Catholic Music: A State of Confusion?

Polyphony, so I'm told

I want to thank Brent for his thoughtful guest post on music in the Catholic Church. I want to offer some ideas to pull together what I’ve discerned to be the important lines of thought in the discussions, as well as anecdotally examining the state of music in parishes today.

I. Public Worship vs. Private Devotion

One critical question, that to me has not been answered, is what counts as public worship vs. a private devotion (which could be done in a group). This is important because it informs us of which Church guidelines we need to follow. No one (here) has been advocating having praise music in Mass, so we are speaking of such music in different setting, where a group of Catholics would get together and sing songs.

As an extreme example, imagine a Catholic retreat was going on, and people went outside, started a campfire, and (perhaps spontaneously) one of them began singing. Then another pulled out his harmonica and joined in the lively tune. A guitar was found and strummed along. The songs could be considered praise songs because they sang about how holy and awesome God is.

It seems hard to condemn such a thing, and on what grounds do we do so? At what point does this cross over from Catholics joyfully singing together, a private devotional time done in a group, to public worship?

II. Praise Service Pitfalls

Having a regular “praise service” in a Catholic setting seems problematic, if for nothing else that it could be construed as offering an “alternative” to the Mass. Bad. Wrong. Nothing compares with the Mass; nothing competes with it. Even if this was not the intention, one could see how easily a service like that could become that.

Likewise, much of the criticisms directed at this kind of thing seem valid: how far do we go to “stay relevant,” to “attract ecclesial consumers,” to compete with Protestant mega-churches, secular rock concerts, and Hollywood movies. This is a slippery slope and a losing proposition, because we’re not going to keep up with them. Just think about this for a moment: how many Protestant contemporary Christian musicians are there? Answer, a million. How many Catholic ones are there? Answer, about a hundred, and only one (Matt Maher) has broken into the Protestant radio stations. We Catholics are usually behind on the crest of the cultural wave, which is not always a bad thing.

III. The State of Parish Music Today


I admit I’m confused here. I believe that the U.S. bishops have approved LifeTeen, even though the Vatican did give directives for certain abuses that were occurring to be stopped. Those abuses don’t seem to include improper and unacceptable music. But LifeTeen Masses in my experience use guitars to sing praise music, which doesn’t seem inline with magisterial teachings on sacred music in the liturgy.

What gives? Is this just an example of the bishops not knowing/liking/following the musical norms?

The Songs I’ve Heard

With the aversion to praise music that many have expressed in these past posts, there’s a feeling of straining a gnat to swallow a camel. Namely, we desire to ban the singing of praise songs (outside of Mass mind you) that actually have orthodox content and are singable, while allowing the most heterodox songs with terrible tunes into Mass.

I’ve probably heard Anthem a hundred times in Mass.
(Jesus was rage against the night? We are question, we are creed?)

I’ve sung Go Tell It On the Mountain more times than I can remember, in Mass.
As well as Soon and Very Soon.

I’ve heard I Myself Am the Break of Life multiple times in Mass.
(“I myself am the bread of life/you and I are the bread of life”–uh, no we’re not)

The past year in our church has been all Spanish folk songs, all the time: guitars, harmonicas, etc.

I’d say it’s a lesser evil to sing a praise song that at least doesn’t lead the congregation into singing pure heresy. But two wrongs don’t make a right, which leads me to…

IV. Doing It Right

The best argument I heard in the past few posts was that we should become more Catholic by embracing the Church’s rich liturgical tradition, including sacred and liturgical music. This otherness in itself is attractive to non-Catholics, because it transcends fads and passing tastes and worships God as He set out for the Church to do so.

How can we do that? What should music for the Mass sound like? It seems that the best is plain chant and/or polyphony, as I’ve been learning about from chantcafe. I can tell you I don’t recall ever attending a Mass that had music like this. Maybe one time at the cathedral in Austin where the schola was, but that would be it.

If plain chant and polyphony are the ideal for Mass, why isn’t it being done all over, or at least in many places? Who can answer this riddle?

Maybe we lost lots of that musical knowledge in the upheaval of the 70s and 80s, and it is taking time to recover? So if we are going to be singing hymns for a while to come, why not sing ones like Jesus the Lord:

I find this song beautiful and it seems appropriate for Mass. In my eleven years as a Catholic, I recall singing it only twice.

It seems like one of the last bastions of liberal heterodoxy in Catholic parishes is with the music. I’m tired of the bad music, but I don’t complain much because, truth be told, I don’t have the time at this stage in my life to join the choir and begin influencing the music for the better. I think many people are like me–we want sacred music but have children and can’t dedicate hours every week to being in the church choir. And in any event, the music directors often have the most say in what gets sung, so we need to get good musical directors in there that understand sacred music.

I would love to hear more about plainchant and polyphony. Who knows about this, and where is it being done?

What about other beautiful hymns, even ones that have a contemporary sound like Jesus the Lord but which are reverent?

Other constructive and informative responses to any part of this post are appreciated as well.