Tuesday, August 06, 2013

Do We Trust the Church's Judgment—Or Our Own?

Do we trust that the Church is guiding us rightly? There are times when we ourselves see clearly that what the Church is asking of us is true and reasonable, prudent and feasible; when we have personally experienced the truth and goodness of her traditions or her precepts. In these cases, we have our own intellect and heart batting for the Church, so to speak, and obedience is not only easy, it is obvious. Who would not readily do what seemed reasonable in his own eyes? Who would not gladly follow what he had felt to be the right thing to do?

But in this fallen condition of ours, things cannot always be so easy. There will be times when the Church proposes as an ideal something towards which we feel a certain distaste or about which we entertain doubts, when she asks us to follow a path we are loathe to take, when her judgment seems the opposite of our own reasoning and experience.  
It is indeed an act of trust when a Catholic layman or religious, priest or bishop, can say: “I do not know why Gregorian chant is so important, I really don’t see how it’s going to work in practice—but I believe what the Church of Jesus Christ teaches me, and I submit my intellect and my will to it. Credo. I trust that the Church’s judgment is better and wiser than my own, and I refuse to set myself up as an alternative magisterium. I will do all that I can, with patience and persistence, to follow her norms and recommendations.”

Consider four characteristic statements of the modern Magisterium.

Pope Saint Pius X in 1903:
These qualities [holiness, goodness of form, universality] are to be found, in the highest degree, in Gregorian chant, which is, consequently, the chant proper to the Roman Church, the only chant she has inherited from the ancient fathers, which she has jealously guarded for centuries in her liturgical codices, which she directly proposes to the faithful as her own, which she prescribes exclusively for some parts of the liturgy . . . The ancient traditional Gregorian chant must, therefore, in a large measure be restored to the functions of public worship, and the fact must be accepted by all that an ecclesiastical function loses none of its solemnity when accompanied by this music alone. Special efforts are to be made to restore the use of the Gregorian chant by the people, so that the faithful may again take a more active part in the ecclesiastical offices, as was the case in ancient times. (Tra le sollecitudini 3)
Second Vatican Ecumenical Council in 1963:
[S]teps should be taken so that the faithful may also be able to say or to sing together in Latin those parts of the Ordinary of the Mass which pertain to them. … The Church acknowledges Gregorian chant as specially suited to the Roman liturgy: therefore, other things being equal, it should be given pride of place in liturgical services. (Sacrosanctum Concilium 54; 116)
Blessed John Paul II in 2001:
Sacred music is an integral part of the liturgy. Gregorian chant, recognized by the Church as being “specially suited to the Roman liturgy” (SC 116), is a unique and universal spiritual heritage which has been handed down to us as the clearest musical expression of sacred music at the service of God’s word. (Address to Pontifical Institute of Sacred Music, n. 3)
Pope Benedict XVI in 2007:
Certainly as far as the liturgy is concerned, we cannot say that one song is as good as another. Generic improvisation or the introduction of musical genres which fail to respect the meaning of the liturgy should be avoided. … [W]hile respecting various styles and various sufficiently laudable traditions, we desire, as was requested by the Synod Fathers, that Gregorian chant be suitably esteemed and employed as the chant proper to the Roman liturgy. … Speaking more generally, I ask that future priests, from their time in the seminary, receive the preparation needed to understand and to celebrate Mass in Latin, and also to use Latin texts and execute Gregorian chant; nor should we forget that the faithful can be taught to recite the more common prayers in Latin, and also to sing parts of the liturgy to Gregorian chant. (Sacramentum Caritatis 42; 62; translation corrected in light of the original Latin text)
There is no lack of statements such as the ones cited above; whole books have been filled with them. There is, accordingly, no doubt as to the manifest mind and will of the supreme legislator.  We have a clear teaching about the nature of the sacred liturgy and, based upon this, an equally clear teaching about the nature of sacred music. And yet, the vast majority of Catholic clergy and faithful, in the period after the Council and right into our own day, act and think as if they are ignorant of both—that is, of what the liturgy (especially the Mass) truly is, and of what music is proper to it because of what it is.

But what are we to make of clergy and laity who do know what the Church teaches, who have read the relevant documents—and who nevertheless follow their own (different) way, picking and choosing, mostly choosing not to implement what the documents call for, all based on a certain personal vision of what the Church ought to be or be doing, or based on “my experiences with x, y, and z” or “this is what the people need/expect” or “this is our local culture”?

There is a parallel between people who know what the Church teaches about sacred music and reject it, and those who know what the Church teaches about contraception and reject it. Think of the kind of argument you hear: “Well, yes, if everyone were perfectly generous or self-controlled, then they could either have large families or use NFP (or maybe some combination of both); but most married people are just not capable of that kind of virtue. It’s not realistic to ask them to live that way. It could even be bad for their spiritual lives.”

Who is unaware that priests arguing this way have more or less undermined the reception of Humanae Vitae among Christ’s faithful? The causes of this massive dissent on the part of the clergy are complex, but at the root of everything else stands a tragic fact: they simply do not trust that the Holy Spirit really leads the Church into the fullness of truth by the solemn teaching of her shepherds; they do not believe that the judgment of the Vicar of Christ is a rock-solid foundation for pastoral ministry, preaching, catechesis, spiritual direction. In short, they are not willing to embrace the risk of faith in something that is not immediately apparent to their senses or their reason, and so, not surprisingly, they do not reap the Lord’s blessings for undertaking that courageous act.

We find a close parallel in the realm of sacred music. “Well, yes, if everyone were already musically educated and capable of contemplative prayer, then sure, Gregorian chant (and polyphony, for that matter) would undoubtedly work very well for them—but let’s be realistic: the people in the pews listen only to popular music, they can’t relate to something unless it’s emotionally satisfying to them, and if we threw chant at them, they’d feel completely put off and probably leave.”

To which one might make a response like this: “Father (or Choir Director or Youth Minister, etc.), we don’t need to introduce a lot of chant all at once, but what we must do without delay is humbly put our trust in the Church’s tradition and her pastoral wisdom. This will involve two steps: first, learning about the ideal to be worked towards and wholeheartedly embracing it (that is the invisible step that calls for a leap of faith); second, moving the liturgies gradually but decisively in the direction called for by the Magisterium, at the same time educating the faithful through homilies and handouts, classes and workshops.”

Whether the subject is the evil of artificial contraception and the good of respecting the divinely-bestowed unitive and procreative meanings of the nuptial act, or the evil of inappropriate music at Mass and the good of authentic sacred music, what is demanded of each and every Catholic is to put on the mind of Christ, which we put on by firmly adhering to the mind of the Church. What is demanded of us is nothing less than a surrender to another’s judgment, with a lively trust that Divine Providence will superabundantly bless this surrender. “Trust in the Lord and do good” (Ps 36:3).