Symposium Introduction

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.



Spatial Crises

Nature-Grace, Vatican II, Immanent Frame

Catherine Osborne leads the reader on an exhilarating journey as she traces how American Catholics thought through issues of building churches between 1925 (in the wake of the Great War) and 1975 (conclusion of the Vietnam War). Step by step, she patiently traces the discourse as various dialectical oppositions are resolved or abandoned and new ones arise: continuity vs. discontinuity, eternal vs. temporal, dead vs. living, tradition vs. modernity, spirit vs. matter, sacred vs. profane, grace vs. nature, Church vs. city, sacred vs. secular. By 1975, one decade after the promulgation of Vatican II’s Gaudium et spes and the publication of Harvey Cox’s The Secular City, the half-century-old question of “how a church should look” had morphed into asking whether and why churches should be built at all. And as Osborne astutely concludes, from there it was a very small step from asking the question “Why a church?” to asking “Why the Church?”

Osborne provocatively suggests that the Vatican II era was experienced as a “spatial crisis” (184). Freestanding portable altars supplanted bolted marble (or faux) fixed ones, celebrants turned to face the people, congregational configurations shifted, choirs moved from invisible lofts to visible fronts, clear glass replaced stained glass and united interior with exterior, lighting and sound readjustments accommodated new set designs. Generally speaking, Osborne narrates an intellectual history of a theological paradigm shift from transcendence to immanence. One thrilling aspect of the journey is the parade of this history of ideas clothed in matter: first, brick and mortar; gradually, concrete and steel; eventually, plywood and throwaways. Osborne’s Catholics embark on a futurist journey and, as they follow the logic, they are led step by step to unintended consequences. When they finally do arrive, they seem to end up in a room with no exit—or perhaps an immanent frame.

Continuity vs. Discontinuity

Dead vs. Living

Tradition vs. Modern

Beginning with the “Biological Paradigm” (ch. 1), a fundamental opposition is set out between those who equate authentic churches with neohistoricist buildings (Romanesque, Byzantine, Gothic, Baroque) and those who want a “living architecture” for “living ritual.” Or, as architect Barry Byrne put it, the primary criterion should be a “vital and living” structure rather than a dead “anachronism” (25). Biological metaphors like evolution were employed to ground “continuity” of the “tradition” without enshrining “dead forms of that past” (28). French Dominican Yves Congar added theological heft to this inversion of neoscholastic eternalism by endorsing “fidelity” to the past rather than its “slavish imitation” (40).1 In “Modeling the Church” (ch. 2), as theories become embodied in physical models, architect Maurice Lavanoux contests “the old bugbear of ‘tradition’ versus the ‘horrible present, to say nothing of the future’” (64).

Immanent vs. Transcendent2

In “Theology in Concrete” (ch. 3), as discussion turns to new discoveries in technology and materials, the limits of redemption were in question. Was this world developed by concrete and steel, products of human hands, also capable of (using the French Jesuit Jean Daniélou’s term) being “sacralized”? (110). Invoking the ancient theology of apocatastasis, American Benedictine Aelred Tegels of St. John’s Abbey (Collegeville) argued that only the “best of modern architecture” could fully signify that apparently “profane” materials shared in “the vocation of all things to recapitulation in Christ” (111). In August 1962, two months before the opening of the Vatican Council and following astronaut John Glenn’s first manned orbit around the earth, Life magazine described the space age as “a world with the barriers down.” Osborne asks: “But what if the upheaval of the present, opening the way toward the future, was so vast that it would sweep away both Catholic churches and the Catholic Church?” (112).

This question of immanence and transcendence, perhaps itself worth imagining as a “spatial crisis,” evokes both the early twentieth century’s Roman Catholic Modernist crisis as well as the twenty-first century’s immanent frame. Here it is worth underscoring Aelred Tegels’s ecclesiological claim in 1961: a church needed to function “as ‘a sign, or sacramental’ that would help the assembled worshipers ‘situate themselves in salvation history’” (111). Three years later, the Vatican Council concurred: “Since the Church is in Christ like a sacrament or as a sign and instrument both of a very closely knit union with God and of the unity of the whole human race, it desires now to unfold more fully to the faithful of the Church and to the whole world its own inner nature and universal mission.”3

Spirit vs. Matter

Eschatology vs. Technology

Sacred vs. Profane

Grace vs. Nature

In “Pilgrims of the Future” (ch. 4), a 1960s American “obsession” with the writings of the Jesuit Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (d. 1954) provided theological undergirding for both hope in the future and a blurring of eschatological/technological boundaries. Teilhard’s early thought had dissolved the boundary between spirit and matter: “Matter and spirit: these were no longer two things, but two states or two aspects of one and the same cosmic stuff, according to whether it was looked at or carried further in the direction in which . . . it is becoming itself or in the direction in which it is disintegrating.” He described this realization as “having seen the disappearance of the alleged barrier that separates the within of things from the without.”4 As a result, the capacity for seeing with a mystic’s eye and the ability to “discern true reality at the heart of things rather than immediate surface” were central to his vision of a dialectic between matter and divinization. To “divinize does not mean to destroy but to sur-create” (123). Teilhard’s cosmic vision of holism led architects and artists to “overcome a lengthy history of dividing the sacred space of the Mass from the supposedly profane spaces of the world” (137). (One might also note here that this reimagining of the nature-grace relationship was central to nouvelle théologie, especially in the work of Teilhard’s Jesuit friend and defender Henri de Lubac.)5 Both pastors and designers began to think that visual contact with the outside world by means of clear glass windows “might enhance, rather than detract from, the liturgy of the altar” (142). However, this growing emphasis on the post-atomic “one-world community” began shifting the focus from the question of physical churches to the Church itself: “With interpersonal and political boundaries collapsing as humanity’s new sight pushed it toward the noosphere, did the Church have a role?” (144). Perhaps not surprisingly, Henri de Lubac had asked this question on the eve of the Second World War.6

Church vs. City

Sacred vs. Secular

In “The Secular City” (ch. 5), two publications in 1965—Gaudium et Spes and Harvey Cox’s The Secular City—envision the intertwined fates of the Church and the city. Departing from a long tradition of seeing the city as a profane site from which one needed to escape, the city now became a “site of God’s self-revelation and collaborative act with human beings” (157). Cox’s polemic argued against this longstanding divide between the “sacred” and the “secular,” a opposition he saw perpetuated by religion’s external material elements—like church buildings. One young Catholic woman summed up the porous and now collapsing walls: “Nothing is secular” (159, emphasis original). Between 1964 and 1970, the builders of St. Mary’s Cathedral in San Francisco decided against stained glass windows so that worshipers could visually grasp both the city vistas and sanctuary rituals within a single horizon. In 1965, architect Patrick Quinn advocated for an architectural trend that would no longer separate “the sacred from the secular, but sees the potentially sacred in all creation” (170).

Osborne concludes this adventure in ideas with a chapter title formulated as a question “What Is a Church?” (ch. 6). The question had been starkly posed in 1969 by Minnesota pastor Leo Howley, and thanks to Osborne’s painstakingly documented narrative, the question arrives (as in any good novel) feeling both logical and inevitable (184). Architect Robert Lawton Jones observed that the time had arrived for asking “fundamental questions”: “not what a church should look like, but rather, ‘What should a church be?’” (186) The conciliar mandate to promote “active participation” catalyzed renegotiations of space: communion rail barriers were removed, multipurpose worship spaces (mixing sacred rites and secular meetings) were constructed, and throwaway ecclesial objects were “created not to last centuries but weeks (or hours)” (193). Shopping mall chapels and home masses further blurred boundaries, a hybridization succinctly captured in Osborne’s evocation of a “TV-set top [used] as an altar” (195).

By April 1968 (a month that opened with the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.), advocates argued that “everything is sacred in its own way and that there is nothing totally secular” (205). It was a small step from here to American Catholic futurists proposing “the near-total elimination of church buildings” (247). And the question of whether there ought to be church structures at all led inevitably to the corollary question posed by Commonweal’s executive editor Daniel Callahan: “What is the Church?” (220). (Callahan left the Church not long thereafter.)7 What specific space did the Church occupy in a vast arena in which everything was sacred?

