Woke Catholic church architecture: Ugly as sin

The modernist "woke" Catholic Church is easy to spot: a circular altar table with a plus sign surrounded by burlap banners; no icons, statues of the Virgin or frescoes. These churches are really auditoriums.

Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles, California. (Our Lady of the Angels/Facebook)

(Front Page Mag) — So called Neo-Morphism or woke architecture has affected sacred architecture, and especially Catholic Church architecture, over the last several decades.

Architect magazine put it this way:

“The tendency towards design weirdness is all over the place, and not just in trend-conscious California … if there is one dichotomy that should be evident across the world of architecture today, it is the push and pull between those who are pursuing social agendas with little interest in form or image and those who are delighting in their ability to invent shapes and colors that shock and amuse …”

In the 1920s and ’30s, the American Catholic church had its own design style. Early liturgical movements in the country at that time made the crucifix a prominent feature in Catholic churches. In the decades before Vatican II, the American Catholic altar was relatively unencumbered with other images. The combination of altar, tabernacle and crucifix, minus saints and angels, stood in stark contrast to the interior of most European cathedrals.

Modernism in Church architecture came to a head after the Second Vatican Council was convened to renew and invigorate the Church. While words like renew and invigorate have a positive feeling, that’s not quite what happened.

The Council unleashed a storm that not only affected how Catholics worship, but the buildings they worship in. That windstorm produced a fair amount of architectural self-destruction.

The modernist “woke” Catholic Church is easy to spot: a circular altar table with a plus sign surrounded by burlap banners; no icons, statues of the Virgin or frescoes. These churches are really auditoriums.

According to Michael Rose, author of “Ugly as Sin: Why They Changed Our Churches from Sacred Places to Meeting Spaces — and How We Can Change Them Back Again,” the catalyst for the change was a duplicitous 1978 draft statement by the U.S. Bishops’ Committee on Liturgy, entitled “Environment and Art in Catholic Worship.”

Rose asserts that this document was “cunningly published in the name of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, implying approval from Rome.” But the Vatican II document, Sacrosanctum Concilium, which was cited in the draft statement as the reason for the “wreck-o-vation,” did not call for the wholesale slaughter of traditional Catholic Church architecture.

What Vatican II actually said was: “The practice of placing sacred images in churches so that they can be venerated by the faithful is to be maintained.”

So what happened?

Many rebel U.S. Catholic bishops apparently wanted to reshape Catholic churches into more people-oriented worship spaces.

This idea had actually been around prior to the misreading of the texts of Vatican II.

In 1952, there was a booklet published by the Liturgy Program at the University Of Notre Dame called “Speaking of Liturgical Architecture.” Its author, Father H.A. Reinhold, was a respected liturgist of his day. The booklet was a compilation of Reinhold’s lectures in 1947 delivered at the University of Notre Dame (today the most woke Catholic University in the U.S.)

Reinhold campaigned for a fan-shaped congregation or a church in the round.

This meant plain wooden altar tables rather than marble high altars with images of saints and angels; carpeted rooms; plain glass stained windows, potted plants in place of traditional Catholic artwork; small and nondescript Stations of the Cross that disappear into the walls; churches in the round resembling MTV soundstages; the elimination of altar rails and sanctuary lamps. Crucifixes were replaced by wooden crosses or geometric plus signs; the traditional baptismal transformed into a hot tub. Older churches, including many cathedrals, were stripped bare as high altars were removed and dismantled, and historic frescoes and icons whitewashed.

Suddenly choir lofts were a thing of the past, as choirs were placed in front of the church alongside the main altar. The area would soon become crowded with the so-called presider’s chair, lecterns, and microphones, recalling — if you are of a certain generation — The Tom Snyder Show or the Dick Cavitt stage set.

Hundreds, maybe thousands of churches worldwide were destroyed by the iconoclasts.

In Philadelphia, a number of churches have fallen victim to the new design.

In Philadelphia’s Holy Name parish, founded in 1905, there was an architectural wreck-o-vation in the freewheeling ’70s. The project was the brainchild of a Dominican pastor.

The Dominican cut off the high altar and installed a Home Depot-style butcher block in the center of the church. Then, as if trying to relive his WWII Air Force days, he hung a 747-sized crucifix from the ceiling. He and his Dominican cohorts then ripped out the marble altar rail, and covered the sanctuary in Holiday Inn-style carpet that tends to buckle over a period of time. When the new pastor arrived in 1998, he looked at the church and commented, “This is a mess,” as if surveying the damage caused by an exploding carbuncle.

The Dominicans, unlike the iconoclasts in the  6th and 7th centuries, did show some restraint. Somehow they managed to leave the side altars intact. They also spared the statues and, miraculously, allowed a bejeweled Infant of Prague image to remain in its quiet side altar niche.

Holy Name’s new pastor got rid of the butcher block, and replaced it with a real high altar from a church that had closed in the city in 1999. He also painted the church and added ceramic tile to the sanctuary. What he could not replace was the altar rail.

