The National Cathedral: No, It’s Not Catholic

While much of the news coverage of yesterday’s earthquake here on the East Coast of the United States was focused on the commuter problems and apartment/office building damage, I was captivated by the news of the damage to Washington National Cathedral, the giant, Gothic Revival Episcopalian church that is the highest point in the city. It is, despite appearances to the contrary, not a Catholic building.  I have been surprised to read quite a few comments on Twitter and elsewhere that people are, for some reason, unaware of this distinction.

Anyone who has been to Washington knows that the National Cathedral can be seen from all over town. The structure took about a century to build, and is somewhat reminiscent of the mainly 13th-14th century Lincoln Cathedral, in England, which of course was built by Catholics before the Protestant Reformation.  It was originally supposed to be built about where L’Enfant Plaza now stands, but the site was later moved up to near the intersection of Wisconsin Avenue and Massachusetts Avenue (aka “Embassy Row”) north of Georgetown/Glover Park.  It  is an architecturally and historically significant building, as you know if you have seen any of the Presidential funerals that have taken place there in recent years.

The fact that as a result of yesterday’s earthquake the Cathedral has lost some of its decorative elements, including several of the pinnacles – one of which could fall any moment, as shown in the image below – is not as disturbing as the fact that there are, according to various news outlets, cracks in one or more of the flying buttresses. While no one is foreseeing a Beauvais situation, which would be pretty spectacularly bad, medieval construction methods as practiced by 20th century builders always make me a bit nervous.  Hopefully the problem can be addressed speedily, and modern technology through the use of various computers and technical equipment will make sure that a large crash does not take place.

Readers both Catholic and otherwise should not confuse the “National Cathedral”, which is Protestant, with the “National Shrine”, i.e. the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, which is Catholic, and on the other side of the city.  St. Matthew’s Cathedral in the center of downtown is the Catholic cathedral for the Archdiocese of Washington, and is considerably smaller than either the National Cathedral or the National Shrine, or “The Basilica”, as DC Catholics tend simply to refer to it.  At the present time the city only has one basilica, but of course if we ever get a second one, things may start to get confusing.

Truthfully, the presently-lone Basilica is a fairly awful building, apart from the crypt church. It is substantially larger than the National Cathedral, though built in a sort of Neo-Byzantine style instead of Neo-Gothic. And while it can also be seen all over the city, it is not a view that I can particularly commend. It looks something like a cross between a fantasy mosque from “I Dream of Jeannie”, and a matte painting building of the planet of Coruscant in “Star Wars”.

That being said, while some elements of the Basilica, when examined up close, are actually better than the sum of its parts, personally I have never been a huge fan of the National Cathedral at all, when examined up close.  It is one of those structures which looks better from a distance.  Some of its details – like the “Creation” sequence over the West Front – are, in truth, quite pleasing.  However, it is something of a majestic pastiche, which on examination of the details makes one think less, rather than more, of the architecture.  It is a modern Protestant attempt to copy old Catholic ideas, and as a Catholic, I always gets the sense when visiting this building that it is lacking in some way.

This puts me in mind of the time a few years ago that a friend took me to see the church off Times Square in Manhattan known as “Smoky St. Mary’s”, which I had never previously heard of.  We walked around with him pointing out the various altars, images, and so on, and at the conclusion he asked what I thought of it. I explained that it was nice, but that he was trying to trick me because it was clearly not a Catholic Church.  There was something about it that seemed like someone playing dress up, despite the candles, images of saints, and so on.

Even so, let not the reader think that I am pleased in any way to see the damage the building has suffered. Fortunately no one was injured, but the work to repair the structure is going to be more complicated than simply tacking up some siding or running a row of brick.  You cannot drop by the local home supply store and pick up carved, Indiana granite finials.   My best wishes to the community at the National Cathedral as they go about making sure their house of worship is safe, and that it can be repaired and restored soon.

Detail of a badly damaged pinnacle at Washington National Cathedral.

One thought on “The National Cathedral: No, It’s Not Catholic

  1. awwww. I love the National Cathedral. And I honestly don’t think I can agree with your notion of parroting. Clearly, the Gothic Revival stems from a fundamentally Catholic tradition, but it stands in its own right as a powerful aesthetic movement, and one perfectly at home in the culture of English Protestantism. Unfortunately, in our modern times the Episcopalians have largely abandoned true Faith, but that doesn’t mean that the symbols are empty. Sometimes the meaning is present in the symbol (which is why I find places like this so abhorrent.)

    I think a better example of what you describe are the great (and by that I mean large and ostentatious) Mormon temples scattered around the US. They employ a wide variety of ecclesiastic architecture motiffs, but on such a grand and exaggerated scale and without reference to anything actually transcendent and heavenly. The Silver Spring temple, for example, is square, and focused internally (though its spires reach the heavens); in contrast, the National Cathedral is a traditional cruciform structure, and at the heart stands an altar. (It even faces East!)

    Of course, I wish it was ours! But it is not devoid of meaning, and certainly it inspires many an individual in their life in the Faith (myself included). In that way, it fulfills it’s purpose; it is a true church.

    Regardless, may I direct your attention to Tom Wolfe’s marvelous obituary of one of the sculptors of the Cathedral, an unsung DC artist, Frederick E. Hart:


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