Looking back at this “spatial crisis” with the benefit of thirty-plus years of hindsight, I cannot help but compare its terms to those of Charles Taylor’s concept of the “Immanent Frame” as a hermeneutical device for explaining how A Secular Age works.8 We live within “an immanent frame” supported by “closed world structures” functioning as “unchallenged axioms.” Taylor argues that “the whole culture experiences cross pressures, between [on the one hand] the draw of the narratives of closed immanence and [on the other] the sense of their inadequacy.”9 The radical immanence of Cox’s Secular City had once seemed liberating in its vision of overcoming of the need for explicit references to transcendence. A half-century later, that immanence seems to be closed and incapable of referring to anything beyond itself. Taylor’s image of a closed system is yet another kind of “spatial crisis.”

Looking back in the opposite direction, somewhere halfway along Osborne’s 1925–1975 journey lies the mid-century “nature-grace” controversy at the heart of the nouvelle théologie. Henri de Lubac’s Surnaturel was published in 1946, the year following the end of the Second World War, the Holocaust, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki. De Lubac understood that the sheer enormity of 1939–1945’s human destruction demanded theological rethinking. However, just four years later, Jesuit authorities ordered the book withdrawn from Jesuit libraries and trade distribution. De Lubac also lost his faculty and editorial positions.10

Nevertheless, throughout the 1950s, de Lubac’s fellow Jesuit Karl Rahner continued to probe the nature-grace problem. Significantly, he framed the issue as a conceptual “spatial crisis” of two non-interpenetrating layers.

What was neo-scholasticism’s standard view of the relationship between grace and nature? . . . Grace is a superstructure above humanity’s conscious spiritual and moral life [whereas] nature is what we experience of ourselves without revelation, for this is nature and nature only. And vice versa, only nature and its acts constitute that life which we experience as ours. . . . The relationship between nature and grace is thought of as two layers laid very carefully one on top of the other so that they interpenetrate as little as possible. . . .

[By contrast,] we must see Christ as the center of the whole existing world and economy of salvation; we must show that the supernaturalness of grace does not mean that humanity in its “natural” being is a closed system complete in itself with grace as a pure superstructure which leaves what is beneath unchanged.11

Whether the “spatial crisis” is looked at from the perspective of The Secular City, the nature-grace problem, or The Immanent Frame, there is a recurring problematic: two opposed conceptual bodies are imagined competing for the same space, and the collapse of the two into one—or simply the elimination of one—leads to a one-dimensional conclusion. This is an inherent and necessary limitation of picture-thinking.12

Osborne concludes her story in 1975, a fitting year to end this modernist adventure. Although an oversimplification, the destruction of the Pruitt-Igoe housing complex in April 1972 has been seen symbolically as the end of postwar modernist dreams, both social and architectural. Three years later, the April 1975 fall of Saigon marked the bitter conclusion of America’s long conflict in Vietnam; it also catalyzed the collapse of the post-1945 New Left.13 That same year, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis entered the battle to preserve Grand Central Station from sharing Penn Station’s demolition fate a decade earlier. Amazingly, earlier plans to end-run Grand Central’s ground rights included designs by Marcel Breuer—the architect who designed St. John’s Abbey Church (Collegeville)—for an enormous modernist tower to be built in the allegedly free “air rights” space over the station. Kennedy Onassis spoke at a press conference held at Grand Central Terminal’s famous Oyster Bar: “If we don’t care about our past we can’t have very much hope for our future.”14 This turn to historic preservation after twenty-five years of urban renewal’s destruction points to the larger phenomenon of postmodernism. Four years later, Jean-François Lyotard would publish The Postmodern Condition (1979). Seminal events that year propelled four “strange prophets” into power: Pope John Paul II, Ayatollah Khomeini, Margaret Thatcher, and Deng Xiaoping.15 The journey to the twenty-first century—including postmodernism’s penchant for pastiche—was well on its way.

In that same 1975, Owen Chadwick, the towering Anglican church historian, published lines which later made a significant impact on me. Chadwick framed the question of “secularization” in sacramentalist terms: “Was this movement from unusual to usual a deprivation, so that if all the world is supernatural nothing is supernatural and everything is dis-enchanted? Or was it an insight, like seeing that because Sunday is a holy day all days are holy days, or that because an altar is a holy table for a holy meal all tables and all meals are holy?”16 In the 1990s, while thinking through Jacques and Raïssa Maritain’s attempts in the immediate post-Great War era to settle the tradition-modernity and sacred-profane dilemma, I found Chadwick’s distinction between deprivation and insight both inspiring and useful.

Two decades later, however—and especially in light of Catherine Osborne’s powerful narrative—I am not so sure. For fifty years, “futurist” Catholics—like the Maritains and then the American builders—had sought to escape the suffocating strictures of narrowly linked references and referents: for example, a neo-Gothic structure both embodies and refers beyond itself to sacred space. Defined “churches”—a “spatial crisis.” But perhaps this futuristic “movement from unusual to usual” (Chadwick) resulted in an unintended “spatial crisis” of its own—an immanent frame that foreclosed the possibility of (self-)transcendence. An immanent frame is incapable of sacramental pointing beyond the closed structures of concrete particulars here and now to other (or Other) possibilities. In short: the foreclosure of transcendence.

This uneasiness leads me back to underscoring the intervention of Benedictine Aelred Tegels back in 1961. As seen above, Tegels had anticipated Lumen Gentium in arguing that a church needed to function “as a sign, or sacramental that would help the assembled worshipers ‘situate themselves in salvation history’” (111). I am not entirely sure how to formulate the distinction that I only grasp dimly between Tegels and Chadwick. But Chadwick now seems overly optimistic to me in his presumption that, without “unusual” (sacramental) material objects, we can habitually perceive the sacred in the everyday—Flannery O’Connor’s “mystery” in the “manners.” By contrast, Tegels (as one might expect of a Benedictine), seems to insist on the necessary function of the “unusual”—on the necessity of the material altar both embodying as well as pointing beyond itself to an Other referent—if we are to maintain Chadwick’s conscious awareness that “all tables and all meals are holy.”

Catherine Osborne’s patient laying out and then unraveling of a series of dialectical oppositions has nourished growing doubts I’ve had in recent years about my own earlier “futurist” convictions. Whether she would share my growing ambivalence as a desired effect of her brilliant work I can’t say. But I hope she would.

  1. Yves Congar is likely quoting Jacques and Raïssa’s 1920–1922 polemic against “slavishly imitating the object.” See Stephen Schloesser, Jazz Age Catholicism: Mystic Modernism in Postwar Paris, 1919–1933 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2005), 150. For opposition to neo-Gothic imitation, see 163.

  2. Gabriel Daly, Transcendence and Immanence: A Study in Catholic Modernism and Integralism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980).

  3. Vatican Council II, Lumen Gentium, para. 1 (November 21, 1964), 1_lumen-gentium_en.html.

  4. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, “Discovery of Evolution,” in Heart of Matter (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1978), 25–28; in Teilhard de Chardin and Ursula King, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin: Writings (Maryknoll: Orbis, 1999), 40, 41.

  5. Henri de Lubac, SJ, Teilhard de Chardin: The Man and His Meaning, trans. René Hague (New York: Hawthorn, 1965); de Lubac, SJ, The Religion of Teilhard de Chardin, trans. René Hague (New York: Desclée, 1967).

  6. “In short, if all human beings can be saved through a religion that they unwittingly possess, how can we require them to acknowledge this religion explicitly by professing Christianity and submitting to the Catholic Church?” Henri de Lubac, SJ, Catholicism: A Study of Dogma in Relation to the Corporate Destiny of Mankind, trans. Lancelot C. Sheppard (New York: Longmans, Green, 1950), 110, translation altered; orig. de Lubac, Catholicisme: Les aspects sociaux du dogme (Paris: Editions du Cerf, 1938).

