Las Vegas, NV: A local man recently jailed on a burglary attempt has published a provocative editorial essay in the diocesan newspaper on what drove him to a life of crime and sin: plain and lackluster architecture in Catholic churches built during Vatican II.
James Richard Willis, Jr., says that if the buildings "had just been done nice and Gothic like in the old days, I would have been moved to goodness rather than be the two-bit thief I am today."
Willis, who has been convicted on five counts of burglary, three counts of minor assault, one count of embezzlement, and the refusal to pay for 68 parking tickets received between January and June of 2005, uses his essay to explain why he embraced a life of crime. "Really, the message I got from the whitewashed walls, the abstract stained glass, and the minimalist symbolic representations was that life was a meaningless crapshoot, so I may as well lie, cheat, steal and beg my way through it. I see myself as being abandoned by Church architecture, and this lack of aesthetic guidance contributed to my crimes."
The essay has been a topic of much discussion in the diocese. The Ironic Catholic secured an exclusive interview.
I.C.: Mr. Willis, it's clear you don't appreciate the minimalist architecture of the first Vatican II generation, but to say it is a direct cause of a life of crime seems...well, heretical, for one.
Willis: Oh, you're going to preach to me about original sin, right? That everyone is born with a tendency to choose the wrong, and that we are ultimately responsible for our own sinful acts, if we understand what we are doing?
I.C.: As a matter of fact, yes.
Willis: Can't I say their original sin is worse than my original sin? I mean, look at that bell tower.
I.C. You can say it, but I don't think the Catechism ranks degrees of inherited original sin.
Willis: All I know is that I was a good and faithful Catholic, attending Mass for years in that whitewashed circular orchestra pit with a table and boom mikes, and I still live in moral squalor. There must be a reason for this, and that abstract worship arena is burned into my memory like a bad re-run of Trading Spaces.
I.C.: Mr. Willis, how do you then respond to people who say that you still heard the Word of God every Sunday, presumably participated in a licit Eucharist every Sunday, and were surrounded in worship by the People of God every Sunday? Aren't the people, the sacraments, the Word received and heard--the essential piece that makes a Church? Shouldn't that have been sufficient formation of conscience?
Willis: (long pause.) You know, maybe it was my Catholic schools I need to blame after all.
A liturgist for the diocese, who preferred to remain anonymous, said that the low-key architectural presentation of that period helped counter the neon flash of the Vegas strip. "The minimalism says, 'We are about something different here.' Plus, Gothic is damned expensive."
Diocesan spokespeople have responded with "no comment."