Catholic Architecture & the Mind of the Church – Part 2

by Michael Raia

Queen of All Saints Basilica in Northwest Chicago. Photo by  Matt Frankel .

Queen of All Saints Basilica in Northwest Chicago. Photo by Matt Frankel.

This post was originally published on September 12, 2014 at

As discussed in Architecture & The Mind of the Church – Part 1 regarding the Catholic view of architecture and theology, we properly understand church buildings as vehicles for communicating to us what happens in the Mass through the liturgy, what God has done and is doing for all of humanity, and what he is doing in the Church for those who have taken heed of the Gospel. At times it can seem incredibly intimidating to be Catholic. There is so much to know. The Bible alone is daunting to most, filled with chapter after chapter, listing rules for living and telling stories and lineages of hundreds of unfamiliar characters. Add to Scriptures the history of the Church and all of the theology that comes from it – sacramental theology, moral theology, canon law, the list goes on. We have an incredibly rich treasury from which to draw in all aspects that relate to the liturgy. How do we accurately convey the important lessons of the faith with a building? Which stories do we tell? What images do we use? Fortunately, we don't have to start from scratch, which is where, in my opinion, many church architects can go wrong by attempting to start with a blank slate. Tradition is not only a big help, it's a necessary part of the design of a church.   

“Church design approach can primarily be categorized into two schools of thought: imitating and elaborating on what has been done in the past, or reinventing.”


A word on tradition: the term without a doubt raises blood pressures almost immediately. In response to the broadly over-simplified terms modern and traditional, typical responses range from, ‘Well, which tradition do you mean?’ to ‘Since when is modernism still modern?’ The terms do more justice to an underlying design philosophy than they do to describing a particular style. Church design approach can primarily be categorized into two schools of thought: imitating and elaborating on what has been done in the past, or reinventing. To get a little beyond the political aspects of the debate, we need to clarify what we mean by tradition and how we understand it playing a part in the development and growth of the Church. Tradition with a capital T is not the same as an architectural tradition. The Roman Catholic Church professes the guidance of the Holy Spirit assured by Christ. The Church's authority, since the earliest centuries of the faith, has primarily come from two co-equal sources: Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition. The Tradition that authored the Scriptures was born of the liturgy and preserves it still today. Tradition with a capital T holds authority in matters of faith and morals and includes Magisterial teachings, certain papal writings, and the broader collection of dogmas and doctrines made available in documents such as the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Accordingly, Sacred Tradition has something to say about the architecture of a church. St. John Paul II put this beautifully in his encyclical Ecclesia De Eucharistia:

Architecture, sculpture, painting and music, moved by the Christian mystery, have found in the Eucharist, both directly and indirectly, a source of great inspiration. Such was the case, for example, with architecture, which witnessed the transition, once the historical situation made it possible, from the first places of Eucharistic celebration in the domus or “homes” of Christian families to the solemn basilicas of the early centuries, to the imposing cathedrals of the Middle Ages, and to the churches, large and small, which gradually sprang up throughout the lands touched by Christianity. The designs of altars and tabernacles within Church interiors were often not simply motivated by artistic inspiration but also by a clear understanding of the mystery.

Architectural design traditions are born from Sacred Tradition and should embody it inherently. The extent to which they do determines their success. The difficulty for both the end users of the church building and its design professionals is that designers are told what to do but not exactly how to do it. 'Build a space suitable for the liturgy' seems to mean very different things to different people. The documents leave a lot of room for interpretation, and this is where the architect's understanding of the sacramental life of the Church is crucial.

