A golden age for Catholic architecture -- in the Bible belt?

Architect Michael Tamara's original goal was to study new Catholic churches built using classic designs and symbolism, as opposed to all of those modernist sanctuaries offering what some critics call the "Our Lady of Pizza Hut" style.

The first church that caught his eye, 15 years ago, was the Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament in Hanceville, Ala., an ornate sanctuary rich in majestic marble and gold details that was becoming familiar to viewers of Eternal Word Television Network. This church, he thought, was built decades after the Second Vatican Council?

Tamara began gathering materials about other new churches in neo-Gothic, Romanesque or other classic styles. Eventually he spotted a surprising pattern.

That first church was in Alabama, and then he found others in Texas, Tennessee, North Carolina, Oklahoma, several in South Carolina and quite a few in Virginia. Oh, and there was a stunning new monastery -- in Alabama.

"Something is going on," said Tamara, who works at the American Institute of Architects in Washington, D.C. "The obvious question is this: Why is this happening in the South? Why not in the heavily Catholic Northeast, which is where I am from?"

While it's true that many Catholics are moving to the South for economic reasons, Tamara is convinced that other cultural factors are at play, including the fact that priests and parishes in the old Protestant South are often more evangelistic than those in declining Frost Belt cities.

To be blunt, Catholics in the North are being forced to close many old churches, while Sunbelt Catholics are building new ones. Catholic leaders have noticed.

Thus, noted Tamara, "Rome has been sending more traditionally minded bishops down South because, frankly, they're a better fit for the culture there. These bishops -- naturally -- tend to attract priests who take a more conservative approach to the faith. You put both of those factors together and this more traditional architecture is going to follow. ...

"Yes, people have been calling architecture 'theology in stone' for a long time."

Writing in Crisis, a conservative Catholic journal, Tamara conceded that it's far too early to see this turn toward traditional sacred architecture as a national trend. However, it's getting hard to ignore what is happening, especially in growing sectors of the American church.

"It is true that a certain indiscriminate preference for the contemporary remains firmly ensconced in the average American parish," he wrote. "Yet there has also quietly developed a parallel phenomenon: a deliberate and measured return to tradition, born of a deep desire to reestablish continuity and stability in Catholic life. ...

"Lest delusion set in, the ratio of new traditional churches to posh amphitheater spaces still being built is grossly disproportionate. Nevertheless, after the epic social and liturgical upheavals of the last century, it is a wonder that any sort of traditional resurgence is happening at all, and these projects seem to be only increasing in number and scale with each passing year."

There is another irony linked to these strikingly Catholic sanctuaries rising in the modern South, noted Tamara, in a telephone interview.

After Vatican II, many Catholic leaders thought it was important to present the Catholic faith in ways that were more neutral, modern and, frankly, less offensive to mainline Protestantism. The thinking was that "if we make ourselves look less Catholic, then we will look more ecumenical and we can fit in better with the Protestant culture that is all around us," he said.

The result in many older Catholic regions was a vast array of sanctuaries shaped like giant saucers, wedges, high-tech cubes or movie theaters. Today, some of these churches resemble smaller versions of the giant evangelical megachurches in Southern suburbs.

How ironic is that? Many modern Southern Protestants have stopped building old-fashioned churches, while some of the Catholics flocking into the region have started building ultra-traditional sanctuaries.

"The further South you get, the further you are from the whole New York City and West Coast world that leans toward progressive and secular approaches to just about everything, including faith and education and art," said Tamara. "Down South, you have growing urban areas, but you can still find a kind of rural, small community, traditional, mom-and-pop atmosphere that is friendly to faith and family.

"People still call it the Bible belt for a reason and lots of people down South still like churches that look like churches."