Architects today are buzzing about green buildings, solar alternatives,
and LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental
Design) certification. What is this all about and how does it
relate to Catholic liturgical architecture? "Green" is a sustainable
way of building that respects the environment. How can
a building project meet this goal? It requires research to find
solutions for environmental issues. For faith communities, it
also involves an intrinsic commitment to fostering respect and
justice for the whole earth.
Many environmentalists document the beginnings of the modern
environmental movement with the publication of Rachel
Carson’s book Silent Spring in 1962. The author associated
deformed animals and plants with artificial pollutants in the
environment. Roman Catholics, however, have had an awareness
of environmental destruction caused by human action
for far longer. Beginning with Rerum novarum in 1891, official
Catholic documents have called attention to our responsibility
to care for the earth, share all that it produces, and provide for
just distribution. Rerum novarum states that responsible sharing
is a requirement for peace and justice. Pope John XXIII’s
encyclical Pacem in terris, promulgated in 1963, echoes this
value and tells us that justice is clearly and inextricably linked
to our relationship with the earth and all that it produces.
These teachings culminated in The Ecological Crisis: A
Common Responsibility, the message delivered by Pope John
Paul II at the World Day of Peace in 1990. This was the first
papal address entirely devoted to environmental concerns.
Here, John Paul raised specific environmental issues such as
acid rain, the greenhouse effect, and deforestation. He warned
that consumerism and instant self-gratification were the root
causes for what he called an ecological crisis. They prompt
actions that fail to respect the earth and the proper distribution
of its fruits. He used the opportunity of World Peace Day
to call for concrete initiatives to combat what he called a moral
issue because our personal values and choices affect the well
being of future generations (#14).
In 1991, the U.S. bishops identified seven Catholic moral
and spiritual traditions as “integral dimensions of ecological
responsibility” in Renewing the Earth: An Invitation to Reflection
and Action on Environment in Light of Catholic Social Teaching.
The first of these traditions speaks of a God-centered, sacramental
view of the universe. From our scriptural beginnings in Genesis,
when God created the world and pronounced it “good,” we find
belief in an immanent God and an incarnational theology in
which God took on human flesh to become one of us. Based on
this understanding, we believe God to be present throughout
the created world.
Giving thoughtful consideration to our scriptural foundations
and Roman Catholic tradition helps us to understand
the importance of respecting God’s creation, as well as the
moral imperative for right relationships and reverence for the
whole earth. This provides a larger context for seeking ways
to incorporate sustainable design into building and renovating
churches. Does this mean we have to abandon traditional
forms and detailing in favor of a rustic or a high-tech look? No.
Sustainable architecture is not a question of style; it is about
choices made during the design process.
Sustainable design views the building holistically and
observes how it interacts with the environment. This awareness
informs decisions about efficient energy, whether to build
on a watershed area, or choosing not to disturb a natural prairie
environment. Additional deliberation can include conserving
water, incorporating geothermal heating or gray waste water
that reuses water through re-filtering systems, or how to select
materials outside and inside the building. The planning process
for sustainable design can take longer because of the research
needed and because we may need to change our thinking process
in order to see the bigger picture.
- Invite the building committee to study Catholic documents
on justice and environmental issues.
- Study the natural setting of your site, the view and also
natural heating and cooling options: sun in the winter
and cool breezes in the summer.
- Ask LEED to inspect and certify your project. Consider
dedicating space to serve meals to the poor or elderly or
to house families in need.
- Provide views of the natural world by incorporating outdoor
areas for prayer.
- Encourage “reversible renovation.” Reversible renovations
allow for building changes to be reversed if necessary
in the future. Sloping a flat floor may be helpful now, but
it may prove to be more costly when adding a later addition
to the building.
- Select structural and mechanical systems and materials
that are ecologically and environmentally friendly.
Cork and linoleum are natural materials, not synthetic
ones. High-energy efficient HVAC systems also support
a sustainable environment.
- Educate the whole congregation about the values, spirituality,
and theology that support sustainable decisions.
The Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary (IHM),
in Monroe, Michigan, chose to “think green” when they renovated
their 376,000-square-foot motherhouse. Rather than
building a new, smaller facility, they chose to reduce the impact
on the environment by building one of the largest privately
funded geothermal fields in the country, with a high-energy
efficient mechanical system and a restored oak savanna ecosystem.
Their efforts produced an award-winning model for sustainable
living and building that inspired the state of Michigan
to form a Green Building Council. The Sisters also formed
the River Raisin Institute to promote education for care of
the earth. The Sisters’ recent plan for the renovation of their
Motherhouse Chapel will also value sustainability.
The proposed renovation honors this commitment, as
wells as the needs of their changing congregation. In addition to
respecting the existing architecture with a reversible renovation
plan, many existing materials will be repositioned and reused.
Any new materials will be chosen with sustainable qualities. In
this renovation, sustainability brought about a congruence of
faith and practice that will have a lasting impact far beyond the
current generation of their community.
Being Catholic and being “green” is more than an architectural
rage. Sustainable architecture supports a Catholic
spirituality that respects the sacredness of all creation and a
tradition of justice that calls everyone to right relationship with
one another and the world around us.
© 2013 Archdiocese of Chicago: Liturgy Training Publications,
3949 South Racine Ave, Chicago IL 60609
is a liturgical design consultant and art historian
who currently serves as adjunct faculty at the University
of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota, www.cfrenning.com.