Nominalism, Obedience, and Sacred Music

One of the philosophical undergirdings of the Protestant Reformation was a theory called nominalism. According to nominalism, things do not belong to kinds of things. Each individual instance is its own selfstanding kind of being. No generalizations are truly valid.

If there are no generalizations, there are no general laws.

Religious obedience, under such a schema, would be somewhat whimsical. There are no real repercussions, and no real laws. Any monarchical superior is free to impose rules, not according to natural or divine or canon law, but according to himself and his own thoughts.

Under such a schema of obedience, real or assumed, a religious subject would probably feel free to ignore the superior.

It seems to me that nominalism is a current meta-conception in Western society, and that it affects liturgical music in two ways.

First, the experience of attending Mass can be whiplashingly random. In my immediate area, even after omitting those Sunday Masses planned for special groups of Catholics–children’s Masses, youth Masses, Gospel Masses, and Spanish Masses–the difference in musical styles is all over the map. Going from Mass to Mass on a Sunday is as random as opening the various doors of the theaters of a multiplex. The rules and guidelines for liturgical music over the centuries are among the most widely ignored rules in history, at last count exceeding even the blatantly disregarded laws against the rolling stop at a stop sign in Southern California.

Secondly, the vacuum formed by antinomianism–lawlessness–will not remain a vacuum. Laws will happen. Whether or not people profess nominalism, or its liturgical cousin, congregationalism, no one really, existentially, believes it. We all know we’re all alike. So a “new normal” will be promoted in place of the agreed upon, long-standing norms. This “new normal” goes far beyond the sort of lazy compromises that develop inevitably over time. It’s an imposed normal, a theoretically expressed normal–but one without a strong theoretical basis. It’s turtles all the way down, but it is incredibly dogmatic. We all know the rules. No Latin. No Gregorian chant. No propers. No polyphony. No ad orientem posture. No solemnity in processions. No altar rails. And definitely no kneeling for Communion. Not to mention the more ephemeral, politically-generated rules. We’ve seen wave after wave of these temporary “new normals,” usually found in the Social Concerns section of your favorite hymnal.

I think that since we’re going to have rules–liturgists are involved in a public work, after all, not just deciding for themselves whether or not to personally eat gluten-free–we should dig down past the turtles and make sure we’re on solid ground here. It takes no knowledge at all to simply wake up one morning, eat a good breakfast, and proclaim a new liturgical 10 commandments: Thou shalt build ugly churches, for example, or Thou shalt ignore 2 millennia of Catholic musical heritage and replace sacred music with inauthentic bluegrass. It takes a lot more study–and a lot more deep courage–for musicians, bishops, and publishers to cooperate on the all-important project of sacred music, the greatest of all the liturgical arts, and one of the vital structures of the New Evangelization.

27 Replies to “Nominalism, Obedience, and Sacred Music”

  1. Speaking of a home run – just imagine if what happened to the liturgy happened to baseball –

    – the national anthem is made "optional" in favor of "another appropriate song"
    – uniforms are optional or up to the individual player
    – umpires allowed only in "conservative" ballparks
    – professional players replaced by volunteer fans from the bleachers
    – rousing organ music banished in favor of sentimental ballads
    – irrational and cumbersome "rubrics" such as the size of the field, the length of the bat and the number of innings constantly called in question
    – millions of dollars spent to reconfigure ballparks to conform to the new rules when the old parks work just fine
    – only "nostalgic" teams stick to the harsh old rules like three strikes and you're out
    – "traditions" like the seventh inning stretch (waste of time), hot dogs, peanuts and Cracker Jacks (unhealthy) and mascots (demeaning) are ridiculed and banished
    – meaningless rituals such as the ceremonial first pitch (it's actually not the first pitch of the game), trotting around the bases after a home run, etc.
    – consultants hired to tell the older players that their way of playing baseball is out-of-touch and old-fashioned
    – dramatic drop in attendance at games and lack of interest from upcoming generation seen as completely unrelated to the "new" baseball or even as a sign of its success
    – efforts to establish a voluntary association of teams which play by the old rules met with incomprehension, anger, and even hostility

