“Every architectural decision in church is a theological decision as well”

A historian of church architecture considers what it would mean to have a theology of architecture, based on more than nostalgia or practicality.

Photo by Jamieson Weaver on Unsplash

Earlier this summer, young Catholic men and women from all over the country descended upon the University of Saint Mary of the Lake/Mundelein Seminary in the northern reaches of the Archdiocese of Chicago. The Liturgical Institute was sponsoring its second annual Young Adult Liturgy Conference, where those in attendance were challenged to “be transfigured.” The weekend was chock-full of engaging presentations and lectures by Institute faculty and distinguished guests on subjects ranging from the Eastern Rites to sacred music. Of course, the weekend centered on the liturgy, with Lauds, solemn Vespers, and the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass taking place within the beautiful Chapel of the Immaculate Conception. Although the chapel itself comes out of the American colonial architectural tradition, once inside the hearts of the faithful are immediately lifted up to contemplate the heavenly and the divine.

One of the speakers at the event is known as one of the most prominent authorities on sacred architecture. Dr. Denis McNamara, associate professor and academic director at the Liturgical Institute, holds a Ph.D. in architectural history from the University of Virginia, and is the author of several book on church architecture. Following one of his lectures, Dr. McNamara was able to give some insight on why a concept of “architectural theology” is so important in not only the liturgical life of the Church, but in its spiritual life as well.

Nicholas LaBanca, for CWR: If we’re being honest, many people don’t even think to put architecture and theology together. What is it that drew you into this particular field of interest?

Dr. Denis McNamara: When I was a child we often attended Mass at the church my father had grown up in New York City, a beautiful 1920s church named for St. Vincent Ferrer. I knew that it was much nicer than the one I went to in the suburbs. I didn’t know why but, even as a five-year-old, I used to ask my mother, “Can we go to Grandma’s church? It’s nicer than ours.” I guess it was the Holy Spirit planting seeds there early on. Later, when I studied architectural history, I never imagined I’d wind up teaching theology. I just thought architectural history was simply the history of architecture. When I came to the Liturgical Institute, I realized that there’s a deep theology of architecture that is very scriptural.

For instance, in the Gospels, Christ’s body is compared to the Temple. Then later, in the Pauline letters, Christians are called living stones in the temple of God and also members of Christ’s body. So I saw that buildings are made of stones, but then they form an image of Christ, just as people who are living stones form the image of Christ’s Mystical Body. The church building, then, is an analogy for Christ’s own Body. It’s an analogy for the Church, which is why the building and the people have the same name. And the Church’s documents actually say that specifically: the Church is, theologically, the Mystical Body of Christ. The church building then signifies this same Mystical Body.

CWR: Many people seem to be taken by the beauty they witness when they walk into these churches like your grandmother’s. But then there are others who think, “This is way too ostentatious. This is just too much.” The thought process is that maybe God would be more pleased with something simple. How do you respond to those that are put off by churches that are built in the traditional style?

McNamara: Well, something is only too much if it presents more than a thing needs in order to be what it is. In the Thomistic system of beauty, a thing is called beautiful when it reveals what it is at the level of its own nature. It’s called its ontological reality. Ontology is the study of being or the nature of things. So if you think of a church as a meeting house – if that’s your operative definition – then you’ll say a church with marble and fine statuary or mosaics is too extravagant. If you say a church is an image of the glorified Mystical Body of Christ that has many members brought to the glory that Christ’s body had after the Resurrection, and that that Mystical Body includes us, the angels and the saints, and all of creation – even the souls in purgatory – that’s what you’re trying to express, and then the art required to express that is not excess. It’s actually deficient if it doesn’t have those things.

A thing is called simple when it’s brought to the fewest number of divisions that it can have without loss of its essential identity. So the Trinity has to be a three – it can’t be a two, because then it’d be deficient. You can’t divide the Trinity any further. A church building has to have everything it needs to have and no more. If it has more than it needs, then it is indeed excessive. So what Vatican II says is that a church building should have noble beauty rather than mere sumptuous display. Sumptuousness comes from the Latin word sumere which means “to spend.” So it should have a noble beauty; the beauty that it needs to have in order to reveal what it is rather than mere spending. If a wealthy parish just says, “Look how much money we can spend,” that’s not right. However, if a parish spends a lot of money building a church that reveals our connection to God and the heavenly things, they’re actually doing what they ought to do, rather than less than they ought to do.

