In one sense, Catherine R. Osborne’s American Catholics and the Church of the Tomorrow is merely an unpacking of the various levels on which American Catholics of the mid-twentieth century asked the question “What is a church?” Simple in its form, but decidedly resistant to easy answers, readers quickly understand the question as having distinct theological, sociological, architectural, and cultural dimensions (at least!). While the book traces many arguments across disciplines over five decades, the overarching thesis is fairly straightforward: Developments in Catholic Church architecture, which had their intellectual roots in the increasing professionalization of American Catholics and the ascendance of architectural modernism within that profession, and which gained additional intellectual complexity and an increased institutional hearing in the Vatican II period, became the most literal venue in which Catholics debated questions about the Church in the modern world.
The cast of characters is motley, beginning with longtime Liturgical Arts editor Maurice Lavanoux and expanding to include theologians such as Harvey Cox and Teilhard de Chardin, architects like Le Corbusier and Pietro Belluschi, and usual-suspect Catholic intellectuals, for example Frederick McManus and John Courtney Murray. The thematic concerns addressed in pursuit of the book’s larger aim are similarly diverse, as is evident from the table of contents.
Chapter 1, “The Biological Paradigm,” traces how architectural modernists imported language of biological growth and development from a scientific context to their own, a development embraced and internalized by Catholic architects and later in Catholic theology. Readers accustomed to hearing or using phrases like “evolution” and “adaptation” in the context of Catholic belief and practice should be especially interested in this process.
In Chapter 2, “Modeling the Church,” Osborne illustrates (literally and figuratively) how these modernist architects went about “using the tools of their trade—the models, drawings, photographs, and other representations . . . to make their hoped-for changes seem at once natural, welcome, and inevitable” (50) to their ecclesiastical clientele, who were often enamored of medieval or baroque architecture and hesitant about change.
Chapter 3, “Theology in Concrete,” addresses developments in church construction that relied on technological advances in materials and which therefore became sites for contesting the limits of the sacred. As the author asks, “The spate of new materials . . . were certainly modern; did they have the capacity for sanctity?” (108).
Chapters 4 and 5, “Pilgrims of the Future” and “The Secular City,” detail how explicitly theological developments (most prominently those from Teilhard and Cox) reshaped Catholic imaginations about the location and role of churches in a rapidly changing modern world. Chapter 4 is certainly the most eyebrow-raising in the book, highlighting as it does theoretical designs for a chapel on the moon and John Courtney Murray’s spiritual use of LSD; chapter 5 follows the Catholic conversations about church construction and urban space, which again became a tangible way of discussing and discerning the relationship between the sacred, the secular, and the Church’s mission in the world.
The book’s final chapter, chapter 6, poses its titular question “What is a Church?” Here, the diverse subject matter of the first five chapters coalesces. As Osborne states, “In the debates over the design and location of liturgical space in the 1960s, the wide-ranging eschatology of Teilhard, Cox, and Vatican II came home, turning questions about the future, the far reaches of the universe, the redemptive presence of God in the city and in the Church as a whole, into the framework within which Catholics debated the minutiae of folding walls, new carpets, portable furniture, and laypeople’s distance from the altar” (218).
As may be apparent from the preceding paragraphs, American Catholics and the Church of Tomorrow is relevant for many ongoing discussions in the history of American Catholicism and in Catholic theology. Potential readers should know that, even if one were to find Osborne’s framing and interpretation somehow lacking, the wealth of anecdotes, illustrations, and archival material on display in this book are by themselves worth the cover price. As it stands, this book makes indispensable contributions to twentieth-century American Catholic history, the ongoing contestation of Vatican II’s legacy, and contemporary conversations about Church architecture and Catholic life. To participate knowledgably in these requires knowing the major players, their most influential ideas, the history of those ideas, and the ironies of their unfolding, all of which the author skillfully interprets for readers.
Such a work shines in the hands of our symposium’s top-notch scholars, and our contributors each take the book as a starting point for compelling conversations about the legacy of the histories addressed in it.
Stephen Schloesser places the book’s narrative in conversation with scholars of secularity, including Owen Chadwick and Charles Taylor, asking whether American Catholics’ attempts to bring sacred space and secular concerns into harmony may have, ironically, hastened the closing of an immanent frame.
Rebecca Berru Davis draws our attention to contemporary realities in American Catholicism, wondering whether the drive toward aesthetic development in Catholic architecture in the twentieth century, along related developments in ecclesiology and worship, provide adequate models for a twenty-first-century church in the midst of new financial and demographic realities, and whether church leaders care to try.
Peter Cajka asks a fundamental question which is often avoided: Does the biological paradigm capture the nature of reality? In his ambivalence between admiration for undoubtedly progressive advances and concern about the real suffering experienced after these developments, Cajka works to resist the allure of the twin dangers of cynicism and naiveté which are so recognizable to contemporary scholars of the Catholic twentieth century.
Lastly, Massimo Faggioli, so often himself a prominent figure in debates over the meaning and legacy of Vatican II, highlights important links between the history Osborne has narrated and contemporary efforts to put that history to use in the Catholic Church, probing the distance between the future these figures imagined and the present visions fighting for prominence.
By tapping into such a specific topic, American Catholics and the Church of Tomorrow becomes relevant for a broad set of questions being asked today. Osborne’s great accomplishment, in this sense, is to teach readers about technological advances in concrete (really!) and, precisely through this mundanity, help us better understand how Catholics thought about the Divine. The range of questions on offer in this symposium is a testament to the power of that strategy, and I’m so pleased to share these conversations with the world.