On Park Avenue, a Picture of the Catholic Church Divided

Two opposing interpretations of the Second Vatican Council divide the Catholic Church. This divide is more complex than the casual observer tends to appreciate. Within the complex divide, however, is a clear, simple divide: the familiar quarrel between the Ancients and the Moderns. Each of the two parties is marked by a definite taste in liturgy, music, architecture, and art.

The Eucharist being “the source and summit of the Christian life,” it should come as no surprise that the central object of disagreement between the Catholic Ancients and the Catholic Moderns is the Mass. In the Roman rite, it can be celebrated according to the old missal or the new missal, and each one elicits from each camp an equal but opposite reaction. Here the quarrel reaches high heat. It then radiates across the full spectrum of Catholic culture.

Architectural design, for example, is often felt to signal an Ancient or a Modern bias in both doctrine and praxis. So is artistic style. The shape of the church interior (cruciform? or in the round?), the position of the tabernacle (centered on the altar? or relegated to an alcove off to the side?), the amount and the style of statuary (abundant and rich? or spare and elegant?) — all these and more are scrutinized for some sign that one of the two rival factions has marked its territory.

Architectural design, for example, is often felt to signal an Ancient or a Modern bias in both doctrine and praxis. So is artistic style.

The clear clashes between them tend to overshadow the central point on which the hard core on both sides agree. Many incisive critics of Tradition, like many incisive critics of Modernism, accept the radical proposition that the break between the preconciliar Church and the postconciliar Church is so sharp that the two are in effect distinct entities, the latter being an attempt to sweep the former into the dustbin of history — for better, in the Moderns’ view, or for worse, in the view of the Ancients.

That is the “hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture,” as Pope Benedict XVI styled it in his Christmas address to the Roman curia in 2005. For Vatican II’s most partisan detractors and supporters alike, the postconciliar Church is less a thing made new than a new thing that was bodied forth in the 1960s to replace an old, Counter-Reformation Church that was being pulled off the market.

Opposing the hermeneutic of rupture is the “‘hermeneutic of reform,’ of renewal in the continuity of the one subject-Church which the Lord has given to us,” Benedict went on to elaborate. The council, properly understood, called for tradition to be neither merely curated nor blithely abandoned but cultivated and developed. To that end Benedict recommended use of the old Mass (Vetus Ordo) alongside the new Mass (Novus Ordo), that the faith of those attached to the one might be informed and enriched by the other.

It hasn’t worked out. For an illustration of the Moderns’ determination to break the spirit of the Ancients, consider the latest from Our Saviour Church on Park Avenue, a few blocks from the offices of National Review. The story is thick with detail. Steve Skojec at OnePeterFive has collected and organized the bits and pieces of information and connected the thousand dots.

Here’s the broad outline: Our Saviour was a sleepy parish in the Murray Hill neighborhood of midtown Manhattan when Father George W. Rutler, noted author and preacher, was appointed its pastor in 2001. He breathed new life into it. He hired and collaborated with Ken Woo, an artist who filled the sanctuary with stunning iconography. It won awards. Rutler added the traditional Latin Mass to the weekly schedule. During his twelve-year term, twelve parishioners entered the seminary. That’s a lot. When Rutler arrived, he inherited a deficit. When he left, Our Saviour was running surpluses and had money in the bank.

In 2013, Rutler was reassigned to a parish on the other side of town, in Hell’s Kitchen. The incoming pastor at Our Saviour told Rutler that he would keep the Latin Mass. A few weeks into his term, he discontinued it, without notice. Last summer he started removing the icons — again, without notice.

I wrote about it in December. He never responded to my requests for an interview. Neither he nor any representative of the parish offered any public explanation for what was going on. To a friend of Woo’s, he wrote that “in this world of ‘lynching by blogs’ and since I don’t know you, I will simply state that the icons removed will be displayed in the Undercroft. Those that remain are planned to remain.” That was last year.

