Many priests will recall from their seminary days hearing the Liturgy Prof wax lyrical about the difference between Domus Dei and Domus Ecclesiae. Domus Dei is the House of God – churches as they had been built for 1,700 years since the wicked Emperor Constantine corrupted the Church by making it grand and imperial. You know, all those awful formal buildings in the classical style, the Romanesque, the Gothic, and the Baroque. In fact, all that most people think of when they think “church”. Now, the Liturgy prof would tell us, we want churches that are Domus Ecclesiae – House of the gathered people. A worship space that skips over all that terrible history back to the pre-Constantine church when the simple Christian folk met in ordinary domestic homes for prayer and praise and an agapé meal. Hence the wonderful inspirational ecclesial spaces we are now building or trying to create by re-ordering all those false and wicked Gothic, Romanesque and Classical features in our existing buildings. Getting us back to the good old days – but the good old days have to be pre-fourth century. They can’t, of course, be 9th century 16th century, or 19th century!
The only slight difficulty is that study and archaeology have now shown that to be a load of old nonsense. Archaeology is discovering that pre-Constantine Christian places of worship were already much more “church” than “meeting room”. But have the seminary liturgy Profs and the diocesan Liturgy teams caught up with modern thinking or are they still stuck in the other golden age of the 1970’s? You can read about this at Church Architecture in an article by Stephen J. Schloeder entitled “The Myth of Domus Ecclesiae”.
This myth still continues to dominate Catholic architecture with disastrous results, abandoning what has nourished generations of believers for a dubious archaeologism that mimics the worst of the world around us. A prime example of this is the purchase of the Crystal Cathedral by Orange Diocese in the US, the former Mega-Church focused around its former leader’s glitz and entertainment-style worship ministry (now defunct). Renowned architect Duncan Stroik speaks of it thus:
Can the Crystal Cathedral be converted to a Catholic Cathedral? We shall see. After all, the much noted cathedrals of Oakland, Los Angeles, and San Francisco are all expressionistic modernist sculptures. The diocese has said that they will not change the exterior of the church and will not compromise the architectural integrity of the 2700-seat interior. Yet, without a radical transformation the building will always come across as a technological mega-church rather than as a sacred place. It needs to be totally gutted and reconceived. And even if the interior can be functionally retrofitted for Catholic liturgy, many believe that its identity will always be that of the Crystal Cathedral.
One of the major criticisms of Catholic architecture during the past fifty years is that it has incorrectly adopted many of the forms of low-church Protestantism: the theater form, a fear of sacred images, asymmetrical layouts, vacuous sanctuaries, minimalist liturgical elements, prominently placed Jacuzzis for baptism, and the banishment of the Blessed Sacrament to the baptistry. The altar area becomes a stage with a focus on entertainment alongside praise bands that perform upbeat music. In response, liturgists have argued that all of these things are simply the outgrowth if not the requirement of Vatican II. Are they finally admitting their agenda by purchasing a ready for TV megachurch complete with a jumbotron and three huge balconies for the “spectators”?
The timing of this is wrong. A whole new generation of priests, laity, and theologians has grown up with this stuff and find these Protestant innovations dated and lacking in substance. They desire an architecture that grows out of the Church’s rich tradition and that will enable them in worship. Asked what cathedrals should look like in the twenty-first century, they point to Saint Patrick’s in New York, Saint Peter’s in Rome, Notre Dame in Paris, and other obvious suspects. These are buildings constructed hundreds of years ago, yet continue to speak to believers and unbelievers alike today. A timeless architecture built for the ages, a cathedral should be a durable building constructed out of masonry, transcendent in height, and directional in length. Unfortunately for the new generation and their children, the Orange diocese has chosen the opposite direction and will foist on them a building that is of its time and not particularly suited to Catholic worship and devotion. Twenty years from now, it will not matter that Orange got a really good deal whereas another California diocese quadrupled its budget. People will simply ask if it is a beautiful cathedral, worthy of the Creator.