  7. Daniel Callahan, “Why I Left,” Commonweal, November 19, 2018,

  8. Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge: Belknap, of Harvard University Press, 2007).

  9. Taylor, Secular Age, 595.

  10. Stephen Schloesser, “Against Forgetting: Memory, History, Vatican I,” Vatican II: Did Anything Happen?, ed. David Schultenover (New York: Continuum, 2008), 92–152, at 129.

  11. Rahner continued: “The ‘definition of the created spirit is its openness to infinite being; it is a creature because of its openness to the fullness of reality: it is a spirit because it is open to reality as such, infinite reality. . . . For we experience our nature where we experience grace; grace is only experienced where by nature there is spirit. And vice versa, in fact, as things are, when spirit is experienced it is a supernaturally elevated spirit.” Karl Rahner (1950/1957), SJ, “Nature and Grace” (ch. 5), in Nature and Grace: Dilemmas in the Modern Church, trans. Dinah Wharton (New York: Sheed and Ward, [1963] 1964), 115–49, at 115, 116, 117, 123–24, translation altered; orig. Rahner, Gefahren im heutigen Katholizismus (Einsiedeln: JohannesVerl., 1950) and Natur und Gnade (Einsiedeln: Benziger, 1957).

  12. Stephen Schloesser, “The Unbearable Lightness of Being: Re-sourcing Catholic Intellectual Traditions,” Cross Currents 58.1 (2008) 65–94, at 83,

  13. Van Gosse, Rethinking the New Left: An Interpretative History (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005); Gosse, The Movements of the New Left, 1950–1975: A Brief History with Documents (New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, [2005] 2015).

  14. Angela Serratore, “The Preservation Battle of Grand Central,”, June 26, 2018,

  15. Christian Caryl, Strange Rebels: 1979 and the Birth of the 21st Century (New York: Basic Books, 2013).

  16. Owen Chadwick, The Secularization of the European Mind in the Nineteenth Century: The Gifford Lectures in the University of Edinburgh for 1973–4 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1975), 209.

  • Catherine Osborne

    Catherine Osborne


    Response to Stephen Schloesser

    There is so much in Stephen Schloesser’s generous analysis that I hardly know where to begin! Perhaps by saying that I’m gratified that he is not sure what to think anymore after reading the book. For I am not sure what to think either, and producing this unsettlement in others was one of my goals. I have felt for a long time that the analysis of this period, the immediate years surrounding Vatican II, has suffered hugely from people’s convictions of certainty. This was true at the time, when many people felt they knew exactly what should be done and how, and later, when quasi-historical narratives about “what happened” crystalized in large part based on the political-ecclesial convictions of the narrator. Whenever someone tells me about their memories or opinions of the post-Vatican II years, I’m reminded of the famous comment by the Catholic modernist George Tyrrell that those on the quest for the historical Jesus found only themselves.1 So one of my primary goals was to contribute to a close-up look, warts and all, at one aspect of those years: a group of people who, like many others, were alternately inspiring and troubling, trenchant in their critique of society and church alike while blinded by their own ideologies. “The Vatican II years” now seem to me to be not a story of heroes and villains, though there are a few of each, but mostly a story of people muddling through, trying to figure out what it all meant and what they ought to do about it. Several reviewers, both before and after publication, have mentioned that there’s not much of a conclusion to the book, and I think they’re right—and I think I mostly struggled with writing a “strong conclusion” because of my own strong preference for ambivalence.

    I am also especially caught by the question of immanence, a term of fundamental importance to the postmodern “traditionalist” architectural backlash that arose in (more or less) the 1990s and that continues to dominate church design today. I think it is true, as Schloesser says, that we should invoke the term “spatial crisis,” which I applied to the post-Vatican II-experience, to help understand what it is that postmodern traditionalists are worrying about when they worry about immanence and transcendence. Postmodern traditionalists have been deeply concerned to maintain the sense that a worship space is special, set apart, not like the ordinary spaces of our daily lives. In this, they continue the argument I describe in chapter 3, regarding whether concrete (etc.) should be used for churches (because it is part of our everyday world, which is also sacred because created) or not used (because it is part of our everyday world, and our worship spaces should remind us that the divine kingdom is not like the earthly kingdom). Whether or not this is “correct” is not an argument I wanted to have in the book itself; it wasn’t that kind of book. But I am actually quite grateful to Schloesser and to Syndicate for giving me the opportunity to reflect on it a bit here, outside the confines of the genre I was working in.

    I think it’s very much worth asking whether it is really true that “the radical immanence of Cox’s Secular City had once seemed liberating in its vision of overcoming of the need for explicit references to transcendence. A half-century later, that immanence seems to be closed and incapable of referring to anything beyond itself.” Is it really correct that the “immanentists”—who, if they understood Cox correctly, believed not that everything was secular, but rather that everything was sacred—are the people incapable of referring beyond themselves, or, I suppose, ourselves? (For I confess that when I actually sat down to read it, as opposed to reading what other people had said about it, I found Cox’s original book much more of a live option than I’d expected to. It has its period-piece elements, and shows all the signs of being written by an enthusiastic and very self-confident young man, but ultimately I found its vision of the divine wind blowing through the world to be strikingly vivid, contemporary, and more moving than anything else I read from the period except certain Vatican II documents themselves.)

    Maybe the problem in part comes because it is so hard for us to believe in a truly incarnational world, one where, as in the lovely Rahner quote Schloesser shares, the “layers” of creation and creator interpenetrate without either disappearing. “Immanence” and “secularity,” after all, aren’t words that refer to an absence of God, but to an abundance of divine presence. One of my favorite quotations in the book (and it must be among Schloesser’s, too, since he also quotes it!) is from the anonymous young woman who understood Cox’s point: “Nothing is secular” (159). Immanence doesn’t need, strictly speaking, to refer to anything beyond itself, not because the world is self-sufficient but because the world is already filled with God’s grace, present in every kingfisher and every particle of steel rebar. But nevertheless the entire concept of immanence, or as I’m starting to prefer, its synonym “incarnational,” does refer beyond itself. Something (or Someone) has to be immanent, has to be incarnate. That Person doesn’t wait for us, out there in the beyond, but comes to us, over and over and over again. That’s good theology, I’m pretty sure, but it’s also very difficult for me to look at the world as it is and to really believe that it is true. It seems to be similarly hard for others, and many of those people are the ones making the loudest cases for “transcendence” in architecture and elsewhere. But it seems telling to me that despite a theoretical theology of incarnation and inspiration, the theological/architectural case for transcendence is so associated with the experience of leaving the world behind, crossing a church threshold and entering a world of gold and marble and soaring ceilings. Does anyone leave these churches and find it easier, or even possible, to recognize the sacred presence in the everyday?

    Crossing those thresholds is also, in the United States, associated with leaving the reality of living in this country behind; the immigrants who built the early generations of these churches, of course, were seeking to recreate their old home in their new, while their postmodern heirs seem to seek to pretend the immigrant crossing never happened at all and that they are at this moment living not in the middle of a series of strip malls in twenty-first-century suburban Indiana2 but in an imagined premodern Italy or France. It’s the politics of these structures that make me wonder if the “transcendalists” don’t also have a massive problem of closed referentiality. I know a person who lives in the 95 percent white upper middle-class suburban town3 where the church pictured above is located, and attends that parish. He regularly volunteers at the drop-in center run by the Catholic Worker in the city’s downtown, as he puts it, “for a dose of reality.” Respect to this man for recognizing the escapist nature of the place he lives . . . but why choose to live there in the first place? What, exactly, I always want to know, is being transcended? And how does the architecture of their church make it possible for parishioners to comfortably reimagine their lives away from the incarnational “reality” present in our local secular city, unless they make the extremely unusual choice (as my acquaintance does) to venture out into a different reality?

    This response has run somewhat further afield than Schloesser’s provocative and generous comments, and left untouched many areas—but that’s the way it is when you’re thinking about nature and grace, I suppose. I’m grateful for the opportunity to continue reflecting on these issues in such good company.

