This summer, Catholics mark the seventh anniversary of Pope Benedict’s motu proprio, Summorum Pontificum, which granted unrestricted access to the traditional Latin Mass. Father Alexander Lucie-Smith, writing for the U.K.’s Catholic Herald, offers an excellent reflection on the many fruits of this motu proprio. One point in particular resonated with me:
Summorum Pontificum, over the last seven years, has pointed us towards the importance of beauty. Ugliness in the ecclesial setting, is, I hope, I think, in retreat. Beauty has a theological and spiritual role to play; so does ugliness, but not in a good way; the former is essential, the latter to be resisted at all costs. Summorum Pontificum has been an important weapon in the arsenal of all those who want to resist the tyranny of ugliness and banality.
Is ugliness “in retreat” in our churches? Well…yes, we’re making progress, but there’s still work to be done. I’ve often thought about the surprising resilience of banal art, music and taste in so many Catholic parishes. I think it’s fair to say that society as a whole nowadays has rejected the iconoclastic wrecking ball tendencies of the 60s, where historic city buildings were leveled to make room for parking lots and ugly, soul-less cubes. Restoring old warehouses, residences, and neighborhoods is the cool thing to do. New life has been breathed into some of Milwaukee’s historic cream city brick factories, pharmacies and warehouses and now are among the hippest places to eat or have a drink with friends. Popular home remodeling shows like Rehab Addict focus on the restoration of historic houses to uncover their original glory. The host, Nicole Curtis, often bemoans how the original molding and other fine details in older houses were covered up or destroyed in the 60s and 70s. So she restores as much as possible in these homes and then sells them at a much higher price. Makes sense. People today appreciate quality and beauty.
For a decade or two, beginning anew (with the help of the wrecking ball) was the trendy thing to do. I think it was a sign of the hubris of the time, which looked at the “stodgy” past with scorn. Milwaukee’s beautiful Pabst Mansion was itself within a hair’s breadth of being leveled and the space converted into a parking lot. An eleventh hour reprieve saved the home, and yes, Milwaukee’s reputation. Now, we’ve seen a 180 (thankfully) and are doing whatever we can to save, salvage and restore anything that is old, beautiful and historic, which brings me back to the question of Catholic churches.
While I think we’ve moved beyond the era of modeling our churches after the saucer section of the Starship Enterprise, there’s still much work to be done in terms of ridding ourselves completely of the accretions of the 60s and returning to our high-culture and artistic roots. What we could use is a Rehab Addict for Catholic churches. After all, why aren’t we embarrassed by the ugly, forty year-old carpeting still clinging to our historic church floors? Why not do something about the low-quality and architecturally inconsistent makeshift platforms which jut out obtrusively into the nave of the church? (See our own Cathedral of Saint John the Evangelist for an example of this.) Why not toss the chairs and re-install the original pews? Why not jettison the polyester vestments and pastel banners that look better suited for a nursing home or preschool art-room than a Catholic church? Why not dust off the cobwebs on the broken up altar rails in church basements and reinstall them in the churches? Why not bring back authentic, timeless sacred music like Gregorian Chant and polyphony?
In short, why not restore good taste in our churches? It’s a very Catholic thing to do.