Whenever the Catholic Church creeps into the general news cycle, certain pet peeves of mine get tickled. Most notably there is a tendency to refer to “the Church” or “The Vatican” doing or thinking or saying something. When this tendency combines with retreading the debates about style and unhealthy assumptions about the role of architects in church building, I am sure to be agitated. A post on the IFRAA discussions on the AIA KnowledgeNet earlier this week invoked just such an agitation, so I wanted to share my response here, as it succinctly encapsulates a number of relevant issues that have been floating around my head of late.
While the Roman Catholic church is often assumed to be a linear authoritarian hierarchy, the truth is much more dynamic, with overlapping jurisdictions and a great diversity of organizations, departments, rites, dioceses, national and language councils, etc. There are also dynamic hierarchies of documents depending on the nomenclature, the author, the situation, etc.
I believe as a professional organization, we should be particularly careful with these particularities because there is so much disinformation. It has become shorthand to say “The Vatican says…” or “The Catholic Church says…” without specificity, and these abbreviations breed detrimental presumptions and over-generalizations. As architects, this dilutes our ability to serve.
The idea that building style and meeting the needs of a community are mutually exclusive is abhorrent. It may be somewhat ingrained in the popular church mind, but we (architects) should be a force for the amelioration of that ill. Where there is such a tension, it is precisely the problem architects should solve and a excellent design opportunity. We should be doing both and; is that not why we exist as a profession?
Would it were that every type of professional involved in any building project were unbiased. It is true that the “Liturgical Design Consultant” has tended to be a title used by a particular set of biases, and this is unfortunate. It is why I myself cannot use the title. The error comes from an imbalance in the relative values of agency and submission stemming from a misunderstanding of the role of creativity in and around the Latin Rite (which is drastically different than for Eastern Rites or Anglican, for example). As a culture (and architectural culture) we put too much faith in creativity and not enough in humility. You cannot approach the liturgy as something which can be designed, as the very title “Liturgical Design Consulant” somewhat implies. Liturgy grows organically, but it pre-exists its manifestation and any attempt to specify its nature is already a reduction, if not an abomination. But reverently approached, there are ample opportunities to beautifully participate in its manifestation.
Conforming one’s will to the Magisterium of the church does not negate the value she places in the human person and that person’s role as sub-/co-creator in participating in creation. Nor does she come remotely close to prescribing something so specific as a style. To quote the well-known Conciliar Constitution on the Liturgy (an Apostolic Constitution and therefore considered universal doctrine, to be precise):
“123. The Church has not adopted any particular style of art as her very own; she has admitted styles from every period according to the natural talents and circumstances of peoples, and the needs of the various rites. Thus, in the course of the centuries, she has brought into being a treasury of art which must be very carefully preserved. The art of our own days, coming from every race and region, shall also be given free scope in the Church, provided that it adorns the sacred buildings and holy rites with due reverence and honor; thereby it is enabled to contribute its own voice to that wonderful chorus of praise in honor of the Catholic faith sung by great men in times gone by.”
We cannot forget that we are a part of a tradition, nor can we forget that that tradition is living.