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church musicIn our year-long course on music at Wyoming Catholic College, students read and discuss a chapter from Joseph Ratzinger’s book A New Song for the Lord, “The Image of the World and of Human Beings in the Liturgy and Its Expression in Church Music,”[1] one of the best things ever written about church music. Ratzinger masterfully shows how the music we employ in church always embodies and communicates an ecclesiology, a Christology, and an anthropology—it is that significant! There is no escaping it: Every bit of music we perform in church is expressing a vision of the whole and inculcating it in those who listen. This is why church musicians will have much glory or great shame on the day of judgment.

A question always comes up in connection with this reading. It seems that the missionaries who went to the New World were able to take up elements of the culture of the people they encountered, including something from their music. Vatican II tells us that we should do the same thing wherever the Gospel is preached. Why can we not take up elements of today’s popular culture around us, such as rock or pop styles of music, and turn them into vehicles for evangelizing our contemporaries?

My answer—at least as far as the realm of the liturgy is concerned—is a resounding no, for the following reasons.

Inculturation, correctly understood, is the process of carefully discerning and integrating harmonious elements of an indigenous culture into the teaching and practice of the Faith, so as to make the Faith at home in a culture. In this way the people to whom it is being introduced experience it not as something completely foreign to them but as something that completes and elevates the good already present in their midst. The Church does indeed promote inculturation understood in this way:

Since the Kingdom of Christ is not of this world (cf. Jn 18:36), however, the Church or People of God in establishing that Kingdom takes nothing away from the temporal welfare of any people, but on the contrary, it fosters and takes to itself the abilities, riches, and customs of each people, insofar as they are good, and by taking them up, purifies, strengthens, and ennobles them. The Church in this is mindful that she must bring together the nations for that king to whom they were given as an inheritance (cf. Ps 2:8), and to whose city they bring gifts and offerings (Ps 71[72]:10; Is 60:4–7; Rev 21:24). This characteristic of universality, which adorns the People of God, is a gift from the Lord Himself, by reason of which the Catholic Church effectively and continually strives to bring all humanity with all its good things back to their source in Christ, under His Headship, in the unity of His Spirit.[2]

With prudent sensitivity, the great missionaries adopted and adapted some of the customs and art forms they found, in order to evangelize the pagans more effectively and to enrich the Church’s treasury with the gold of Sheba. We can see examples of such inculturation in vestments, architecture, and music. New Liturgical Movement has run several pieces about how the Chinese and Japanese missions intelligently promoted this approach.[3] Marvelous examples of inculturation can be found in the fusion of European chant and polyphony with native American instruments and texts.[4]

On the basis of the foregoing model, then, aren’t we supposed to find ways to embody the Faith in the surrounding secular culture so that we can more effectively reach our contemporaries? Isn’t this what the missionaries did? There are, however, crucial differences between this and what the original missionaries did.

First of all, there is the overwhelming and undeniable fact that when Catholic missionaries came to native peoples in the Age of Exploration, they brought with them a fully “realized” religion, founded on fixed dogmas, issuing in definitive moral teachings, crowned and nourished by a stable sacred liturgy, all intertwined with a rich culture of art and thought. They fully intended to plant this religion and its culture on foreign soil and to win over the pagans to its truth and superiority.[5] The Catholic Faith, in all its specificity and plenitude, was the non-negotiable controlling paradigm by which indigenous elements had to be judged and into which they had to be fitted. It played the dominant role; like form in the philosophy of Aristotle, it was to be imparted to the receptive matter. In this way the missionaries never balked at “the scandal of the particular”: They were preaching Jesus of Nazareth and establishing the Church of Rome.

This precedence of a universal and traditional Catholic orthodoxy and orthopraxy—the doctrine of the Council of Trent, let us say, and the organically developed sacramental rites of the Roman Church, replete with Gregorian chant—is not what proponents of a modernizing inculturation assume; in fact, they are more likely to ignore, marginalize, or exclude such things, failing to see how they could ever be relevant to our contemporaries. In this way, they run the risk of no longer inculturating the Catholic Faith. They might even end up fashioning new micro-religions, somewhat like the proliferation of local craft beers (no offense to craft brewers!).

Second, when the missionaries came to the pagans, the latter had no Christian heritage at all. They were a blank slate in this regard, although they were disposed, better or worse, to hear the Gospel due to their pre-existing religious beliefs, sentiments, and rituals. True pagans are not “scientific” atheists, elegant agnostics, smug liberals, or materialistic consumers; they believe in one god or many gods, they fear and placate them, and are ripe for conversion to a more divine and more humane religion. Coming to such religious non-Christians, the missionaries could make a discernment about which elements to take up from a genuinely pagan milieu, all the while remembering that the message they brought was authoritative and controlling.

