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wrecking churchesThere are few better illustrations of the clash between conservative values and progressive ideologies than the church architecture wars of the last fifty years. Although traditional architecture was dismissed by most Christian denominations, the conflict comes into focus most clearly within the Catholic Church.

The Second Vatican Council in the 1960s ushered in the most iconoclastic ideology since the Protestant revolution. Across the Western world, in a spirit of enthusiastic reform, Catholic churches were erected with no reference to the past. A new wave of ideologically driven priests teamed up with modernist architects to create round churches, fan-shaped mass centers, multi purpose worship spaces and utilitarian cement block boxes. In an attempt to imbue some sense of the sacred they plopped ill shaped spires on the roof, created sweeping towers topped with crosses or punched holes in the walls with abstract stained glass.

Not only did the sincere, but ignorant priests and architects build new churches that looked like teepees, stranded space ships, or ice cream cones that had fallen upside down, they made matters worse by “renovating” existing churches according to their progressive creed. Their iconoclasm was complete. They covered tiled or marble floors with cheap wall-to-wall carpet. They ripped out neo-Gothic altarpieces, removed statues of the saints, painted over murals, dumped relics in the trash, junked the candlesticks, votive candle stands and fine vestments. Everything was to be simple, bare and back to basics. Austerity was in. Posterity was out.

churchesThe “wreckovation” as conservatives refer to it, continued into the 1990s. The authorities of the Archdiocese of Chicago, for example, effected this simplification of the chapel of the Pontifical Josephinum Seminary in Ohio .

The revised design is actually one of the more tasteful solutions. In parish after parish the pastor simply ripped out the artwork and furniture—destroying the buildings that had served their Catholic community for generations. The wholesale destruction was an act of mindless vandalism that always accompanies progressive ideologies.

Progressive ideologies can always be spotted because their devotees destroy the past rather than renew it. By definition, revolutionaries revolve, they do not evolve. To create their brave new world they must destroy the old one. Their new age is fueled by rage and the smiling revolutionaries cannot create anything without destroying everything.

The changes in churches were never loved because they were derived in destruction. Like the Protestant revolution in sixteenth-century England, the innovations which were supposed to benefit the people were imposed on the people by clericalist ideologues who ironically believed they were “of the people.” Furthermore, the changes the progressives force on everyone are doomed to fail because they are a fashion, and all fashions will soon be unfashionable.

The imaginative conservative, on the other hand, does not fall for fashion, but neither does he preserve the past for its own sake. He understands that change happens. Renewal is constant and necessary. However, he sees the renovation as a refreshment of the past and a rejuvenation of what has been shown to be tried, true, and tested. The imaginative conservative brings the past forward into the present to create a foundation for the future, because he knows that which will truly last into the future is that which has already proven its durability in the past.

It is not a surprise therefore to find that the current round of church renovations are a return to tradition. Faithful pastors are now ripping up the cheap carpet, polishing the tiles floor, putting statues back and restoring sanctuaries in a sympathetic modern style that promotes reverence and aids worship without being a slavish copy of the past or a crude antiquarianism for its own sake.

New churches are also being built that are traditional in style, yet cognizant of the demands of modern worship. Michael Tamara writes here of the plans to build traditional churches in the Carolinas. My own parish of Our Lady of the Rosary in Greenville, South Carolina will be the location for a beautiful new church built in a Romanesque style.

Consistent with imaginative conservatism, this new church will feature a set of classic stained-glass windows salvaged from a church in Massachusetts, and will include new artwork by contemporary Catholic artists. Antique stations of the cross and statuary will be salvaged and restored while new furniture and fittings are designed and built in a spirit of continuity that rejuvenates the tradition.

The lessons are clear: Despite its calm demeanor and gentle approach, progressivism is founded on rage. The status quo is the culprit and the established order must be overthrown. The imaginative conservative, on the other hand, seeks to correct what is wrong not by revolution, but renewal. What is beautiful, good, and true from the past is restored to its original reason so that it might do good service in the present and into the future.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.

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6 replies to this post
  1. When I first became Catholic, it was in a medium-sized town with two Catholic parishes. The one of my neighborhood was an old brick Romanesque building with all the Old Things in place. It had three priests, all of whom fit in with the décor so perfectly, it must have been planned. (!)

    The other parish church, across town, was Modern, all stainless steel and glass. Entering it, one was assaulted by a chrome crucifix (the object strapped to which looked more like a crystalline alien than the Christ), and the location of the Danish Modern altar was problematical. I went there but once.

    On the other hand, on my drive to work, was an old very small (also) brick chapel, which had been built in the 1880s (and was trying not to fall down), whose doors were never closed. Going to work in the mornings, I developed the habit of stopping in for a prayer, or two, or three. The statures were garish, the paint fading, the gilt peeling off. But in the early morning light glowing in through the (very representative) stained glass windows, it felt like a slice of Heaven. Sadly, my work called me elsewhere a quarter century back, but I have often remembered my little morning chapel.

  2. The beauty of the older churches can’t be improved upon. The more modern churches have probably been touched with the modernist infection, the revolution in art commencing say in the late 19th century. Painting, statuary, architecture,, even music, think Stravinsky for example. It seems almost like a deliberate turning away from beauty, and probably is.

  3. Good (and true and beautiful) stuff Dwight.

    I’d argue this a bit further. As a maker of reproduction furniture (18th century William & Mary, Chippendale, & Queen Anne stuff) I think some relevant analogies are in order. It was not long after the early to mid 1800’s that, IMO, American furniture really began it’s aesthetic decline. And as with churches, that followed the progressive currents of the culture.

    When I started making furniture about 35 years ago, I wanted to make what I thought represented the best in every way: design, proportion, elegance, comfort, and utility. I think the peak of these qualities was what American makers were doing in Philadelphia, Boston, Charleston, and Newport between 1700 – 1800. This represented the culmination of 4,000 years of organic development that stretched back to the Greco-Roman period.

    Today, when I want to make the perfect piece (I can’t by the way, but it’s always a goal) I slavishly copy these pieces, using elements common to that period. The only thing holding me back from making better furniture is my inability to match the skills of these makers (who had none of the modern tools, that should make it easier for me!). But there couldn’t possibly ever be anything better than a slavish copy.

    My point is that I think the same thing is true with church design. There are just so many examples where it was all good, true,and beautiful, and I don’t see how there could be any improvement. Certainly not from anything we think we could add (I’d argue also that our imaginations are relatively impoverished). This is not doing slavish copy, and there is no need for an element of renewal IMO.
    We would be just re-inventing the wheel over another hundred years. The exercise in attempting to integrate some sort of modern sensibility, in hopes that it could ever be an improvement over what the great medieval and Renaissance architects, sculptors, and painters accomplished is just our hubris. It would be impossible to improve on what they did. There’s no end of material here to challenge us and keep our very best craftsmen and artists employed, but I doubt we’d be able to rise to that level. We ought to try, but we probably don’t have the heart or courage for it.

    So, for what it’s worth, this is my vote for slavish copies.

  4. The faithful still long for the beautiful. Witness the Mass Mob sensations going on across the country were suburban Catholics who worship in plain-Jane churches are drawn to hundred-year-old churches built in inner cities.
    They are blown away by the architecture, the statuary, the stained glass, the craftsmanship of these churches, most of which were built by immigrants of far narrower means than today’s typical parishioner.
    Perhaps an awakening is at hand.

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