  2. Yeah, I liked the old baseball:

    – you cannot see the field or hear the playcalling, but you can still "participate fully" by checking the scoreboard.
    – no black players allowed. Don't worry though, this isn't racism, it's just the rules of baseball — who are we to question Abner Doubleday? We value black people very highly; they are just called to excel in other sports than baseball.
    – batboys trained to whirl and pirouette on command like ballerinas, but strangely girls are not allowed.
    – "Take Me Out To The Ballgame" sung arrhythmically and in Swahili. If fans learn enough Swahili to try to sing along, they receive nasty stares from the "old timers"
    – widespread steroid abuse covered up by a culture of silence.
    – batters must drape a towel over their left arms. It's awkward and nobody knows why they have to do it, but goodness, aren't those towels a glorious tradition?
    – the All-Star Game includes a seventh-inning rant against the "perfidious Jews"

  3. Thank you, Kathy, for this insight!

    I'm not a philosopher, so I wonder: is the following statement of Universa Laus a form of nominalism and does it therefore contradict Pius X's notion of universality of sacred music?

    "In liturgy, what makes up the beauty of a type of singing or instrumental music does not exist by itself, independently of the celebration, the place, the rite or the assembly which includes such singing or music."

  4. I have been reading the GIRM at the front of the new Sacramentary and it states very clearly (please see numbers 41,47,48,74,86,87) what is to be sung and what music is to be used for the Mass. Why is it that we ignore these guidelines when we so scrupulously follow others?

  5. How about correcting the bad stuff but keeping the good – instead of throwing the baby out with the bathwater?

  6. Hmm, that sounds like Pope Benedict's "hermeneutic of reform"!

    "On the one hand, there is an interpretation that I would call "a hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture"; it has frequently availed itself of the sympathies of the mass media, and also one trend of modern theology. On the other, there is the "hermeneutic of reform", of renewal in the continuity of the one subject-Church which the Lord has given to us. She is a subject which increases in time and develops, yet always remaining the same, the one subject of the journeying People of God."

  7. 'Master, which is the greatest commandment of the law?' Jesus said, 'You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second resembles it: You must love your neighbor as yourself.'

    Hang whatever baubles, ornaments, rules and regulations which aid your cause, but when you peel it all away, if that is the core of your daily worship you are on solid ground. To borrow from Pope Francis, who am I to judge the core of another person's being?

  8. Clare, your point is well taken. However, this isn't a post about private prayer but about public prayer, our common Liturgy.

  9. One problem with this is that it seems to imply some Anglospheric ideas about law to a system that is not Anglospheric. The Roman culture of law happily concedes both that there are general laws (lovely in the abstract) while at the same time granting considerable discretion to the lawgiver-executive-judge about whether and how to enforce it.

    For a pop culture illustration of this from 70 years ago, consider the scene in The Song of Bernadette where Vincent Price's magistrate remonstrates with the governess of the Prince Imperial – he has the power to defer to person, as it were, but asks her to set a better example; she – in what's made clear to be an unusual move – refuses the deference and insists on paying her fine, and by setting her example by noblesse oblige towards her fellow criminals, as it were. For American audiences, this scene would naturally evoke a dislike for discretion in the application of the law: we like to think we like our law blindly disregards persons and tightly restricts discretion in its application. For Romans, such an attitude about law would be laughably naive.

  10. Regarding your particular example, I believe this is exactly the kind of "naivete" that the Holy Father is trying to recapture, especially for priests, regarding favors and institutions.

    As to your larger point, I agree that there are differences among cultures regarding the ways in which laws bind. However, this post is making a different point. In the US, where laws are generally observed strictly, the absence in many places of any (any) meaningful application of liturgical law has created a vacuum which has been filled, and not for the sake of religion.

  11. Great thoughts! Two lesser thoughts from me: Nature abhors a vacuum and what rushed in after the "clean sweep" of the 1970s liturgical cataclysm was just that – the vacuum being filled. Second thought: whatever people see being done in a church more than twice can easily become a sacred tradition in their minds. And newly-formed "sacred traditions" are hard to beat back.

    Now it's almost lunchtime. Afterwards, I'll be composing at least two new rites 🙂

  12. I have visions of the absurdity called the Amanda Knox Murder Trial cavorting in my head about Roman legalism, Karl, couched in images by H. Bosch, arghhh! 😉

  13. I get your point. I also think that Catholic church musicians have to be careful about appealing to norms with the broader public, because at some point, the two edges of that sword get revealed, and then the musicians get too wrapped up in the dance. It's why I tend to pour cold water on "big think" pieces among church musician folk, especially the grander the thoughts get .