    1. Although this comment is often attributed to Albert Schweitzer, it turns out to originate in Tyrrell. For the original quotation and attribution, see Mark Goodacre’s blog post “Jesus Creed Historical Jesus Series: Third Quest and Summing Up,” August 17, 2007,

    2. Aerial photo of St. Pius X parish church, Granger, IN, n.d.,

    3. Granger, Indiana, demographics, from the US Census, available at,_Indiana#Demographics.



The Church of Tomorrow

A Church on the Margins

In her book American Catholics and the Church of Tomorrow: Building Churches for the Future, 1925–1975, Catherine R. Osborne takes us on a significant journey through the twentieth century; one that has not been previously explored in such detail or so meticulously researched. She leads us through this period of great change asking the question posed by Catholic architects, artists, and liturgists, “Why build beautiful churches.” She traces an architectural, social, and theological trajectory to the present, making the critical connection between the places where liturgy is celebrated and how these spaces shape our understandings of Church. These connections and the questions asked throughout the twentieth century are as relevant and critical now in the twenty-first. Osborne demonstrates that by considering the physical constructions of churches in stone, glass, and concrete, as well as those imagined spaces for worship designed by architects that never even came to fruition, we better understand how American Catholics saw themselves and who they aspired to be as communities of faith. Osborne argues that the building, whether imagined or completed, reflects the sociopolitical, theological, and liturgical understandings of the time. She illuminates the ways that architecture provides evidence of our attempt at reconciling with the issues of a changing contemporary world and that it also provides a metaphor for the ways the Church is understood.

Inspired by the energy and insights of these twentieth-century pioneers who set their eyes on the future, Osborne remarks at the end of chapter 6, “In the church of tomorrow, spatial and aesthetic change would be limited only by the Church’s capacity to envision its own journey in the direction of God’s kingdom” (218). And yet, for today’s Catholic Church, its capacity to envision its journey into the future is sadly thwarted by the unexpected realities and emergent issues of the twenty-first century. Among them are the dark preoccupations of the clerical abuse scandals; the shrinking numbers of church members due to aging congregations and disaffected youth; and the increasing questions related to the relevance and efficiency of the hierarchal structure of the Church. These concerns and challenges were not anticipated by the twentieth-century pioneers to the extent they are experienced in our current reality. However, the undercurrents Osborne surfaces in this historical trajectory and the connections she makes between what a church should look like and what a church should be, demonstrate how consciously and unconsciously space and place matters. Where we gather to worship reveals, but also shapes and forms who we are as Church.

Osborne’s book inspires the reader to ask additional questions. For me, a Catholic Hispanic academic living and teaching in a sparsely populated and poorly resourced Rocky Mountain West diocese, the book prompted numerous questions. Thus, in light of where Osborne’s book leaves us and in consideration of our current American Catholic context, I would like to pose two questions. How might we creatively envision the use of existing structures and properties in our current realities; and second, how do the changing demographics of congregations and the spaces they inhabit provide us with opportunities to reexamine ways of being Church. Both these questions are related to her assertion that architecture is an incarnational manifestation of theology and a fundamental expression of the shape, nature, and purpose of Catholic-Christian communities.

Reality #1: The Clustering of Parishes

Can the process of clustering Catholic parishes provide opportunities for redefining and reinvigorating our notion of Church, as parishes are mandated to merge and negotiate how space is used and community is understood?

Throughout the American landscape, dioceses find it necessary to contend with the consequences of diminishing resources, both in the decreasing numbers of ordained male clergy to serve parishes and the lack of funds to support the maintenance and repair costs of deteriorating church structures. Clustering of Catholic parishes increasingly becomes an efficient solution. Decisions over which parishes to bring together, which buildings to sell, and how to carry out the process of merging are significant. Osborne notes that for some post-conciliar American Catholics, experimentation with Church was viewed as the necessary evolution of Church. She explains how the mobile professionals “saw themselves as problem-solvers, and in their religious life, they rejected the idea that they should be either mere recipients of sacramental services or foot soldiers in hierarchical campaigns. Instead, they hoped to actively shape the church of the future” (212). Are church communities engaged in this process or are they merely passive recipients? How do those in the pews participate as agents of change in these campaigns? Osborne notes the wide-ranging experimentation ecclesial communities engaged in (183–218). These moments of change are rife for reexamining the fundamental meaning of Church and reenvisioning how communities desire to live their faith. As it becomes necessary for churches to merge, are we bypassing opportunities for reconsidering new ways of being Church?

In the clustering of parishes, there is potential for repurposing space “not as separate and exclusive structures,” but as “functional human complexes” (170). Priorities can be reclaimed as welcoming, as well as attentive and responsive to the deepest needs and social concerns of the communities. As both functional and flexible, churches can serve as invigorating cultural centers where exhibits and concerts take place, reminding the larger community of the power of beauty and the nondiscursive to connect us with the transcendent. Spaces can and should encourage encounter and interaction through worship, study, prayer, shared meals, gardens, and play. These moments of merging may compel reassessment and inward reflection, but they are also opportunities to redefine the meaning of a faith community and their relationship to the broader world.

Throughout her book, Osborne notes how architects, artists, and liturgists ignited the vision of the ways church could and should be. Liturgical consultants like Adé Bethune, William Schickel, and Ed Sövik were instrumental “on the ground,” in leading communities of faith through the process of liturgical, theological, and parish renewal during these periods of physical and structural change. Needed today are the inclusion of liturgical consultants cognizant of the history that Osborne presents, and who are gifted and skilled in working with congregations during these opportune times. How might these moments of change be experiences for revisiting the meaning of Church and deepening our spiritual growth and theological understanding.

Reality #2: The Changing Demographics

How is the American Catholic Church acknowledging and affirming its changing demographics through its architectural spaces?

The demographics of the American Catholic Church are changing. On the West Coast, the Church’s vibrancy is now fueled by those from Southeast Asia, the Philippines, and most visibly, Central and Latin America. Within urban settings in the East, national parishes that once ministered to Irish or Italian immigrants, now serve Spanish-speaking communities. Across the farmlands of the Midwest, gothic-spired churches, constructed by German and Polish communities as homages to their European roots, are now filled with immigrants from the southern hemisphere. Celebrated saints fixed in stained glass windows and the architectural details set in stone are remnants of the treasured past of its former members. New communities bring different aesthetic sensibilities along with different devotions and saints. Should these spaces be refashioned to tangibly reflect or affirm new populations who use them, or do they remain as is? And what about the Southwest, where “box-store” churches are being rapidly constructed to accommodate the growing numbers of Catholic Hispanic families. Are liturgical designers employed or green architects consulted?

For many Catholic immigrant communities, the practice of popular piety is significant. Devotional spaces have made their way back into the niches and side altars of churches throughout the country—testimony to the importance of popular religion for the faithful. How do churches make physical (and temporal) space for these devotions, acknowledging that these practices help sustain immigrant communities in transition? Ethnicity and cultural faith practices are ingredients that the leading architectural pioneers seemed to overlook or dismiss prior to Vatican II and then failed to seriously consider in their fervor for post-Conciliar iconoclasm. (However, there is evidence in the pages of Liturgical Arts that Maurice Lavanaux, in his world tours, recognized the significance and responded to expressions of inculturation.)

Perhaps, this moment of demographic change provides us with opportunities to rethink how traditions and the experience of popular religious practices, as embodied and felt responses to faith work in the lives of communities. Designing worship space is not always about theological clarity or aesthetic austerity, but about our shared human experiences which are complex, messy, and fluctuating. Osborne underscores the life-giving paradigm of change and adaption in her book. How we create spaces for worship requires an openness to learning and a willingness to engage with one another. To do this entails the cultivation of intercultural understanding and appreciation, particularly of those who reside on the margins of our church and society. Indeed, it is on the periphery (as in the meadows) where vitality, new life, and growth is found. Perhaps the biological paradigm which Osborne highlights can continue to serve us today.

