The clerisy of the concrete-and-glass box freaks out

George Weigel

Several years back, the estimable Father Paul Scalia observed, of some cultural idiocy or other, “Who knew the end of civilization would be so amusing?”

I detected a subtle theological point within that mordant comment: a point worth reflecting upon during Lent.  Christians are the people who know how history is going to turn out — God is, finally, going to get what God intended from the beginning, which is the Wedding Feast of the Lamb in the New Jerusalem. (The trailer, so to speak, is in Revelation 21.) So Christians can afford to relax a bit about the vicissitudes and traumas of history. To be sure, faith that God’s purposes in creation and redemption will ultimately be vindicated ought not lead to insouciance about here-and-now; we have responsibilities within history and we should take them seriously. But faith in the triumph of the Kingdom for which we pray daily should invite us to “chill” (as the kids used to say).

That’s what I did during a recent skirmish in the American culture wars, which erupted a few weeks back over a leaked memo suggesting that President Trump would issue an Executive Order creating a preference that federal courthouses and other federal buildings be designed in a classical style. There isn’t much to laugh at along the Potomac these days. But the freak-out from the high priests and priestesses of the concrete-and-glass box — the modernist architectural establishment and its acolytes in the mainstream media — was (as I think the kids still say, at least in text messages), “LOL.”

The ever-more-ludicrous New York Times, in high editorial dudgeon, asked why the republic should be festooned with more “fake Roman temples” — as if the Capitol, the Lincoln Memorial, the Jefferson Memorial, the West Building of the National Gallery of Art, and similar architectural masterpieces were a blight on the national aesthetic. Does the high priesthood of architectural modernism really want to defend such grotesqueries as the Robert H. Weaver Federal Building (headquarters of the Department of Housing and Urban Development), aptly described by a government worker as “ten floors of basement”? Or the J. Edgar Hoover FBI Building, another concrete-and-glass eyesore that (as my friend Andrew Ferguson wrote) “is even more obnoxious than its namesake”? Or the Hirshhorn Museum, a concrete Bundt cake squatting on the National Mall?

Alas, these horrors are precisely what the modernist architectural establishment wants to defend, and continues to defend with some success: most recently, in ramming through the Frank Gehry design of the Eisenhower Memorial in the nation’s capital, a gargantuan nonsense better suited to the Berlin imagined by Albert Speer after the triumph of the Third Reich.

The idea of Donald Trump as a promoter of architectural classicism is not without its ironies, of course, given the designs of his own buildings. But as the good folks south of the Mason-Dixon Line have been known to observe, “Even a blind squirrel finds an acorn every now and then.” And in the current madhouse of American national politics, one takes with gratitude any signs of sanity one can get.

Modernist architectural fanaticism is not about aesthetics only. As critics like Tom Wolfe (From Bauhaus to Our House) and John Silber (Architecture of the Absurd) have  demonstrated, the International Style, Brutalism, and the rest of the modernist canon embody a worldview and an anthropology — an idea of the human person. The worldview is resolutely secular and lacks any sense of transcendence. The anthropology is similar: human beings are cogs in various machines, economic or political, and cogs need neither beauty nor uplift nor charm, only surroundings defined by the ultimate value of efficiency. (That a lot of modernist buildings don’t work, rapidly decay, and require enormous sums to maintain compounds the problem even while underscoring the point: dumbing down the human has its costs, including its financial costs.)

The modernist curse afflicted Catholic church architecture in the U.S. for a while, but that unhappy period is now passing. Marcel Breuer’s Brutalist-inspired abbey church at St. John’s in Minnesota was often considered the most important U.S. Catholic building of the mid-20th century. Compare it to Duncan Stroik’s chapel at Thomas Aquinas College in California, which I’d suggest is the most important U.S. Catholic building yet erected in the 21st century. Stroik, not Breuer, is the future, because the TAC chapel’s classicism and decorative beauty call us out of ourselves and into the Kingdom; the Breuer church depresses the spirit.

Back to the future, then, in both civic and ecclesiastical architecture.

