When we begin the design of a Catholic church, we usually get the request, "We want a church that looks like a Catholic Church." But what does that mean? Surely there are thousands of examples of how Catholics have built sacred spaces that one could refer to. But why do we build them the way we do? How does one design for that?
As with all projects we work on, we begin with the patronage of the parish. So let us consider the following patronage:
The Immaculate Conception
The dogma of the Immaculate Conception offers numerous opportunities for an architectural expression to be uniquely Catholic. What follows are some thoughts about why the Immaculate Conception is a very appropriate idea to build a Catholic church around.
At Baker Architects, the design of a specifically “Catholic” church centers around what John Henry Newman and Hans Urs von Balthasar call, “The Incarnational Principle.” By the Word becoming flesh, humanity is joined with the divine through Christ’s incarnation. In other words, by God becoming “enfleshed” in Christ, He revealed to us the true nature of our existence, that we are creatures consisting of both body and soul, and, furthermore, that we are children of God made in His image.
When God revealed himself to us by becoming flesh, He reaffirmed His original affirmation made in Genesis when he decreed that all He had created was “very good.” The Incarnation allows for the sacramental use of physical things to stir our imaginations and help us to come to know, feel, and adore the transcendence of God, the Eternal Word. Through the "enfleshment" of Christ's via the incarnation, God allows us to know him through our shared nature, our humanity. In this way, God, at some level, is knowable to all, even the poor and the unlearned. When we solely rely upon rational and cognitive means for knowing God, we abandon the body of Christ and take only the head, metaphorically speaking. Aquinas calls this per modus congintionis, by mode of cognition or conceptual thinking. Through the body, the flesh, and His humanity, God allows for us to know Him through our connaturality with Christ, or our co-nature. Aquinas calls this per modus inclinationis, by mode of affect or connatural knowledge. As a both/and proposition, it is the dynamic interplay between these two modes of knowing God that makes beauty, and that is what a Catholic Church, being one of the largest sacramental signs we have, is supposed to do.
Being that Catholicism is so firmly rooted in the principle of the Incarnation, the world can serve as a sacramental sign of God’s grace. In this way, Catholics live in a world that is enchanted. So it is easy to understand why Catholic churches are embellished, adorned, ornamented, and “enfleshed” beyond mere functionality and form.
However, scripture offers another clue for how a Catholic church becomes “Catholic.” The story of the Transfiguration offers more answers. Here God reveals even further the true nature of Christ transfigured, glorified, and radiant. At no point is Christ seen as an abstract idea, form, or notion. No, Christ is always physically present. Interestingly, the Transfiguration also includes references to making a “dwelling” place with God. Here, Peter, James, and John wanted to create a dwelling place, a tent, and stay with Christ in his glory. For Catholics, all of creation can be transfigured so that it radiates the glory of God, and when viewed in this light, all things can be transfigured into the sacred through Christ. Likewise, Catholic sacred architecture is one of the key ways we express this transfiguring and glorifying nature of God. This is the Catholic Imagination, our shared mode for seeing the world.
“None of this is made possible if it were not for Mary’s Immaculate Conception and her wonderful fiat that sprung forth from it.”
A Catholic church is not just another building, it is not just a worship space, it is a sacred space.
— Stephen Baker, PhD(c), AIA
Stay tuned! Next, week I will discuss the dynamic interplay between the formal and figural architectural languages that must exist in Catholic churches so that they intrigue and entice the Catholic Imagination.
Want to learn more about what makes a Catholic Church, Catholic?
This April, we are offering a free webinar
(please note, this is free educational service we are offering and we will not try to sell you anything. I dislike those kind of webinars too!)