Progressive Catholic Architecture & the Death of Revolution

A theologian can be very picky about the architectural style of churches, especially when the theologian (like me) was born and raised in Italy. Recently, I had the opportunity to speak in Brazil, where I visited the Oscar Niemeyer Museum in Curitiba, named after one of the most famous architects of our time. Inside there’s a temporary exhibition on Brazilian architect Vilanova Artigas (1915-1985), who designed the Architecture and Urbanism College, University of Sao Paulo (known as FAUUSP) in 1969. Writing of the building in 1984, Artigas said it “refines the holy ideals of the time: I thought of it as the spatialization of democracy in worthy spaces, without entrance doors, because I wanted it as a temple where all activities are lawful.”

Among the interesting things I discovered was the relationship of leftist (Communist, in fact) intellectuals like Niemeyer and Artigas with the Catholic Church in Brazil. It was a relationship that, for the more famous Niemeyer, went beyond his work on the Brasilia cathedral (built between 1958 and 1970) and the Church of St. Francis in Belo Horizonte (which was completed in 1943 but not consecrated until 1959: archbishop Antonio dos Santos Cabral proclaimed the church “unfit for religious purposes”). Niemeyer also had had many exchanges with Paulo Freire, founder of critical pedagogy and author of Pedagogy of the Oppressed. The architecture of Niemeyer and Artigas was deeply embedded in the shift of Latin American Catholicism from a status quo church—pillar of a non-democratic and authoritarian system—to one both politically and theologically instrumental in the turn toward a non-authoritarian and democratic system.

This became all the more interesting to me in thinking, with some shame, about my own criticisms of 1960s and 1970s church architecture (which I still think was particularly ugly in Italy). Dismissive comments about concrete-and-steel churches may be expressions of esthetical judgment, but in retrospect they also reflect a certain cynicism about a liberation movement that was both political and theological. I have to say that my personal taste for churches still spans from the Romanesque to the Gothic (with some exceptions for Sicilian Baroque), but in Brazil I was reminded of just how important the architecture of that era was to a liberation movement seeking relief from political and theological authoritarianism.

What Terry Eagleton says in Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate about the crisis (if not the death) of the idea of revolution also affects a Catholic scholar like me, who should be particularly aware of the impact of this era’s cynicism on the ability to grasp the connections between theology, politics, and culture, including architecture.

Visiting the Niemeyer museum provided the second such reminder for me in the space of just a few days. Before going to Brazil, I had been in Erfurt, Germany, where I stayed in a modern hotel situated right in front of the ruins of the Barfüsserkirche, the wonderful 14th-century church of the Franciscans. It was hit by a bomb on November 26, 1944, and like many other churches in the city centers in Germany, it was never rebuilt—left that way as a witness to the destruction of war.

Massimo Faggioli is professor of theology and religious studies at Villanova University. His most recent book is Catholicism and Citizenship: Political Cultures of the Church in the Twenty-First Century (Liturgical Press, 2017). He is a contributing writer for Commonweal. Follow him on Twitter @MassimoFaggioli.

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