Plans changed. This week, some of the icons that remained and were “planned to remain” were removed. Woo, the artist, was quick to make noise on social media.

On Wednesday, breaking his eleven months’ public silence on the subject, the pastor finally acknowledged, on Facebook, that, yes, he was purging Our Saviour of its icons. It sounds like he has slated the seven still standing to come down soon. As for displaying all 31 pieces in the undercroft, or church basement, apparently he has abandoned that idea, though it’s just as well.

The stripping of the sanctuary walls and pilasters is part of a larger vision. The pastor and the art-restoration company he hired, a representative of which co-signed the Facebook post, want to make the church look like the planned interior in a watercolor that an artist painted before it was built in the 1950s. That’s their explanation. It has met with skepticism.

“I think the primary reason [that the icons have been targeted] is that he doesn’t like the ‘traditional,’” Woo tells me. The pastor’s argument that he wants to make the church conform to original architectural specs “is just an excuse he created because he was feeling the heat.” In other words, the high-sounding appeal to a kind of ressourcement comes off as a ploy.

The project was completed in 2010. Only four years later, the new pastor began tearing it down. Lesson: Think twice before contributing to a church-renovation fund.

The watercolor is pretty. The church never ended up looking like it, to my knowledge. Rutler took what he found and improved on it. Parishioners paid for that renovation. The Vatican approved and chipped in. The project was completed in 2010. Only four years later, the new pastor began tearing it down. Lesson: Think twice before contributing to a church-renovation fund.

Below the Facebook post (much of which is dedicated to a distracting, off-point discussion of LED lighting), someone commented that, if the aim was to conform to blueprints approved by the archbishop and the original pastor back in the day, before Vatican II, we should reattach the altar to the wall, should we not? (That was a reference to the traditional Latin Mass, which is typically celebrated on such an altar, and which the current pastor has indicated, in word and deed, that he dislikes.) The comment was swiftly deleted.

I agree with Maureen Mullarkey, an artist and writer, who thinks that “aesthetics is a secondary matter here. No, above all else, this is about what appears — on its face — to be a calculated effort to delete evidence of a particular priest’s presence in a place that he served and transformed.”

Shortly after his arrival in 2013, the new pastor invited a man who was a server at the Latin Mass at Our Saviour to leave the parish. He left. By now, most parishioners of a more conservative or traditional sensibility have probably moved to parishes they find more congenial. If Our Saviour has been distilled to a core who are mostly okay with the new tone, what’s wrong with that?

One possible answer is “Nothing.” We might shrug and say, “Let people sort themselves out. The Ancients are no longer welcome at Our Saviour, but the Moderns are. Good for the Moderns. Bad for the Ancients. They can go to Holy Innocents.” At that point, we’ve accepted that the Church is riven. It is, but we shouldn’t accept it.

To the chancery at the Archdiocese of New York, a parish touched by traditional Catholicism, rooted in the Latin Mass and the preconciliar Church, may seem analogous to the immigrant ethnic parish of a century ago: Old World, un-American, unassimilated, non-English-speaking, embarrassing. They see “phase me out” written all over it. To those who assumed that Latin and all the foul dust that floated in its wake were disappeared two generations ago, it must seem like nasty, stubborn mold. “Eww, I thought we painted over that.”

In that light, the impulse of the pastor to try to remove it from Our Saviour is understandable — even, on its own terms, laudable. But it’s misguided. It escalates the tension and ill will between the Ancients and the Moderns — and between the Ancient and the Modern who resides in each of us, competing for our sympathy.

The pastor has torn down, not built up, unless we count the million-dollar rectory renovation, which sounds bling, given that it’s only one man’s residence. Rutler built up that church, and his successor should have built on. Or at least left well enough alone. Instead, he hired a contractor to remove the bolts from sacred art and then pry it from the walls to which it had been attached with industrial glue. This violence to the holy icons is itself a picture, of the demolition writ large that American Catholics have been witness to in their Church for the past half century. In China and the Middle East at least it’s not an inside job.


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