The anti-chapel

I recently completed an application form for a certain Catholic conference. One question I was asked in it was whether there was any part of the Church’s teaching that I would like to see changed. Here is my answer to that question, slightly tweaked. Being essentially a form-answer, it is very compressed; but perhaps some people will find it interesting:

Is the anything in the Church’s teaching that you would like to see changed?

Well, to the extent I understand the formal teachings of the Church, as summarized in the Catechism, I agree with them; and what I don’t fully understand, I humbly obey.

But there are of course many things the Church does which seem to imply and communicate her view of things, but which do not amount to formal teachings. And some of these I find concerning.

One example of such things is her architectural practice. I will work here from the example of Buckfast Abbey, since I visited it last week. The main Abbey is extremely impressive. But behind it is a 1960’s extension, the Blessed Sacrament Chapel. This contains a large impressionistic mosaic of Christ with a loosely patterned background, and (which is far worse) many entirely or almost entirely formless and random pieces of decoration. It’s an early post-modern building.

One can understand what’s so damaging about a church’s having a post-modern chapel by very quickly considering the recent history of architecture and the idea of beauty.

Mediaeval thinkers saw earthly beauty as a reflection of the harmony and order of heaven, the glory of the angelic choirs, and ultimately of the beatific vision. In other words, they thought that there was some analogy between earthly beauty and heavenly beauty; and that therefore earthly beauty fed the soul and nourished the mind, making the latter more adequate to reality. This was why they spent so much time and money on beautiful churches and cathedrals. (For similar reasons, Music was (and is) a higher faculty in the mediaeval universities. After all, music has a unique capacity for providing us with inspiring moments of transcendence; and mediaevals thought that understanding the patterns thereof would give us an insight into the divine mind. This view of the academic subject of Music has perhaps proved a little optimistic; but the mediaevals were certainly right about the nourishing effects of beauty).

Yet after the Reformation, with the loss of the Analogy of Being, the full import of these ideas was unsustainable in Protestant cultures. For just as God’s justice need be nothing like our justice, so earthly beauty wasn’t necessarily linked to heavenly beauty; and so it didn’t necessarily open our minds to anything higher or more ultimate than us.

Now, the value and role of beauty in Western civilization was so fundamental, so deeply embedded, that it long continued to be prized. Yet its cherished role in Western culture could not survive indefinitely once its philosophical underpinnings had been destroyed: and indeed by the 18th century, Protestant thinkers were resorting to a shallow, utilitarian assessment of the value of beauty. They described it as inspiring (in no deeper sense than that it made us feel good, and accept reality as we saw it), and as good for the health. Hence its value was comparable to that of an amusing game, or of fine food. This logic, corrupting Catholic as well as Protestant Europe, eventually led to the gaudy, ignoble degeneration that was Rococo.

But if beauty was nothing more than one Nice Thing amongst others, the pursuit of it could hardly justify the vast sums that were still being spent on great cathedrals and the like. Therefore Modernists and their immediate predecessors viewed beauty, already conceived in such a dessicated way, with suspicion. Was it not just one of those superstitious illusions which prevented Science and Reason from clearing the slums, and ensuring human progress? Having a limited conception of reality, they came to think that an honesty, a cold, ‘realistic’ assessment of ‘how the world really was’, would be more useful; that buildings that showed their workings, and had minimal ornamentation, would better open the public’s eyes to reality.

But modernism did therefore retain an idea of an objective beauty: the idea that certain patterns nourished the mind better than others, making it more adequate to reality. For objective features of buildings such as obviousness of function (with drains on the outside, etc) were to help rid our minds of the sentimental distortions that a focus on the older kind of beauty fostered. (This reasoning was plausible in its early years precisely because Baroque had degenerated into frippery by then).

But modernism failed in its own terms. It did not stop people longing for lavishly expensive forms, little related to function, that they found immediately uplifting; it did not make people wiser or more peaceable. (Indeed Scruton has observed that graffiti sprayers in depressed urban areas gravitate towards defacing the modern buildings around them, as if by instinct; pre-modern buildings they are least likely to spray).

Postmodernists, then, observing this, rejected the idea of objective beauty altogether: that is, they responded to modernist architecture’s failure not by making things beautiful again but by denying that the mere viewing of, and living amongst, certain objective forms could nourish people’s minds. The near-formlessness of their pieces is intended to provide a vehicle for private perceptions minimally encumbered by the straight-jacket of form. (Hence it’s the art of a post-rational philosophy: it leaves us all imprisoned in ourselves, unable to say anything anyone else could understand).

And where there is form, it is child-like, or trite. This is because, if an architect believes that there is no objective beauty that nourishes the mind, then it is only natural for him to try to make the objective features of his building nourish the mind in other ways—e.g. by making ideological points. And the chief of these points is egalitarianism: the equal validity of all perceptions. For, there being no beauty, there can be no truth either; egalitarianism follows—and indeed is the premise and message of all postmodernist art.

Disturbingly, then, the Church has embraced a style that rejects the Analogy of Being, truth, and hierarchy. If one thing could have prevented my conversion, it would have been recent Church architecture.

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