The church building is a physical representation of the Church – the Body of believers who assemble for worship within. The architect must know and comprehend the sacramental life to capture and bring it to life for the thousands of people who will be baptized, confirmed, married, even ordained within a church building's lifespan. The reason for the Church's apparent lack of concrete design guidelines, arguably, is because when we speak of tradition in an architectural sense, we must be careful to not substitute an architectural tradition for Sacred Tradition. The latter is authoritative and the former is not. Certainly elements of our architectural tradition across various Christian cultures wonderfully capture the essential aspects of the faith. However, as with sacred music and art, the Church never mandates a particular style and is always careful to leave room for creativity and vernacular expression, delegating authority regarding architectural norms to the bishop or local body of bishops. This freedom gave rise to the regional innovations that led to all of the great architectural styles we see preserved in the great cathedrals and churches around the world today. This freedom also leaves creating a unique structure, capable of conveying the richness, history, and mystery of our ancient faith, speaking with the language of the Church, up to pastors, architects, and building committees. What a monumental challenge! It's such a challenge in fact, that in the last few years the Vatican has urged an improvement in respecting the tradition of music, art, and architecture in the Church, and many bishops have re-written their diocesan guidelines to compensate for the often misused leeway afforded in the normative document Built of Living Stones authored by the USSCB in 2000.

Mosaic of peacocks drinking from the streams of eternal life, St. Matthew Cathedral, Washington, D.C.

Mosaic of peacocks drinking from the streams of eternal life, St. Matthew Cathedral, Washington, D.C.

“...the church building is a symbolic representation of the perfection and eternity of heaven.”

What exactly is the Vatican urging? Education and formation. Fortunately, this is already happening. Priests and lay people alike are receiving better education and formation, and in many places, improvements in the built environment are being demanded as a result. True, there is no perfect church on earth; in its essence, the church building is a symbolic representation of the perfection and eternity of heaven. We do the best we can to reflect the glory of heaven in stone and glass, to borrow the idea from Fr. Robert Barron. That said, we have an obligation to be well formed and faithful, to the best of our abilities, to the responsibilities the Church gives us. One of those responsibilities is to respect the deposit of faith from ages past. That is where the question of how we treat tradition with new architectural styles comes in.

Front façade of Queen of All Saints Basilica in Chicago. Photo by  mambol .

Front façade of Queen of All Saints Basilica in Chicago. Photo by mambol.


Volumes of books have been written about contemporary churches of the last few decades, particularly those which were intended to re-imagine and replace the architectural traditions that came before. While the landscape for new church design is changing, the trend remains a hotly debated topic. I am personally not interested in a wholesale dismissal of modernism, or an unequivocal endorsement of every traditional church. Neither stance offers a good explanation of what about churches makes them more or less successful for liturgy. That knowledge is what shapes the churches we will build for years to come. Without an openness to progress (provided this progress is guided by a proper sacramental understanding), we stifle the potential for growth and change what allowed the great architectural traditions to flourish. Each style and tradition drew from and expanded upon ones before. There are many examples of thoughtful modern interpretations of traditional design to varying degrees. One of my favorite is in Chicago. Pictured at the top of this article and above, Queen of All Saints Basilica is a beautiful art deco-inspired neo-gothic church. The art deco style, synonymous for many with the spirit of the Roaring Twenties, can be seen in well known national landmarks like the Chrysler Building in New York as well as in many courthouses, theaters, and other public buildings across the U.S. This attempt to blend secular architectural vocabulary with the vocabulary of Gothic Revival is a careful and very thoughtful one that parallels similar efforts in other traditional buildings lauded for their designs. In my opinion, the results are stunning. 

The approach taken at Queen of All Saints, however, is unfortunately not the paradigm for the design approach employed by many church architects seeking to incorporate contemporary influence since the Second Vatican Council. In extreme cases, it seems that the architect either barely grasped or entirely missed the proper understanding of the Mass and cared little for communicating with the visual sacramental language of the Church. Valid ideas for emphasizing community and order are often taken to an extreme outside of the appropriate and fuller context of the theology of the liturgy – that the only way to express community in liturgy is through a round plan with a central altar, or that the only way to express order is to reduce the environment to the barest form of its essential elements. The issue here is that a social thinking is prevailing over the thinking of the Church. The extremes are often incorrectly interpreted as opposed to other vital aspects with which they should exist in balance and harmony. In the liturgy, by virtue of the celebration of the Eucharist itself, we are in communion and are united in the Body of Christ, which includes both a clear order and hierarchy with Christ as the head. The addition of other sacramental elements, if done with care, expresses, enriches, and enlivens this reality, and takes nothing away. The ideas that so frequently dominate the extremes in church architecture are usually correct but incomplete. This 'either/or' thinking misses the beauty of the Catholic 'both/and' that more accurately and more fully expresses the thinking of the Church. 