    Nominalism and antinomianism are terms that are used to describe such a wide array of things that they readily lose their meaning by equivocation if the former is not limited to metaphysics, and the latter to moral theology.

    As I read your essay, your last paragraph is the real meat; the dressing up that precedes it gets in the way.

  14. I am delighted to be of service.

    PS: I don't idealize the legal cultures of the Anglosphere or Rome. Far from it. I see them as well matched in their respective strengths and weaknesses. Bottom line: every good thing comes with an underside.

  15. " The two edges of that sword get revealed, and then the musicians get too wrapped up in the dance." Dangerous mixing of metaphors! Perhaps you could explain what you mean here, Karl. It's not at all clear.

    There's no need to pour cold water, by the way. Just say what you think about the issues, and that will help everyone's thinking. Thanks, Karl.

  16. To put it more clearly: The Church's legislation on music lacks sufficient consistency to be wielded safely as a dispositive tool on the thorniest issues. I've come to suspect this situation was not inadvertent but deliberate and perhaps even Providential (why on earth Providential? because the Achilles heel of the Roman rite for the past several centuries has been its overreliance on law, a situation that made it especially brittle and vulnerable).

  17. Oh, I see.

    We are talking about apples and oranges, then. The thorniest issues are not at all what I have in mind, but rather the barest regard for truth, beauty, and proportion.

    Regarding the law, there is consistent legislation prohibiting theatrical music in the liturgy.

    Meanwhile, chant (and later polyphony) are exalted in legislation–but one would never know this from local parish experience, where they have been effectively outlawed in many places.

  18. MJ, clearly you are more recollected than I in using your afternoon/after prayer time to write new rites. In the morning, after coffee, I have a 30 minute window of lucidity, and in that small time I put my energies into my visionary Vatican III Missal. It should be ready in time for the next English translation or the next council, whichever comes first.

    Kathy, your post captures my (theologically undeveloped) observations on the disregard of rules and norms quickly turning out new (fake) rules and norms. Great food for thought.

  19. Agreed, but I find it more effective (in the long run . . . this is a percolating argument, shall we say) to say: The Church commends chant and polyphony in the Mass as the birthright of each and every Catholic. How can Catholics in the pews give informed consent to trading their birthright for porridge if they aren't even familiar with it? If they've not been regularly exposed to it, they can't possibly be presumed to be giving informed consent. (I've been sticking to the birthright theme for many years, before the advent even of NLM…. What "regularly" means allows for contextual variation.)

  20. Nominalism in Germany started a long time before the Protestant Reformation and it had spread considerably by the time of the Protestant Reformation.. It probably was one of the causes of the schism with Rome. Even though the same Latin theological words were being used in Germany and Rome,they were talking past each other using the very same words. These words had lost their metaphysical underpinnings in Germany which Rome and the rest of Europe still held.

    There are different forms of nominalism, but its influence today is much deeper than is suggested here, even in music. It surrounds the question of essences which is very important in Catholicism because these are linked to the Divine Ideas that God used to create our world. During the Middle Ages God's presence was seen through His creation, and the metaphysics that tried to explain this was made possible as the study being (essence and "existence"), again linked to God. If one denies the universality and unchangeable nature of essences as is commonly done today, then there is nothing to prevent an epistemic relativism, and objective beauty is easily denied, for instance in music as in the arts in general.

    Rules in liturgical music may not be the answer here, as a radical shift of weltanschauung is what is basically required before such rules are obeyed or even appreciated.

  21. Of course, the best "go-to" book on nominalism is Richard Weaver's classic Ideas Have Consequences.

  22. Regardless of baseball's history, "no black players" has no relation to the liturgy. We've had black priests in the U.S., and bishops from 1875 on.

  23. This article expresses exactly my own feelings about the (usually) incredibly poor music i the church. at least in the average parish church in Europe, especially in the South. A catholic church without any choir tradition whatsoever? Well, that is THE norm in the very South of Europe. Choirs does not even exist. In a parish consisting of 2.000-3.000 parishioners, not one single person can play the organ, the piano, the violin, the flute, etc. I am getting more and more convinced that this "interpretation" or "misinterpretation" of VAT II is maybe the greatest error committed by the (often) agggressive promoters of pop and rock. At best, harmless but silly and empty songs.

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