The sanctuary walls are, as a rule, made of flat wood, concrete and glass wrapped in metals with an industrial look -- often matching the furnishings on the stark altar. The windows are frosted or tinted in muted tones of sky blue, lavender, amber or pink. If there are stained-glass images, they are ultramodern in style, to match any art objects that make sense in this kind of space. The floors are covered with carpet, which explains why there are speakers hanging in the rafters.
The final product resembles a sunny gymnasium that just happens to contain an abstract crucifix, the Stations of the Cross and one or two images of the Virgin Mary.
"The whole look was both modern and very bland," said Matthew Alderman, a graduate of the University of Notre Dame's classical design program who works as a consultant on sacred art and architecture.
"It was a kind of beige Catholicism that was ugly, but not aggressively ugly ... and these churches looked like they were in a chain that had franchises everywhere. It was that whole Our Lady of Pizza Hut look that started in the1950s and then took over in the '60s and '70s."
The problem is that many Catholics believe that this look that represented an urgent response to contemporary culture -- especially after Vatican II -- has now gone painfully out of date.
Few things age less gracefully than modernity. However, few parishes can afford to "take a wrecking ball" to their sanctuaries. This is also highly emotional territory, since any attempt to change how people worship, whether they are modernists or traditionalists, will collide with their most cherished beliefs.
Thus, after years of studying intense debates on these issues, Alderman recently drafted a manifesto offering easy, affordable ways for make these sanctuaries "less ugly and more Catholic." He posted it at "The Shrine of the Holy Whapping," an online forum created by several Notre Dame graduates to host lighthearted discussions of serious Catholic subjects.
While some of his proposals are specific -- such as removing carpeting to improve church acoustics -- the designer said the key is for parish leaders to find a way to "bring a sense of tradition and beauty to their chancels and naves without having to break the bank." His basic principles included these:
* Do everything possible to return the visual focus to the main altar and the tabernacle that contains the reserved sacraments, the bread and wine that has been consecrated during the Mass. This can be accomplished with a few contrasting coats of paint, stencil designs in strategic places, the rearranging of altar furniture, a touch of new stonework or even the hanging of colored drapes. In many cases a platform can be added under the altar to make it more visible or a designer can darken the lights and colors around the pews, while increasing the light focused on the altar and tabernacle.
* Reject any strategy that tries to hide decades of modernity behind a blitz of statues and flowers in an attempt to create "a traditional Catholic theme park," he said. Too often, the result is "strip-mall classicism" that assumes that anything that looks old is automatically good.
"You don't want something that looks like its fake and plastic," said Alderman. "The worst case scenario is that you have bad taste stacked on top of bad taste, with some of the worst excesses of the old layered on top of all those mistakes that were driven by modernity. ... This kind of schizophrenia is not a good thing in a church."
* It's important to "work with what you have, and don't work against it" while focusing on a few logical changes that actually promote worship and prayer, he said. A chapel dedicated to Mary can appeal to those who are devoted to saying the Rosary. Candles and flower arrangements can focus attention on a statue of the parish's patron saint.
In the end, argued Alderman, "You may not be able to turn your 1950s A-frame church into Chartres, but if you try to find art that harmonizes with its perhaps now rather quaint attempts at futurism, while at the same time seeking to reconnect it with tradition, the result may have a pleasing consistency. ...
"While it may lack the grandeur of Rome or Florence, it can still become a beautiful, unified expression of the faith."