One of the truly lamentable signs of the times that we live in is the notable lack of beautiful Catholic churches in the western world. Other than the great edifices of the medieval and baroque eras that have somehow managed to escape dismantling and remain standing, there are precious few examples of beautiful modern Catholic church architecture. This is especially true in the United States, where modernist architecture is the norm and where there are no medieval cathedrals or baroque basilicas to offset the disturbing truth that, for a Church whose philosophical tradition has equated Beauty as interchangeable with Goodness and Being itself, there is a woeful dearth of beauty in Catholic church buildings.
The truly tragic thing is that the absence of beautiful church architecture in America is a part of an agenda perpetrated by an ideologically driven minority, as Michael S. Rose has aptly documented in his indispensable book The Renovation Manipulation: The Church Counter-Renovation Handbook. Rose shows in his book how this small cadre of modernist intelligensia, mainly operating under the guise of upholding the 1978 non-binding and non-obligatory document Environment and Art in Catholic Worship put out by the US Bishop's Committee on the Liturgy, have constructed a systematic plan for the destruction of traditional Catholic architecture in order to replace it with architecturally minimalist styles that are thought to better convey (you guessed it) the 'Spirit of Vatican II.'
Interestingly enough, those who promote the architectural "wreckovation" will attempt to mask the blatant destruction of Catholic tradition by appealing to history - one architectural form has always given way to another, they say. Did not Gothic give way to Baroque? Furthermore, there is always this kind of change after an ecumenical council - look at the great changes in painting and architecture that we associate with the Counter-Reformation, which was the fruit of the Council of Trent. As the Church develops and Vatican II puts our theological emphasis in a new place (community over sacrifice), our buildings need to reflect this change.
On the one hand, these arguments are correct - it is true that in history, massive renovations have happened to Catholic church buildings. It is certainly true that even the most well constructed cathedral or solid basilica is still a structure made of ultimately temporary materials that will in time erode and fall apart. Though we ought to do everything we can to preserve the great Catholic monuments of our tradition, we do need to recognize that sometimes it is necessary to take down or deconstruct a church whose physical life has come to an end. Also, there is a legitimate variation in style as one architectural style organically gives way to another. There is a very clear line of development from the classical, secular structures of the late Roman Empire into the Romanesque, the Gothic and then the Baroque and neo-Classical. Certainly styles change and nobody denies this. Ecclesiastical events and ecumenical councils can even prompt some of these changes.
But where this weak analogy breaks down is in trying to draw an equation from the fact of change in the past to the type of change that we are currently experiencing. The architectural changes of the Church's tradition have always been organic changes, changes based on existing custom and tradition, and most importantly, changes that were thought to better reflect the theological and liturgical life of the Church. The changes being implemented in the past four decades are completely artificial, inspired not by Catholic tradition but by modern art, deconstructionism and minimalism. They are also being imposed authoritatively from above, by committees and bureaucracies not in line with the tastes of the people, most of whom prefer the beautiful designs from tradition, which are more easily understandable.
To further demonstrate this difference between current renovations and other advancements in church architecture from our past, let us compare everything we know about the current "wreckovation" to a famous passage from the chronice of Rodulfus Glaber, a Burgundian chronicler writing around the turn of the first millennium of the growth in new church buildings in France:
"When the third year after the millennium dawned, churches were to be seen being rebuilt all over the earth, but especially in Italy and Gaul; although most of them were very well constructed and had no need of rebuilding, each Christian community was driven by a true rivalry to have a finer church than that of its neighbors. It looked as though the very world was shaking itself to take off its old age and to reclothe itself in all areas in a white cloak of churches. Thus, almost all the churches of episcopal sees, the churches of monasteries dedicated to different saints, and even the little chapels in villages were rebuilt more beautifully by the faithful (Rodulfi Glabri Historiarum Libri Quinque; Rodulfus Glaber, The Five Books of the Histories).
New churches were being constructed, it is true, but why? Because communities had a true rivalry to have a "finer church" than its neighbor; now dicoeses seem to compete to have the ugliest buildings. Glaber clearly states that the new churches were "rebuilt more beautifully" than the old churches. True architectural progression in church design aims to take new methods and technological advancements and put them at the service of beauty and the mystery of the faith. Hence, the Gothic is more complex and beautiful than the Romanesque, and the Baroque takes the artistic and scuptural advances of the Renaissance and puts them at the service of beauty - and yet, each style need not be in competition, for since they are all the best efforts of the men of that age to put art at the service of beauty, they each have their own sort of beauty proper to that style.
Nowadays, unlike what Glaber describes as a charitable rivalry in outdoing one another in beauty, parish wreckovators are intentionally dismantling and destroying every vestige of beauty. See this post on one priest who sees the Novus Ordo Mass as practically demanding a total demolition of churches built in the traditional style, that the new mass may be celebrated in its "fullness."
Finally, Glaber says that these new, beautiful churches were built "by the faithful." The new churches of old were built in keeping with the piety and desires of the faithful, who many times carried out the physical construction of the buildings. Modern church renovations are seldom carried out at the will of the people. Michael Rose says in his book that usually a parish considering renovation makes the fatal mistake of inviting some committee or group of "specialists" out to look at the facility and make recommendations - before the priest knows whats going on, a total renovation is underway, designed and implemented by an outside agent working from a flawed interpretation of USCCB documents with an aim of uglifying the church as much as possible. From start to finish it is a top-down affair that barely engages the faithful at all. This is not always the case, of course, but according to Rose it is the norm.
To sum it up, we ought not to be silenced by arguments that architectural change and progression of styles have always been a part of the Church's history. This is true - but it is also true that these legitimate, organic modifications in style over time have nothing in common with the minimalist, modernist, authoritarian nonsense that passes for renovation in the modern church..