world has a particular need.

Is that not the Gospel truth? In its escalating revolt against order, proportion, harmony, integrity, even nature, the modern world has created for itself an increasingly urgent need, one might well say an emergency need, for divine beauty — for everything and anything that can recall it to mind and represent it before our eyes and bury it in our souls. We need more than ever to be surrounded and penetrated by the beautiful, a healing balm that draws the mind to rest in sinu Patris, in the heart of the Father.

Because grace builds on nature, we cannot dismiss the natural, sensible foundations of our interior life. May our ecclesiastical buildings and all they contain bear eloquent witness to the luminous Truth, merciful Goodness, and ravishing Beauty of our Lord and God, Maker of Heaven and Earth, of all things visible and invisible.

[i] For the artistic and philosophical underpinnings of much of my argument, see Steven J. Schloeder, Architecture in Communion (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1998); Denis McNamara, Catholic Church Architecture and the Spirit of the Liturgy (Chicago: Hillenbrand Books, 2009).

[ii] According to St. Thomas Aquinas: see Summa theologiae I, q. 5, a. 4, ad 1; q. 39, a. 8, corp.

[iii] From Benedict XVI’s General Audience of March 10, 2010: “We know, in fact, how after the Second Vatican Council, some were convinced that everything should be new, that there should be another Church, that the pre-conciliar Church was finished and that we would have another, totally ‘other’ Church. An anarchic utopianism!”

[iv] Sacrosanctum Concilium, n. 122. A widely-available translation, corrected in light of the original Latin.

[v] Sacramentum Caritatis, nn. 40–41.

[vi] Sacramentum Caritatis, n. 35.

[vii] General Audience, November 18, 2009.

[viii] Address at Heiligenkreuz, Austria, September 9, 2007.

[ix] Unfortunately, the document as published on the Vatican website contains no paragraph or section numbers, so a more exact method of citation is not possible.

[x] In context the document seems to qualify this statement by calling them “merely conditions,” but the point is a theological one, and true: “the faithful need to be educated to pay attention not merely to the aesthetic dimension of the liturgy, however beautiful it may be, but also to understand that the liturgy is a divine act that is not determined by an ambiance, a climate, or even by rubrics, for it is the mystery of faith celebrated in church.” That is, aestheticism would be a vice because what is primary is always faith in the divine action. However, our faith itself is sustained, nourished, elicited, and instructed by beauty, as the same document describes at length, so there is actually no tension here.

[xi] In John’s Gospel the objection is specifically Judas’s (Jn. 12:4–6); in Matthew’s, all the disciples make the complaint (Mt. 26:8–9); and in Mark, “some” unspecified persons (Mk. 14:4–5). It is also noteworthy that, according to the Synoptics, Judas went out to betray Jesus right after this episode in which Jesus praised the woman for doing an extravagant deed for Him.

[xii] Ecclesia de Eucharistia, n. 48.

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