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Veritatis Splendor: A Case Study and Missed Opportunity

A new development has the chance to rebuild a small piece of Christendom from the ground up. Are they up to the challenge?    

A 600-acre community is being developed in east Texas with the vision of becoming “a physical and spiritual home for Christians to protect, preserve, and proclaim all of the chief truths and teachings of Christendom.” Veritatis Splendor, named after the encyclical by Pope St. John Paul II and translated as “Splendor of Truth”, will include a grand oratory, seven Catholic institutes, a retreat center, and residences. The vision is bold and praiseworthy but when building such a community from the ground up one has the opportunity to ask: What does Christendom look like, in a visible, tangible sense? Is this project being designed in such a way that the built environment itself might further the vision of protecting, preserving, and proclaiming Christendom as a real physical community rather than an abstract intellectual project? I would argue that, at least as currently designed, it is not.

The simplest way to make this argument is to compare Veritatis Splendor to the cities and villages the founders have chosen for themselves as inspiration. “The Founders of Veritatis Splendor intend to build a grand oratory fashioned to reflect the great Cathedrals you find in the beautiful villages across Italy,” reads the community’s website. I wholeheartedly support the choice of model for their oratory, but when looking at the proposed layout it becomes abundantly clear that the influence of the Italian villages has not been carried through to the rest of the site. The development will not be reviving the Italian villages from the height of Christendom, with their dense housing, winding alleys, and vibrant street life. It won’t even be reviving Mayberry, or the Catholic immigrant neighborhoods of New York, as founder Kari Beckman implied in a recent interview with Crisis. Veritatis Splendor will be a run-of-the-mill American subdivision of two acre lots that just happens to have something approximating a Renaissance Italian cathedral plopped in the middle.

The Veritatis Splendor Master Plan, as shown on the Veritatis Splendor website.

The founders of Veritatis Splendor seek to emulate the great churches of Europe but seem to ignore the importance of the urban fabric that supports them. Walk around nearly any medieval or renaissance European city or town and you will find that the churches and the urban fabric are deeply intertwined. The church holds a central focus, serving as a landmark and a public space. Practicing Catholics in Europe have dwindled of late, but the Catholic history is still evident in the urban landscape itself. It is clear from the positions they hold that a church is not meant to be simply a place to worship at the appointed times—it is meant to be the center of all city life, a place citizens walk by and interact with on a daily basis while going about their work and leisure. The church buildings stand as a testament to Christ and Christendom, beckoning to all, even those who are not yet baptized. “If they remain silent, the very stones will cry out,” Christ said in Luke, echoing Habakkuk.

The power of these church buildings as witness is made possible not only by their central location, but also by the density and diversity of housing around them. The density provides a vibrancy and vitality, an ever-changing, living streetscape, people walking amongst one another, allowing the liturgical life of the church to easily reach and touch and interact with the life of the city. This diversity allows for the rich penthouse owner, the middle-class townhome owner, and the working-class renter to share not only the same parish but the same street, connecting the poor with opportunity for work and the rich with opportunity for true, personal charity. The young college student, the growing family, and the empty nester can live next door to one another, allowing the accumulated wisdom of generations to flow freely so that children might learn from their elders and elders might relive the joy of youth. This density and diversity allows the full breadth of the Church to be represented in a single neighborhood, so that there truly are “many members, yet one body.”

Veritatis Splendor, in contrast, places the oratory at the far northern edge of the development. There is no circulation around it; there is not even a grand avenue to draw attention toward it as the center of the life of the community. The layout and scale of the community suggests that cars will be necessary to get about, and ample parking already appears to be provided throughout. The exact layout of the oratory is still to be determined, but it seems likely that the need for parking will place it in the center of a mass of asphalt, disconnected from the life of the community as a castle is cut off by a moat. It is hard to imagine residents casually passing by on their way about their work or mingling in the plaza throughout the day.

