The Crystal Cathedral's Philip Johnson Problem

Story Stream
recent articles

You may have seen the recent news that the Orange County Catholic diocese has bought the famed Crystal Cathedral with the intent to convert the Protestant church into a Catholic cathedral.

I'm hardly the first to suggest that no Catholic diocese in the country would have commissioned the architect of that church to design a cathedral, if Philip Johnson were alive today.

Johnson was famously a gay atheist. Less famously, he was an enthusiastic Nazi collaborator and propagandist from the 1930s through World War II. And he was a huge fan at the time of the hateful Catholic radio broadcaster Fr. John Coughlin.

Decades later, Johnson was quoted as describing Hitler as " a terrible disappointment, putting aside the social problem..." As if one could put it aside?

(And yes, the incongruity of a gay Nazi is not lost on historians, though Johnson was still deeply in the closet in the 1930s and 1940s.)

Those aspects, of course, were hardly the only defining aspects of his long life. He died in 2005 at 98, after more than 50 years of work as an influential and often controversial architect.

But here's an ethical and religious question: Should it matter to Catholics who will one day worship in that building that the designer held so many values in such sharp opposition to their faith?

During his long career, Johnson worked on several major religious and public art designs -- all for clients who were not likely to know much about his personal life. Those commissions included a synagogue, a multifaith chapel dedicated to gratitude, and the John F. Kennedy memorial in Dallas.

And of course, the Crystal Cathedral. In a biography of Johnson released a year before the architect's death, author Franz Schulze described how that assignment came about. Dr. Robert Schuller was already the pastor of a California megachurch and the host of the Hour of Power TV broadcast. He wanted a building to match his ambitions and he'd seen photos of one of Johnson's designs. In 1975 he simply showed up at Johnson's office and hired the firm.

It's safe to say that Schuller knew nothing about the more controversial aspects of Johnson's life. In fact, those details were outed broadly only in that 1994 biography, "Philip Johnson: Life and Work."

So should that matter to Catholic worshippers? On the one hand, the building speaks for itself. On the other hand, should we think about the artist when we view the art?

Johnson is hardly the only artist about whom such questions can be asked. Picasso was notorious in his treatment of women. The famous artist is often described as a "misogynist." But if he'd been simple Pablo, the house painter, he'd likely have been called "abusive." Has any museum dumped its collection of Picassos?

T.S. Eliot turns out to have been bitterly anti-Semitic in some of his writings. Ditto H. L. Mencken. Should that color how we read or appreciate The Wasteland or Mencken's essays?

That's an issue for anybody, but a more important question for a faith tradition. I went looking for an expert on Catholic ethics to offer guidance. I found the Rev. John A. Coleman, S.J., associate pastor of Saint Ignatius Church in San Francisco. Coleman was the Charles Casassa Professor of Social Values at Loyola Marymount University from 1997-2009.

"Grace, strangely, can work through bad people too. As you mention, I do enjoy Picasso and would not have thought it totally out of hand to hang a Picasso in a church. The homage is not to the man but to the art," he told me.

"Surely, some of the Renaissance painters whose work is found in Churches -- one thinks of Caravaggio -- were less than moral and stellar people. But would anyone want to remove the 'Calling of Matthew' from the church of San Luigi in Rome or Caravaggio's beheading of John the Baptist in Malta?"

Ah, Caravaggio. According to Andrew Graham-Dixon's recent biography of the artist, Caravvagio was a thug and a killer. A sexual libertine with men and women. And a painter of luminous, inspirational talent.

So Catholics who visit the transmogrified Crystal Cathedral may end up turning to a famous verse in the New Testament: "And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God..."

Show comments Hide Comments