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American Catholics and the Church of Tomorrow

Building Churches for the Future, 1925–1975

Publication supported by the Bevington Fund

In the mid-twentieth century, American Catholic churches began to shed the ubiquitous spires, stained glass, and gargoyles of their European forebears, turning instead toward startling and more angular structures of steel, plate glass, and concrete.  But how did an institution like the Catholic Church, so often seen as steeped in inflexible traditions, come to welcome this modernist trend?  
Catherine R. Osborne’s innovative new book finds the answer: the alignment between postwar advancements in technology and design and evolutionary thought within the burgeoning American Catholic community.  A new, visibly contemporary approach to design, church leaders thought, could lead to the rebirth of the church community of the future. As Osborne explains, the engineering breakthroughs that made modernist churches feasible themselves raised questions that were, for many Catholics, fundamentally theological. Couldn’t technological improvements engender worship spaces that better reflected God's presence in the contemporary world? Detailing the social, architectural, and theological movements that made modern churches possible, American Catholics and the Churches of Tomorrow breaks important new ground in the history of American Catholicism, and also presents new lines of thought for scholars attracted to modern architectural and urban history.

288 pages | 68 halftones | 7 x 10 | © 2018

Architecture: History of Architecture

History: American History, Urban History

Religion: American Religions, Christianity


“Highly recommended. . .This lively and engrossing book is more intellectual history and historical theology than architectural analysis.”


"Anyone already aware of the history of the liturgical art and architecture movements in the United States will appreciate Osborne's skillful research, her case studies, interviews, and citations. Those who may have forgotten the work of the pioneers will be reminded that those visions are not yet fully realized and that more contemporary chapters on places of worship need to be written. Anyone totally unfamiliar with this important piece of unprecedented history must read this book before uttering another word about church art and architecture."


“This book provides both a dazzling synthesis and a powerful new vision of modern church architecture. Osborne situates American modernist churches within the broad and deep context of Catholic progressive thought, governed by the biological paradigm of evolutionary change and organic development. She shows how concepts of church design were linked to understandings of the Church itself, beginning well before the Second Vatican Council. This should be required reading for architects and architectural historians, but also for students of Catholic thought and culture generally.”

Richard Kieckhefer, Northwestern University

American Catholics and the Church of Tomorrow shows how by the mid-twentieth century, certain aspects of modernity began to affect the tradition-bound Catholic Church. The impact was seen in the Church’s changing outlook on church design and furnishing, on social issues such as psychedelic drug experimentation and civil rights activism, and on the sacred liturgy itself. Osborne’s book is accomplished, well-written, and thoroughly researched.”

Paula M. Kane, University of Pittsburgh

Table of Contents



Chapter 1
The Biological Paradigm

Chapter 2
Modeling the Church

Chapter 3
Theology in Concrete

Chapter 4
Pilgrims of the Future

Chapter 5
The Secular City

Chapter 6
“What Is a Church?”

Selected Bibliography

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