Church architecture

A delightful Christmas gift: Denis R. McNamara'sHeavenly City: The Architectural Tradition of Catholic Chicago. (Well, OK. It's not a Christmas gift for everyone. ButI did once write a bookabout Catholic parishes. And it wasn't my only activity over the vacation. I also sawThe Bourne Ultimatum, which I loved.)But back to Heavenly City. It's a feast for the eyes, with stunning (I do not exaggerate) color photographs (by James Morris) of over one hundred Catholic churches in the Chicago area. I'm hardly an expert but it's certainly the most beautiful books of its kind that I know. When added to the recentStained Glass in Catholic Philadelphiaand other similar projects it offers hope that 21st century American Catholics will not entirely abandon their staggering architectural and material heritage. (A mournful note is struck in Heavenly City with the occasional photo of a closed parish.)Or does it? The one false note in Heavenly City, to my eyes, was McNamara's repeated deprecation of church architecture after the Second Vatican Council -- "bland church designs" -- and jabs at "avante-garde modernists." It's perhaps telling that none of the churches featured dates from after 1962, at least by my quick survey. Inevitably this implies that the decades after the Second Vatican Council are an architectural failure, best passed over in grim silence, in the hope that a "real" Catholic architecture will soon reassert itself.Perhaps this is so. But is this an accurate assessment of the problems faced and solutions offered to the theological and practical dilemmas of church architecture in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s? And doesn't this scorn in some ways echo the condescension of elite architects to the immigrant Baroque and Gothic churches of the 1870s and 1880s, the very churches we now recognize as at once the authentic product of immigrant communities and authentically Catholic?

John T. McGreevy is the I.A. O'Shaughnessy Dean of the College of Arts and Letters and Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame.

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