Catherine Osborne spotlights this biological paradigm throughout her rendering of a twentieth-century American Catholic Church. She also notes how each era claimed its particular concerns and grappled with them. Despite the distractions currently embroiling our Church, our era is occupied with how to efficiently utilize limited resources in order to address issues of consolidation and changing demographics. In the process, the retrofitting or repurposing of existing church buildings demand attention. While in this era there seems to be less desire to create formidable monuments over the landscape, my hope, inspired by a reading of Osborne’s book, is that more attention is placed on creating true spaces of hospitality, simplicity, and beauty. Places where encounter is facilitated and celebrated.

Osborne’s book, American Catholics and the Church of Tomorrow makes an important contribution, extending the scholarship available to American historians, architects, artists, and liturgists. It provides a significant perspective to all who ask the question, “Why build beautiful churches?” As noted, it leads us to ask the ensuing question, “What is Church?” I am reminded of John Paul II Letter to Artists (1999), “Beauty is a key to the mystery and a call to transcendence. It is an invitation to savor life and to dream of the future. That is why the beauty of created things can never fully satisfy. It stirs that hidden nostalgia for God” (16). Osborne shows us that in the physical spaces we inhabit for prayer and worship, we are formed as Church as we share with each other this deep experience of longing and anticipation for God.

  • Catherine Osborne

    Catherine Osborne


    Response to Rebecca Berru Davis

    Being a historical theologian is a funny thing. I was very insistent, from the beginning of the dissertation project until the book’s publication, that I was not going to engage in present-day controversies around church design and land use—that the “historian” hat was going to stay firmly in place. And yet, of course I was interested in these events precisely because I do think understanding them sheds a lot of light on today’s debates. I therefore love discussing these matters with people like Rebecca Berru Davis, whose research spans a much wider time frame than mine, reaching into the present-day liturgical activity of the Church. I greatly value the excellent questions she asks about what the recent past might have to say about the present reality of the Church in the United States.

    Let me preface my response to her first question by saying that I am a huge downer when it comes to visions of the future that require an end to tight diocesan control over the making, closing, and realigning of parish space. I wish this weren’t so—I wish I were more optimistic that collaborative and inclusive approaches to the future of spaces were possible—but I don’t see many signs that church leaders are going to let go of their legal and financial control over spaces, which is what would be required for a collaborative movement forward. This really caught many of my late-’60s-era subjects up short, too. An important part of my story is the development of a large group of very self-confident Catholic professionals. I was interested in what professionalization in a sphere outside the church (for example, architecture, but also anything else) did to people’s relationship with the church. It didn’t really turn out to affect most people’s aesthetics (architects and artists tended to really overestimate the extent to which other people were going to want to align their church aesthetics with their home and workplace aesthetics) but I do think that professionalization made people very much resist clerical authority unless the cleric could prove to their satisfaction that he knew what he was talking about. Anyway, Vatican II promised just that, active collaboration with “secular” expertise, and it really got people excited, and then it turned out that on the ground, it was very, very hard to implement. There was no tradition of collaborative clerical-lay work to draw on and it never really developed in the church as a whole, although there are local examples, and I think that failure was really depressing for a lot of people who entered 1967 with very high hopes. (It probably didn’t help that many of the priests who left to get married in the late ’60s and early ’70s would have been, on balance, the ones more inclined to try to develop real lay collaboration, though obviously there are plenty of notable exceptions on both sides.)

    I don’t know what kind of future we’re stumbling towards in the Catholic Church—what new forms might emerge after the present earthquake of church closings, land sales, and parish consolidations has ended with some kind of new stable-ish equilibrium. But my guess is that the legal ownership structure, which for a couple of centuries now has vested control in the diocese rather than the local community, is going to continue to be a damper on efforts towards collaborative process. More creative forms of communal future-planning might require the development of Catholic sites not under diocesan control, perhaps sites owned by religious orders or lay groups like the Catholic Worker. I suppose it’s also possible that the legal situation of the Church in the United States today, due to the abuse crisis, might break the centralized ownership structure apart. It will take a while to know. One way or another, it does seem that Catholics already actively control far less land mass in the United States than they did for about 150 years, and that this is a trend that will continue into the foreseeable future. My hope is that those who continue to control space will learn to share it gracefully, even if not fully collaboratively. I’ve been reading Annalisa Buttici’s very good African Pentecostals in Catholic Europe (Harvard University Press, 2016) this month, and that’s one of the key things she’s describing: Pentecostal churches are operating in Catholic-controlled space in Italy, and the relationships they have with the Catholic priests in the various locations matter enormously, though none really constitute “collaboration.”

    I feel a little better about Berru Davis’s second question: Will the Catholic Church be able to respond to and acknowledge its changing demographics in its liturgical spaces? I think we have a lot of evidence that this has happened extensively, sometimes a little randomly and sometimes in a more planned process. By “randomly” I mean the process of accretion where statues and pictures and so on make their way into a church because of the key devotions of its changing membership. Is there a parish church in the United States today that doesn’t make a significant place for Our Lady of Guadalupe? I don’t want to be sunny exactly, because as those who have written about intercultural parishes and parishes with changing demographics have shown, community shift always causes some friction and conflict, and surfaces frequently racialized power dynamics. But I do see a lot of evidence that parishes that have already passed through demographic transition have been able to successfully layer the new group’s aesthetics on top of what was already there, often creating a pretty interesting palimpsest effect where the original group’s devotional interests are evident in the stained glass windows and sometimes wall murals, while the newer group is represented in statues and framed prints and the like—in other words, movable pieces that can be added “on top” (metaphorically speaking) of the older vision, without destroying that vision.

    I’ve also seen thoughtful examples of deliberate aesthetic response to demographic change. My former parish in Harlem, for example, was built by Germans in the nineteenth century, but has had a primarily African American congregation for decades now. In the ’90s the parish went through a planning process and invested in a total overhaul of the sanctuary that included commissioning new art and furniture pieces. I expect to see more of that kind of total overhaul in places where blossoming populations of immigrants are settling into second and third generations and developing a bit more financial and social capital. All in all, as Berru Davis points out in her final paragraph, there is a persistent strain in Catholicism (and perhaps in human nature) that proclaims that the world will be saved by beauty. I do not think that the desire for “beautiful churches” is going to go away, and I don’t see any reason why it should. But as we grow more aware that beauty is not a natural universal constant but culturally situated, I hope that our openness to diverse and even eclectic aesthetic pathways will grow as well.



Evolution and Reality

An idea, or an interpretation of reality, can be profoundly consequential. Catherine Osborne’s spirited book American Catholics and the Church of Tomorrow is a long reflection on the acceptance and diffusion of the “biological paradigm” among American Catholics. This evolutionary interpretation of the physical world celebrates the adaptation of the Church to local circumstances and accepts, as natural, processes of development and change. I want to revisit a question that roiled the Church with controversy in the early twentieth century but is hardly posed today (for reasons Osborne explains): does the biological paradigm, with its evolutionary thrust, capture the nature of reality? What if the application of this scientific paradigm to social and political phenomena distorts more than it clarifies? As Osborne notes with delicious irony, Pius X—the arch anti-modernist—actually grasped the centrality of evolution to our modern posture and the pope identified accurately what was at stake in its burgeoning popularity. If evolution took root in social and political imaginaries, humans would see the world in motion and they would shape the world to different ends, perhaps comingling domains that ought to remain apart. Any Thomist interpretation of reality, which separates the political order from the religious order, would become untenable. To look at the world through the biological paradigm (and to bend the world the fit this schema of progression) would shape the future, institutional power, and the very posture of the Church as it endured the flow of time. Pius was right but he lost the battle of ideas: evolutionary thought moved to the center of the Church in the twentieth century, put there, as Osborne shows, by a generation of architects and liturgists.