Beyond the oratory, the development works against these kinds of daily community-building interactions through its many cul-de-sacs. The cul-de-sac, literally the “bottom of the bag,” keeps out the traveler, the stranger, the sojourner, groups that the Christian has a mission to serve. It inhibits community-building between residents, separating neighbors that are no more than 100 yards from one another as the crow flies. Imagine a child having to circumnavigate the entire development to get to the baseball field that’s just on the other side of the fence! These “dead ends” even inhibit the liturgical life of the church. Imagine how much easier it would be for a priest to make the rounds visiting the sick and homebound. Beckman herself said, “Think of it this way: if you live in downtown Mayberry, you’re definitely going to have a Fourth of July parade come through. Well here, because you live in a Catholic community, you’re going to have Catholic processions and Catholic events happen.” It is difficult to imagine such a procession when every street is a dead end.

The proposed lot layout also raises the question, will this be a complete community? Two acres is hardly enough land to till and feed a family, so there will be no true homesteads here. But two acres is also more land than the disabled veteran, the retiree, the student, or the wage laborer may want to care for. It is clear this development was designed to cater to young and middle-aged couples, likely with several children, and thanks be to God that such families exist. But in going to such great lengths to promote a particular kind of family, the development has crowded out the rest of God’s people. Such a narrow section of society cannot truly build a self-sustaining community.

I don’t want to sound like some urban snob arguing that everyone should live in high-rise condominiums. Quite the opposite, I want to commend Veritatis Splendor for setting so much space aside for hunting, fishing, archery, horseback riding, and other outdoor activities. But a complete community cannot be achieved with rows and rows of single-family homes on two-acre lots. In fact, in reserving so much space for every individual home, the layout is actually detrimental to the outdoor lifestyle Veritatis Splendor seeks to encourage.

Uherce, Czech Republic, as shown on the Veritatis Splendor website.

Take a look at Uherce, a small community in the Czech Republic, highlighted on the Veritatis Splendor website as a visual example of a traditional Catholic village. Uherce could hardly be called urban, but the layout is decidedly dense and diverse. The village sits comfortably on less than 70 acres, and you would be hard pressed to find a single lot more than half an acre in size. Residents are never more than a 15 minute walk from the church, the market, or the pub, but neither are they ever far from 1,000+ acres of fields and forests. By concentrating the living space the outdoor opportunities are multiplied. It is easy to see why the founders of Veritatis Splendor found this village so appealing, especially in the context of Christendom, but one wonders why they have not chosen to emulate it more closely.

Veritatis Splendor is a missed opportunity. The founders seem to be relying heavily on the seven planned institutes it will contain to do the heavy lifting in the work of preserving Christendom. But wedon’tneedanymoreinstitutes. What we need is strong faithful communities committed to the hard work of living out the Splendor of Truth. As the communities living out the original “Benedict Option” knew well, the built environment has an important part to play in forming intentional Christian communities. With a 600-acre blank slate, the support of the bishop, and the support of so many of the laity, it could be possible to build something truly revolutionary, truly oriented towards the life of the Church.

Instead, Veritatis Splendor looks to suburbia, the stronghold of beige churches and bland liturgies, the place originally designed so the affluent could escape the demand of charity imposed by the city and the demand of toilsome labor imposed by the farmstead. Such an artificial and sterile environment was not built with the Christian mission in mind and we cannot bring back Christendom simply by giving suburbia a Renaissance facade.

I want Veritatis Splendor to succeed, to be one of the seeds from which Christendom can be reborn. But in order to make this vision a reality, the founders must be unafraid to look beyond the bland comfort of the suburban structure of the postwar United States. Look to the messy but tight-knit villages that are home to the great cathedrals. Look to the demanding yet fulfilling communal life of the monasteries which preserved the seed of civilization through the aftermath of the fall of Rome. Look ahead and trust in our God who says, “behold, I make all things new.”

Nathan Bird is a husband, father of two, licensed civil engineer, and urban design enthusiast living in Chattanooga, Tennessee. He is always happy to discuss urban design, especially in the context of Catholic Social Teaching, with anyone who is interested. He can be reached at [email protected].

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