The "Catholic Difference" and Ecumenical Architecture

(As Director of Notre Dame's Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism, I'm pleased to say that Cushwa staff and friends will be contributing to RIAH once a month, beginning with a post on her current research by our postdoctoral fellow, Catherine Osborne. As a former contributor to this blog, I have long admired its vibrant intellectual community, and I am delighted that the Cushwa Center will be contributing to it on a regular basis. --Kathleen Sprows Cummings.)

Catherine R. Osborne

I spend a lot of time meditating on that classic topic of American Catholic historiography, the "Catholic difference." It's an especially challenging question for me since the particular Catholics who are the subjects of my current project -- mid-20th-century modernist architects, artists, and critics -- often weren't quite sure themselves what difference maintaining an identity as a Roman Catholic made. Typically well-educated in non-Catholic graduate schools (although a few did attend the University of Notre Dame or Catholic University), and adhering to the norms of their professions, they argued over and over that it was these qualifications, not their religious convictions, that merited their employment. They routinely shared their workplaces and neighborhoods with non-Catholics, finding that they had more in common with (for example) their architectural partners than they did with the Catholic clients who looked askance at modernist aesthetics. Their political and aesthetic concerns and interests, in general, tracked very well with those of other educated American professionals of their time.

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." [1] 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
The second model, which received attention both from fantasists and from real builders in the 1960s, gave a central role to Catholic control of a space nevertheless hospitably shared with others. Unlike the first model, this envisioned coexistence under a single roof; but also unlike the first model, it gave Catholics a gatekeeper role. Italian architect Mauro Paolo Wolfler, for example, proposed a "Church of the Encounter," (above) published in Liturgical Arts in 1969. Wolfler's design was a monumental answer to the question of how Christians might worship together in a way that acknowledged division while promoting unity. He envisioned an enormous sphere perched atop a flattened cylinder. The latter, divided into five wedge-shaped churches for Catholics, Orthodox, Lutheran, Anglican, and Reformed Christians, would have provided access (through separate doors) to a series of ramps spiraling up towards a central shared platform. Worshippers in the five churches were to be invited to walk up the ramps, "symbolizing the Christian Churches, which are divided despite their common origin," until they met their confreres on the vast platform suspended in the echoing cosmic space of the sphere, and jointly confronted the shape of the cross at its center. So, Wolfler wrote, Christians could "meet, stay, and pray together," after having engaged in a pilgrimage upward from separated space. This vision of equality, however, was brought into question by a theological commentary attached to the design, which noted that "the separation between one sector and the other expresses the Catholic consciousness of the partial state in which these [other] groups are situated from the ecclesial viewpoint." While the Christianity of the "separated Brethren" had "validity," the Church of the Encounter became, in this view, a place where Roman Catholic assessment of others' acceptability shaped access to and use of the space. [2]

Submarine "Bea," Courtesy Mark Mills Papers, Special Collections, California Polytechnic State University.

The third model, which came to prominence in the later 1960s, found some Catholics arguing that multifaith space could expand the possibilities for transcendence, not descend into incoherence, as long as it was capable of flexible transformation. California architect Mark Mills' fantasy design for the BEA, a submarine devoted to "marine research, exploration, and development" as well as to ecumenical understanding, included a large storage area for "all the articles required by ministers or priests using the chapel." (See above.) The great wealth of supplies would make it possible for the chapel, undecorated except for its use of the sea itself, visible through fourteen great portholes, to serve as a backdrop for "scientists, theologians, 'tourists,' etc" to "learn to appreciate each other as they learn more about the sea." And "from both experiences they learn more about God." [3] Mills's submarine had a Catholic origin, and was named after a Catholic ecumenist; but his allocation of the same space to all comers suggested a different kind of "encounter" from the one posited by Wolfler's design. Free-flowing and more or less uncontrolled, it suggested that Catholics had as much to learn as to offer, and that in any case all confessions and faiths needed first and foremost to learn from the natural world in which the submarine chapel would be immersed.

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.

[1] See Kevin Schultz, Tri-Faith America: How Catholics and Jews Held Postwar America to Its Protestant Promise (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).

[2] Walter M. Abbott, S.J.; Mauro Paolo Wolfler; and Gustavo Galeota, S.J., "Church of the Encounter," Liturgical Arts 37, no. 2 (February 1969).

[3] Mark Mills, "A 'Batoid' Peace Ship," Liturgical Arts 40, no. 1 (November 1971).


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