THE BLOG
02/28/2013 04:13 pm ET Updated Apr 30, 2013

Will the New Pope Help to Improve Catholic Church Architecture?

When my architect father designed our new parish church in suburban Philadelphia, it was understood that he would adhere to the three natural laws of church architecture -- verticality, permanence and iconography. These were the years before the Second Vatican Council, when Catholic churches had not yet discovered churches-in-the-round, hot-tub baptismals or suspended-from-the-ceiling UFO crucifixes, the only major "sacred object" accent in otherwise blank, Walter Gropius-inspired "starting from zero" church interior that could easily double as a high school gymnasium or work out room.

My father designed a church that anyone could easily identify as a Catholic church.

In the 1920s and '30s, the American Catholic church had its own design style. Early liturgical movements in the country at that time made the crucifix a prominent feature in Catholic churches. In the decades before Vatican II, the American Catholic altar was relatively unencumbered with other images. The combination of altar, tabernacle and crucifix, minus saints and angels, stood in stark contrast to the interior of most European cathedrals. This oversimplification was really a precursor to modernism.

That modernism came to a head after the Second Vatican Council was convened to renew and invigorate the Church. While words like renew and invigorate have a positive feeling, that's no quite what happened.

The Council unleashed a storm that not only affected how Catholics worship, but the buildings they worship in. That windstorm produced a fair amount of architectural self destruction.

As a young 20-something agnostic, I was visiting friends in Boulder, Colo., and hadn't stepped foot in a Catholic church for several years. I came across a newly built post Vatican II church. It was a church in the round, reminding me of a book report I'd given in high school on "Inside the Space Ships" by George Adamski. I entered the church and barely recognized it as Catholic. A circular altar table with a plus sign surrounded by burlap banners with what looked like drawings by elementary school children: a yellow sun with long rays, a smiley face, some fish and a garden of buttercups. It seemed I'd walked into a day care center. I looked in vain for an icon, an old rusted statue of the Virgin, a portion of a fresco, but found nothing.

According to Michael Rose, author of "Ugly as Sin: Why They Changed Our Churches from Sacred Places to Meeting Spaces--and How We Can Change Them Back Again," the catalyst for the change was a duplicitous 1978 draft statement by the U.S. Bishop's Committee on Liturgy, entitled "Environment and Art in Catholic Worship."

Rose asserts that this document was "cunningly published in the name of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops," implying approval from Rome. But the Vatican II document, Sacrosanctum Concilum, which was cited in the draft statement as the reason for the "wreck-o-ovation," did not call for the wholesale slaughter of traditional Catholic Church architecture.

What Vatican II actually said was: "The practice of placing sacred images in churches so that they can be venerated by the faithful is to be maintained."

OK, so what happened?

Many rebel U.S. Catholic bishops apparently wanted to reshape Catholic churches into more people-oriented worship spaces.

This idea had actually been around prior to the misreading of the texts of Vatican II.

In 1952, there was a booklet published by the Liturgy Program at the University Of Notre Dame called "Speaking of Liturgical Architecture." Its author, a Father H.A. Reinhold, was a respected liturgist of his day. The booklet was a compilation of Reinhold's lectures in 1947 delivered at the University Of Notre Dame.

Reinhold, an advocate of the form follows function, campaigned for a fan-shaped congregation or a church in the round. Reinhold didn't get very far at the time, but his ideas lay dormant until the so called "spirit of Vatican II," became a catch word in the Catholic world. This seemingly benign phrase was used to justify everything in the modern Church from a more charitable attitude toward non-Catholics to the use of Raisin Oatmeal cookies at Communion time. The phrase also encouraged bishops and liturgists to start at Gropius's ground zero, forgoing organic change for the rough and tumble world of "let's just bomb Dresden and start from scratch."

This meant plain wooden altar tables rather than marble high altars with images of saints and angels; carpeted rooms; plain glass stained windows, potted plants in place of traditional Catholic artwork; small and nondescript Stations of the Cross that disappear into the walls; churches in the round resembling MTV soundstages; the elimination of altar rails and sanctuary lamps. Crucifixes were also replaced by wooden crosses or geometric plus signs.

Suddenly choir lofts were a thing of the past, as choirs were placed in front of the church alongside the main altar.

Hundreds, maybe thousands of churches worldwide were destroyed by the iconoclasts. In Philadelphia, a number of churches have fallen victim to the new design.

No matter where I travel, whether it's to Louisville, Ky., Vienna, a remote island in the Caribbean, Paris, Montreal or Quebec City -- I see revamped Catholic sacred spaces, cathedrals stripped bare, such as Louisville's downtown cathedral or even Thomas Merton's old church at the Abbey of Gethsemane.

When I traveled to Eisenstadt, Austria, and visited the so called Haydn Church of the chapel of Mercy Mountain church, a church decorated and embellished by Prince Nicholas III, I was shown a new addition, not far from the Haydn crypt. My tour guide, visibly embarrassed, pointed out the Reconciliation Room, a substitution for the centuries old confessionals. The white plastic and smoky glass construction framed with a few potted plants could easily have doubled as a men's room. Only the absence of flushing sounds set it apart as a space for contemplation. It reminded me of the hot tub baptismals I'd seen in some new churches where the constant gushing water makes the ordinary pilgrim (as Rose suggested) think of his or her bladder.

In 1831, Victor Hugo lamented the destruction of Notre Dame in Paris in his book "The Hunchback of Notre Dame." Hugo was not talking about the decapitated statues or injuries to the old queen of French cathedrals caused by the French Revolution, but to the grave damage that Notre Dame suffered at the hands of school-trained architects.

Hugo criticized the removal of colored glass stained windows, the interior which had been whitewashed, as well as the removal of the tower over the central part of the cathedral. Fashion, Hugo claimed, had done more mischief than revolutions: "It has cut to the quick -- it has attacked the very bone and framework of the art," he said.

Hugo called these school trained architects, slaves to bad taste and said they were guilty of willful destruction.