We live in times that are cynical about anything said to be universal. We are constantly told that such things do not exist: no universal morality, ethics, or meaning, and certain no universal aesthetic. What is true for some is not true for others, and what we regard as true is largely connected to accidents of identity: sex, race, class, and plight in life.
This perspective represents a serious challenge to Christianity, a faith that is forever bound up with universal truth. But today, people sensitive to the ethos refer only to their personal attachment to a particular faith tradition, as if to remove faith as far as possible from any universal claim.
The ethos presents a special problem for sacred music, an attribute of which is said to its universality. If truth is dictated by identity, and all meaning subjectively determined and judged, then there can be no music that can have universal properties.
Catholic musicians deal with this problem in a very intense way. The Church's music, like the Church's doctrine, embraces the idea of universals: some music is right for her liturgy and some is not. At the same time, our society thinks of music as purely a matter of taste, and these tastes are demographically arbitrary.
The problem here is equating the other-worldly and rationally impossible project we call liturgy--from God, to God, about God--with everyday standards of aesthetic criticism, which do indeed contain a large arbitrary element simply because they do not seek the same result.
It is undeniable, for example, that choice in music in the world at large tends to be allocated by such verifiable empirical data as SAT scores among the biggest teen buyers of music. It turns out that the patterns are overwhelming: the higher the SAT score, the more likely it is that any individual is going to be attracted to "classical music."
Whenever we talk like this, a immediate confusion enters concerning cause and effect. Once the experts start linking Bach and Mozart with intelligence, the commercial mavens get work selling "Bach for Babies," with the idea that if you play this music in crib, your baby will gain IQ points. That's a great theory for fobbing off CDs of music people should be listening to anyway--so I'm all for it!--but the theory is dubious at best. It's less likely that Bach makes you smart but rather that smart people are more likely to listen to classical music.
But forget the science (junk or not) for a minute and consider the sociology of it. We all have demographic associations with certain types of concert or casual-listening music. We have a picture in our minds of who listens to what music, whether it is country music or alternative rock or rap or Mahler. We don't need the data to demonstrate this to us.
So it has become with the music we want in worship. It is striking how in the Protestant world, these art preferences sort themselves out in a predictable way. The First Baptist Church will offer music that is of a more "highbrow" sort that a Baptist church named after a neighborhood street or lake. An independent evangelical sect called Victory Prayer Center is going to have pop rock with Christian themes. The Episcopal Churches take a different approach. In the American South, you will find some of the most uplifting music and best performances at the African Methodist Episcopal denomination.
When non-Catholics shop for a denomination to join, the music at the house of worship signals certain things that the shoppers want to know. Who will my friends be? What kind of person do I want my daughter to marry? With what sort of people do I feel the closest identity? If my denomination and particular house of worship is going to be a primary social circle, whom to I want to be in it from a personal and professional point of view? The music used by the institutions embodies information about all these social factors.
One of the great struggles that people have when converting to Catholicism is the realization that we must move beyond these social and demographic considerations. We must put the demands of truth--the truth of history, the claims of the Catholic Church, the access to the sacraments of provide grace--above issues of sociology, demographics, and personal preference.
Truth be told, this is one of the hardest aspects of being a Catholic. You go to the parish that you are given, regardless of its members and regardless of the priest. In larger cities, there is some degree of choice but in most places, we do what we must. We rub shoulders with people who are not like us, people we can't imagine being part of a close circle. Different races, different levels of education, different ways of speaking and dressing -- the Catholics are almost always a heterogeneous bunch.
We choose to be Catholic, not to be part of a fixed social network. The micro-society we inherit after that is secondary because we are united in a more profound way by the liturgy and the sacraments. By comparison, the Protestant world has organized itself the way civic clubs or dinner parties organize themselves: they group according to group characteristics, which is the major reason that non-Catholic worship communities strike us as surprisingly heterogeneous.
In light of this, special demands are placed on Catholic musicians to use music that embraces what unites us and allows Catholic communities to thrive, understanding that anyone who is choosing their religion by social considerations alone is not likely to be interested in the Catholic faith to begin with. If we attempt to jump into the existing rivalrous market of demographic stop-'n'-shop, we are surely going to lose. There is always a body of believers out there who can do this better than we can.
And there is another factor here to consider. To seek to appeal to a certain group, we necessarily alienate other groups. We've all had the experience of car pooling or riding in the car with someone who has the radio tuned to a station we find egregious. So it is when we choose this over that form of secular music for our worship. We cannot and will not agree so long as we are choosing on subjective grounds alone.
This is the great error made variously in the history of the faith, mostly recently in the 1960s and 1970s in the U.S. when Catholics attempted to tailor-make their liturgy to blend in with a slice of time in order to win the hearts of a certain age demographic that temporarily believed its wishes were more important than anything else. To do this ended up creating massive division, and we still face the consequences today.
What do Catholics have as a primary concern that others put lower down the list? It is that most unfashionable idea of universal truth, a body of belief and practice, that transcends politics, community, nation, and even time. That is something so precious and wonderful, so appealing in the long run, that we should never turn away from it but rather embrace it completely. In that same way, sacred music challenges us to leave aside our tastes, to bury our egos, to turn off our iPods and digital subscriptions, to look outside our own group identity, and sing a new sing unto the Lord (the text to the Introit in the 5th Sunday of Easter).
That song might indeed be completely new even to us. As music, I have come to believe that it is the most perfect music that exists, so much so that I encounter every new chant with apodictic certainty of eventually discovering its profundity. But even if you don't accept that claim, the chant embodies a special spiritual quality that other music lacks: it is prayer with a universal voice. It is one that the entire world recognizes as linked with sacred action. Even when it is employed in secular contexts, it is designed to elicit a sense of something profoundly important.
Sacred music belongs to no one group in particular--the off-the-cuff criticism that this music is Euro-centric is as completely wrong--and yet it belongs to everyone in the same sense that the promise of salvation is universal. Pius X said of the chants: "nobody of any nation may receive an impression other than good on hearing them." We can substitute any group-based term for the world nation here.
To put it another way: "The musical tradition of the universal Church is a treasure of inestimable value, greater even than that of any other art. The main reason for this pre-eminence is that, as a combination of sacred music and words, it forms a necessary or integral part of solemn liturgy." (Catechism of the Catholic Church).
Today's advocates of sacred music have no interest in re-fighting the "hymn wars" or "style wars" of the past or dividing one group against another. Our interest is in discovering the universal music of the faith one bit at a time and presenting it in every way we can in our times where we live. Acting locally, we hope to sing with the universal voice of the faith.