Catholic Church Design: Form and Function

by Michael Raia

Many folks with an average knowledge of architecture are familiar with a handful of names and concepts related to twentieth-century Modernism and it's influence: Le Corbusier, Frank Lloyd Wright, Frank Gehry, and possibly the often repeated axiom "form follows function." Rather than debate the merits of this concept and the implications it has for all buildings, I propose reconsidering the role of a church building as fulfilling two types of function: that of utility and that of the sacred.

As Catholics, we believe that the material world is sacramental and deeply symbolic; that is to say that everything created can mediate God's presence to us; communicate his divine nature, his plan, and his love. Our built environment can either clarify or confuse this reality. Simply put, this is the job of a church building, and in an even more specific way than other buildings. The purpose of a courthouse is to symbolize law and order in such a way that it encourages and inspires upstanding conduct and virtue. A poorly designed courthouse does little to inspire confidence in the order of the legal system. The purpose of a home is to encourage Christian living in a way that makes families holy and encourages them to be good disciples and missionaries. But a home that discourages community will make this difficult – something we have seen happen to our new neighborhoods as our communities become even more isolated and individualistic. Even our athletic, entertainment, and leisure facilities speak to us about our need for activity and community, and they can encourage these activities in a godly and virtuous, or disordered way.  

Detail, Church of the Transfiguration, Philadelphia  (Credit: Matthew Christopher,  Abandoned America ) 

Detail, Church of the Transfiguration, Philadelphia (Credit: Matthew Christopher, Abandoned America

When it comes to churches, it is so easy for us to lose sight of the sacred action of liturgy and become solely concerned with the function of utility. There are reasonable and important human concerns: are there enough seats and adequate restrooms? Are the lighting and sound systems setup so that we can we see and hear the liturgy? All of these presuppose the deepest function of a church building that go beyond utility: to aid in our worship and to communicate the divine. It does so in a way that far surpasses the other buildings on a parish campus; all of them provide lit, conditioned space for gathering. The church actually brings heaven to earth, or you could say, transports those present into heaven. It is a foretaste of the glory and perfection that is to come, and it is actively working to bring those things about as we strive toward ongoing conversion and build up the Kingdom of God. The separation between the natural and supernatural is porous in this mystical place where God comes to reside with and within his people. This is why it's not ever adequate to think of the aesthetic and symbolic aspects of a church as optional, dispensable, or even  secondary to the strictly utilitarian requirements of a commercial building. 

The question of function is ultimately tied to purpose, and to say that a church building's purpose is limited to meeting utilitarian human needs is to overlook the spiritual needs that are met in the liturgy. Why does a church need to have good sound and lighting, enough seats, restrooms, and so on? We have said that it is so that people are able to worship – to join their minds and hearts to that of the priest and Christ to be taken to the right hand of the Father as a foretaste of heavenly eternity, and in so doing to give God glory and be made holy. But we also know that how Catholics worship takes place is through the ritual liturgy that defines the sacraments. God communicates his grace in visible, tangible form. It's not just represented through these efficacious signs, it's actually made present by them!  

Churches have the awesome responsibility of transporting us visibly and tangibly to heaven, because that's what happens when we gather to worship in liturgy. As such, a church is a sacramental, an object that points us to the reality contained within and made present by the sacraments. This is a sacred function, and it's why there is a beautiful liturgy specifically for sacred buildings: The Rite of Dedication of a Church and an Altar. Accordingly, it is impossible accurately to think of a church building as strictly 'functional' in the utilitarian sense with which Modernism has defined it. The church is not merely a place of human action, but also and preeminently divine. God acts, and we respond; this is the mystery of salvation: "We love because he first loved us" (1 Jn 4:19). 

Header image taken from Louis Bouyer's book Liturgy and Architecture

For more on the symbolism of the church building, please consider reading the following posts: 

A Case for the Christian Temple
Catholic Church Architecture and the Mind of the Church - Part 1 
Catholic Church Architecture and the Mind of the Church - Part 2