Catholic Truth and Music

Jen at Conversion Diary has a great blog post on the interplay between Catholic Truth and beautiful music, and about how music can help create a religious experience. The post is worth the read if only for the incredibly personal testimony by Pope Benedict about a religious experience he had a Bach concert. I remember a similar experience involving Eucharistic adoration at the Tenley Center, run by Opus Dei. We (a group of all males, as the song was written to be sung) were all singing Pange Lingua, it was the first time I remember ever hearing it, and it was nearly overwhelming.

Anyways, it got me thinking about just how much of the internal battle within American Catholicism has been about music: great traditional music (like the Pange Lingua, “Holy God, We Praise Thy Name,” anything by Palestrina, Dies Irae, etc.) vs. the new not-so-great stuff (Haugen, Haas, Joncas).

My problem with the newer music isn’t as much with the quality of the songs as songs. That is, I’m dimly aware that you have to be truly gifted to write this and that a musical idiot could write this. But my problem isn’t primarily with the quality of the sound, or the fact that much of the modern music breaks normal beat structures and involves unusual time signatures, making it hard for non-trained singers to follow.

No, my problem is much more simple, and unmusical, even. Art is a means towards and end, whether consciously or otherwise, and my problem with the music I’m referring to here is primarily that a lot of it just isn’t Catholic. Rather, they’re songs about us, about how great we are. Here are the five warning signs, from my experience:

  • 1) Us Playing as God.

In Michael Joncas’ “I have loved you,” the “I” is God. Same with David Haas’ “You are mine.” Or Haas’ nearly unbearable “Come to Me.” Or Dan Schutte’s “Here I am, Lord,” which has the lyrics, “I, the Lord of snow and rain, I have borne My people’s pain…” All of these songs, and countless others, share one thing in common: we sing as God. It’s no mere coincidence that pre-Modern music doesn’t have this disposition. It’s humility: recognizing Who is God, and who isn’t. We come to Mass to worship God, not to pretend to be Him. I’m sure the Inauguration would have been much more “interactive” had we all sworn the oath of office, but that’s just totally inappropriate. Better to be an observer in something Real than a participant in a mockery of the Real.

  • 2) Us Singing to Ourselves About Ourselves.

“Gather Us In,” the infamous Marty Haugen song (I linked to it above) has the lines, “We are the young – our lives are a mystery, we are the old – who yearn for your face. We have been sung throughout all of history called to be light to the whole human race.” It’s like the phrase from Obama’s inauguration speech: “we are the change we’ve been waiting for.” We are our own salvation. What a terribly depressing message to have at Mass! If humanity – the same group which brought us the Holocaust, institutionalized slavery, the horrors of the gulag and the rack – is all that we have to rely upon, there’s little hope for us. To try and rip hope in God away from believers at Mass is dastardly.

  • 3) Us Replacing God.

Fr. Paul Scalia, son of a Supreme Court justice (you can probably guess which one) and priest in my diocese, wrote an excellent criticism, highlighting one of my least favourite songs, “Bread of Life,” by Rory Cooney, which says that “you and I are the bread of life, taken and blessed, broken and shared by Christ, that the world may live.” If you pay attention to the lyrics (and since I’m tone-deaf, I’ve got plenty of time to pay attention to the lyrics), it’s shockingly blasphemous. It’s not us playing God: it’s us replacing Him. Now we’re the Bread of Life. And yet a great number of Catholic churches sing it anyways. And what’s more bizarre about all of this is that it’s usually sung during Communion, as if the music directors just read the title before they queue it up.

Fr. Scalia rightly identifies as the most offense “Take and Eat” by Michael Joncas and James Quinn, where we sing, “Take and eat; take and eat: This is my body given up for you. Take and drink; take and drink: This is my blood given up for you.” Are we really pretending that it’s our Body and Blood we’re about to receive, and offer to one another? Or just playing God again?

  • 4) Songwriters who don’t believe in the Catholic Faith.

I understand that there are definitely times when non-Catholic artists just say it best, and there’s no problem with using them in those instances. After all, “Jesus Christ is Risen Today,” one of the best Easter songs around, was written by the Methodist co-founder Charles Wesley. But the reason songs like that are okay is that Wesley and the Church see eye-to-eye on the Resurrection. There’s no real debate between Methodists and Catholics on whether and why Easter is important, and when we sing the song, we mean the same thing, without compromising anything we believe in.

