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A longing for architecture to stand the test of time


In reading Michael DeSanctis’ essay in the April 21 NCR, I remembered advice from a former teacher: “Listen to what they are saying; listen to what they are not saying; and listen to what they are trying to tell you but don’t know how.”

While the essay elucidates the New Classicism of Thomas Gordon Smith and Duncan Stroik of Notre Dame, it sadly devolves into a philippic against New Classicism, and, more disturbingly, into a singularly mean-spirited, ad hominem attack.

DeSanctis raises more questions than he answers. Isn’t the world big enough for both modernism and classicism? Why denigrate others’ preferences? Why not lead the way for more tolerance and diversity around church architecture? Where is this negative energy coming from?

Even more significantly, DeSanctis is strangely silent on the forced nature of modernist “renovations” and on the new theology that both drives and flows from these changes.

The best way to implement modernistic church design would be as nature generally does evolution -- slowly, for new churches first, adjusting for experience. Instead, there has been a massive, compressed wave of “renovations” of existing churches, unseen since The Great Plundering, when Cromwell, Cranmer et al. smashed statues, whitewashed walls, converted altars to “tables,” ripped out kneelers and so on in forming the Church of England.

Today’s wave of renovations is not driven externally by Roundheads, but internally by modernist bishops, priests, theologians, “liturgical consultants” and others whose agenda is similar to the English iconoclasts: the establishment of a new theology.

But Vatican II mandates these changes, you say. Is that your final answer? Oh, sorry, you do not win the million dollars.

In his new book, The Renovation Manipulation, Michael Rose demonstrates conclusively that the modernist style is neither mandated nor supported by Vatican II, either in letter or intent. The “renovations” are being lead by “dissidents” who cloak themselves in “the spirit of Vatican II” to justify their own agenda for unauthorized change.

Which brings us to the second omission: the theology around the architectural changes. A church is now domus ecclesiae (house of the church), not domus Dei (house of God). The tabernacle containing God Himself is:

  • Banished to an “adoration chapel” or hidden behind a “rood screen”; or
  • Cast to one side of the sanctuary; and
  • Lowered vertically to be level with the congregation.

“In the round” seating mimics meeting halls or Masonic lodges. Kneelers disappear so Catholics stand at the consecration -- just as the first Protestants did to underscore separateness from Rome and nonbelief in the Real Presence. The altar of sacrifice (so-named since Melchizedek) becomes a “table.”

We are now told that “the community” effects the Mass -- not the priest in lieu of Christ -- and that the Mass is the action of the community -- not the unbloody sacrifice of Calvary. We are now told that humans “reverence each other” and consecrate places. Walls are whitened so we focus on human faces instead of transcendent images of the divine. Hymns speak of “not in some heaven light years away” but “here in this place … “ while “movement liturgies” strut profanely. Sometimes the community is literally elevated via amphitheater seating -- with the subconscious message of human supremacy.

These events are not coincidences but parts of a coherent agenda drawing from secular humanism, Freemasonry, pantheism and egalitarianism. In short, the goal is to refocus our churches -- and our theology -- away from God and onto mankind. The “renovators” know that “it is easier to act our way into a new way of thinking than to think our way into a new way of acting.” It remains true that the most dangerous heresies are the subtlest.

At least twice, DeSanctis reveals his theology. He speaks of sacramentalizing “the here-and-now” -- in stark contrast to our faith’s focus on eternity. Another time, he blasts “tabernacle-obsessed bishops.” At the Nov. 18, 1999, meeting of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, 36 bishops spoke for the central placement of the tabernacle, including one who told of a congregation that “burst out in spontaneous applause” when asked about the idea. Could it be that DeSanctis is tabernacle-obsessed, while the bishops are simply affirming the Catechism and, coincidentally, the wishes of the people for New Classicism in everything from baseball stadiums to Coca-Cola Classic?

Stripped of its pretensions, DeSanctis’ essay is a plaintive wail. It manifests the realization by the “archi-liturgical” establishment that their theology and architecture likely will not stand the ultimate worldly test: the test of time.

Those who live for the “here and now” have no fallback when, ironically, the secular world rejects their ideas in favor of eternal truths, or when, even more ironically, the inevitable long-term judgment of human history itself damns both their ideas and their architectural representations.

This terrifying reality explains the current frustration, desperation and paranoia of those struggling to create the Church of America.

Smith and Stroik should continue their magnificent mission. Bishops should continue to listen to the Catechism and to the people (after all, “We are church”) in their hunger for classicism. Lastly, DeSanctis might ponder the words of Winston Churchill: “Men sometimes stumble over the truth. Most of the time, though, they pick themselves up, dust themselves off and continue on their way.”

Joseph Wemhoff is a banker and an “orthodox, Vatican II, thinking, non-Latin-Mass” Catholic. With his wife and three children, he resides in Oak Park, Ill., the home and workplace of Frank Lloyd Wright.

National Catholic Reporter, May 26, 2000