Catherine R. Osborne
Yet just when I am ready to give up on the idea of Catholic difference altogether, I always remember that few of my subjects, despite their frustration with what they perceived as the Church's hidebound aesthetics and slowness to internalize the theological insights and liturgical reforms of the 1950s and 1960s, ever moved definitively away from a strong Catholic identity. (Reading through their letters as they lament yet another commission lost to someone who will do a "more conservative" job, I sometimes wonder why they didn't all convert en masse to Methodism; but they didn't.) As they designed churches and church fittings, they struggled with the meaning of their dual commitment to professional values and to Catholicism, but maintained that both commitments mattered, and were capable of integration.
One place I look to meditate on mid-century Catholics' negotiation of their own similarity (to other Americans, to other Christians, to members of other religious bodies) and difference (from all those groups) is to interest in ecumenical or multi-faith or inter-faith worship spaces. These have been generating some scholarly interest in the last few years; for example, see some of the articles and books mentioned in Courtney Bender's collection of examples at Reverberations. As Bender points out in her introduction to the "portal," these spaces are a tough design assignment: "unlike chapels, churches, synagogues, and mosques—all of which are designed for particular ritual activities and draw on or speak to specific theologies and religious histories—multi-faith spaces must make it possible for individuals or groups with diverse theologies, rituals, and symbols to pray."
Ecumenical or multi-faith spaces, in other words, call on architects to determine what is distinctive about the needs and desires of groups, and what is common and shared: to make interventions into the question of difference and similarity. So one of the things I hope to learn by looking at them is how architects and their supporters understood themselves as Catholics in relationship to members of other faiths. I'm still working through all the variations in these ideas. But so far, I am particularly interested in the sociological question of how different spatial arrangements model preferred power arrangements between groups. In mid-century Catholic designs for ecumenical or multi-faith space, I see three basic models of spatial approach to this question. One posits equality in difference; one prioritizes shared space, but at the cost of equal access; and one aims to transcend difference.
The first, and earliest, model, found Catholics defending their right to distinct spaces, equal prominence, and equal access. Catholics like Maurice Lavanoux, the editor of the New York-based journal Liturgical Arts, were torn between a growing sense that an ecumenical meeting ground would be a good idea, and their suspicion that many designs represented Protestant hegemony in a new form. The Air Force Academy chapel and the Brandeis University Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish chapels were and are the best-known efforts to come up with a design solution for "Tri-Faith America."  Brandeis allotted equal space and therefore weight to all three "faiths," regardless of percentages of students and national prominence; in Colorado, Catholics and Jews were relegated to smaller, lower-ceilinged basement spaces while Protestants enjoyed use of the soaring upper chapel. In letters written in the late 1950s, Lavanoux strongly preferred the Brandeis approach, seeing a separate but definitely equal Catholic space as the baseline option.
|Mauro Paolo Wolfler, Model of a Spherical Shrine, GRCA 01/56, Courtesy University of Notre Dame Archives|
|Submarine "Bea," Courtesy Mark Mills Papers, Special Collections, California Polytechnic State University.|
It's this last model that has proved most popular in contemporary manifestations of multi-faith architecture. It's also the one that raises most sharply the question of whether it is worthwhile maintaining a "Catholic difference" at all. Wolfler's Church of the Encounter stressed the ecclesial availability of salvation within Catholicism (even if individual members of other groups might indeed attain to salvation.) But Mills' chapel had a strong eschatological flair, one that posited the final disappearance of ecclesial distinction through mutually transformative encounter. What, then, was the Catholic difference? Why bother making a space that accounts for distinctive liturgy at all?
Without giving a full answer here -- this post is already very long! -- I want to point to Catholic eucharistic theology as a primary factor in ecumenically-minded Catholics' continued adherence to the Church. This is true in the strict sense that many Catholics both before and after the Council have seen access to the Eucharist as the primary connecting point between themselves and the Church. But it's also true in the looser sense suggested by Mills' redirecting of visitors to the submarine chapel from events going on within the chapel to the sea outside. A eucharistic theology of presence linked the specific activity of the Mass to the larger project of welcoming God's sacramental presence in the world. Being Catholic might not make a person, or a group, better or more likely to be saved than members of other communions or faiths. But it did provide a rationale for continuing to provide spaces that accommodated eucharistic presence, even if my Catholic subjects were increasingly seeing themselves as on a mutual pilgrimage with their neighbors.
 See Kevin Schultz, Tri-Faith America: How Catholics and Jews Held Postwar America to Its Protestant Promise (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).
 Walter M. Abbott, S.J.; Mauro Paolo Wolfler; and Gustavo Galeota, S.J., "Church of the Encounter," Liturgical Arts 37, no. 2 (February 1969).
 Mark Mills, "A 'Batoid' Peace Ship," Liturgical Arts 40, no. 1 (November 1971).