Should churches be magnificent or mundane?
Karl Keating argues that magnificent churches allow us to commune with God . . .
by Karl Keating
Take a look at an older church in your city. It’s probably ornate. The rich decorations were donated by members of the parish in praise and thanksgiving to God. Catholics believe there’s much sense in ecclesiastical art, so we’ve always been generous in underwriting lovely churches — this was especially true of Catholics who lived centuries ago and who, though poor by today’s standards, took pride in making the house of God a real house, not just a barn.
In the Middle Ages peasants contributed to the erection and maintenance of their cathedrals. Some labored in stone and brick, others hauled lumber, some prepared meals for the workers. The best architects and stonemasons vied for the honor of constructing magnificent churches. In many towns construction lasted decades, sometimes centuries, and much of the labor was donated.
In this the people followed scripture. Recall that God ordered the Jews to build a magnificent temple in Jerusalem (2 Sam 7:13). Jesus commended the poor widow for contributing to the upkeep of the temple (Lk 21:2). All of this argues in favor of the churches that some people disparage. Remember: Jesus is God and is entitled to worship, and worship can be enhanced through magnificent surroundings. We are spirit and body, and the body has senses, and it is reasonable to make use of those senses in worship. One way to do that is to use finely appointed churches.
I recall visiting the impressive parish church in Mount Angel, Ore., a small town settled by immigrants in the 19th century. They erected what may be the loveliest church on the West Coast. Its intricate wood carvings and stunning ceiling reminded me, as no bare-bones church could, that the greatest beauty found on earth pales next to God’s own beauty. This little-known church did precisely what good architecture should do — it raised my mind to God.
While praying there I was reminded how Paul Claudel, French poet, playwright, and diplomat, was brought back to the practice of the faith while visiting Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. The beauty of the building and of the liturgy brought to his mind the beauty of God. In some inexplicable way a mental stumbling block was removed, and he became again a fervent and pious Catholic.
Keep in mind that the construction of fine churches never seems to undermine contributions to the poor. In fact, the more generous people are toward God — and one way of being generous toward him is by praising him through great architecture — the more generous they are toward other people. Perhaps you have noticed that it’s almost exclusively the rich who complain about fancy churches, while it’s the un-rich who contribute to their building and upkeep, just as it is the un-rich who give the bulk of the funds which keep charitable causes afloat.
Karl Keating is the founder of Catholic Answers. This column is reprinted with permission from his book “What Catholics Really Believe — Setting the Record Straight: 52 Answers to Common Misconceptions About the Catholic Faith,” (Ignatius Press, 1995).
A church, a house of prayer in which the Eucharist is celebrated and reserved, where the faithful assemble, and where is worshipped the presence of the Son of God our Savior, offered for us on the sacrificial altar for the help and consolation of the faithful — this house ought to be in good taste and a worthy place for prayer and sacred ceremonial.
For this reason, bishops … should see to the promotion of sacred art [and] remove from the liturgy and from places of worship everything which is not in conformity with the truth of faith and the authentic beauty of sacred art.
Catechism of the Catholic Church, #1181, 2503