There Is a Way Out

I was on the phone with an old friend of mine who just discovered my work in sacred music in the Catholic world. His heritage is Baptist and he quickly jumped in to give his opinion on music and worship. He says that he chooses his house of worship largely based on the music. He is fed up with kids with guitars and their tuneful ditties. He wants good, solid, old-time hymns that his parents sang and his parents before them sang. He wants nothing to do with anything else.

I expressed sympathy with this view. Many Catholic do. I did not go into the issue any further because there is a sense in which his intuition regarding tradition is a sound one. However, it is important to realize that his bias has very little, if anything, to do with the case for sacred music in the Catholic Church.

On the other end of the spectrum, I once had a conversation with another Baptist friend who actually plays in one of these loathed guitar bands. He pointed out to me that the people who celebrate old-time hymns are really just promoting the popular music of a different time. Why is there is doctrinal reason to be attached to the popular, revival music of the 1880s rather than the popular, revival music of the 1980s or the 2010s? In order to have proper worship, why should it be forever necessary to freeze time in the 19th century and forever force that music down the throats of the current generation?

That’s an interesting question. My conclusion is that this debate can’t be solved. It can be debated forever, and there are some important issue at work here concerning secular styles and their proper place. But in the end, this is a debate over what I like vs. what you like. It is a debate about taste. It is about how to populate the blank slate of Baptist community gatherings with music that inspires people toward a spiritual state of mind. There more to say about this but not that much more.

I always leave such conversations with a sense of relief: thank goodness we Catholics have no entered this cul-de-sac. There are objective conditions that rule our discussions of liturgical music. There is tradition but that tradition is not arbitrary. It is bound by a ritual purpose and structure. This, and not individual taste, is what serves as our guiding light. The music is not there simply to please people. It is there as a servant of the liturgy.

In Baptist worship, it cannot be said that there is any music that is necessarily native and integral to the liturgy, however loosely that term might be defined by this worship community. In some sense, there’s is a gathering of people united in a common goal. That goal is togetherness in prayer. There is no higher sacramental ideal at work, and there is not liturgical structure to which they submit themselves. In other words, they are part of a devotional meeting.

Our world is very different. It is not only because of liturgy. It is not only the ritual. It is not only that the music is servant and not an end in itself. The Catholic music discussion is ultimately bound by the word. Every piece of music assigned in the Catholic liturgy is associated with a certain text that is right for the season and the day. That word is a first principle. It is indisputable. We have here our terms for debate and discussion. This is not a randomized debate about what we like but a bound discussion about what is native to and most bound up with the liturgy itself.

But you might say: people have been ignoring Mass propers for years. That is true enough. It is astonishing that you can flip through even the most recent editions of the all the mainline music resources from mainline publishers and find next to nothing that obeys the strictures inherent in the rite. That is a tragedy. But that’s just the point. The approach these people are using is unstable and based on demonstrably false premises.

What that means is that the advocates of sacred music have solid grounds to engage this problem. We have the General Instruction. We have history. We can draw on a sense of faith. We have a tradition that is not arbitrary but rather coherent and rooted. We even have the words of the Second Vatican Council on the side of sacred music. And these words themselves do not reflect an arbitrary judgement. They are based in a broad intellectual framework that is as old as the faith itself.

In other words, there is a model for music for the Roman rite. This is why we have every reason to be confident that eventually the tradition and the Catholic voice will re-emerge. It doesn’t need to be forced or pushed. We can make our case quietly and systematically and by showing rather than just telling. It is in the showing, really the hearing, that we make the case.

Fortunately, that is more and more possible without the requirement that all parishes immediatley embrace the hardest and most forbidding repertoire. It took fifty years to get there but finally we have the Simple English Propers, the Parish Book of Psalms, and the Simple Choral Gradual. We also have the intellectual foundation spelled out with William Mahrt’s Musical Shape of the Liturgy. These resources are all treasures.

There is no reason to despair. But there is a reason to work and to pray. We can get there. It is just a matter of taking the right steps. We are not lost in a sea of arbitrary winds. The chant has always been there. We just have to rediscover it and place it in its natural home.