Darwin’s arguments are persuasive, his methods ingenious, and the Church has accepted his findings, citing the belief that whatever reason uncovers is not opposed to God’s creative powers because God gave men and women reason. But how humans should proceed in light of evolution’s realness is far from clear. The question of what is to be done in a vital and dynamic cosmos is a political one. If reality is inherently biological, and humans need to adapt and develop in it, what is to be done in social and political life? The Evangelicals who built and sustain the Creation Museum with its built-to-scale Noah’s Ark take another path, rejecting the evolutionary paradigm even as they are mobilized into an incredible flurry of activity in response. Late nineteenth-century social scientists like William Graham Sumner and Herbert Spence set evolution to the cruel ends of “survival of the fittest.” American Catholics and the Church of Tomorrow is a creative and much-needed exploration of a particular application of evolution and biology to the Catholic Church by way of liturgy and architecture. Osborne’s protagonists make an argument for the utter facticity of evolutionary development by looking at buildings as systems, fashioning concrete into parabolas, redeeming steel, and dreaming of lunar Eucharist celebrations. Osborne charts how these visionaries scored a range of significant victories and they ushered in a new intellectual era in the Church, readying a conceptual ground for Teilhard de Chardin’s noosphere and Harvey Cox’s blessing of the secular. American Catholics and the Church of Tomorrow is a significant book and its insights will change how we understand Catholic modernity, cluing us into how members of the old faith rerouted one of modernity’s key intellectual breakthroughs into physical church structures and the politics of space.

The evolutionary mindset exhibits some characteristics of ideology—inflexibility of thought impressed upon evidence. Reality occasionally outruns the biological paradigm. Its Catholic denizens envision a relatively smooth process (i.e., natural) by which the pilgrim church unfurls, drawing a disparate people to its bosom. Did these modernists stop to observe the limits of evolutionary development or pause to take stock of the conflicts they themselves unleashed? If the biological paradigm grasps political or social realities it ought to have adequate explanations for social conflict and institutional attenuation. It does have these explanations, certainly, but they are not always persuasive. As Osborne astutely notes, the evolutionary paradigm, particularly the notion that humanity is unifying, arises in response to Cold War partitions. At the center of this intellectual and spatial movement is as much fear as optimism. The world should be getting better when it is, in fact, not. A wave of race riots, with particularly devastating waves of destruction in Newark and Detroit, rocked the United States in 1967 and 1968. Over fifty thousand American men would not return from Vietnam; nearly two million North Vietnamese and one million South Vietnamese would be killed in the war. Why do these phenomena not shake the confidence of the men and women who champion the biological paradigm? Architecture and liturgy could evolve in an organic manner but social and political spheres were subject to progression and regression, with significant spasms of violence.

Michel Foucault’s observation that truth is created with the mechanisms of power applies to how the biological paradigm gained traction. Power is required to create a truth, and that truth in turn helps its promoters to maintain power. Is the argument that humanity is evolving not also a means to gain and maintain domination? Is it not also a claim to design the future in their chosen image? The architects and liturgists who promoted this organic vision understood the world to be dynamic but they also wanted to take the world to specific ends. In a brilliant chapter, Osborne shows how architects marshalled posters, models, and floor plans to make natural what was in fact highly interpretative. These ephemera limited a vision of reality, pushing it into a specific, premade mold. But we should also be careful to stake out a crucial difference between how these Catholic modernists understood evolution when compared with Evangelicals or the Social Darwinists. The ends of the Catholic vision—unity, peace, transfiguration, incarnation, community—are palatable for both secular and religious moderns. Herein we find a key as to why the evolutionary paradigm took root in the Church in the 1960s—it synced with the vision of other theorists like Martin Luther King, Timothy Leary, and Herbert Marcuse. By linking evolutionary thought with accepted liberal secular/religious ends, these Catholic liturgists planted in American soil their particular take on Darwin’s scientific breakthrough. Despite these seemingly benign ends, which were persuasive in the hotbed of Sixties emancipatory imaginaries, liturgists and architects gained power as the biological paradigm took root and the raw strength of concrete defined truth in a particular manner.

Measures of both power and ideology were required to validate the modernists’ obliteration of any barrier between sacred and secular. Inviting the secular into the sacred and blending the holy with the profane is the most controversial legacy of the biological paradigm. Osborne’s contention that Vatican II should be understood as a spatial crisis is revelatory. Her exploration of Church protests as the means to “heal sin” but also as “traumatic events” will shape the way I interpret the Catholic s 1960s for a long time to come. American Catholics and the Church of the Future features two extremely valuable twentieth-century reception stories by recovering the American Catholic embrace of French Jesuit Teilhard de Chardin and liberal Protestant Harvey Cox. Nevertheless, Pius X’s warning about the pitfalls of modernism still lurks in the background of the book’s final chapters on ecclesiology and the secular city. Floating churches, ecumenical centers, and shopping mall chapels all represent the sanctification of the secular and simultaneously the collapse of the sacred into the embrace of the profane. Perhaps the only way to see a happy ending here is to embrace an optimistic naiveté that allows one to see progress amongst so much wreckage and deracination. A deadly combination of power (models, theological texts, education programming) and ideology (evolution, dynamism, a glorious future, no matter what we see) colored the modernists’ worldview in the years after the Second Vatican Council. How does one see growth amongst such a profound institutional crisis?

Even as Catholic modernists’ program can be seen as saturated with ideology, power, and occasional glibness, we should be thankful its hopeful interpretation of evolution won out. An evolutionary vision ought to foster unity, brotherhood, sisterhood, service, and courage. Fundamentalism and survival of the fittest are not the only response to Darwin’s famous findings. The world is world is moving forward. The visionaries of American Catholics and the Church of the Future thought they knew the world was in motion and they proceeded with hope that it would reach a positive Omega point. To consider the blind spots or the limits of their take on evolution is not to call for a resurrection of stiff neo-Thomism. As Osborne shows us, moderns think in an evolutionary key. We have accepted the biological paradigm of evolution and it sits deep in our collective unconscious. When Osborne teased out the biological paradigm by reading hundreds of documents and analyzing hundreds of photographs she taught us something profoundly important about Catholic Modernity. With her protagonists, she asks us to consider how we will shape the future of a planet in peril.

  • Catherine Osborne

    Catherine Osborne


    Response to Peter Cajka

    I think Pete Cajka’s very intelligent response puts the key question I didn’t ask in the book on the table: “Does the biological paradigm, with its evolutionary thrust, capture the nature of reality? What if the application of this scientific paradigm to social and political phenomena distorts more than it clarifies?”

    I consciously avoided this question in the book because I did not want to take sides in either the 1920s–’50s era or the contemporary liturgical-architecture battle. But as Cajka notes, there is substantial reason to question whether evolution is a social reality (as my subjects argued) or a model, a metaphor, which when we believe in its reality serves particular political ends. I, in fact, come down pretty squarely on the latter side. One of the trickiest sections of the book for me to write was the one on “experimentation” as a supplementary or perhaps competing paradigm. Many of same people who believed fervently in an evolutionary model simultaneously turned, in the ’60s, to an exaltation of “experimentation,” and particularly “controlled experimentation,” as a method of discerning the way forward. But this in itself suggests a level of human political direction of the future that “evolution” avoids by implying that things simply unfold. Experimentation, in other words, lays bare the political stakes submerged in “evolution” discourse.

    And the battles over who exactly got to “control” the (liturgical/spatial) experimentation seem to me to be, indeed, among the most significant stories in the second part of the book. As in other areas of the post-Vatican II church, people who had been largely allied before and during the council broke apart sharply in the aftermath over issues of authority over the pace and extent of change. To what extent could anyone—lay or clerical—let go of control and just see what happened when spaces like the sanctuary were opened up to those who had never been allowed into them, except perhaps to iron the linens? The answer, pretty often, seems to me to be “not that much.” My next book (if it ever gets written!) will explore this question through an examination of American Catholic practices of land and building ownership during the late 1960s to the present. I want to get a better understanding of how post-Vatican II urban theologies affected the use of church-owned buildings, especially in the period from the 1970s–’90s, a period for which very little archival research has been done and of which we have relatively little historical understanding (with the exception of the mechanisms constituting what we have come to call “the sex abuse crisis,” which are increasingly clear if often frustratingly archivally opaque.)

