Monday, September 03, 2018

Ecclesial and Ethical Consequences of Poor Church Music

Much has been written about the manner in which Church music has, in the postconciliar period, deviated from its properly liturgical purpose and sacral characteristics. [1] I will limit myself here to observing that there has been a tendency for the lyrics of Catholic hymns or songs to be emotionally saturated, narcissistic, pantheistic, horizontal, this-worldly, and, at times, effeminate. [2] They focus not on objective (usually revealed dogmatic) truths and man’s appropriate response to them — sober jubilation, humble adoration, and devout thanksgiving — but on subjective states, how we should feel, how we are together as one family, how we will overcome prejudices, judgmentalism, differences, and such “social evils.”

The musical language follows suit, with “lounge chords,” syncopations, meandering melodies, and awkward leaps replacing the more orderly rhythms, dignified melodies, and stylized harmonic progressions of classic hymnody, or better yet, the peaceful and flowing lines of Gregorian chant, illuminating ancient texts in angelic arcs.

A musical repertoire that is people-oriented rather than God-oriented, turning us towards each other rather than to the Blessed Trinity and the mysteries of salvation, inculcates the false impression that worship is something we do from and for ourselves, a communal self-help ritual that vaguely gestures towards the divine but in a way that validates our own assumptions. (It was, after all, in a similar though artistically superior way that Protestants in the sixteenth century used music to express, transmit, and validate their doctrines and supplant Catholic dogma. It remains a scandal that the best music often to be met with in Catholic churches today are the Protestant hymns of the last several centuries, rather than our own distinctively Catholic musical repertoire in monophony and polyphony.)

In expressing themes of togetherness, equality, and non-judging attitudes, the message of popular liturgical songs is too easily assimilated to or confused with secular ideas of equality between all humans and especially between men and women (on every level), barring the way to making necessary judgments about states of objective human disorder or discordance from natural law and divine law. One might put it this way: if contemporary church music tells me that Mass is all about forming a warm, affective community of people who are “there for each other,” and I buy into that message, then of course I can’t deny someone the “symbol” of belonging in that community: the full participation in the communion rite. I’d risk hurting that affective community by making a person feel offended and excluded.

This is exactly the mentality we are up against in a world run by Amorites. [3] It will eventually undermine every aspect of Catholicism if it is not vigorously combated, because it is an acid that breaks down intellectual assent to propositional truths and spiritual commitment to inflexible principles, that is, revealed religion as such.

The direction of popular liturgical music after the Council therefore furnishes the archetypal instance of the ecclesial surrender to the seemingly invincible forces of secularization. The music reflects and strengthens a worldview or mentality that is at odds with traditional Christian doctrine, morality, and devotion, thus playing into the hands of those who would see Church doctrine altered, morals recast in a flexible postmodern form, and devotions reconceived as delivery systems for political agendas.

Put simply, if the great Catholic liturgy and its centuries-old music can be changed overnight, written off as irrelevant and virtually abandoned at the whim of the Church’s shepherds, why cannot women become deacons, or some types of contraception be approved, or remarried divorcees be admitted to communion? While such reasoning would be terribly simplistic, it cannot be denied that there are powerful forces at work in the Catholic Church that suggest and support this very inference, and pastors have done far too little to counteract those forces.

These difficulties concerning music surface also in matters of architecture, furniture, sacred vessels, and liturgical vestments — indeed, any area in which the categories of fittingness and beauty must be dominant concerns. There is an intimate relationship between beauty and evangelization, as Bishop James Conley explains:
We speak of beauty as something “transcendent.” Every instance of real beauty points beyond itself, toward the infinite perfection of God. … We can think of beauty as a kind of language, through which God speaks to our hearts and souls. ... The first point — and the most essential — is that we must present the truths of faith in a beautiful way. Our liturgical worship, in particular, must reflect God’s own beauty and holiness. Worship, after all, is the basis of Christian culture. The beauty of the sacred liturgy is meant to radiate outward into the world. Liturgical beauty shapes the common life of believers, and it can also help to attract those who are outside the Church. A leading liturgical scholar, Monsignor Nicola Bux, has said that: “a mystical liturgy celebrated with dignity can be a great help for people searching to find God.” ... Monsignor Bux is right. To renew Catholic culture, and evangelize our contemporaries, we must restore beauty to the sacred liturgy. If we cannot restore beauty and holiness to our sanctuaries, we will not be able to restore it anywhere else. [4]
The recovery of the beautiful in worship — the specifically and unmistakably sacral beautiful, one might say — is an urgent priority for the Church in an era of obsessive utilitarianism, “scientific” material reductionism, technological excess, and saturation with banality and superficial messages. The works of the fine arts of the Catholic tradition have a spiritual power, deriving from their inherent qualities and consecrated status, that is capable of awakening modern man to an awareness of an entirely different realm of being and manner of action. [5] In particular, liturgy beauty plays a part in ordering the communion of persons in marriage to God, its source, strength, and shield, restraining the downward tendency of fallen human beings to turn in on themselves and their own fleshly desires, and making it easier to keep one’s mind on the things of the spirit and to live according to the desires of the spirit (cf. Rom 8:5; Gal 5:16–17).