Compare that to some of the “Eucharistic” hymns created by the above songwriters and others, often when they themselves are non-Catholic or hold a heretical view of the Eucharist as nothing more than us becoming one body. I’m hestitant to accept Christian songs written by people who see nothing particularly special about Christianity, like Marty Haugen, who tries to ruin the liturgies of every religion he can find. His own religion appears to be something near Gaia-worship, if his weird eco-albums, including this song (“I am a son or a daughter of Eden, I live as one with the One who gave me birth.”) can be taken for anything. In fairness, he claims to be Lutheran (ELCA, the kind that allows homosexual ministers: not a traditional Lutheran denomination, of course). Why do we follow his “Mass of Creation”? It’s not especially beautiful, and the guy who wrote it doesn’t believe in the Mass. There’s something kind of insulting about that whole notion. Is this the best worship we can offer our Lord and Redeemer? And is it any wonder that so many of the songs have troubling theology, when the authors are known heretics and/or non-Catholics?

A few months ago, I was subjected to Ruth Duck’s “As a Fire is Meant for Burning,” which actually has the lyrics, “As a fire is meant for burning with a bright and warming flame, so the church is meant for mission, giving glory to God’s name. Not to preach our creeds or customs, but to build a bridge of care, we join hands across the nations, finding neighbors everywhere.” So the important thing isn’t to preach the saving Gospel of Jesus Christ, or teach the appropriate Creeds and Traditions. It’s just to “join hands across the nations.” What garbage. So I wasn’t exactly surprised to find out that the author is an “ordained” female pastor of the United Church of Christ.

  • 5. Written by a Baby Boomer.

Every song I’ve mentioned so far, to the best of my knowledge, has been written by a Baby Boomer. Of course, this doesn’t mean there aren’t terrible songwriters from other generations, nor does it mean that there aren’t probably some decent Baby Boomers out there somewhere, but there’s certainly a heck of a convergence between Generation Narcissus and the proliferation of all of these narcissistic hymns. I want to make it abundantly clear that I really don’t mean this as an insult to all of the Boomers out there; rather, a group of musicians and liturgists of that generation acquired an undue amount of power and influence in the hymnal business at GIA Publishing and Oregon Catholic Press and have wrecked beautiful American musical traditions. This really is the responsibility of a handful of ridiculous people.

Anyways, those are the five warning signs I’ve noticed. If you’re wondering why this is important, I point you back to the Conversion Diary link at the beginning of this post, and a thought someone brought up in an article I read a while back: when you leave Church, are you repeating the words of the homily, or singing the words of the song? Music can be a powerful tool of evangelism. But what are we evangelizing for in our music, exactly?


  1. What exactly is the criteria for singing as/replacing God in church music? Take the song “Take and Eat”, which I’ve always liked as a Communion hymn. While, yes, WE are the ones singing it, we are echoing (almost) verbatim the words of Christ. I guess I don’t see how its different than when a priest or a lector reads a passage from Scripture which directly quotes God or Christ.

    Would “Take and Eat” be acceptable if the only songwriters had worked in the line “Jesus said Take and Eat……)? Seems like its all but implied to me.

  2. Whenever I think of Catholic church music, I cannot help but think of traditional (not abstract) stained glass windows. One of the purposes of stained glass windows was to communicate spiritual and doctrinal truths to the illiterate, as well as be a reminder to people of all abilities. This is exactly what Catholic liturgical music should be: a vehicle to communicate the Word of God and the Teachings of the Church in such a way that when Joe and Mary Parishioner walk out of Mass the song they’re singing is just as powerful, truthful, and inspiring as the homily they heard that day. Or maybe even more so.
    We’ve had imprimaturs on our books for several hundred years now. Isn’t it about time that each and every song included in a hymnal or missalette receive the same careful inspection and approval process – both doctrinally and musically?

  3. Many readers of this forum will be heartened to learn that the offensive words “Not to preach our creeds and customs” has been changed to “As we witness to the gospel” in the hymm “As A Fire Is Meant for Burning”. It’s about time that revisions of hymm lyrics can occasionally be used to remove unorthodox sentiments rather than bow to secular political correctness.

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