    Those mechanisms, the way dioceses and parishes really operated in practice during the 1970s–’80s to try to build, or avoid building, a more “Vatican II”-ish future, one with a far more distributed power structure and a much greater porousness to the (not so secular) city, are what interest me most in the study of American Catholicism right now. I think there’s room for new and better institutional histories to go alongside the still desperately needed ethnographic studies begun in our academic parents’ generation. Jennifer Callaghan’s important recent dissertation at Northwestern, for example, examined the bureaucracy of liturgical reform in Chicago and Washington State. I’ve said in a few places that trying to understand Vatican II by reading the documents allows you to avoid a lot of the most significant issues impacting the lives of priests and religious and laypeople alike. When those documents get down to the bureaucracy, decisions have to be made about who is in charge of implementing them (which, because personnel is policy, is a hugely consequential decision in terms of what actually happens) and about specific aesthetic and liturgical and other practical translations of fairly abstract language. The Vatican II documents, for the most part, don’t micromanage. But someone has to micromanage, or nothing gets done at all. Callaghan’s dissertation is great in part because it’s sympathetic both to the difficulties of being on a decision-making bureaucratic body and to the difficulties of being one of the people “managed” on the other end—the recipients of the seemingly endless training programs, but also the churchgoers who do not necessarily particularly want to see the liturgy, and their part in it, transformed. Anyway: bureaucracy and bureaucrats, wildly important subjects which I don’t think we pay attention to nearly enough. And subjects which give the lie to any evolutionary discourse which sees “progress” as “natural.” It is true, as I say in another response to this symposium, that we cannot stop the world from changing. But how it changes has everything to do with the collective choices of institutional actors, which in turn has everything to do with the particular hopes and dreams of those who amass power.

    This is why I deeply appreciate Cajka’s ambivalence about my subjects’ optimism. It’s an ambivalence I share: how could anyone look at the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and see them as times of progress? Many times the people I was writing about struck me as, indeed, dangerously naïve. However, I came to believe that for many of them that optimism was at least a semiconscious choice, a deliberate stance taken against the various forms of deadly peril they knew themselves to be living in. They were pretty often self-righteous, bourgeois, unthinkingly sexist and racist and (especially) classist, stodgy, and on top of everything else just plain wrong about the desires of the human beings living around them. But on the other hand: they believed profoundly that the world had a future, despite the darkness all around them, and that it was worth trying to shape it in a better direction. No matter how unwarranted, that seems, as Pete suggests in his final line, to be worth imitating.



Global Catholicism as a Spatial Crisis

Lessons from the Architectural Debates of the 1960s

Catherine Osborne’s book opens a much-needed window for the often claustrophobic intellectual debate on the past and the future of the Catholic Church. This meticulously researched and deeply fascinating book can be seen also as the response to the “pamphletization” of the Catholic intellectual debate with extremes ranging from the futuristic, post-ecclesial, and purely cultural Catholicism to what we could call imaginary neo-medievalism.

More importantly, Osborne’s book on the recent past of American Catholicism represents a very important contribution to understanding the present and the possible future of the Catholic Church. American Catholics and the Church of Tomorrow is a masterful work of intellectual history of social, architectural, and theological movements within Catholicism in the United States in the heart of the twentieth century. But it also offers numerous insights on the situation of Catholicism, and especially of American Catholicism in this moment. The present Catholic moment represents a crisis which is at the same time theological, political, and institutional. The crisis has to do with the interpretation of Vatican II, the clerical abuse crisis, the changing role of religion in public life, the diversification and pluralization of religion in America. But at the root there is an ecclesiological crisis: the Church, its role, place, and space in the world.

There are three points that the book makes which are indispensable to capture the Catholic crisis of today as an ecclesiological crisis. The first is the nexus between ecclesiology and liturgical reform. The book covers key aspects of the debate from the liturgical movement toward the reform beginning in the 1920s until its early stages of implementation in the middle 1960s during and after Vatican II. But it also provides us with hermeneutical criteria for today and the new wave of revisionism of (against) the liturgical reform of Vatican II. The concept of space is at the heart of the liturgy as well as of the liturgical reform of Vatican II: sacred space, common space, global space. One aspect of the ecclesiological issue at the root of the architectural debate was the need to allow for the “active participation” of the people of God in the liturgy—rooted in a rediscovery of the historical developments of the liturgy, beginning from the early Christian community. But the ecclesiological debate at the root of the liturgical reform was also aimed at making space for a new people of God which in the United States of America presented the Church with challenges that were not visible elsewhere or not visible in the same way, particularly in Europe: the inclusion of the laity, but also of racial and ethnic minorities. It is not a coincidence that the issue of desegregation of Catholic communities in some American cities emerged as an issue simultaneously with the first steps toward the implementation of the conciliar liturgical reform locally (one of the most famous examples being Atlanta of archbishop Paul Hallinan) in the larger picture of the civil rights movement in the United States. The book shows the unique challenges of American Catholicism in dealing with the real and imagined boundaries of inclusion in the Church of the future, and of those institutionally and culturally excluded from worshiping with and in the one Catholic Church. This aspect of the book is particularly relevant today because it shows the impossibility of understanding the debate about liturgical reform (back then but also today) in a way that does not also consider the morally and politically inclusionary instances of the liturgical movement until and beyond Vatican II. On the other side, it also immediately reveals the morally and politically exclusionary instances of the liturgical and ecclesiological imagination of the anti-Vatican II movement, with its appeal to the return to the pre-conciliar rite, which works toward (consciously or unconsciously) new forms of self-segregation, and not only in ethnic-racial terms.

The second important point raised by the book for the Church of today—which is the Church of the future that the amazing characters of the book and their projects tried to imagine—is about the role of theology and ecclesiology in conceiving space. The liturgical and architectural debates and practices of the twentieth century covered by Osborne were the stage of massive renegotiations about who is the Church, about what, but especially about the where. What kind of Catholicism do we imagine in the future? What kind of relations with other Christians, other believers, the secular city? Vatican II indeed also was and still is experienced as a spatial crisis. This is the history of reconceiving sacred space—reconceiving space and reconceiving the sacred: of the churches, but mostly of the church in the city, in the nation, in the world, and in the cosmos. This is still today at the heart of the intra-Catholic and intra-Christian debate in the Western world. On the one side we have a variety of withdrawal options (the most famous of them being the “Benedict Option”) that have unmistakable spatial features. It is the blueprint for enclosure in a monastic imaginary. It is a spatial separation not only from the world but also from the rest of the Church. It is the restoration of a sacred space delimited by exclusion which is neo-confessional—not in a strictly denominational sense but in the sense of requiring the subscription of a theo-political confession of conservative faith. All this has not so subtly hinted at ethnic-racial and national-geopolitical components. On the other side, there is a sense of global Catholicism embodied by the pontificate of Pope Francis that is marked by similarly definite but opposite spatial notions of the Church and Christianity: a theology that is post-Christendom in the sense that it has no use for the imperial Latin concept of limes as a border that separates; it is a global Catholicism that redefines internal boundaries (social and political, confessional, ethnic-racial) but also external (national-geopolitical; world religions). Francis’s vision of the Church responds to the challenges of the virtualization of the ecclesial spaces and of the “non-spaces.” The rethinking of the space for the Church in the modern global world must be seen in the context of the rejection of the attempts to sectarianize Catholicism. In the words of one of the most important Catholic theologians, German-French Jesuit Christoph Theobald: what divides the Catholic Church today it is the concept of “catholicity.” Where some fear a “sectarianization” of the Catholic Church, or even its contamination by the deinstitutionalization of religion and forms of evangelicalism, others see the necessary respect for its charismatic foundation which is impossible to restrict completely within the space of ecclesiastical institutions. Francis keeps in balance the institutional and spatial dimension of the Church with a mystical and trans-border dimension of the Church. Francis—a man whose formation as a priest and as a Jesuit comes from the 1960s and 1970s—continues on the trajectory of Vatican II which initiated the process of disentangling catholicity from a geographical and geopolitical understanding of it—an overcoming the Tridentine idea of catholicity as a homogeneous juridical space. Francis is a new step in the continuing Entgrenzung, the “un-limitation” of catholicity from a spatial-geographical and symbolical point of view.

