One of the great tragedies of recent times is that we have lost the sense of the beautiful. We have become so focused on the practical that we are no longer concerned with the beautiful. What is beautiful is thought to be only one’s opinion. After all, beauty is in “the eye of the beholder.” Some of this attitude has also made its way into the Church, especially when it comes to the building of churches. The Catechism attempts to correct this attitude by reminding us that the buildings that Christians construct for divine worship ought to be seen as “not simply gathering places but signify and make visible the Church living in this place, the dwelling of God with men reconciled and united in Christ” (CCC 1180). In other words, the church buildings ought to be beautiful.
Everything that exists shares in the transcendental properties of truth, goodness and beauty. It is God who has each of these absolutely so that each experience of one of these properties can be a path to knowledge of Him. This is why philosophers have always thought them to be objective and not dependent on anyone’s opinion. Certainly in a fallen world we can struggle to recognize them, but that does not change the fact that they are not merely someone’s opinion. In a culture that is dominated by the image, it is the beautiful that holds the most promise of leading us to God. It is through beauty that we can be led to truth and goodness.
St. Thomas defines beauty as “that which when seen, pleases.” At first glance this seems to be supporting the idea that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” But what St. Thomas means by “seen” is in the intellectual sense—as in grasped. The fact that it must be “grasped” reminds us that beauty is in the object and not in the “eye of the beholder.” To further explain beauty, he defines its three constituent elements as integrity, due proportion and clarity. Integrity means that there is a wholeness in that a thing has all that it should have. Due proportion refers to an inner harmony so that all of its various parts fit together to make the whole. It also refers to a thing being proportionate to its purpose. Finally, clarity or radiance is related to the other two in that it is a measure of the object’s ability to communicate its wholeness and proportionality to us and revealing what it is and what it is meant to be. While most people could not define these three elements, they still refer to them when they perceive that something is “missing something” (integrity), looks like it should be something else (due proportion) or simply doesn’t look like it should (clarity).
So then Catholic churches are beautiful only to the extent that they reveal what is going on in them. In other words, a church is beautiful when the theology that underpins the architecture is true. This theme of what makes a church beautiful is taken up in Cardinal Ratzinger’s book, Spirit of the Liturgy. His point mainly is that because the Liturgy itself is a work of God and is meant to reveal a heavenly reality it cannot change. What can change are the externals (like the architecture and décor of the church) which serve to amplify and clarify these heavenly realities. The church building ought to serve as a sacramental reality. Like all sacramental it should refer to the past, the present and the future.
First, it recalls and fulfills the temple by revealing the continuity between the Old and New Testaments. It is a continuation of the Temple where there was sacrifice and the presence of God. This is why the altar is always the centerpiece of the church. The altar reveals what the church is for—the re-presentation of the sacrifice of Christ. Without an altar you do not have a Catholic church. It is also why the Tabernacle should be situated inside the church building and right behind the altar. If the Tabernacle is stuck in some far away chapel, the reality of the presence of God receiving our sacrifice is more difficult to detect and there is a subtraction of its overall beauty.
The Christian church buildings were meant to be a continuation of not just the Temple, but the Synagogue as well. The synagogue was the place of verbal prayer and scripture reading and teaching. This is why the ambo is set off from the altar. The Word remains enshrined in a place of honor. One difference is that synagogues faced Jerusalem because it was regarded as the place of God’s earthly presence while churches faced east. This is because the Church has always interpreted Psalm 19 as representing Christ as the rising sun. This is meant to reveal the cosmic dimension of the liturgy and the belief that the Lord will return from the East. It is also why prior to Vatican II the people and the priest both faced the same direction—they were both anticipating and praying for Christ’s return when we will all participate in the Liturgy of Heaven fully and not in sign. This understanding clearly was lost once the priest faced the people. Once this meaning is no longer grasped we begin to see churches in which the people sit around the altar in some fashion, facing each other.
The great churches also have pillars and walls that were decorated with flowers and ivy. This is meant to serve as a reminder of the Garden of Eden when the entire world was God’s Temple. God created the world and gave it to man as a space of worship. It is also meant to be a foretaste of what is to come in the “New Heaven and New Earth.”
Finally, the church building ought to be so decorated as to give us foretaste of our heavenly future. This is why we find statues of the saints within the sanctuary itself. The statues of Our Lady are usually situated somewhere near the front on the right side of the altar. She is the Queen of Heaven and Earth that sits at God’s “right hand arrayed in gold” (Ps 45). All of the statues portray the saints not as they might appear in history but as they might appear in their heavenly glory. There also ought to be depictions of the angels as well to remind us of all the members of the Church Triumphant that join us in each liturgy.
Obviously there is much more that can be said and should be included with the architecture and decoration, but the overall point is that the goal of church buildings ought to be beauty. If you want to increase Mass attendance, build beautiful churches. Insofar as the architects depart from the three aspects of beauty that Aquinas mentions, they will fail to convey to the people the magnitude of what is going on. As Dr. Denis McNamara says in his book Catholic Church Architecture and the Spirit of the Liturgy, “..good liturgical architecture ought to be like good preaching. It should attract and please the uneducated, edify and educate those who bring grater knowledge and delight the specialist who is capable of deep contemplation.”