Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Fr. Scorched Earth

Every so often, a case of pastoral mismanagement passes through my inbox that rattles me completely and cries out for correction, an example of an egregious injustice that is magnified by the lack of a viable means to correct it. As readers of my posts might expect, the issue concerns music, but if you are indifferent to such issues consider it by analogy to an architectural reform that guts a Church of high altar, tears out mosaics, smashes stained glass and replaces them all with a whitewash finish. We might call this approach musical iconoclasm.

The situation goes like this. A schola in a parish is making great progress with Latin chant and polyphony. It is working forward on the propers of the Mass whether in English or Latin. The ordinary is being sung from the Parish Book of Chant, along with traditional Latin hymnody in certain parts. The Psalm is increasingly taken from online resources like the Chabanel Psalms. New polyphony is being sung from online downloads. An organist might be leading the effort or perhaps one is brought in under the tutelage of the director of music.

Tensions begin to arise with a cadre of parishioners who don't like the liturgical and spiritual challenge that the change represents. The find a sympathetic ear with a pastor who has not been properly trained in sacred music and feels oddly intimidated by all the new things that are happening, and perhaps he feels left out. After one too many complaints, the pastor flips out in a reactionary manner and makes a decision to completely revert the direction of progress.

The new policy looks something like this extreme case. There will be no more Latin ordinary chants. The people will sing in English only, but not chant. The ordinary will be the Mass of Creation, Mass of the Bells, or some other setting published in the missalette. The choir will no longer do the introit for the entrance. The entrance will be a hymn from the missalette. The Psalm will not be anything but what is published in OCP's Respond and Acclaim. The Offertory will be an English hymn. There will be a communion song but not the proper of the day. It will be a hymn that everyone knows and can sing while receiving communion. The choir will not sing by itself except perhaps before Mass, but even then, they must sing in English if it all. The organ is fine as accompaniment to support the people's singing but not as a solo instrument.

Where does Father get all this stuff? Mostly it is an extreme application of a model that comes out of the defunct document called Music in Catholic Worship (1983), a document which was only recently taken down from the USCCB website and which famously said that distinction between ordinary and propers is no longer operable and praised the introduction of secular music at liturgy. It subtly but decisively put down the role of the choir. This document contradicted Roman legislation in many places, but it was the one under which a majority of priests now in parish were trained in seminary. "Anything but chant" and "the people must sing everything" seemed to be the summary themes. The document itself has mercifully passed into oblivion but its effects on the American Church are with us still.

Of course such a program is a model for ending musical excellence in any parish choir. Singers are quickly demoralized and leave, either quitting the "choir," moving to another parish, or leaving the faith in disgust at the anti-art attitudes the clods and rubes that are managing parishes, or so it seems. You end up with second-rate singers, guitar strummers, or piano hacks to help with banging out stuff week to week. Vision and ambition and ideals are all gone. Beauty is no more. The results, which are tedious and boring, satisfy no one and leave a trail of tears among all parishioners with a modicum of liturgical sense.

Now, it is blatantly obvious that such a scorched-earth policy contradicts the spirit of Vatican II, which could not have been more plain in stating that insofar as it is possible chant and polyphony are to assume the principal place in Mass, and even where this music cannot be sung, they still retain their status as ideals. The Council further wished that everyone know the parts that belong to them in Latin. These teachings have been reinforced in document after document, statement after statement, legislation after legislation, under Paul VI, John Paul II, and Benedict XVI, not to mention every Pope that preceded them dating back to the earliest years of the Church.

How can Fr. Scorched Earth get away with this? Is there no mechanism in place that will stop these sorts of acts of destruction? A Bishop might intervene but it is unlikely. They are not drawn to intervene in parish musical struggles. After much experience, they find this area of parish life to be too contentious and complex to both with. Can the parishioners prevail on the pastor to change his mind and appeal to existing legislation? They can always try but there is a problem. As firm as the legislation is in exalting sacred music, there are enough loopholes in the law—mainly having to do with permission for "other appropriate songs" besides the propers—that muddy the case. I've personally never heard of a situation in which the right side wins in debates dealing with legislation, simply because the legislation allows too many options.

So here is the problem. Church law extols sacred music and celebrates it. But it allows discretion in what is to be sung. We can choose what is right and true, or we can choose something else. In the end, it is the pastor who makes the choice, and choosing one thing necessarily excludes something else. In this sense, there is no such thing as eclecticism: you sing A or you sing B. For this reason, all this talk about choices and options is a bit misleading. Fr. Scorched Earth will observe that he can choose sacred music or something else, and just so happens to consistently choose something else.

A choice for something else is not contrary to existing law. Yes, it violates the spirit of Vatican II and the Spirit of the General Instruction, and the Spirit of Summorum, the Spirit of Jubiate Deo, the Spirit of the Chirograph, the Spirit of Musicam Sacram, and the Spirit of Catholic liturgy in general. But it is technically not contrary to the letter of the law. Essentially, then, the poor parish is at the mercy of the destructionists, with no real means of redress.

Now, the scorched earth policy obviously has no future. It ends up creating demoralized parishes that do not pray well, do not believe strongly, and are not inspired to make the sacrifice that a vibrant faith requires. In the short run, such a policy might satisfy those longing to slap around the snooty music crowd, but, in the long run, such a policy drains talent and energy from a parish.

What I've described above seems more rare today than in the past, but it is not unknown. It is true that legislation to stop this sort of thing would probably be welcome. Intervention by Bishops should take place. Ultimately, however, I don't believe that either of these paths are the final answer. What we need is a change in the culture of Church music that leads to a change of heart about these matters. The attitude of the pastor who does things needs to change, but scholas themselves need to be aware of the need to forestall such reactionary impulses by including the pastor at all stages of the progress towards sacred music. It is a grave mistake to forge ahead without including him in the process. Finally, prayer is the ultimate answer here. No schola should take a step without asking for the intercession of a patron saint.

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