Even those who know nothing about Catholic theology know about Catholic cathedrals. Religions in general have a way of inspiring great architecture, for sacred objects and sacred time requires sacred space. St. Peter’s, Notre Dame, Hagia Sophia, Canterbury, Chartres, Reims, St. John the Divine, Westminster Abbey, and seemingly countless others tend to be top tourist destinations even for non-believers. Everyone wanders in, looks about, and inevitably looks up — which, at least in the case of Gothic architecture, was the whole point.
The scale is impressive enough, but for the faithful, cathedrals can be only grand, for they house the “body, blood, soul and divinity” of Jesus, according to the doctrine of the Real Presence. Whether one believes the doctrine or not is somewhat irrelevant: the designers, builders, and curators of the cathedrals did, and those attending services did and still do believe it. If one believes that Jesus is really present in the host (which is the heart of the doctrine of the Real Presence), then it’s only logical to build the best tabernacle imaginable to house said host.
This goes a long way in answering the objection a friend from the States raised as we wandered in and out of churches in Krakow just K’s and my wedding. “How does this help anyone spiritually?” he asked. The Catholic answer is, “They weren’t built primarily for man but for God.”
Whomever they were built for seems almost irrelevant when I’m standing in the middle of a soaring cathedral, wondering at the engineering required both to design and to construct such spaces.