Just a decade ago, few observers of the Catholic architectural scene would have predicted a comeback of traditional-looking churches like those currently being constructed in parish communities across the United States. Until then, many architects and design professionals maintained that buildings as rich in historical detailing as those that served the pre-Vatican II church were beyond the means of most Catholic clients. More important, they thought that dressing new structures in period costume did not square theologically with the Second Vatican Council’s demand for authenticity in every aspect of liturgical prayer.
Not everyone subscribes to the council’s basics, of course. And not everyone sees the architectural implications in the same way. Some have concluded that overzealous interpretations of the aggiornamento heralded by the council, and a tendency to think that the new liturgy required new spatial accommodations, misled many parishes to assume that there was no room in the contemporary place of worship for artistic conventions from the past. But to renew or reinvent itself, the church did not need to erase all physical traces of its past.
In recent years, this view has taken physical form in church architecture. Not only has dissatisfaction with the status quo grown. But anticipation of changes to the texts and texture of parish liturgical prayer has also spawned a revival of traditional-looking churches to replace the ubiquitous, Modernist structures of the previous half-century. Perhaps the same impulse within the church that has caused such changes in ritual practice as the decanting of the blood of Christ from “cup” to “chalice”—both literally and in the revised translation of the Roman Missal—is also behind the return to traditional architecture.
Armed with Pope Benedict XVI’s Christmas address to the Roman Curia in 2005, these proponents of the change (the neo-traditionalists) argue that the strictly forward-looking or Modernist architecture prevalent since the council embodies a “hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture” that is inimical to the church’s role as conservator of sacred memory.
Fortunately, the neo-traditionalists stop short of proposing a one-size-fits-all program for converting the physical environment of the liturgy back into a former version of itself. This point is best illustrated by two examples, the first a modification of the conciliar model, the second a departure from it.St. Michael Church
The goal of parishioners at St. Michael Church in Wheaton, Ill., soon after a fire in 2002, was to erect a new, more symbolically potent structure they hoped would be “unmistakable as a Catholic church.” Aided by Ruck/Pate Architects of Barrington, Ill., and a construction budget as lofty as its aspirations, the parish succeeded in creating a structure (2006) that weds the principles of sound liturgical theology to its a desire for something nobler than the typical “drywall church.” The design preserves the assembly’s essential unity and participatory character, the various modes and stations of Christ’s appearance in ritual and the latent presence of baptism in every sacramental action.
In plan, the major worship setting is familiar, a fan-shaped space ringed by areas for devotional and social activities. A large immersion font on axis with the altar dominates the setting’s entrance bay, not far from twin reconciliation chapels.
The building is distinguished by the manner in which the upper registers of its enclosing shell have been made to mimic the effect of a longitudinal space terminating in a half-domed apse—like those churches with which Catholic architectural history is replete. To this have been added stenciled truss-work and finish detailing in multicolored wood and marble that lend the interior volume a measure of luxury. The building’s exterior features brick and cast-stone facing materials that hearken back to an era of masonry churches marked by permanence. Its ecclesiastical identity is amplified by a Gothic-style window and door surrounds and by an imposing bell tower.St. John Neumann Church
Similar details characterize the external form of St. John Neumann Church in Farragut, Tenn., (2008), pictured above right, inspired by the Romanesque churches of Normandy. From the hardy stone masses of its major body parts to the terracotta tiling of its roofs, St. John’s embodies the qualities of rootedness, strength and durability, which its architects (Cram & Ferguson Architects of Concord, Mass.) and client-parish impute to Catholic Christianity itself. More striking than the building’s sheer monumentality, perhaps, is its cruciform plan—a spatial configuration largely absent from liturgical design since Vatican II because of its fracturing effect on the assembly. Here, however, the attenuated expanse of the building’s nave and the strict delineation of precincts for lay and clerical function seem consistent with the overall goal of formality.
The interior presentation is enhanced by a full complement of stained glass windows and masonry finishes and by the kind of freestanding and applied sculpture likely to remind some older visitors of the churches of their youth.
As if to accentuate its departure from standardized models of postconciliar church-building, the design of St. John situates musicians in an old-fashioned choir loft at the rear of the nave, as opposed to a site more integrated with the assembly seating. The design makes no provision for the baptism of adults by immersion.
It also breaks with the widespread practice of placing the tabernacle somewhere other than at the heart of the sanctuary, the rules for which are clearly outlined in “Built of Living Stones” (2000), the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ directive on church architecture. In St. John Neumann Church, the reserved Blessed Sacrament is afforded optimum visibility behind the altar, where it is doubly tented beneath the domes of a metal tabernacle and marble ciborium.
Whether buildings like these are compromises, aberrations or the first fruits of a full-blown “movement” in American Catholic church design is still uncertain. Yet church architecture always raises the question, What is a church? Is it a temple in which God lives? A tent within which a pilgrim people assembles? Or many other things? And what does a post-Vatican II Catholic church look like if the answer is “both” or a variant of “all of the above”?
View a slideshow  of new traditional churches.