Vatican II did not issue any edicts calling for the removal of church altar rails. What happened is that in many American churches this was done more or less by design consensus when communion-in-hand became a popular form of receiving the sacrament. The altar rail, traditionally, is the western version of the Eastern iconostasis (a screen of icons that frames the altar). In many modern Catholic churches today there’s no delineation of the sanctuary; an altar rail used to signify that one was entering a place of special reverence.

In Northeast Philadelphia, the once beautiful church of Saint Leo’s underwent something like botched cosmetic surgery.

The pastor of Saint Leo’s told me that the reformers got to the church in the 1960s, barely a nanosecond after the close of Vatican II. They took out the big marble altar along with the domed pulpit. Unlike the rabid Dominicans, who only half-wrecked Holy Name, the St. Leo reformers dumped all the church statues in the church school, where they soon fell into disrepair. As for the church’s large sanctuary lamp that looked as though it might have once hung in a European cathedral, it was replaced with a small, nondescript Martha Stewart/Target-inspired patio lamp. The exquisite altar rail was also ripped out as if it had been nothing but a tapeworm eating at the body of Christ.

No matter where I travel — Louisville, Kentucky, Vienna, a remote island in the Caribbean, Paris, Montreal or Quebec City — I see revamped Catholic sacred spaces, cathedrals stripped bare, such as Louisville’s downtown cathedral or even Thomas Merton’s old church at the Abbey of Gethsemane.

When I traveled to Eisenstadt, Austria, and visited the so-called Haydn Church of the chapel of Mercy Mountain church, a church decorated and embellished by Prince Nicholas III, I was shown a new addition, not far from the Haydn crypt. My tour guide, visibly embarrassed, pointed out the Reconciliation Room, a substitution for the centuries-old confessionals. The white plastic and smoky glass construction framed with a few potted plants could easily have doubled as a men’s room. Only the absence of flushing sounds set it apart as a space for contemplation. It reminded me of the hot tub baptismals I’d seen in some new churches where the constant gushing water makes the ordinary pilgrim think of his or her bladder.

As Michael Rose explains, there’s no focal point in the modern worship space. The altar is too low to be visible in most cases, and the priest’s chair, at the level of the congregation, is inconspicuous to all but those sitting or standing in the first two rows.

In many modern churches there’s no sanctuary distinct from the nave. This is the religious version of “woke” grassroots democracy.

The chief architect of modern church design, Father Richard Vosko, a member of the Diocese of Albany Architecture and Building Commission, has designed/redesigned or gutted over 120 Catholic churches. Father Vosko’s brainchild is Cardinal Mahoney’s Los Angeles cathedral, Our Lady of the Angels, aka the Yellow Armadillo or the “Taj Mahoney.”

“This cathedral,” Vosko stated to the press, “is of its own time, of its own liturgy, of its own people.” Vosko added that he was not interested in establishing a sacred place like the European cathedrals of past centuries.

Vosko’s “cookie-cutter” churches all have the same look: they are functionalist or industrialist with harsh lines; they are dominated by colder materials such as metal, concrete and glass. They are noted for their off-centered or less-than-prominent altars and, of course, there’s a lack of a clearly defined sanctuary or nave. There’s also a distinct lack of color and sacred imagery.

Vosko likes tabernacles placed in obscure side chapels, away from the main altar. He opts for hot tub baptismal Jacuzzi, the removal of pews in favor of mobile chairs. His message is that everything should be “throw-a-way,” a church should be able to be cleared of all objects and double as a basketball court if needed.

Johann Winckelmann once noted that noble simplicity must not be confused with mere functionalism, abstract minimalism or crude banality.

Unfortunately, that’s what the Diocese of Milwaukee got when they employed Vosko to redo Milwaukee’s Cathedral of Saint John. Archbishop Rembert Weakland was in command at the time. Weakland’s plans to denude the old cathedral, especially the 40-foot-high marble canopy over the high altar — something he decried as having “no artistic or historic value,” met with Vatican censure. But Weakland went ahead and did it anyway and now the cathedral, denuded and stark, stands as a testament to fashionable bad taste.

In 1831, famed novelist Victor Hugo lamented the destruction of Notre Dame in Paris in his book “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.” Hugo was not talking about the decapitated statues or injuries to the old queen of French cathedrals caused by the French Revolution, but to the grave damage that Notre Dame suffered at the hands of school-trained architects.

Hugo criticized the removal of colored stained-glass windows, the interior of which had been whitewashed, as well as the removal of the tower over the central part of the cathedral. Fashion, Hugo claimed, had done more mischief than revolutions: “It has cut to the quick — it has attacked the very bone and framework of the art.”

Hugo called these school-trained architects slaves to bad taste and said they were guilty of willful destruction.


Thom Nickels

Thom Nickels is a Philadelphia-based journalist and the 2005 recipient of the AIA Lewis Mumford Award for Architectural Journalism.