Modern Roman Catholic churches: A superficial reason to stay Protestant?

Yesterday after work at the Bibliothèque nationale de France (Site Richelieu) I wandered through St-Germain l’Auxerrois. This is a church dedicated to St Germanus of Auxerre (readers of Jack Whyte will know the character), a Gallic bishop of the fifth century (yay fifth century!). The church of St-Germain l’Auxerrois is a fantastic piece of Gothic architecture, with one of only two Flamboyant Gothic porches in Paris (the other is that of La Sainte Chappelle whose interior is Radiant Gothic; this is a fifteenth-century style of Gothic arthictecture) — this is also the style of the Tour St-Jacques at Châtelet in Paris. The outside of St-Germain is clearly Flamboyant Gothic:

To compare, here is Tour St-Jacques:

So that should set the scene well enough.

The interior of St-Germain l’Auxerrois is not all Flamboyant Gothic. I only took a brief look, but there is some woodwork that is clearly Renaissance, and the nave looks to be an early stage of the Gothic era. Several pillars also look Renaissance, and there are portions rumoured to be Romanesque. Like all good Gothic churches, it has a rose window:

What the traditional architecture of St-Germain shows is the ability of these different styles of classical church architecture to join together and form a united whole. None of it feels awkward. None of it feels out of place. It all works, whether one type of Gothic or another, whether Romanesque or Renaissance.

This is the sort of beauty and grandeur that would have attracted me to the Roman Catholic Church a century ago.

Today, alas, visiting St-Germain l’Auxerrois makes me repeat this quote from a wee piece of mine entitled ‘The Allure of Eastern Orthodoxy‘:

If Jesus handed on his teachings to His Apostles, and these traditions were handed on down the ages, they would help provide the key to proper interpretation of the Bible.  And this is what you have in the Eastern Orthodox tradition.

In the West, we used to have it with Rome and the Anglicans, but both of these institutions have reck lessly dived into the world of modernity as modernity flounders and sinks.

Today, where the transepts cross the nave, to align with Vatican II requirements, a Holy Table has been placed in the church besides the High Altar in the chancel. This sort of disruption of ecclesiastical architecture is frustrating, but I could maybe live with it. However, they have not chosen to produce something beautiful infused with the history and tradition and weight of the glory of God and his Saints and his Church on the new post-V2 furniture.

I didn’t have my camera with me yesterday, so I can’t show you the hideousness. But it does not match. It is beaten metal of silvern colour with what looks like an eye wrought in it from golden colour. A square table. An awkward lectern. This is what the Roman Catholic faithful approach every Sunday morning to take in their mouths the Most Sacred Body and Blood of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ?

At first glimpse, this is a superficial reason to stay Protestant, isn’t it? I mean, what about my other areas of disagreement — ‘St’ Joan of Arc, church governance, transubstantiation, justification, Marian dogmas, the cultus of the saints, and so forth? Church architecture and furniture? Really? Has the Scholiast really wandered that far down the traditionalist position?

To me, this new furniture that is jarring and matches NOTHING within sight is symptomatic. The Church of Rome has been trying to reform herself for centuries. What ‘reform’ itself is has changed over time, of course, and meant something different to eighth-century St Boniface (saint of the week here) as to thirteenth-century St Francis (saint of the week here) as to sixteenth-century Luther and Erasmus as to the men of Vatican II in the 1960s.

I believe in some of her 1960s reforms. But the liturgical repositioning and cutting down has allowed a swathe of hideous modern art to flood the churches of Europe in a way that does not integrate with the artistic integrity of their setting. Furthermore, these hideous monstrosities (visible amongst Anglican churches as well) fail to communicate the beauty, truth, and power of the Triune God in any meaningful way. All they can capture of our God is that he is enigmatic …

… in an age when ‘enigmatic’ is about as far as most people are willing to concede to defining the divine, shouldn’t we go a bit farther?

Gothic architecture makes my heart sing. I am too inadequate an art lover/critic to explain what La Sainte Chappelle does to me. But it is powerful and profound. And it was meant to do this to me. As I have discussed, Gothic architecture is meant to bring physical light to us as a manifestation of the uncreated light of the Trinity as well as to draw our eyes ever upwards in a search for the invisible God, symbolically in the ‘heavens’. Modern church architecture, whether a barren Megachurch(TM) auditorium or frankly monstrous Roman Catholic post-V2 furnishings does not, cannot, do this to me.

Where is the glory of God for a lost generation? Where is the splendour of the resplendant Son of God for my thirsty soul?

Finally, what St-Germain l’Auxerrois says to me is: We used to know who we were and Whom we worshipped. But now we are chasing culture along with the Protestants and have forgotten.

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5 thoughts on “Modern Roman Catholic churches: A superficial reason to stay Protestant?

  1. I am told by my reformed evangelical architect friend that I (and I would guess you as well) should read/own this book:

    http://www.amazon.com/Till-Have-Built-Jerusalem-Architecture/dp/193223697X

    He says that it is a bit “Thomistic/Aristotelian” for his taste (his way of trying to meet me as one in the “Augustinian/Anselmian” tradition according to him), but that he agrees in general with it, and says it is thought provoking that even the way we design cities with churches and civic buildings promoting beauty says something about our worldview.

    • Thanks for the book recommendation.

      One point I failed to make was that the abandonment of beauty is part and parcel of a contemporary capitulation to the forces of modern(ist) western culture currently going on in the Roman Church and certainly amongst the Anglicans as well. It is a symptom of having embraced a way of approaching God and worship that is outmoded and that doesn’t mesh with tradition, either ….

  2. Reblogged this on Apologia and the Occident and commented:
    This post on church architecture is well worth a read, as it represents a microcosm of the modernist tendency that has hit Western Christianity…one of the things that attracted me to historic-minded Scripture through tradition churches was the idea of transcendence in art. We are losing it in the West…

  3. Seems like similarly ill-advised post-Vatican II updates to the music would be another reason to stick to Protestantism (although not all branches, obviously!). I haven’t seen this first hand, but my Catholic friend tells me many Catholic churches have adopted modern praise choruses wholesale, but it’s worse cause they don’t have a feel for the style. Not that I’m hating on all modern music, but they are so easy to do badly if you don’t get that they were meant for voices and extra instruments to fill in the boring bits. In many cases you’d be better off musically sticking with Anglicans or another high churchish Protestant denomination.

    • Good point, Elissa! Once in Edinburgh, I thought I’d check out Mass at this beautiful late-19th-century Catholic church with really lovely paintings and architecture. And then the music made me slip out the back just after the Creed. And it wasn’t wholesale adoption of evangelical choruses but purpose-written Novus Ordo music that was trying to find some middle ground between Palestrina and evangelical choruses, I think.

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