CWR: We see a lot of Catholic churches that were built within the last 30 or 40 years, some of which are sort of following a “mega-church” model. What is your opinion on church buildings that double as parish halls, with, say, a lounge area or an office space attached right as one walks in the main doors?

McNamara: You can have lots of “program,” as architects say, in a parish complex. You can have your hall for the St. Patrick’s Day dances and you have the classrooms and bride’s rooms and offices. We’ve always had that. The problem is that the church was the church and the parish hall was the parish hall. If you say the church and the parish hall are fundamentally the same, then you’re flattening out the theology of the church building. The Temple of Solomon, for instance, was composed of three hierarchically-arranged parts. There was a porch, a big room, and then the Holy of Holies, where the Ark of the Covenant was placed. When you read the descriptions in Scripture, the big room had cedar panels carved with angels and trees and stars painted on the ceiling. Essentially it was an image of the Garden of Eden. As you see it in salvation history, Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden of Eden, but now humanity is invited back into the Garden of the new earth as sacramentally rendered in art and architecture.

And the Holy of Holies, which is now fulfilled by the sanctuary of a church, was the image of Heaven. It was where God dwelled. God sat on the throne of the Ark of the Covenant. So the veil, which was the great curtain between the two rooms, was the separation between heaven and earth, and it was torn top to bottom when Christ died on the cross, meaning heaven and earth had access to each other. This all means that the church building is a microcosmic, artistic representation of heaven and earth united as fulfilled at the end of time. Heaven and earth remain separated to some degree as we wait for the full union of God and humanity wrought by Christ. At the end of time, we have what is known as the wedding feast of the Lamb, called a wedding is because God and humanity will be so intimately united as to become one. We don’t experience this fully yet, but when you see paintings of angels and saints in your church, you’re anticipating is your own future in Heaven. And that’s a theological task that a church should fulfill. If it doesn’t, then the faithful are not encountering the beings who are also with them in worship. This is a deep sacramental understanding of creation–called the “sacramental principle”–and we’re blessed to have it. It applies to art and architecture as well.

CWR: That really is fascinating to reflect on: we’re singing with them. We all make up the Body of Christ even though they’re in heaven and we’re here – and hopefully we’ll be there with them one day.

McNamara: Right. Many of the prefaces right before the Sanctus say something like, “We join our voices with the angels and saints as we say sanctus sanctus sanctus.” So there are many of these reminders that the angels and the saint are with us, making up the whole of Christ’s Body. The earthly part of the Body is real, but it’s only one part, and if you don’t encounter the rest of it through artistic means, then it becomes hard to perceive it.

CWR: There have been times when I’ve walked into a church, and I can tell that it’s been beautifully crafted, but then it becomes clear that there are some inconsistencies. For example, it’s easy to point out where an altar rail used to be, or it’s obvious this is where the high altar used to be. What was it about that era following the Council – the 1970s and 1980s – where we saw a lot of this “wreckovation,” as it’s called sometimes? Why did this happen on such a large scale, particularly here in the United States?

McNamara: That was a great iconoclastic period in the Church, certainly. The Victorian altars that so many people love now, with the tall crockets of marble – often they’re called the “wedding cake” altars –were seen as kind of insufficient even before Vatican II. As early as the 1920s and 1930s many liturgical reformers thought that the altar should be freestanding. The rubrics supported this assertion, even if the priest were facing east, that is, celebrating ad orientem, and they should be able to incense all around it.

If you see St. Peter’s in Rome, it has a freestanding altar with a baldacchino over it. That perceived early Christian form was considered the ideal altar arrangement, especially for cathedrals. If you had a big reredos or the big altarpiece back in the sanctuary, it seemed to many liturgical reformers that the altar was “buried” under architecture and you could only see the front half of the altar itself. So some of the early 20th-century renovations were already taking down the old high altars and building a freestanding altar covered by a baldacchino, and that was considered the appropriate response of the liturgical movement that eventually became Vatican II.

But what happened after the Council, was often a radical re-thinking, or “re-ontologization”; a redefinition of the church as a meeting house, and the Mass was sometimes compared to the meal of the family in the dining room of God. That’s not really part of the Catholic understanding of the nature of the liturgy, which is always a sacrificial meal in a ritual form – in a ritual and public form. But, somehow, the domestic and intimate overwhelmed the ritual and public. So many architects designed churches with beige drywall like their houses. They put wood floors in like their houses. They made their altar like a table like their houses. They had houseplants like their houses. People published books with names like “God’s House is Our House,” which reinforced these notions.

