Common Non-Denominator

This video will be interesting to our readers for many reasons, particularly if they hail from the Land of 10,000 Lakes, or sing a lot of funerals. I understand from a close Minnesotan friend and nun that Minnesota funerals generally have a great number of jello dishes at the receptions.

But I digress. What intrigues me personally about the video is something Marty Haugen has to say (beginning at the 1:00 mark) about the consciously denominationally non-specific character of his music:

I have several hundred pieces of published music. It’s used mostly in Roman Catholic and Lutheran circles, although it’s used in other denominations as well. I try and write to those common threads. (Choir sings: “An open hand, a willing heart…) So I say, “What do we share, what can we all sing?”

Haugen’s attitude, while laudably genial, should be of concern to Catholic musicians, whose music accompanies words of faith–words that help congregations to make acts of faith.

Faith is content-rich. What Haugen seems to be saying here is that some of this content–that which is not shared among Catholics and non-Catholic Christians–usually does not make its way into his music.

Thankfully, a lot of the Catholic faith does overlap with that of non-Catholic Christians. But some of it doesn’t, and Calvin and Luther would be (and were) among the first to insist upon this.

Intriguingly, a lot of what does not overlap has to do with sacramental practice. For example, at Mass.

And overlapping with this difference is a marked distinction in soteriological convictions–of how we are saved. And soteriology is central to how we pray.

Personally I am an ecumenist. I strongly believe that the Lord intended for all Christians to be one, and that our divisions are scandalous. But I as equally strongly believe that pretending that our real differences do not exist does not contribute to our ultimate unity. Instead, they make all of us weak in our Christian faith.

It seems to me that some of the academic disciplines have been led by similar concerns that Haugen mentions regarding his own writing, and that these studies have been weakened by them. Perhaps we are witnessing something of a recovery from this, among Catholics and non-Catholics alike. All the better. It seems to me that true dialogue occurs most fruitfully when each speaks out of his/her own convictions, rather than when we avoid messy or difficult subjects.

Our unity, when it comes, should be one of richness, and not reduction.

13 Replies to “Common Non-Denominator”

  1. I can think of no greater insult to the people than saying they as a group like or produced this trash. As a Catholic priest, I can only pray for more Lutheran hymns and the works of Bach in my parish church.

  2. But aren't most contemporary vernacular traditional Catholic hymnals (e.g. Vatican II) predominantly made up of hymns that come from non-Catholic traditions?

  3. Finally the back story on the particulars of how Catholic liturgy and music disoved into banality in my childhood. At the time few people knew that this material originated in one place. As painful as it was to watch I'm glad somebody documented this phenomenon so thoroughly.

  4. Not as many as you might think. A surprising number of the most prominent foursquare hymns originated in Catholic worship and Catholic hymnals. Many others, though written by non-Catholics during the centuries of division, are common to us all because they are derived directly from the biblical, first hymnal–and are simply Psalm paraphrases. Others are paraphrases of liturgical texts such as the Te Deum or patristic texts such as the Didache. A large group comes from the Catholic monastic tradition of Latin hymnody through Catholic, Anglican, and Lutheran translators. Many other Catholic hymns such as the principal Marian antiphons are included. And one of the Edmund Campion Hymnal's advances over the Vatican II is its inclusion of texts by Catholic saints such as the English Jesuit martyr and poet St. Robert Southwell.

  5. Kathy, the point i was trying to make was that Catholics have, for whatever reason, traditionally been poor vernacular hymn writers. Compare "The English Hymnal", 1906 with "The Westminster Hymnal", 1912 for example. I just think that each composition should be judged on its own merit whether it has Bartlett, Haugen, Haas, Joncas, Ostrowski or Pluth on the credit lines (and no bias because GIA, OCP or WLP were the publishers!) – we don't need to go back to judging compositions based on the affiliation of the composer, as occurred in "The Westminster Hymnal". And as for another commenter's belief that the trio's work is trash, perhaps they could look at Joncas's wonderful setting of Quinn's "Taste and Eat" – few hymns have as much scripture and theology placed into an accessible attractive melody, and it works very well on organ.

  6. Chris,

    I hope there is no a priori reason why Catholics cannot be excellent hymn writers!

    Regarding the larger points, please note that my post is not complaining that hymns used in Catholic worship have been written by non-Catholics. For example, I did not suggest that Haugen, who is not Catholic, should not write hymns that are used at Mass.

    The problem that I am raising is what happens when ecumenical concerns are an overarching–both primary and final. If a hymn writer is deliberately aiming for the overlap among Christian Churches and ecclesial communities, if what is distinctive is left behind by our worship, then are we giving God His due from our hearts? Or are we forced into superficiality?

    An analogy might be the extended family's conversation at Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner. It's a very good idea at these get-togethers to keep a lot of one's opinions hidden. And that's fine. But in one's own home, one's own heart, an honesty is necessary.

    I believe it's the same way in worship. A Catholic Mass should be able to be all-the-way-Catholic, perhaps not necessarily triumphing constantly about what is distinctive, at least not in a self-conscious way, but definitely being open to expressing everything that is true in our understanding of God and our relationship with God.

    So it seems to me that, for example, an entire hymnal that meets Haugen's criterion as voiced here would be inadequate in Catholic churches.

  7. I have no argument with your thoughtful reply. I have pondered from time to time why Catholics have not tradtionally been excellent vernacular hymn writers without coming to an answer. Most of the Catholic writers of traditional hymn texts/translations that are still used seem to be converts!

  8. Chris, Peter Kwasniewski (professor of philosophy at Wyoming Catholic College) has a number of gorgeous hymn text and settings in his self-published compendium. Worth your look for sure.

    MichaelD- the his-story of banality in RCC American music post V2 is much larger and broader than this video chronicles. Likely because of boomer posterity, similar jaunts down memory lane have been published by the SLJ's, Ken Canedo, Rev. E. Donald Osuna (Oakland CA Diocese) and over at Rory Cooney's blog, GentleReign.

Comments are closed.