This emphasis on space tout court in the Church of today, compared to the nexus between ecclesiological thinking and imagining the Church of the future in the period the book covers, shows us also how the attention of Catholicism today has shifted from a Church pivoting around the liturgy to a Church dominated by other kinds of events: the shift from a Church with liturgical theology at the center to a Church today where the most of the concerns are in terms of political theology. (To have an idea of this, it will suffice to look at the role of liturgy in the course offerings in Catholic institutions of higher education.) What Osborne calls “expansive sacramental theology” made room in the official teaching of the Church in the second post-Vatican II period (the period between John Paul II and Benedict XVI) for a contracted sacramental theology. This is also because the expansive “biological paradigm” has been replaced by the biopolitical challenges brought to the Church (from Humanae Vitae on). To imagine the Church of the future in the period preceding Vatican II was to do so during the Cold War, but also to do so in a time before the “life issues” became the defining issues for contemporary Catholicism and the redefinition of its space and place. This has to do not only with the return of religion in partisan politics or the new role of the mass media and lately of social media in the Church and over the Church. The centrality of Catholic liturgical performance in the debates of the 1950s and 60s was also rooted in the vision of a different role for the liturgical experience. The book provides us with a picture of a Church starkly different from today, when Catholicism’s visibility and performance—even for Catholics—is now largely extra-liturgical or non-liturgical. The role of liturgy in public life has been in some sense replaced by new kinds of liturgies in the secular space (where the Catholic element is unmistakably visible) such as “post-disaster liturgies” or “post-disaster rituals” which represent an emerging ritual repertoire for Catholic theologians but also for historians of sacred architecture.

There is a third element that makes Osborne’s American Catholics and the Church of Tomorrow a key contribution to our understanding of the Church of today. One of the author’s deepest insights is in the analysis of Teilhard de Chardin and his thought for the debate on the Church, and especially in seeing the enthusiasm for Teilhard’s ecclesiology as a product of the Cold War. In a similar way, the ecclesiological debate of today must be understood as a product of the end of the Cold War: the geopolitical decline of the West, the revanche of world religions in a postcolonial world, the rise of religious violent radicalism, and the geopolitical and geo-religious shock of 9/11. The book is focused on American Catholicism but talks about a particularly important Church within global Catholicism. One of the great insights of the book for scholars of Catholicism is its ability to disprove many of the assumptions of mid- and late twentieth-century Western Catholics who were trying, in their intellectual creativity and spiritual generosity, to build a more global Church of the future. One of the major interruptions—or discontinuities—between that period and today is in terms of the kind of world imagined back then and the world of today. The dispute between different ecclesiological imaginations in the world of today is a product of the disruption of globalization, which is also a disruption of Catholic globalization. This disruption of globalization contains also a cautionary tale about Catholic ecclesiological and theological expectations from the Church of the future—both against futurism and neo-traditionalism. The book tells also the story of false predictions about the future: the return of traditionalism in today’s Catholicism and the stagnation of futurism provide us with important insights on the danger of “blueprint Catholicism”—when the project for a new Church aims at creating a new reality rather than beginning from reality as it is, if just we cared to learn about it as carefully and acutely as Catherine Osborne does for that particular space of global Catholicism which is in the United States.

  • Catherine Osborne

    Catherine Osborne


    Response to Massimo Faggioli

    My thanks to Massimo Faggioli for these comments. It’s a wonderful thing, it turns out, to revisit your work through someone else’s eyes; among other things, the experience reveals whether you wrote the book you intended to write. As I’ve said in other responses, as a historian, I was very concerned not to get involved in present-day debates, either about architecture or about “Vatican II,” in the book. But of course, as a historical theologian, every stage of the book was deeply informed by my desire to contribute to theological conversation today: by illuminating part of how we got to where we’re at, I believed, we could understand better why we are having the arguments we’re having in the terms we’re having them in. And by getting outside the writing of historical theology mostly through the historical analysis of the writing of famous theologians—by looking instead at the theological debates being had by artists, architects, interested clergy and laypeople, and people who did have theological training but were not exactly Karl Rahner—I thought I could do that.

    Yet although I did feel I was writing a work of historical ecclesiology, I sometimes felt myself getting pulled away from that mission statement when trying to tell people what I was doing. It’s harder to explain than saying, “It’s a book about Catholics and modernist architecture,” for one thing, and so much of what you do when you tell people about your book-in-progress is try to get it into a sentence or two that won’t annoy the other people at the dinner party by its length or complexity. For another thing, although I did write quite a bit about a couple of famous theologians who had something to say about the nature of the Church—Teilhard de Chardin and Harvey Cox—neither is “an ecclesiologist.” I think that makes it a little harder to recognize that the book is really far more about ecclesiology than about, say, “liturgy” (a word which, I know from having made my own index, appears on virtually every page). Or rather, I suppose, it is to say (with Faggioli) that all liturgical questions are fundamentally ecclesiological, but we don’t always recognize them as such, although the liturgical movement, and the theologians and bishops of Vatican II, did.

    All of this is to say that I am very grateful to Faggioli for explicitly surfacing the basically ecclesiological nature of the book. Despite my great love for architecture (both modern and not), I wouldn’t have thought it was worth writing about except as a lens into the set of debates about the Church that continue to shape Catholic reality in 2019. So it’s good both to know that this came across, and to have an opportunity to say a few words about it now.

    First, I think Faggioli is exactly right when he points out: “It is not a coincidence that the issue of the desegregation of the Catholic communities in some American cities emerged as an issue simultaneously with the first steps toward the implementation of the conciliar liturgical reform locally (one of the most famous examples being Atlanta of archbishop Paul Hallinan) in the larger picture of the civil rights movement in the United States.” As it happens, I raised this issue in my earlier response to Stephen Schloesser, so I won’t say much more about it now, but I think it is a critically important point: the move back to “transcendence” in architecture and liturgy, along with the movement towards antiabortion and anti-ERA policies, should be read historically as a movement of white Catholics who were simultaneously galvanized around segregation.

    Faggioli’s second point, about the post-Vatican II battle over whether to disentangle “catholicity” from specific geographic and geopolitical formations, is too rich to fully go into, but I think is crucial from the point of view of understanding how battles about church architecture end up bleeding over into battles about, for example, the free movement of people across international borders in search of work or refuge from violence. In my response to Schloesser I wrote about how disturbing I find the coziness of churches that are supposedly “transcendent” but actually seem to be cocoons. Francis’s anti-nationalist globalism is, in this way, quite distinct from John Paul II’s globalism, which contrasted secularism and communism against the (national) Church everywhere in the world. It’s an ecclesiological vision equally invested in love, but far less interested in boundaries and contrast.

    Finally, I greatly appreciate the note of caution Faggioli raises towards the end of his piece. This was in fact a major lesson I learned from this research: the danger of thinking that you know what the future holds. This seems true on a large scale and on a small alike. The people in my book who currently seem most wise to me are the cautious liturgical consultants of the mid-’60s, who advocated for patience and openness and for acclimation to a future of permanent change. Psychologically, I can see why this was such a difficult—in this event, impossible—task. As a member of a generation that is indeed having to try to acclimate to permanent change due to massive shifts in the economy and to the ongoing reality of climate disaster, I have a lot of sympathy for the many Catholics who were okay with some change in the mid-’60s but wanted to know when it would all stop and settle down, and preferred that to happen as soon as possible. But nevertheless, the liturgical consultants were right. It is not possible to stop any change at all. It is only possible, in a limited way, to choose in which direction we move. To accept that reality is the only way to live, as individuals or as a Church, with any kind of integrity.