CWR: During your talk at the conference, you had briefly mentioned Pope Pius XII’s 1947 encyclical Mediator Dei. Regarding this domestic and home model you speak of, the model which many thought was the model found in the early Church – is this kind of antiquarianism and archaeologism that Pope Pius warned against when we talk about these “ugly churches” or renovations?

McNamara: I think it was. Pius XII really warned against an uncritical, antiquarian restorationism, as if the Holy Spirit stopped inspiring the Church in the fifth century, and everything after that was not from the Holy Spirit. There are plenty of things that Thomas Aquinas did and said, for instance, that we could still use even if they don’t come from the third century. Basically, you have to assess it theologically: is this appropriate and pastorally best for our time and place? Is it true to the nature of the liturgy or not?

So Pius XII specifically said that people would be going too far if they replaced altars with tables under the claim that they were like the tables of the early Church, if they forbade black vestments, or if they encouraged crucifixes that didn’t show the wounds of Jesus. All these things that became common after the Council were things he warned against doing. And he was really a prophet in that way. But a popular notion of the 1970s was that the Acts of the Apostles said that early Christians broke bread in their homes, and it led some to argue that the liturgy is basically a domestic meal with a domestic character. Instead of a public, ritual character that comes out of the Temple tradition, the Mass was re-imagined as coming out of the domestic tradition. That is why the words “hospitality” took over like wildfire in describing churches instead of “sacramental encounter.” Like a lot of big theological errors, it wasn’t so much completely devoid of truth but instead contained serious distortions and an incomplete view of liturgy which nonetheless became influential.

CWR: Throughout many of your lectures, which are available online, you’ve often mentioned the concept of “architectural theology,” and made the point that churches themselves are “sacramental buildings.” What do you mean by such terms?

McNamara: I was trying to rescue church architecture from the idea that a church is merely a theologically neutral thing, a “skin for liturgical action” as people frequently said in the 80s and 90s. We would say today that the texts at Mass are composed of theological words – they’re to God, they’re from God, they’re about God. They reveal God to you. Similarly, the liturgical actions you make are the theology in ritual form. Then you can talk about the lex orandi, the law of prayer, and the lex credendi, the law of belief. But you can also talk about the law of building, what I call the lex edificandi. So if you believe that God is revealing Himself to you through sign and symbol – and a primary way that is done visually is through the sacred image, the icon – then there’s a law of theology for making icons. And Eastern Christianity has this very theology firmly developed over many centuries. It also extended out to the church building itself.

In the West, we tended to have either a Romantic or a functionalist mentality. We liked churches that “looked like” churches in the 19th century, so we imitated styles from previous centuries. But we didn’t really have a deep theology of architecture as many Eastern Christians did. Then in the 60s and 70s we treated churches as functional buildings which weren’t tied to past centuries, but we still didn’t have an operative sacramental theology of sacred architecture. So I wanted to develop a Western theology of architecture that was based on more than nostalgia or practicality. Just as an icon brings the image of a saint into our own time and place, so a church building reaches into our heavenly future – the time when God and humanity are perfectly united and all traces of the Fall are gone – and shows it to us now in art and architecture. In this way of thinking, every architectural decision in church is a theological decision as well.


If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!

Click here for more information on donating to CWR. Click here to sign up for our newsletter.


About Nicholas LaBanca 5 Articles
Nicholas LaBanca is a millennial cradle Catholic and serves as a catechist at his local parish. He currently writes for multiple Catholic outlets, including the Diocese of Joliet’s monthly magazine Christ Is Our Hope.

3 Trackbacks / Pingbacks

  1. “Every architectural decision in church is a theological decision as well” -
  2. THVRSDAY LATE EDITION – Big Pulpit
  3. RESUMEN DE NOTICIAS AL 17 DE AGOSTO DE 2018 - Maestroviejo

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

All comments posted at Catholic World Report are moderated. While vigorous debate is welcome and encouraged, please note that in the interest of maintaining a civilized and helpful level of discussion, comments containing obscene language or personal attacks—or those that are deemed by the editors to be needlessly combative or inflammatory—will not be published. Thank you.


*