Friday, December 14, 2007

Helen Hull Hitchcock on "Sing to the Lord"

"Sing to the Lord" is the new USCCB document on musical guidelines for the American Church. To my own surprise, the passage of this document, which mercifully replaces "Music in Catholic Worship" (which is still up at the USCCB, with no information about when it was passed or what it means or that it is no longer in effect), produced virtually no news reports and precious little in the way of commentary.

Helen Hull Hitchcock offers a frank perspective on why this might be so:

The BCL’s original intention was to make “Sing to the Lord” particular law for the United States, which would have required the approval of the Holy See. But the committee withdrew this plan before the bishops voted; though it was issued as a formal statement of the USCCB, which required 2/3 majority vote. After a very brief discussion, it was approved by 88% (132). Only 12 bishops voted against it.

The bishops also reviewed the 399 amendments to the document that had been submitted before the meeting by more than a dozen bishops, and a few more received during the meeting. The bishops’ proposals for changes were mostly well-considered, thoughtful suggestions, and many were accepted by the committee. This significantly improved the result. But the bishops did not get to see the altered text before they voted on it.

Despite improvements, however, the guidelines are still inherently contradictory. “Sing to the Lord” includes a good many edifying quotations from documents from the Holy See — Sacramentum Caritatis, Redemptionis Sacramentum, and Musicam Sacram, for example. However, it retains problematic elements from the old documents (such as the “three judgments” — liturgical, pastoral and musical — for selecting music for worship); and it even adds “percussion instruments” to the list of acceptable musical instruments for Mass.

The result of this apparent attempt to cover all bases makes this long document (87 pages) essentially incoherent. Almost anyone one can find something in it, somewhere, to like — or to dislike. The effect is rather like the “curate’s egg” in the old British joke: “parts of it are excellent”, but the parts that are not spoil the whole thing. (The curate was served a rotten egg for breakfast by the vicar’s wife, but he insisted to the vicar that “parts of it are excellent”.) This may be an insurmountable problem with compromise statements.

The process of arriving at “Sing to the Lord” was a close parallel to that of “Built of Living Stones”, the guidelines on church architecture. The architecture document also replaces a Liturgy Committee statement, “Environment and Art in Catholic Worship”, which had functioned for years as the governing principles for all new and remodeled church buildings — and led to what many bishops came to see as methodical de-sacralizing of “sacred space”. After several drafts these architecture guidelines were adopted in November 2000.

One difference in the process was the consultation that admitted a variety of perspectives before the draft was written. A consultation on music for worship sponsored by the BCL was held in Chicago, October 9, 2006. Adoremus was among the groups that participated in this meeting (reported in AB November 2006)

Perhaps the best news about “Sing to the Lord” in its final amended form may actually be that it is merely a guideline of the conference without real authority. Thus the problematic principles carried over from the earlier documents cannot be considered in any way binding. On the other hand, its “excellent parts” have no real authority, either. So, despite all the consultations, careful proposals for amendments by bishops, etc., the new guidelines offer only some helpful suggestions toward a serious look at the heritage of sacred music, while at the same time allowing for the views of established producers and promoters of music for Catholic worship that have prevailed for decades and were responsible for the present state of things.

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