Debating church beauty

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A northside view of the altar in the Church of the Incarnation. Photo courtesy of John Rabaey.

Last week, an article critical of what it aptly called the “liturgical architecture bathroom crusade” appeared in The University News. The article was well-written, beautifully articulate and skillfully organized; I don’t think I can hope to match the author’s diction or command of argument. However, I disagree with the author on two accounts, and I’d like to contribute my two cents to the dialog as a liturgical musician.

First, I agree with the author of last week’s article that the posters, titled “What’s the Deal with Church Architecture” and “Zeal For Your House,” respectively, are indirect but pointed critiques of the Church of the Incarnation.

Yet the debate the posters attempt to rouse, and which last week’s article calls “frivolous,” is extremely important. The Church needs beauty. As Pope Benedict points out, our relativistic culture is unlikely to be converted by logical argument; in the present age, beauty is what touches the heart of the believer and unbeliever alike. Beauty uplifts the soul, it communicates truth and it raises us towards Heaven.

As a freshman with memories of May 1, 2018, the day I decided to come to the University of Dallas, I can honestly say that one of my largest reservations about UD was a perceived lack of architectural beauty. Strange as it may sound, when decision day rolled around, it was hard for me to evaluate the excellence of the students, of the Core curriculum, and of the intellectual attainments of the UD. What I remembered was how difficult it was for me to pray in the drab Church of the Incarnation. Thus, my personal experience reflects Ratzinger’s observation in a stark negative: a shortage of beauty in the church made me doubt the value of the UD education.

As a liturgical organist, I’ve become involved in many of the debates which last week’s article preferred to avoid. I’ve been in arguments about the appropriateness of Gregorian chant, Protestant hymns, and St. Louis Jesuit songs in the Mass. I’ve discussed whether chanting the Gloria in a plain setting manifests our praise to God in the same way as singing it to the majestic melodies of the Mass of Wisdom. I’ve even witnessed heated arguments about whether “Mary, Did You Know” was heretical. The answers to these questions do matter, though. If our favorite hymns really are heretical, we need to stop singing them, lest we lead souls astray. If the Mass of Wisdom really is the worst possible way to praise God, we should find a better way, even if it means singing the plain-chant Gloria.

It’s tempting to dismiss these questions as unimportant, or to equivocate about the answers. I agree that, as the Universal Church, we should not allow ourselves to be divided over the relative length of the vertical and horizontal axes of a building, and we should recognize that the answers to such questions depend on specific situations; they are not positive moral precepts. Yet if we insist that “beauty is not in the eye of the beholder” — if we continue to claim that there is an objective standard in beauty — then these debates are not mere quibbles, but important discussions which will impact the Church’s ability to worship and, as Ratzinger reiterates, its ability to evangelize. These discussions are important. We cannot allow the pursuit of objective beauty in the liturgy to be eclipsed by the other issues the Church faces. And if we, students at the greatest Catholic university in America, don’t discuss liturgical beauty, who will?

I’d like to make three more points. First, to the individual or individuals behind the “Zeal for Your House” campaign, please make yourselves known. It’s very difficult to have a conversation with a person or persons who remain anonymous. Second, to the author of last week’s article, thank you for a provocative and insightful opening to this discussion. I agree with most of your points, especially about civility and the beauty, or lack thereof, of the Church of the Incarnation. Finally, to all readers: I, for one, am interested in discussing, dialoguing or debating about liturgical beauty. You can reach me by email at jrabaey@udallas.edu. Let’s have a conversation.

1 COMMENT

  1. I’ve chanted “Holy Spirit, come into my life” with a church filled with hundreds of like-minded chanters. I’ve chanted “Veni Creator, Spiritus” at Church-filled ordinations. Both chanting groups, filled with the love for Jesus God Almighty, were moving beyond telling.

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