COMING UP: AM[D]G           

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Last November 11, on the centenary of its relocation to a 93-acre campus in suburban Washington, D.C., Georgetown Preparatory School announced a $60 million capital campaign. In his message for the opening of the campaign, Georgetown Prep’s president, Father James Van Dyke, SJ, said that, in addition to improving the school’s residential facilities, the campaign intended to boost Prep’s endowment to meet increasing demands for financial aid. Like other high-end Catholic secondary schools, Georgetown Prep is rightly concerned about pricing itself out of reach of most families. So Prep’s determination to make itself more affordable through an enhanced endowment capable of funding scholarships and other forms of financial aid for less-than-wealthy students is all to the good.

What I find disturbing about the campaign is its “branding” slogan. I first became aware of it when, driving past the campus a few months ago, I noticed a billboard at the corner of Rockville Pike and Tuckerman Lane. In large, bold letters, it proclaimed, “FOR THE GREATER GLORY.” And I wondered, “…of what?” Then one day, when traffic allowed, I slowed down and espied the much smaller inscription in the bottom right corner: “Georgetown Prep’s Legacy Campaign.”

Ad maiorem Dei gloriam [For the greater glory of God], often reduced to the abbreviation, AMDG, was the Latin motto of St. Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Society of Jesus. Georgetown Prep is a Jesuit school. So what happened to the D-word? What happened to God? Why did AMDG become AM[D]G while being translated into fundraising English?

I made inquiries of Jesuit friends and learned that amputating the “D” in AMDG is not unique to Georgetown Prep; it’s a tactic used by other Jesuit institutions engaged in the heavy-lift fundraising of capital campaigns. That was not good news. Nor was I reassured by pondering Father Van Dyke’s campaign-opening message, in which the words “Jesus Christ” did not appear. Neither did Pope Francis’s call for the Church’s institutions to prepare missionary disciples as part of what the Pope has called a “Church permanently in mission.” And neither did the word “God,” save for a closing “Thanks, and God bless.”

Father Van Dyke did mention that “Ignatian values” were one of the “pillars” of Georgetown prep’s “reputation for excellence.” And he did conclude his message with a call for “men who will make a difference in a world that badly needs people who care, people who, in the words Ignatius wrote his best friend Francis Xavier as he sent him on the Society of Jesus’s first mission, will ‘set the world on fire’.” Fine. But ignition to what end?

Ignatius sent Francis Xavier to the Indies and on to East Asia to set the world on fire with love of the Lord Jesus Christ, by evangelizing those then known as “heathens” with the warmth of the Gospel and the enlivening flame of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic faith. St. Ignatius was a New Evangelization man half a millennium before Pope St. John Paul II used the term. St. Ignatius’s chief “Ignatian value” was gloria Dei, the glory of God.

Forming young men into spiritually incandescent, intellectually formidable and courageous Christian disciples, radically conformed to Jesus Christ and just as deeply committed to converting the world, was the originating purpose of Jesuit schools in post-Reformation Europe. Those schools were not content to prepare generic “men for others;” they were passionately devoted to forming Catholic men for converting others, the “others” being those who had abandoned Catholicism for Protestantism or secular rationalism. That was why the Jesuits were hated and feared by powerful leaders with other agendas, be they Protestant monarchs like Elizabeth I of England or rationalist politicians like Portugal’s 18th-century prime minister, the Marquis of Pombal.

Religious education in U.S. Catholic elementary schools has been improved in recent decades. And we live in something of a golden age of Catholic campus ministry at American colleges and universities. It’s Catholic secondary education in the U.S. that remains to be thoroughly reformed so that Catholic high schools prepare future leaders of the New Evangelization: leaders who will bring others to Christ, heal a deeply wounded culture, and become agents of a sane politics. Jesuit secondary education, beginning with prominent and academically excellent schools like Georgetown Prep, could and should be at the forefront of that reform.

Jesuit secondary education is unlikely to provide that leadership, however, if its self-presentation brackets God and announces itself as committed to “the greater glory” of…whatever.