US bishops' new art and architecture document

US bishops' new art and architecture document

Charles M. Wilson

The following article examines the draft document on church art and architecture, which was presented for discussion at the plenary session of the Conference of US Catholic Bishops last November. The author is the founder of the St Joseph Foundation, a body established to defend the baptismal rights of Catholics to orthodox teaching and practice. The article (here edited) was first published in 'Christifidelis', the Foundation's journal.

The draft document on church art and architecture, titled Domus Dei (The House of God), was presented for discussion at the plenary session of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (NCCB) last November. When and if it is approved, it will serve as the successor to Environment and Art in Catholic Worship (EACW), published by the Bishops' Committee on the Liturgy in 1978.

EACW is known to most faithful Catholics as the driving force behind the needless and devastating renovation of countless old parish churches and the hideous design of thousands of new ones.

The NCCB and its staff have inundated us with what might be called teaching statements on every conceivable subject. Three major declarations were the pastoral letters on War and Peace (1983), the Economy (1986) and Women (1994). Each, especially the last, was preceded by lengthy and expensive "listening sessions" held throughout the country.

Despite their strong points, the first two were so tedious that it is likely that not one Catholic in ten thousand could muster the enormous mental energy required just to plough through them. The last process ended in such disarray that the final version could not even attract a majority on the Conference floor and the text was issued simply as a committee report.

As far as the draft of Domus Dei is concerned, the Committee on the Liturgy has announced its intention to continue discussions and to seek comments from other interested parties during the next few months, including an on-line discussion over the Internet in January. Upon completion of this process a final draft will be presented to the bishops for their decision.

The November draft is lengthy (2155 lines of text) and, if complemented as planned with illustrations, it will be a hefty piece of work. It is proposed to divide the work into four chapters. The first chapter presents theological reflections on liturgical art and architecture in general and establishes the premises for the subsequent chapters. The second chapter discusses the design of a church for celebrations of the Liturgy of the Hours, the Eucharist and the other Sacraments as well as other devotional practices. The third chapter outlines possible methods that can be employed by a parish that is entering into a construction, restoration or renovation program. The final chapter addresses notions of art and artists.

Superfluous document

An overriding question one must first ask is if Domus Dei is necessary or even useful. In one sense it could be regarded as superfluous in light of the number of papal and curial documents already published. It should be noted that the framers of the draft foresee its eventual publication, not as a general decree of the NCCB, but rather as a non-binding statement.

Nevertheless, despite the express declaration that Domus Dei "offers pastoral suggestions" and "is not particular law for the United States" it is likely that it will be promoted as a body of norms similar to its much heralded, though misleading and often erroneous predecessor, Art and Environment in Catholic Worship.

One must also ask if the draft is timely in view of the movement which has taken place around a third revision of the Missale Romanum and the promulgation of a probable revision of the Institutio Generalis Missalis Romani. Prudence suggests that Domus Dei be delayed until stability in the typical editions is realised.

The draft is presented as an entirely new document rather than a rewrite of the 1978 document. However, the numerous references to EACW in the footnotes betray a desire to "canonise" this seriously flawed statement, which, as noted above, never received the required support of the full body of bishops.

Environment and Art in Catholic Worship (EACW) was a big mistake that led to terrible consequences for parochial and other churches and chapels. We honestly should admit that. Implying that EACW was a meritorious document by referencing it so generously in Domus Dei is a mere perpetuation of the worst mistakes and bad taste of the 1970s. Similarly, references to other statements issued by the Bishops' Committee on the Liturgy such as Music in Catholic Worship and Liturgical Music Today are equally inappropriate due to the defects in the original statements. Music in Catholic Worship and Liturgical Music Today also contained serious distortions of Papal and curial documents on matters of music.

The draft cries for more work, if not wholesale re-writing, and needs to exhibit a greater objectivity in the application of universal norms. The treatise reeks of a bias toward certain American fads that were launched without sufficient study and sensitivity to the needs of the Christian faithful at worship. Its over-reliance on Environment and Art in Catholic Worship, Music in Catholic Worship and Liturgical Music Today, which themselves distorted the documents of the reform, does not serve the Church well. Its intellectually dishonest interpretation and application of universal norms are not hopeful signs for a statement intended to guide Catholic Americans rather than misguide them.

While the liturgical establishment might be disappointed, it would be more prudent for the NCCB to issue no statement at all rather than another filled with such distortion.

The Saint Joseph Foundation can be contacted at 11107 Wurzbach, #601B, San Antonio, Texas 78230-2553, tel + (210) 697-0717, http://www.st-joseph-foundation.org/stjf-newsletter.htm

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