Monday, March 08, 2021

Are Women Permitted to Sing the Propers of the Mass?

In the wider Catholic world, the question posed in the title is not even on the radar screen. If you can have altar girls and female lectors — indeed, apparently, acolytesses and lectresses, in a veritable salmagundi of sanctuary servants — then why not women singing music for the Mass? (Never mind the fact that the concept of “propers” has more or less disappeared outside the world of the usus antiquior.) However, traditionalists, myself included, reject both altar girls and female lectors, arguing that it is only appropriate for males to fill these roles, and, in general, that the patronizing and vocationally deviant clericalization of the laity should be avoided. It might therefore be thought that, as a matter of logical consistency, we ought to maintain that women should not form a chant schola to execute the propers of the Mass. Yet this conclusion does not follow.

While I am an adamant opponent of feminism, I am no less staunch an opponent of chauvinism wherever I see it — and I do see it reappearing in the traditional movement, along with other -isms (e.g., antisemitism, libertarianism, sedevacantism) that are incompatible with Catholic tradition. The revival of traditional liturgical practice has permitted the reappearance of some extreme points of view that deserve refutation. For example, not only have I heard traditionalists argue against women singing the propers; I’ve heard them argue that none of the laity whatsoever should sing any of the Mass Ordinary or responses. (On that last point, see here, here, and here.)

The point of departure for the question on women chanters is the rather blunt statement of Pope St. Pius X in his famous 1903 motu proprio Tra le Sollecitudini:
With the exception of the melodies proper to the celebrant at the altar and to the ministers, which must be always sung in Gregorian chant, and without accompaniment of the organ, all the rest of the liturgical chant belongs to the choir of levites, and, therefore, singers in the church, even when they are laymen, are really taking the place of the ecclesiastical choir…. On the same principle it follows that singers in church have a real liturgical office, and that therefore women, being incapable of exercising such office, cannot be admitted to form part of the choir. Whenever, then, it is desired to employ the acute voices of sopranos and contraltos, these parts must be taken by boys, according to the most ancient usage of the Church.

Stated thus, it sounds cut and dried. But is it self-evident that “all the rest of the liturgical chant” (would this include the Ordinary?) “belongs to the choir of levites” (whatever that means exactly)? It seems that Pius X has in view singers in the sanctuary or the “choir” area of a transept of a monastic-style church, where their placement and vesture suggest that they are performing a ministerial function. The operative conception here, it seems to me, is that of a cathedral, seminary, or boys’ school.

If singers are, in contrast, somewhere in the nave, whether on the floor or up in a loft, it is more difficult to see that they constitute a “choir of levites” with a “real liturgical office.” Just as laywomen were not forbidden to sing the Ordinary of the Mass (indeed Pius X and his successors encouraged this) even though the Ordinary is manifestly a liturgical text also said by ordained ministers, by the same logic women would be competent to sing the propers.

To make the situation clearer, Pius XII in his encyclical Musicae Sacrae of 1955 lifted the ban for lay women as long as they were not in the sanctuary (the internal quotations are from three earlier decisions of the Sacred Congregation of Rites):
Where it is impossible to have schools of singers [scholae cantorum] or where there are not enough choir boys, it is allowed that “a group of men and women or girls, located in a place outside the sanctuary set apart for the exclusive use of this group, can sing the liturgical texts at Solemn Mass, as long as the men are completely separated from the women and girls and everything unbecoming is avoided. The Ordinary is bound in conscience in this matter.”
Granted, Pacelli’s words are not exactly a resounding encouragement to have women, but it shows that there is no ban on women singing, as long as they are outside the sanctuary.

Let’s think this through, with attention to the symbolism of church architecture. The development of choir lofts, which can certainly be said to be the norm in most churches built in the century prior to Vatican II, perfectly accords with the role of the choir as a body that provides chant and polyphony for the liturgy, with mixed voices as needed or desired, and in a way that does not involve the singers in the ceremonies taking place below. This preserves the anonymity of the choir and bypasses the danger of distraction for the congregation, since the musicians do not so easily risk “putting on a show.” If the propers can be sung polyphonically with men and women, does that not establish that women may sing the propers by themselves?

