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Stripping Away the Cult of the Ugly

Peggy Frye

While looking through some news feeds recently, I found this lede:

Modern Catholic churches resemble museums and are built more with the aim of winning design awards than worshiping God, the Vatican has said.

Well, that certainly grabbed my attention. “The Vatican” said? Perhaps the Vatican was about to declare an official moratorium on the construction of ugly, ultra-modernist Catholic churches! That would make my day. I read on. Nope. No moratorium. But the news was still good. 

According to the article, Mr. Antonio Paolucci, the director of the Vatican Museums, and Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, the president of the Pontifical Council for Culture, were quite upset over the increasing number of ultra-modern churches springing up throughout Italy and elsewhere. Mr. Paolucci tagged these modernist monstrosities as unfit for worship, calling them museum-like “spaces that do not suggest prayer or meditation.” Cardinal Ravasi doesn’t mince words, either. In his 2011 address to the Faculty of Architecture of the University La Sapiena of Rome, he calls these ultra-modern churches “inhospitable,” even likening them to places “in which we find ourselves lost as in a conference hall, distracted as in a sports arena, packed in as at a tennis court, degraded as in a pretentious and vulgar house.” He couldn’t have said it better.

Cardinal Ravasi goes on to tell of how in his native town of Merate in Lombardy, where an ultra-modern church was built, the local priest had to bring his own Madonna image to Mass because the architect (Mario Botta) didn’t include one in his design. Cardinal Ravasi blames this on “the lack of integration between the architect and the faith community.” He attributes this disconnect to the architects’ focus on space, lines, light, and sound, and not on essential Catholic things like the altar and images. Yes, indeed. That’s why when architects, pastors, or liturgists fail to use the liturgy as their starting point of reference; we get church structures that look like concrete bunkers, spaceships, beached whales, and worse.

I’m far from an expert on sacred architecture, but I do know one thing: A Catholic church should look recognizably Catholic. That’s the problem with many ultra-modern Catholic churches today. They don’t look Catholic. You’ll be hard-pressed to find expressions of sacred signs and symbols on the outside of any of these ultra-modern Catholic structures, let alone on the inside. Most of them look like whitewashed sepulchers.

I’ll never forget my first experience in an ultra-modern Catholic church. It was the ’60s classic “church in the round.” The exterior of the church resembled a futuristic spaceship, with a gray, curved metal roof that was shaped to look like a tent. The first thing I saw when I entered the church was a Jacuzzi-size holy water font complete with a waterfall and lights. It felt like a hotel lobby, not a church entrance.

The shock and awe continued as I entered the main body of the church. It felt like an arena or a concert hall. The altar was on a platform in the center surrounded by pews. No crucifix, no stained glass windows, no statues, no kneelers, and no tabernacle. There was a processional cross with a corpus attached, but after the procession it was propped in the side corner as if it were a broom. The only other religious images that I can remember in that space were colorful Stations of the Cross banners. But they did nothing to evoke a sense of the sacred. It just made me think I was in a high school gym. Ugh. Even with all the friendly people around me, I felt lonely. What were this architect and building committee thinking? One thing is for sure: It wasn’t about the liturgy.

Both church architecture and liturgy should be a conduit of beauty, not an ugly distraction. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI speaks to the importance of beauty and the liturgy in Sacramentum Caritatis:

The profound connection between beauty and the liturgy should make us attentive to every work of art placed at the service of the celebration. Certainly an important element of sacred art is church architecture, which should highlight the unity of the furnishings of the sanctuary, such as the altar, the crucifix, the tabernacle, the ambo and the celebrant’s chair. Here it is important to remember that the purpose of sacred architecture is to offer the Church a fitting space for the celebration of the mysteries of faith, especially the Eucharist. The very nature of a Christian church is defined by the liturgy, which is an assembly of the faithful (ecclesia) who are the living stones of the Church (cf. 1 Pet 2:5).

Another reason I find ultra-modern churches so disturbing is the deceptive nature of their designs. Most of them are essentially iconoclastic structures devoid of beauty and transcendence. They seem to mock all that is holy and beautiful. Stripped-down, mausoleum-style churches do nothing to elevate man’s heart and mind to God. Where’s the mystery, the awe, the sense of God’s majesty? Most of these modernist monstrosities belong to the cult of the ugly.

Then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, in his 2002 address to the Communion and Liberation meeting at Rimini, says just that:

Christian art today . . . must oppose the cult of the ugly, which says that everything beautiful is a deception and only the representation of what is crude, low and vulgar is the truth, the true illumination of knowledge. Or it has to counter the deceptive beauty that makes the human being seem diminished instead of making him great, and for this reason is false.

Let us not forget that Beauty is Truth. Truth converts hearts. A beautiful church with a beautiful liturgy is a powerful tool of evangelization! Benedict XVI recounted how the power of beauty in the liturgy aided the conversion of the French writer Paul Claudel.  Claudel, said the pope emeritus:

. . . [alluded] to the internal force of the liturgy in witnessing to his conversion during the singing of the Magnificat during Vespers on Christmas Eve at Notre-Dame de Paris: “It was then that the event happened that has dominated all my life. In an instant, my heart was touched and I believed. I believed with such force, with such relief of all my being, a conviction so powerful, so certain and without any room for doubt, that ever since, all the books, all the arguments, all the hazards of my agitated life have never shaken my faith, nor to tell the truth have they even touched it.”

So why am I a little wound up about this ugly church problem? Because the renovation and construction of new churches that fit the “cult of the ugly” continue to grow. I recently received a call from a woman who wanted to know how to stop the parish building committee from embarking on a renovation project that would strip the church’s beautiful existing altar down to the size of a butcher-block table, replace the pews with chairs, and take down the retablo in back of the altar because it supposedly made the church look too dark.

I almost lost it. The parish is raising money for this project. I didn’t tell her this, but my note in that building-fund envelope would be “No dogma, no dollar.” Oh well, that’s just me. Anyway, after a brief pep talk, I gave this woman the number of somebody who could help her. Prayers are going up for this poor soul. She has a battle on her hands. 

If your parish is about to embark upon a renovation or a new construction project that fits the “cult of ugly,” I recommend you join the building committee, or do your best to make your voice heard—with charity, of course. And pray, pray, pray.

You also might check out the New Liturgical Movement for more information.

No less important is the promotion of sacred art to accompany aptly the celebration of the mysteries of the faith, to give beauty back to ecclesiastical buildings and liturgical objects . . . and above all able to convey the authentic meaning of Christian liturgy and encourage full participation of the faithful in the divine mysteries (Via Pulchritudinis, “The Way of Beauty”).

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