As our local parish continues a beautiful recovery project to restore the old high altar and sanctuary, we see in it a meaningful image that has contributed to our recent family discussion of the “monuments tradition” in Catholic thought.
The idea is essentially this:
Right faith must both engender and be accessible through certain enduring external objects, due to the very dynamism of Divine Revelation: God is One, has perfectly revealed Himself in Christ, and has entrusted that singular Revelation to His Body, the Church, which will endure until the end of time as an external, hierarchical society ascertainable by the senses.
Because this Church is therefore a community of faith visibilium et invisibilium, countless “monuments” may be found within: works of art, great writings, prayers, Scriptures, devotional objects, catechisms, liturgical forms, etc. may be found across the centuries of her earthly sojourn, springing out of right faith and leading to it. Indeed, the Saints themselves may in some sense be considered monuments of the divine work of God’s grace in the world.
Thus the Catholic monuments tradition: Certain external objects accord with right faith, expressing and begetting that same unity of faith in others simply by being what they are. The monuments both show and shape right faith.
Like beauty, divine truth is not located “in the eye of the beholder,” but rather in objective reality: conformity to what God has revealed in Christ. For this reason, the response of supernatural faith motivated by the authority of God Who reveals Himself is required of every human person. There is only one correct response, because there is only one revelation to respond to. “I AM,” says the Lord in revealing His Name to Moses, and “unless you believe that I Am He,” Christ tells us, “you will die in your sins.” (Jn 8:24)
Today, the bare notion that faith can be “right” can come as a startling claim to some: narrow, rigid, triumphalist, dogmatic, pick your adjective.
This is precisely why it can be so consoling (and revealing) to dwell upon the monuments – because they don’t care what we think.
Like the Church herself, the monuments are just there, and quite contrary to our modern sensibilities, we are under their microscope, not vice versa. That which has already been given in Christ continues to govern all ensuing ages, giving rise to monuments along the way. It is thus a healing remedy to submit ourselves to their reality – for the reflexive desire to subject everything to our own “developed understanding” dies hard (“Why did they do it that way? It would much make more sense to…”).
To meditate on the monuments tradition thus becomes a virtue exercise in pietas, the humbling recognition that a given object according with the Deposit of Faith requires a response of humility and gratitude, seeking to understand it, as it were “on its own terms.” In this way we grow in our broader submission to Christ and the objective content of His Revelation.
Conversely, therefore, any loss in the apprehension and submission to God’s objective revelation (the Deposit of Faith) will necessarily beget ambiguous monuments. These, in turn, will tend to damage right faith.
As a demonstrative exercise…
Guess how many of these are NOT Catholic churches:
Sorry if that was painful.
Now, if at any point you found yourself shaking your head in architectural bewilderment, or muttering something to the effect of: “That building is definitely not fit to house the Incarnate Lord of Heaven and Earth,” you would be correct. Indeed, you likely have a clear grasp of the above principles already. Unfortunately, only one of the pictured buildings is not a Catholic church.
The “ugly list” is at bottom; and while it’s easy to complain about modernist church buildings, and we could spend hours awarding prizes for the most revolting (just imagine the interiors… okay don’t) or discussing what penance is merited by the architects (in mercy mind you, not in strict justice), the point here is to draw attention to what is common to them all: Each brilliantly displays the genius of man and his architectural capacities, unmoored from classical principles of art (e.g., integrity, consonance, clarity) and theology (e.g., Incarnation, transcendence, hierarchy). This is precisely their defect.
In a word, their common aspect is ambiguity. Divorced from his ancestral heritage (or more accurately, self-orphaned), man must devise his own principles, craft his own symbols, assign his own meaning and purpose. The remedy is first to receive – then organically to build upon.
To draw the parallel still further: God’s objective revelation in Christ, entrusted to the Church, must extend to all – so that all may accord Him the grateful response of supernatural faith in return. And even amid the rubble and ruin of a faithless age, His divine edifice abides… even to the ending of the world.
…and bravo the restoration!
EXCERPT from Pope Leo XIII’s Satis Cognitum, on the Unity of the Church (1896):
…On the one hand, therefore, it is necessary that the mission of teaching whatever Christ had taught should remain perpetual and immutable, and on the other that the duty of accepting and professing all [Catholic doctrine] should likewise be perpetual and immutable. …For such is the nature of faith that nothing can be more absurd than to accept some things and reject others.
Faith, as the Church teaches, is ‘that supernatural virtue by which, through the help of God and through the assistance of His grace, we believe what he has revealed to be true, not on account of the intrinsic truth perceived by the natural light of reason, but because of the authority of God Himself, the Revealer, who can neither deceive nor be deceived’ [Vatican I, Dei Filius]. If then it be certain that anything is revealed by God, and this is not believed, then nothing whatever is believed by divine Faith. …‘Whososever shall offend in one point, is become guilty of all’ (Jas 2:10).
…It is then undoubtedly the office of the Church to guard Christian doctrine and to propagate it in its integrity and purity. But this is not all… There must needs be also the fitting and devout worship of God, which is to be found chiefly in the divine Sacrifice and in the dispensation of the Sacraments, as well as salutary laws and discipline. All these must be found in the Church, since it continues the mission of the Saviour for ever. The Church alone offers to the human race that religion – that state of absolute perfection – which He wished, as it were, to be incorporated in it. And it alone supplies those means of salvation which accord with the ordinary counsels of Providence.” (n. 8-9)
Ugly Church* List:
|1||Thebarton Community Centre in Torrensville, Australia (*not a church)|
|2||Cathedral of Christ the Light in Oakland, California|
|3||San Paolo Parish in Perugia, Italy|
|4||Cathedral of St. Mary of the Assumption in San Francisco|
|5||Church of the Most Holy Trinity in Vienna, Austria|
|6||Cathedral of Notre Dame de Créteil in Créteil, France|
|7||Church of Santa Monica in Rivas-Vaciamadrid, Spain|
|8||St. Francis de Sales Parish in Muskegon, Michigan|
|9||Señor de la Misericordia Parish in Monterrey, Mexico|
|10||Sait. John’s Abbey Church in Collegeville, Minnesota|
|11||Metropolitan Cathedral of Christ the King in Liverpool, England|
|12||Chapel of Notre Dame du Haut de Ronchamp in Ronchamp, France|
|13||Catedral Basílica Menor of Nossa Senhora da Glória in Maringá, Brazil|
|14||Catedral Metropolitana Nossa Senhora Aparecida in Brasília, Brazil|
|15||Iglesia de la Consolación in Córdoba, Spain|
|16||Guardian Angel Cathedral in Las Vegas, Nevada|
|17||Christus, Hoffnung der Welt in Donau City, Austria|
|18||Sainte-Bernadette-du-Banlay in Nevers, France|
|19||St. Patrick Church in Armonk, New York|
|20||Church Dio Padre Misericordioso in Rome, Italy|
|21||The Sacred Heart Parish in Northampton|