Friday, May 01, 2009

The Main Objection to Sacred Music

The case for sacred music in Catholic liturgy has always struck me as overwhelmingly obvious on aesthetic and theological grounds. We are, after all, speaking of liturgy, the communicative work between eternity and time that permits enclaves of holiness and perfect beauty in this vale of tears. Of course the music must be distinct. It must have certain features. It should be tied to the ritual, draw on traditions that take us out of our own time, and give us a bridge to the broadness of whole of human experience and the whole of the history of our faith. Above all, it should have a beauty that strives to make audible the beauty of eternal things.

But what is obvious to me is not obvious to the overwhelming number of publishers and pundits who write about Catholic music. I try to follow their arguments as best I can, if only to check my premises and strive to see others' points of view. I'm also curious just how robust a contrary opinion really is or whether it is fundamental vulnerable. This is important because a vulnerable case against sacred music will not stand the test of time. We can know something about our likely future if we can evaluate the merit of arguments on both sides of the case.

So: what is the main case made against the consistent application of the sacred music ideal in our parishes? It has changed over time. It used to be all about the need to reach the young, who were supposedly stuck on one side of a generation gap. We were supposed to use music that reaches this demographic in a special way because it is the Age of Aquarius and all that. This argument eventually faltered for amusing but inevitable reasons: the young became old even as their musical tastes never really matured. It is the young today who most likely to roll their eyes at 1970s material at Mass.

There are other arguments one hears concerning the intentions of Vatican II but they don't hold up either. Both the documents and the detailed historical research that is now pouring out from this period all point to a growing realization that the implementation of the Council departed in startling ways from the intentions of the Council fathers.

What we are most likely to hear today are arguments in favor of diversity of style. It runs as follows. We need a wide variety of music at Mass because there is a wide variety of personalities and groups in the world. People have different ways of worshipping God. There is not one kind of sound peculiar to Heaven and so there is not one sound peculiar to God's people on earth. There are many ways to be lifted up and there is no way to say with certainty what kind of music will accomplish that end. It could be chant. For many it is. For others, it is rock or calypso or pounding drums or electronic beats or maybe it is serial composition or traditional hymns or folk music or country and western. The options are as wide as the radio band. If we deny it, we are questioning the immensity of God's love. We can discover Christ in many ways, through many paths.

That's a long paragraph but not nearly as long as it might be had I kept multiplying the bromides as far as I'm able. I'm sure you can contribute your own here. Diversity rooted in relativism is the faith of our age, and it is not difficult to catch the spirit. It is integral to a consumerist cultural mentality that says that we are all entitled to get what we want no matter what and no one is permitted to stand in our way, no matter what the context. The best producers, it is believed, are those that throw principle to the wind and cater to our every need. Indeed, it is not surprising that those most likely to make these points as regards liturgy are publishing companies who want to fill every conceivable marketing niche.

It seems so reasonable, so inclusive, so tolerant, so open minded. What's not to like? Well, let us first observe that you can scour the writings of all Popes from the beginning of the life of the Church to the current day and not find a single statement arguing that a wide diversity of music should be made available at liturgy according to the preferences of the people.

That fact alone should raise some alarm bells. If diversity and personal preference were really the central principles of Catholic liturgical life, we might expect extended elaboration on that theme emanating from the chair of St. Peter. Instead what we find is the opposite. From the earliest centuries, the goal of all writing on sacred music centers on the issue of what constitutes suitable music for liturgical life of the faith.

The concern here begins deep in the history of the faith. It was entirely possible that the early Christians could have drawn from pagan culture in their choice of music at Mass. They could have used dance rhythms, metered poetry, and rhymes. But they did not. Instead, the Psalms served as the first music for liturgy. The Psalms are prose. They were traditional in the sense that they were rooted in a long history. Instruments were not part of worship at all. There is no mistaking the idea here. They saw that liturgical music had special marks that were suitable for sacred events. Other music was excluded.

This idea was articulated in 95AD by Pope St. Clement who forbid profane music from Church. So it was taught for 1900 years. At the turn of the 20th century, Pope St. Pius X directly confronted the issue of what we call modern music: new music is permitted in Church provided it "may contain nothing profane, be free from reminiscences of motifs adopted in the theaters, and be not fashioned even in their external forms after the manner of profane pieces."

John Paul II wrote that "not all forms of music can be considered suitable for liturgical celebrations" and further of the need to "purify worship from ugliness of style, from distasteful forms of expression, from uninspired musical texts which are not worthy of the great act that is being celebrated."

Perhaps a person might say that it isn't enough to cite the Popes. Maybe they don't understand the spirit and needs of our times. Maybe we should observe with the document called Music in Catholic Worship (USCCB, 1982) that "good music of new styles is finding a happy home in the celebrations today" and that there is no way to judge the value of music by its style alone. Value must be judged within each style but there is no means to judge style as such

Now, that sounds like a reasonable rule until you consider that it rules out nothing at all. If it is right, punk rock and rockabilly might be just as suitable as Gregorian chant. But here is the reality: the document that advanced that particular theory was written by a committee, never voted on by the body of American Bishops, and, most importantly, has been wisely replaced and made null and void. The new document called "Sing to the Lord" contains none of this open-ended language and carefully tries to tighten the reigns: music must meet "ritual-spiritual demands of the Liturgy. In discerning the sacred quality of liturgical music, liturgical musicians will find guidance in music from the Church’s treasury of sacred music, which is of inestimable value and which past generations have found suitable for worship."

Thank you for the clarity here!

My point here isn't say precisely what should and should not be heard in liturgy but rather to underscore what is often denied, namely that there is a long tradition of thought in the Catholic world that makes it clear that there is such a thing as music suitable for Mass, that it really isn't all about what we want and do not want, that style really does matter, and that diversity alone is not a decisive principle of selecting what is right and what is not right for music at Mass.

The slogan of diversity is good for marketing products in a diverse catalog but it is too thin an idea to overrule the plain words of the Second Vatican Council. To be sure, there is nothing wrong with people listening on their own time or in some social occasion to any style of music with religious words and religious goals. Our consumerist desires can be fulfilled in this way, and, in the non-liturgical setting, there can be many styles that do indeed lift us up.

Few pieces of music thrill me like Mahler's 5th symphony. There is a sense in which all beautiful things finally point to God, and this symphony does that for me. But liturgy is neither the time nor the place for a Mahler symphony.

What's more, there is a distinction to be made between religious music generally and liturgical music specifically. The music of liturgy is not all-together different from the text of liturgy: it is there to instruct, teach, lead, help us mature in the faith, and assist in the salvation of our souls. Not just any text will do. Not just any music will do.