Chapel of St. Ignatius by  Steven Holl .

Chapel of St. Ignatius by Steven Holl.

Another trend has been to build churches that were designed primarily for contemplation, which is an idea that is sometimes mistakenly used interchangeably with the celebration of liturgy. Take for example a building that has been very popular in the architectural community since it was built: Steven Holl's St. Ignatius Chapel. I was in architecture school shortly after its completion, and while I appreciated certain aspects of the design and readily admit it is well composed, authentic, and has some very appealing spiritual characteristics, I have always felt it falls very short as a Catholic liturgical building. My primary criticism is that it is both lacking in specifics and lacking in fullness of expression. It could easily be a prayer or meditation room for a number of other denominations, even other faiths. There are also aspects that feel more appropriately suited to another important public building such as a museum or gallery than a Catholic church. I do not believe that this fact alone makes it wholly unsuitable for Catholic worship; rather, I believe it should not be held up as a paradigm for excellent liturgical design. While I have not spoken with Mr. Holl about his design process or concepts, the result seems devoid of intentional Christian imagery with which to bring the Gospel to life. The story being told is at least minimal, if not indicative of the attitude of spiritual pluralism so familiar in secular American society. Even if well-executed compositionally and stylistically, the building's appearance favors an architect's personal architectural vision over that of the Church. Again we see a case of extremes; the middle road offers a path for the architect to humbly offer his own talents in obedient service to the Church. As St. John Paul II put it, motivation comes not only from artistic inspiration, but from a firm grasp of the mystery. There is room there for both the traditional sacramental language of the Church and the creativity of the architect seeking to express it. The critical acclaim on Steven's website is telling. Only architects are quoted, and if there is a mention of anything spiritual, it is in several places stated that the merit of the design is its minimalism. Christianity is not a faith of minimalism. It is not a spirituality that ultimately seeks emptiness; it is one of richness and fullness of life in Christ. Numerous Church documents, including Ecclesia De Eucharistia, discuss giving the Eucharist and all of the things to which it is related (music, art, and architecture) the absolute best, fullest, and most beautiful expression that we can offer. This begs the question: are buildings such as St. Ignatius Chapel really the best we can do? Some architectural professionals and enthusiasts would answer with a resounding yes – the qualities of light and texture are certainly not overlooked – but we must look deeper still. Is this admiration for the design an emotional response due to a preference for a particular style or are we truly considering the responsibility the church building's designers have to embody and communicate the fullness of the Gospel in the best way they are able? Personally, I think the Church is ready for something more.

“Equipped with both the inspiration of the ancient traditions and the fire of the New Evangelization, we stand ready to walk down the via media, the middle road”

When considering the role of contemporary styles in church architecture, interpretation certainly plays a large part. The current endeavor should be to return to and further refine the traditions with which we have been entrusted – traditions from which we can learn a great deal. It is only through a proper understanding and mastery of the realities that have informed the traditions of Christian history that we can even hope to successfully integrate contemporary elements. This reverence for the rich architectural history of the Church is not a form of slavery to what has come before any more than the early gothic innovators felt enslaved to romanesque forms before them. Architectural creativity will flourish best in the appropriate context of the liturgy that gives it life. Architects need to understand and embrace the liturgy, and the people in the pews need to expect as much. I think that time is now. Equipped with both the inspiration of the ancient traditions and the fire of the New Evangelization, we stand ready to walk down the via media, the middle road – to love the liturgy for all it offers and no longer settle for a culture of spiritual minimalism. We are ready for more churches that show us heaven on earth and encourage us to go out and bring that vision to the whole world.