Rorate Caeli

Archbishop of Paris Admits: Modern, Minimalist Church Decor Is the Fruit of Vatican II

Throughout history, many souls have been attracted to the Catholic faith by the beauty of her magnificent churches. As the Pontifical Council for Culture stated in 2006: "The via pulchritudinis [‘way of beauty’] can open the pathway for the search for God." The document goes on to ask: "Do not the cathedrals and churches of the West and East reach a summit of splendor when a liturgy streaming with beauty is celebrated by a gathered crowd?" The document bemoans "the ugliness of some churches and their decoration, their desacralization," which it ascribes to the modern "divorce" between religion and art.

 In this light, it is unsurprising that the decidedly spare, modern new liturgical furnishings of the Notre Dame de Paris Cathedral, damaged by fire in 2019, have drawn criticism. They have been compared to Ikea furniture. Why would such a beautiful church be adorned in such an ugly style?

The Archbishop of Paris had a revealing answer: the new furnishings must strive for a "noble simplicity," in keeping with "the spirit of the Catholic liturgy, according to the meanings and norms established following the Second Vatican Council." Just as the creators of the Novus Ordo Missae strove for rational comprehension and stark simplicity- to free the Mass from "historical accretions"- so too, the Archbishop of Parish says, the furnishings that accompany such a Mass should be spare, unadorned, and modern in appearance. This is not just the style of Vatican II, but of the "synodal church," which the Archbishop invoked at his installation last year.

The Archbishop's comments may provide a clue as to why the Traditional Latin Mass tends to result in beautiful renovations of the churches where it is celebrated-- indeed, even when it is celebrated in gymnasiums. And why the Novus Ordo Missae is so often associated with the ugly "wreckovations" that have occurred since the Second Vatican Council. In large part, it will be the unquenchable longing for beauty in the human soul that leads us back to tradition.