Admittedly there is a longstanding tradition of having only men singing, inasmuch as the choir was seen as fulfilling a properly liturgical role. Yet just as it is possible for altar boys to substitute for acolytes, and even for any laity (such as girls in a girls’ school) to make the responses at Mass provided they are in the pews and not in the sanctuary, so too it is possible for non-vested laity to substitute for a properly liturgical choir. Put differently, lay people from outside the choir area can fulfill a liturgical function, but not in a properly liturgical manner, which would involve their being vested and being more closely associated with the ritual action in or near the sanctuary, as we see in solemn Vespers when the singers in cassock and surplice process into the sanctuary, genuflect, bow to each other, and split off to their seats on the sides for the chanting of the psalmody. (It also seems clear enough that whenever there is a schola of clergy or male religious singing the propers, as Pius X envisioned, women should not join them.)

We should also take into account the not inconsiderable witness of centuries of women religious singing the sacred liturgy, and doing so not because there are no men around to do it (although that will usually be true), but because it is proper to themselves: it is a requirement of their consecrated life, expected and indeed demanded of them by the Church. They do not “substitute” for anyone else but do it by a right proper to and inherent in them. Moreover, depending on the order or congregation, the nuns might perform this opus Dei in the choir area of a monastery church (still with a symbolic separation from the sanctuary), chanting all the parts of the Mass except those of the major ministers. It is true that this fact in and of itself does not establish an analogous right for unconsecrated lay women to do the same, but it does establish, once and for all, that women as such are not disqualified from singing the chants of the liturgy, provided that good order is maintained.

Once again we can see what a fine and helpful development the choir loft was, and why it should be present in every Catholic church. How many blessed hours of my life have been spent in choir lofts, leading or singing with scholas and choirs of men and women, in Santa Paula, California; in Washington, D.C., and Silver Spring, Maryland; in Gaming and Vienna, Austria; in Lander, Wyoming and in Lincoln, Nebraska!

We cannot leave history and prudence behind. There has been an evolution in the attitudes toward women in the Church, even while we still hold fast to the ancient truth, now contradicted by Pope Francis, that women should not be vested and serving in ministerial roles (cf. 1 Cor 14:34). One need look no further than the redoubtable Justine Ward to see that women were heavily involved in the resurgence of Gregorian chant in the twentieth century and taught people how to sing it, which means that they were in the lay schola.

It’s not clear to me what we could possibly gain by trying to prevent women from singing the propers, provided the singers are musically qualified (and the same holds, obviously, for men — no one’s sex makes him or her more adept for the art of singing). Unlike the minor orders of acolyte and lector, there has never been a minor order of cantor/singer. It is therefore impossible to classify women singers along with altar girls/acolytesses and female readers/lectresses as part of the same progressive “slippery slope” for the ordination of women as deacons or priests. Musicologists and musicians are free to argue about whether a higher-pitched or lower-pitched rendering of chant works better from the point of view of liturgical aesthetics, and sociologists or anthropologists of religion could argue about cultural expectations and associations, etc., but none of this pertains to the question at hand.

On a practical level, unless there is some extenuating circumstance like a CMAA Sacred Music Colloquium with its pedagogical aims, it would be strange to have a men’s schola and a women’s schola dividing up tasks at the same liturgy; this is best avoided. When only men or only women are singing the propers, the worshiper can more easily forget about it and pay attention to the chants, the texts, and the ceremonies. When the two scholas go back and forth, it draws attention to the octave difference between men and women — that is, it draws attention to the performers, which is not ideal. Similarly, chant sung by men and women simultaneously is sometimes an unavoidable necessity, but chant tends to sound best in a true unison, not in organum of parallel octaves. If a chapel or parish has two scholas, a men’s and a women’s, it would be better to have one or the other sing all the propers at Mass. This is what I did at Wyoming Catholic College. The men’s schola sang multiple times a week; at a certain point, a women’s schola was created to give the women a chance to immerse themselves more fully in the chant and to give the men a much-needed rest. Here, too, a certain complementarity developed that was beneficial for all.

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