Renovation of Churches

Author: William Worden

SACRED MUSIC Volume 117, Number 1, Spring 1990


One of the most visible and surely most controversial effects of the Second Vatican Council is the radical restructuring of existing churches, many of considerable historic and artistic merit. No action can stir up bitterness and create division within a parish more quickly and deeply than the announcement of plans to renovate the church. In the dispute that so often arises, both sides appeal to documents from the council, the post- conciliar period and from local bishops' conferences. Opposing positions both claim justification in legislation and decrees. But these official statements need a clear reading and interpretation.

For example, the "Third Instruction on the Correct Implementation of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy," issued by the Congregation for Divine Worship on September 5, 1970, directs that "...all the churches should be given a definite arrangement which respects any artistic monuments, adapting them as far as possible to present day needs." A little thought about the syntax of that statment makes it clear that the preservation of artistic monuments is given priority over adaptation to present needs. A check of alternative translations into English gives no reason to alter that interpretation.

Perhaps the most telling statement issued from Rome is the relatively obscure circular letter, "Opera artis," sent to the presidents of the national conferences of bishops by the Congregation for Clergy on April 11, 1971. That letter addresses specifically the care of the Church's artistic and historic heritage, and contains the following: "Disregarding the warnings and legislation of the Holy See, many people have made unwarranted changes in places of worship under the pretext of carrying out the reform of the liturgy and have thus caused the disfigurement or loss of priceless works of art." That same letter directs that "...bishops are to exercise unfailing vigilance to ensure that the remodelling of places of worship by reason of the reform of the liturgy is carried out with the utmost caution."

Finally, one is justified in deriving conclusions about the policy of the Catholic Church by observing the treatment of historically and artistically important churches in the direct control of the Vatican. In those churches, including the major basilicas of Rome, virtually no alteration has been carried out in response to liturgical reform, and, in fact, in some cases Mass is still said at the pre-Vatican II altar, with the priest facing away from the people. This is not cited to advocate that practice, but to demonstrate the conservative approach of the Vatican itself to liturgical renovation.

It seems to me that there is a simple answer to the apparent conflict between statements in various documents, and that is that directions concerning the appropriate character of worship spaces do not necessarily apply equally to new buildings and existing artistically and historically valuable churches. One searches in vain for "noble simplicity" (called for in "General Instruction of the Roman Missal") in the basilicas of Rome, the baroque churches of southern Germany, or in the Victorian churches of the United States, but such churches should not be substantially altered. "Noble simplicity" is obviously an expression of a design ethic of our own time ("Less is More"), and as such may well be a valid goal for today's architects--or perhaps for the architects of twenty years ago, architectural theories being subject to change. Any attempt to apply the contemporary idea of "noble simplicity" to older buildings inevitably attempts to apply the design philosophy of our own day to the accomplished art of another, and that attempt is always a philosophical anachronism.

Admittedly, the documents cited above, especially the circular letter, are of lesser standing than the constitution on the sacred liturgy. But used as guidelines for interpreting the more important documents, and given that advocates of "radical renovation" find supportive material in what is called "generalization," we are free to point out that interpretation leading to radical renovation is directly at odds with the interpretation of the Vatican itself, as demonstrated in writing and in practice.

In conclusion, one must respect the past and its art as a heritage given to us to use and to preserve. New structures and new expression in all the media must reflect the need, the style and legislation of the present time, but to destroy the past in the name of liturgical reform is not only contrary to the legislation itself but to common sense as well.