Five Questions with Catherine Osborne

Benjamin J. Wetzel

The Cushwa Center is pleased to celebrate a book publication by one of our former fellows (and former RiAH blogger), Catherine R. Osborne, who is now visiting assistant professor in the department of theological studies at Loyola Marymount University. American Catholics and the Church of Tomorrow: Building Churches for the Future, 1925-1975 was published in April by the University of Chicago Press.  I recently asked Catherine to elaborate more on her work.

BW: Briefly, what is the book about and what are its major claims?

CO: When I was working on the book and people asked me what it was about, I had five or six answers of varying lengths, depending on how interested I thought they actually were.  The three-word answer is "Catholic modernist architecture," but that's not really true.  First of all, it's not about architecture, exactly.  It's an intellectual and cultural history of mid-20th century approaches to Catholic worship space (which includes but is not limited to church buildings).  Because basically everyone sees ideas about church spaces as intimately linked to concepts of the Church, the book is also, therefore, about ecclesiology in this period, which includes the runup to and immediate aftermath of the Second Vatican Council.  And finally, it's about how mid-20th century American Catholics forecast and imagined the church/Church's future.  Some of that was quite practical: trying to figure out the height of the sanctuary steps if you were giving out Communion to people standing rather than kneeling, for example.  But some of it was more visionary.  What kind of churches would be suitable for a moon base?  What might LSD teach us about eschatology?  How could we make worship spaces that expressed the relationship between the "sacred" and the "profane" that's developed in Vatican II documents like Gaudium et spes?  I originally set out to write a book about architecture, but it ended up being a book about how 20th-century American Catholics thought about change and the future, as refracted through the way they thought about their worship spaces.

As for "major claims," there is a foundational claim that is not unique to me.  By the mid-20th century, evolutionary thought, broadly conceived, had become deeply embedded in every single academic and professional discipline, such that everyone with a good formal education (and a lot of other people too) was almost incapable of not seeing reality in fundamentally evolutionary terms.  I think that's just generally true.  But the book argues more formally that it was true of people formed as professional modernist architects, and that they then went out and made the case to their clients that the church building needed to adapt and evolve (i.e. to change), because everything needed to adapt and evolve.  That's just how the world works.  And what's especially interesting to me as an historian of theology is that simultaneously a lot of theologians are beginning to make the same argument about the Church itself, and the architects and theologians end up reinforcing each others' claims that the most important thing is not to get every worship space right; the most important thing is to have a stance or orientation towards a future of constant change.

This answer is already not "brief," but a few more specific contributions I see the book making: First, nearly everything written about modernist Catholic architecture has been either flat-out polemic, or is by architects, architectural historians, and liturgists who are arguing for a normative aesthetic of one kind or another.  I have my own feelings about aesthetics, but I very definitely wanted to uncover the thinking of this period and to keep the focus on that, and to do it in a generous rather than a suspicious way.  Second, in keeping with the theme of depolemicization, I revisit two theologians (the Catholic Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and the Baptist Harvey Cox) who were staggeringly, enormously widely read during the 1950s-70s, and who have since mostly fallen out of the Catholic academic theology canon and tend to get talked about very dismissively.  (On a personal note, I'm not a big Teilhardian, but I was surprised at how well Cox's The Secular City holds up.)  What got people so excited about these guys?  What effect did they have on worship space?  And third, I argue that if you want to understand why high modernist church architecture looks the way it does (all the concrete) you have to understand why architects and liturgists saw the new building materials and techniques of the 20th century as not only technically exciting, but liturgically and theologically significant.  I wanted my humanist readers not to be able to skip the paragraphs about engineering; you need to understand how it works in order to understand why people felt it was liturgically and theologically significant.  I'm not sure other people will necessarily think so, but to me, the chapter on concrete is the most important in the book.

BW: How does the book speak to issues of interest to readers of this blog?

CO: I would say that aside from the specific historical contributions (to the intellectual and cultural history of the Vatican II period especially), I wanted to think more generally about how religious people with strong secular, professional identities navigate both their religious and professional lives.  Most books about Catholicism--and I would venture to say about most religions--focus either on the experience of religious professionals (including laypeople whose primary work is "religious"--for example, Commonweal editors) or on the religious experiences of a more generic "laity" that have a variety of occupations.  But there's a kind of double consciousness that develops when you have a strong professional identity.  In this case, I was interested in how architects and artists (many of whom were Catholic) understood what they were doing when they built or thought about building Catholic churches or making Catholic art.  If you're trained as a modernist architect or artist, you're specifically trained not to copy visual elements or layouts from the past.  Rather, you're supposed to think the entire problem through from the beginning, and to create a building/work which is perfectly adapted to its time, place, and function, which means you need to understand all three of those things.  It's a very intensive process.  (And not coincidentally, it has a lot in common with what professional liturgists and theologians were doing in the runup to and aftermath of Vatican II.)  So: how does this strong self-image change how you relate to the Catholic Church and its clergy?

