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  • American Catholics and the Church of Tomorrow: Building Churches for the Future, 1925–1975 by Catherine R. Osborne
  • Jillian Plummer
Catherine R. Osborne, American Catholics and the Church of Tomorrow: Building Churches for the Future, 1925–1975 ( Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2018), 288 pages.

Catherine Osborne's American Catholics and the Church of Tomorrow historicizes one of the most dramatic changes of the U.S. Catholic Church in the late twentieth century: the movement away from medieval-inspired churches to shopping mall chapels, churches with ecumenical spaces, and floating congregations. And yet as Osborne shows, this movement away from medieval architecture was also about new theology. Catholic modernists "claimed the future of churches as vital to a renewed ecclesiology (or theory about the nature of the Church), and as critically connected to a renewed eschatology (the theology of the redemption of creation)" (4). Through an analysis of buildings and architectural plans as well as through the voices of those people who imagined, built, and used these spaces, Osborne argues that how American Catholics imagined their churches intersected with how they envisioned the future.

Across six chapters, Osborne suggests that American Catholics' engagement with evolutionary science, modern architectural trends, and new theology espoused before and simultaneously with Vatican II fueled conversations about the parish of the future. She focuses this analysis on the period between 1925 to 1975. Most visions for the future church were not built in the period before the Second Vatican Council. Yet in the early twentieth century, Osborne shows how American Catholics borrowed images from architectural discourse, which used biological metaphors, and language from the [End Page 97] theology of Henri de Lubac, S.J., and Yves Congar, O.P., which characterized the Church as "living" and "organic," to discuss futuristic churches. By the mid-twentieth century, Osborne illustrates how the availability of reinforced concrete opened up new possibilities for architects who imagined constructing churches that might unify a congregation during Mass and also focus a congregation's attention on the altar (80, 100, 102).

In the second half of the book, Osborne details how American Catholics used the eschatology elaborated by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, S.J., Harvey Cox, and the Second Vatican Council to experiment with where the celebration of Mass took place (14). For example, she discusses how the theology articulated in the Second Vatican Council's "Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World" (Gaudium et Spes) and Harvey Cox's The Secular City inspired American Catholics' new visions for urban parishes in the mid-1960s. Encouraged by this theology that blurred the divide between sacred and secular space, American Catholics attempted to increase the visibility of the Church in the inner-city among marginalized populations. Other Catholics, influenced by this same theology, envisioned creating shared spaces that might foster ecumenism. Yet by the late 1960s and early 1970s, especially with the implementation of the Council's "Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy" (Sacrosanctum Concilium) and its continued reinterpretation among the faithful, American Catholics began to raise more radical questions about what exactly a church ought to be. In order to discuss this post-conciliar period of uncertainty, Osborne focuses her attention on American Catholics who formed "non-territorial parishes." The community of John XXIII in Oklahoma City, for instance, decided not to construct buildings in order to avoid debt so that they had more freedom to serve their local community and worship in different locations across the city (212, 213). While Osborne alludes to the conflict among American Catholics in the period after the Council, future scholarship will more comprehensively reveal the uneasy reaction by some Catholics to these futuristic churches.

One of the most impressive feats of the book is Osborne's wide-ranging analysis of American Catholic modernist architecture across the United States. She considers futuristic churches from coast to coast: from the construction of the Chapel of the Holy Cross in Sedona, Arizona, to sanctuary renovations in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Over the course of this book, readers learn that discussions about the Church's future in relationship to their worship spaces transpired among American Catholics in seminaries, in convents, in the pews, and in non-territorial parishes...


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pp. 97-99
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