I guess I’m in a New York State state of mind. Bernie at the Rochester-focused Cleansing Fire blog has a brilliant comment on church architecture and the Catholic understanding of beauty on the occasion of fire damage to my family’s parish during my high school years, St. Pius X. It is — or was — breathtakingly ugly: an octagonal design devoid of sacred art and sacrality with the tabernacle shoved off to the side so it won’t serve as a distraction from and for the community. That said, its most recent pastor appears to be trying to bring about a reform of the reform, and one can hope that he will take restoration advice from the likes of Bernie rather than the Voskoites who plague the Diocese of Rochester. Here’s his conclusion:
We look to the faith and teachings of the Church in her sacred tradition to find what a Catholic church is meant to be. We can find variety there but generally it is meant to support the Eucharistic liturgy as a foretaste of the heavenly liturgy. A Catholic church that looks like a warehouse and a mere place to gather together to share a meal is not what a Catholic church should “be”. The liturgy celebrated there may be valid but the architecture is not acting as a sacramental. Even worse the architecture may be conveying the idea of the liturgical action as merely a human event, limited in time. Such a building “is” something else (a fundamentalist auditorium, for example), but it is not a Catholic church except in name.
If we settle for felt banners crudely designed then we embrace the banal and ugly. The Church tells us that works of liturgical art should be noble: of quality material and nobly fashioned to the extent possible in any given economic or social situation.
When I proclaim that Beauty is objectively true in relation to liturgical art I am saying that the work is beautiful if it is true to what a Catholic church, liturgical sculpture, vestment is meant “to be” (I am not just considering functionality). A liturgical work that I deem objectively ugly may be quite beautiful in other ways but it is ugly as Catholic liturgical art.
If Saint Pius X comes to having to renovate the church proper I hope they will consider more than just mere functionality and look to the tradition and teaching of the church for guidance on how to create a church building that is truly Catholic, a true sacramental –a building that is deeply rooted in the faith and not just a reflection of another liturgical fad.
If we say that beauty is in the eye of the beholder then we might as well say that objective truth does not exist. We might as well say that virtue is in the eye of the beholder; that sin is in the eye of the beholder. In light of the teaching of the Catholic Church we know that that cannot be.