BW: I think it's safe to say that architecture is not on the radar of most historians.  In your view, what can scholars gain from sustained attention to the built environment?

CO: I'd say that "attention to the built environment" is a better term for what I do than "architectural history."  There's not a whole lot of it in the text of the book, but I read and thought a lot about space and place theory while I was researching, because I wanted to think about the way people emotionally relate to their spaces, how they interact with them, and what they want from them.  That includes what architects want, but also what clients and congregations want.  The physical look of the building, the strictly-speaking-architectural-history part, is necessary to write about, but what really excites me as a historian is figuring out the desire that's encoded in that look.

Of course, that desire isn't always singular.  One reason why this isn't only an intellectual history is that I love the moment when someone's theory meets reality.  You can have this beautiful church in your head, but you need to pay for it, and the roof can't leak, and you have to reconcile all the different ideas everyone has about what exactly "gathered around the altar" means for what kind of pews you should have.  The arguments people have in those moments are so revelatory about what really matters to them.  Specifically regarding the implementation of Vatican II--if you're doing an intellectual history of Vatican II, you can say what the documents said.  But when you look at people trying to build a building that responds to those documents, you're confronted right away with their ambiguities and silences, by all the decisions they punted on.

BW: Talk to us about your periodization: why did you choose 1925-1975, and what do scholars see differently when they focus on these years rather than on the typical "interwar," "postwar" or "Cold War" frameworks?

CO: The specific years are a little fuzzy, actually.  In the first chapter in particular I go pretty deeply into the 19th century, to the origins of modernist architectural theory.  The opening anecdote for the introduction is set in 1917.  The Liturgical Arts Society, on whose archives I built a lot of the original research, is formed in 1928.  But I picked 1925 because that's the year of a big, multi-year dustup in Commonweal between a number of modernists and anti-modernist architects (and their sympathizers), which I take to be the moment when a number of trends which had been stirring in a few Catholic individuals begin to coalesce into something like the beginnings of an organized movement for modernist architecture.  Nineteen Seventy-Five is also a little fuzzy.  Maybe I shouldn't admit this, but there's no real single endpoint to the book.  Somewhere around 1972-75, the big explosive debates that happen in the immediate aftermath of the Council, and which drive the second half of the book, start to settle down.  By 1980 they've coalesced into what I think of as the postconciliar settlement on what a "post-Vatican II church" should be like.  Things stay fairly stable after that until the big traditionalist backlash gets going in the late '90s.  So it made sense to stop somewhere in the mid-to-late '70s, and 1975 happened to be the date of the last church that's mentioned in the book, so I went with that.

The second part of that question: I do think that specific short timeframes have their own qualities and characteristics.  The 1950s really are different from the 1970s or from the 1920s in terms of American life and in terms of Catholic concerns.  But I am interested in what you might call early adopters, the few stubborn visionary types who push ideas forward until one day you turn around and they're conventional wisdom.  As a historian of American Catholicism and of Roman Catholicism generally, I see Vatican II as a big, important moment in a longer process, and I wanted to trace some of that process, with attention to the special characteristics of smaller periods of time.

BW: What advice can you give about the publishing process?

CO: I didn't think there was an obvious home for this book; most of the presses that do great work with American religious history don't do art books, and while my dissertation had several hundred photos, I was afraid that if I tried to place it with an architectural history press, it wouldn't be read by religious historians.  I was a first-time author and I had a big, complicated project with a lot of moving parts.  So I consider myself lucky to have met an editor who was genuinely interested in the book's potential.

My best advice, overall, is to find someone who wants you to write the book you want to write.  It was important to me that my editor be hands-on, which meant he or she had to understand and support what I wanted to do--blending religious history, which doesn't usually have a lot of pictures, with the visual arts.  Tim Mennel, my editor at Chicago, has a background in the history of urban planning, so he knew a ton about the specific history I was writing about in the second half of the book, and he was excited rather than put off by the interdisciplinary work I was doing.  (He was also extremely patient for three years while I ripped apart my original dissertation structure, did a lot of new research, and put the entire thing together again in a completely different order.)  I can't say enough about him.  Well, I do wish the book had 300 photos in color.  But within the constraints of the real world, I can't say enough about either Tim, or the staff of the press, who've uniformly been fantastic to work with.