Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Where I'm Coming From

I thought it might be a good idea given the often complicated issues discussed here and on other sites to take a few moments and lay out the “baseline” that I’m working from in any discussion/ argument/ article about music in the Catholic Church. There are some things that I simply accept as fact that are obviously not as widely accepted by some in terms of issues about Catholic music. So in short, this is where I’m coming from when I talk about Catholic music.

1. Official Documents of the Church are the primary source for what the Church says about Sacred and Liturgical music. The documents express the preferences and restrictions put upon music that is to be used in Catholic liturgy, often in simple language, but often in very concise legal wording. Some documents make references, often in footnotes and end-notes, to previous documents that may seem obscure or outdated. They are not… they are the foundation for the liturgical law of the Catholic Church. This is what Pope Benedict is speaking of when he speaks of the Hermeneutic of Continuity…interpreting in light of the past and of tradition. A strong familiarity with the major music documents of the 20th and 21st centuries is really critical when delving into a discussion on Catholic sacred and liturgical music.


Be aware that there are specific meanings for some terms that are too often used as “generic” concepts. Among the most often misused in discussions about Catholic music are:

Sacred Music- Catholic liturgical documents define this term more narrowly than the common meaning of “music composed for use in worship”. Pius X articulated the modern definition in his 1903 Motu Proprio, and that definition has been referred to in all later documents up to the present:

“Gregorian Chant has always been regarded as the supreme model for sacred music, so that it is fully legitimate to lay down the following rule: the more closely a composition for church approaches in its movement, inspiration and savor the Gregorian form, the more sacred and liturgical it becomes.” (TLS II – par.3)

The need for a strict attention to the traditional meaning of this term was argued most recently in the 2003 Chirograph on Sacred Music of Pope John Paul II where he noted:

“Today, moreover, the meaning of the category "sacred music" has been broadened to include repertoires that cannot be part of the celebration without violating the spirit and norms of the Liturgy itself”. (Chirograph on Sacred Music- par.4)

The Church’s liturgical documents, even those from Vatican II, assume that all music used in Catholic liturgy is Sacred Music as defined above.

Liturgical Music- Sacred music which is composed on liturgical texts (texts from the Ordinary or Propers of the Mass) is specifically referred to as “liturgical music”. This would include the Entrance Antiphon, Kyrie, Gloria, Psalm or Gradual, Offertory Antiphon, Sanctus, Our Father, Agnus Dei and Communion Antiphon, as well as the sung settings of the dialogues and prayers of the Priest.

Some interpretations of Vatican II documents allow for the substitution of other selections for some of the above (the Entrance, Offertory and Communion Antiphons), however such selections must still be sacred music.

Hymn – Hymns are settings of metrical religious texts in strophic form (the same music used for all verses). There are some hymns (chant hymns) which are in the category of Sacred Music (Adoro te devote, Tantum Ergo, Veni Sancte Spiritus, Salve Regina), but not all hymns are sacred music, at least in the stricter definition.

Religious Music – Settings of metrical or prose religious texts in either song-form (verse/ refrain) ,through-composed or free-form. Such music is neither Sacred Music (by virtue of its form) nor is it liturgical music (by virtue of its texts). A considerable portion of the contemporary religious repertoire falls into this category. Musicae Sacrae Disciplinae clearly notes that this type of music is not to be used in the liturgy:

D. Religious music.

54. The type of music which inspires its hearers with religious sentiments, and even devotion, and yet, because of its special character (form) cannot be used in liturgical functions, is nevertheless worthy of high esteem, and ought to be cultivated in its proper time. This music justly merits, therefore, the title "religious music".

55. The proper places for the performance of such music are concert halls, theaters, or auditoriums, but not the church, which is consecrated to the worship of God.
(MSD #54-55)

3. Fact vs. Opinion.
Discussions and arguments present a variety of facts and opinions. However, it’s critical to keep straight which statements are points of fact and which are matters of opinion. Heated arguments too often devolve into statements such as “well…that’s your opinion!”
Perhaps that’s true, and perhaps not. If the issue being discussed is a matter of opinion, such a statement could be perfectly valid. An example:

“Awesome God is an excellent song… I think it rocks!”

“Really? The melody sounds like something out of a Barry White ballad.”

“Well…that’s your opinion!”

OK… here we’re talking about something that really is a matter of opinion. People like some songs and don’t like others. That’s a matter of opinion. However this is very different from the following example.

“I like using a really lively song like Awesome God for the Responsorial to get people excited about the Liturgy of the Word.”

“Awesome God? That’s really not appropriate for the Responsorial you know.”

“Well…that’s your opinion! I think it works just fine.”

It might be opinion that Awesome God is a good song. But it is a point of fact that the Responsorial must be a setting of the Psalm from either the Graduale or the Lectionary, and that another song or hymn cannot be substituted. That isn’t a matter of opinion. In this example, the speaker is simply wrong regardless of how he (or she) feels about the suitability of the song.

We may not always like the facts, but don’t claim that they are merely opinions when they are actually facts. If you disagree with what the actual documents say, then just say so and there will be no argument… except that you are admittedly disregarding the laws set forth by the Church. It’s intellectually dishonest to categorize liturgical laws or Church teachings as mere opinion which can be disregarded according to our personal likes and dislikes, even if it is a law or teaching which a great many people routinely disregard. This leads to the next point…

4. The views of the popular majority are useful in discussions about political issues where majority opinion forms law. The fact that an overwhelming majority of the people in a city approves of and desires the construction of a Toll Road is a compelling fact when discussing the wisdom of building such a road. That’s what Democracy is all about! Liturgy, however, is not Democratic, and majority opinion has very little place in a discussion about liturgical issues. “We are the Church” is a great slogan, but attributing to it the force of law leads to the same kind of confusion as the idea that we are “all baptized into the common priesthood”. All baptized persons are not Priests, nor are we all members of the hierarchy which is rightfully given the power to determine laws and doctrine for the Church.

Therefore, although a great many people enjoy this or that type of music, that fact does not lend it legitimacy unless it is already given legitimacy by the actual law of the Church. If a great many people enjoy the Chanted Introit, be assured that it is perfectly legitimate to use it…. not because the people like it, but rather because it’s already acknowledged as the primary choice for that role. If a great many people would rather hear a CD of Andre Boccelli singing “The Prayer” with Celine Dion as the Introit, you can be assured that is not allowed regardless of how many people would like to hear it. Majority opinion cannot legitimize something which contradicts the Church’s law (and that would contradict a number of them). Consensus does not create law in the Catholic Church. The above example only serves to demonstrate that a great many people are either unaware or unconcerned about what the Church teaches, and it’s absurd to suggest that such a group should dictate liturgical norms!

There are so many more points that could be included here, but this has already become longer than I had hoped! Perhaps I will add more to it at a later time…


Spes Eminus said...

Nicely done, Chironomo. And you "ain't just putting on the Ritz".

For further clarification, though, we are all baptized into the common priesthood of the Faithful. (Check your wording) Some become members of the ministerial or hierarchical priesthood.

Chironomo said...


Yes, I know the wording... the problem is that many people confuse the actual wording and say that we are all "baptized into the common priesthood" or worse yet... "baptized into the priesthood" to justify everything from laity presiding at Eucharist to Women Priests. Thanks for the check though...

Dad29 said...

Nice summary!

Scelata said...

Haven't been keeping up with my blog-reading lately, and missed this.

Excellent, excellent.

Covers everything and treats the situation with the opprobrium it deserves, without inspiring the reader to ask, "So, bitter much?"

(Save the Liturgy, Save the World)