No one can defend the hideous re-ordering of many Catholic churches, says Anthony Symondson SJ. But the conservative cause is not helped by bitter polemics like this one, by an American writer whose knowledge of architecture is negligible
Ugly as Sin: Why They Changed Our Churches from Sacred Spaces to Meeting Places — and How we can Change Them Back Again by Michael Rose, Sophia Institute Press £18.50 (Family Publications: 01865 558336)
Despite a letter of warning from the Vatican that he ignored, the final act before the retirement this year of Archbishop Rembert Weakland of Milwaukee at the age of 75 was a reordering of his cathedral. Archbishop Weakland is a recognised Benedictine liturgist of a progressive school and generation and one questions why he waited for the dynamic to go before making radical changes that bind his successors to a passé expression of ideological purism that does violence to a well-considered neo-classical building of some distinction.
A cube-shaped altar of white marble, destitute of architectural congruity, stands on a circular predella raised on three steps before a clumsy legilium. A starved, asymmetrical crucifix, with a corpus scarcely recognisable as human, hangs from the ceiling encircled by the cliche of an over-scaled crown of thorns. On either side of the altar are a cathedra and president's chair of light wood of almost prehistoric ugliness, raised on steps. A plaque in the porch records in Latin the controversy caused by the changes.
They were fiercely opposed by the people and this book illustrates the dignified, fastidiously designed, domed baldacchino of gilded marble that formerly rose to 45ft above the high altar. It fulfilled the authenticity of the Christian altar, as defined by the liturgical scholar, Edmund Bishop, whose researches decided that altars should be simple and direct and protected by a ciborium magnum. Arch
bishop Weakland declared that it had "no artistic or historic value". In its place stands an organ in a plain case, forming a blind focus that the new altar fails to achieve.
Milwaukee Cathedral no longer fulfils people's subconscious expectations, the alterations go against the building, create a sense of disappointment and an absence that is difficult to fill. None of this is conducive to good liturgy. There are few more painful experiences than worshipping in a church that has been subjected to brutal reordering and the mendacity that frequently accompanies the changes. They never look right, the results are often expensive, and the wounds occasioned by them take generations to heal.
This is a dilemma that has swept the Western Church in the last 35 years and is comparable to the destruction wrought by the Puritan iconoclasts, driven by a different ideology, at the Reformation. The tragedy of Milwau kee is that it represents an anachronism, shaped on dogmatic principles, that no longer has the conviction of its chosen style. Instead of being the crowning achievement of Arch bishop Weakland's career it represents little more than a pyrrhic victory.
A new spirit has entered the Church in recent years that is less abrasive than the destructive forces that immediately followed Vatican H. As far as this country is concerned the formation of the statutorily constituted Historic Churches Committees will, we hope, prevent future outrages and rectify mistakes. If they had been in place earlier many would not have been permitted and much grief would have been avoided. What has happened in Milwaukee would no longer be permitted here.
Ugly as Sin is an American book and, despite obvious parallels, describes a situation different from our own. The predicament existing between conservative and liberal is more polarised and the strength of feeling conveyed by Michael Rose should be seen within that unhappy context. The formation and identity of the Catholic Church in America also runs counter to these islands and consists of an amalgamation of different national identities that attempted to recreate on new soil what had been left behind in Europe. This had mixed results and more than liturgical identity was threatened by the changes. Catholic churches romantically reflected the European architectural tradition but a clear understanding of their origins and development was lost.
The weakness of this book is Michael Rose's superficial and subjective understanding of historic evolution. He is more concerned with appearance than plan and function and he also confuses cult with liturgy. Though this is understandable in the context of the deprivation he describes, he fails to serve his cause as well as it deserves. This is unfortunate because the illustrations he gives of the absurdities that posture as church art and architecture, conceived on doctrinaire, modernist principles, are so naïve and extreme that they can only be regarded with distaste. The tragedy is that so many were built five minutes before closing time.
Modernism is now a style and movement of the past and we are left with its embarrassing redundancies.
Ugly as Sin is so bitterly fuelled by regret that liturgical change of any kind was permitted that Rose finds it difficult to move beyond an appeal to restore churches as they were (however bad) and build new ones on old plans. There are some good examples of better solutions but no serious discussion of their principles; nowhere is the General Instruction on the Roman Missal given consideration; and Rose's architectural knowledge and judgement are negligible. Nevertheless, his cry of affliction is justified. Milwaukee Cathedral has essentially been reordered on liturgically defensible principles, however ruthlessly applied. A book is badly needed to show a better way forward from such bland and complacent absolutism: this is not it.