Friday, November 24, 2006

The Catholic Third Way

Many people consider the current state of Catholic music depressing. But I know something more depressing: the current state of American Baptist, Methodist, and evangelical music. Why? I don't believe there really is a solution to the problem of music in the American sects, whereas Catholics have a viable path forward that leads to peace and truth.

In both the US protestant and Catholic cases the debate is usually framed up as one between the advocates of traditional music and that of contemporary music. They argue over decorum and the appropriateness of styles. They cite cases of success and failure.

Let's listen in:

  • I know a church that was dying before it put in contemporary Christian music and now it has thousands of young people.
  • Really? I know a thriving church that was taken over by a guitar-playing youth musician who drove off the people who were paying the bills and killed the place.
  • Do you really think that every future generation of Baptists is going to be happy forever singing "Nothing but the Blood," "Count Your Many Blessings," and "Stand up, Stand up, for Jesus"?
  • Maybe not, but those praise choruses are theologically shallow and dumb, and are no way to build vibrant churches over the long term.

I've sat and listened to these debates a thousand times in my life, most recently on the current holiday. And yes, it does somewhat parallel the Catholic case, but only in the most superficial way.

I too would be depressed if there were no other answer but to choose between dated 19th century hymnody and insipid praise choruses. There is no real solution here, no right answer, no obvious path forward. We all have our biases for or against this or that style, but that's all they are.

A warning then: Catholics must never allow themselves to engage in this type of discussion or believe themselves to be in this sort of predicament. Not only is there no real resolution to this debate; Catholics have a third alternative right before us: namely, to embrace the music that comes attached to the rite by virtue of its history, structure, and meaning.

For us, the music is not merely about finding a suitable style to fit the tastes of the congregation or the age group constituents. We have a music that is already ours, and it is glorious, timeless, intimately bound up with the text and the liturgical action. It is the music the Church has urged on us from the earliest years right up through Cardinal Arinze's speech from last week.

It is this music that permits us to avoid this horrible trap of arguing about whether we should embrace already dated music or embrace music that will be dated in ten years. By clinging to Gregorian chant as the foundational song of our liturgy, we are also embracing Catholicism, for chant has the markings of the faith: it is holy, universal, and rooted in deep in Christian practice. This is the path to peace instead of the war over style.

Sitting in on one of these debates over the Thanksgiving holiday, I pulled our Catholic acclamation Christus Vincit, just to sort of brag about the Catholic way of avoiding all these disputes. What was the reaction of the other non-Catholics? Well, it is not their tradition. They have no such choice. They have nothing equal to it. They are trapped in a different paradigm from which there is no escape. So did it register to them just how important it is to us that we have this third way? I don't think so.

But it did register to me just how crucial it is for Catholics to avoid the trap of arguing about time-bound issues of taste, and learn again to love the only path to musical peace in our parishes and liturgical lives. We are so fortunate to have the gift of holy music that is ours! It is our way out of the everlasting war over style. Let us love chant, learn it, cultivate it in all our parishes, and, through it, discover truth that transcends the sectarianism that will forever afflict the sects.

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