If the lyrics and style of church music do not continually elevate the soul to God in such a way that a habit of meditation and even rudimentary contemplation can be formed, it is not clear that they will not have the contrary effect in the long term, producing habits of distraction or emotional self-absorption.[6] This will not assist the individual in his pursuit of holiness, nor will it assist married couples in their striving for a shared life of prayer, purity, and fidelity. [7]

As Bishop Conley’s observations imply, the paucity of vibrantly and transcendently beautiful works of art in Christian worship is a tragedy of the first order, since it blunts the keen edge of man’s longing for the transcendent God and His supernal beauty — a longing that draws man out of himself towards his divine exemplar and relativizes earthly desires by placing them in a greater context. [8]


[1] See, inter alia, William Mahrt, The Musical Shape of the Liturgy (Richmond, VA: Church Music Association of America, 2012); Joseph P. Swain, Sacred Treasure: Understanding Catholic Liturgical Music (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2012); Edward Schaefer, Catholic Music Through the Ages: Balancing the Needs of a Worshipping Church (Chicago: Liturgy Training Publications, 2008); Thomas Day, Why Catholics Can’t Sing: Revised and Updated with New Grand Conclusions and Good Advice (New York: Crossroad, 2013); Jeffrey Tucker, Sing Like a Catholic (Richmond, VA: Church Music Association of America, 2009).

[2] Lucy E. Carroll, among others, has exposed these aspects of modern Catholic lyrics: “Singing for the Supper or the Sacrifice?,” Adoremus Bulletin 8.8 (November 2002); idem, “A Choir Director’s Lament on Lyrics for Liturgy,” Adoremus Bulletin 12.3 (May 2006). See also Anthony Esolen, “Pop Goes the Mass: The Curse of Bad Liturgical Music.

[3] That is, proponents of the pastoral accommodationism of Amoris Laetitia as codified in the Buenos Aires documents.

[4] Bishop James D. Conley, “Ever Ancient, Ever New: The Role of Beauty in the Restoration of Catholic Culture,” Crisis, October 10, 2013.

[5] For a thoughtful reflection along these lines, see the concluding document of the 2006 Plenary Assembly of the Pontifical Council for Culture: The «Via Pulchritudinis», Privileged Pathway for Evangelization and Dialogue.

[6] For more discussion of the dangers of emotionalism in church music, see "Sacred Music vs. 'Praise and Worship': Does It Matter?"

[7] Here is the bare-bones argument: Those things that communicate or constrain Catholic beauty have an effect for good or for ill on the spiritual life of married couples; we have lost the things that communicate Catholic beauty and added things that constrain it; therefore, there has been an ill effect on the spiritual life of married couples. The liturgical reform is a contributing cause to the breakdown of marriage and family in the last half-century; it must therefore be resisted and supplanted as part of the strategy of renewal.

[8] It is part of God’s providential plan that we be steeped in the beautiful in divine worship so that our ability to recognize and resonate with the beautiful in nature and in human persons can be awakened and energized. The spread of body-piercing, prolific tattoos, and other forms of mutilation and defacement seem to show that, as a culture, we are blind to the simple beauty of the human body and deaf to the primacy of spiritual realities. How can this not affect the most natural of all relationships, that of man and woman, in which the body and the spirit are uniquely interwoven? One is reminded of the words of Gaudium et Spes, in one of its less woolly moments: Creatura enim sine Creatore evanescit. ... per oblivionem Dei ipsa creatura obscuratur — “for without the Creator, the creature disappears ... when God is forgotten, the creature itself is darkened” (n. 36).

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