Today’s Westerners, in contrast, are post-Christian aliens, estranged from their own history and the great cultural synthesis that could and should be theirs. The history of modern music, whether atonal or jazz or rock or pop, is a history of deliberate rebellion and revolt against the great tradition of Western music, against its high art forms, its slowly-developed musical language, its explicitly or implicitly Christian message. In its origins and its inner meaning, much of modern Western music is a rejection of the Catholic (and European) tradition. As a result, it is not morally, intellectually, or culturally “neutral”; it is already laden with an anti-institutional, anti-sacral, anti-traditional significance. This music is not naïve raw material waiting to be Christianized, but highly articulate anti-Christian propaganda. It rejects the ideals of lofty beauty and grandeur, spiritual seriousness, evocation of the divine, openness to the transcendent, and artistic discipline, in favor of vapidity, frivolity, profanity, sensuality, and banality. As David Clayton aptly observes:

The dominant contemporary culture of the West today is the secular culture of anti-culture. It defines itself not by what it is, but by what it isn’t. It is founded on a reaction against Christianity. Therefore, it is a distortion of it and as such is parasitical upon it.[6]

Given the specific requirements and expectations that go along with the cultus Dei, to admit such music into the temple is to profane the temple, to violate its sacredness. We are looking not at inculturation but at “exculturation,” in which what is proper to a unified, historical religion is diluted or obliterated by its opposite.

Third, the pagans had a genuine folk culture—a culture that was, so to speak, of the people, by the people, and for the people. It was vital, personal, immediate. When the missionaries worked on and with this culture, they were working with something organic, spontaneous, and, in a sense, disinterested. In stark contrast, today’s pagans are largely passive consumers of mass-produced, low-quality sonic junk food that earns huge profits for capitalist corporations who know how to manipulate the feelings of poorly educated, emotionally volatile audiences.[7]

What the pagans had to offer, then, were local traditions of truly human dimensions, expressive of their identity and creativity as a people, not today’s monotonous, artistically shallow epiphenomena of cancer-phase capitalism. In those fortunate pagan cultures that were not in thrall to demon worship and ritual violence, the missionaries were confronted with anthropologically rich soil for planting the seed of the Gospel, which they proceeded to do with confident zeal. What they found permitted actual enrichments of devotion and worship. Today’s popular culture, on the other hand, to the extent that it has grown up in revolt against the unifying principles, certainties, and demands of Christianity, is a veritable melting pot of conflicting fashionable ideologies, a volatile mishmash of tribalism, globalism, and techno-barbarism. Its underlying anthropology is suited not for saints and heroes, but for narcissists and manipulators.

Consequently, the prevailing Western popular culture is impervious to and, at times, subversive of, the process of Christian inculturation. What I mean by subversive is this: It is not the secularism that ends up Christianized by the attempt at a merger, but the Christianity that ends up secularized. It is not the vast empire of mediocrity that will be molded and transformed, but the Catholic Faith. The only hope lies in calm resistance, pursuing a course so obviously opposed to that of the world that we will not cease to be a light shining in the darkness, which cannot overcome us as long as we remain truly light. This is why Pope John Paul II said in Veritatis Splendor: “It is urgent that Christians should rediscover the newness of the faith and its power to judge a prevalent and all-intrusive culture.”[8] He was speaking about our contemporary culture of liberalism, relativism, and hedonism.

Clayton has vividly outlined the problem:

So much pop or rock music is of a form that has developed specifically to reflect the culture of hedonism.… [T]o ignore this aspect of the style of the music altogether and just change the words to those of Christian hymns runs the grave risk of communicating something very bad regardless of how pious or holy the words of the song may be. Because worship of God is the activity in which we bare our souls the most, it is where we are most vulnerable to adverse influence. I suggest that we should be more conservative and less inclined to take risks in the choice of music in the liturgy than in the local dance hall. The music of our worship should be rooted in the Christian tradition so that it naturally becomes the standard to which all else points. If we make the secular forms the standard by which the liturgical [forms]are measured, the hierarchy has been inverted and the result is disaster for both cultures—the culture of faith and contemporary culture.[9]

In sum: Due to its origins in a repudiation of the Christian cultural inheritance, its continual appeal to the appetites of the flesh, its negation of the dimension of mystery, and its consequent poverty of artistic expression, contemporary popular music cannot be suitable matter for the process of inculturation; rather, it is a formidable obstacle to the conversion of souls and the creation of a true Christian culture.

Republished with gracious permission from OnePeterFive.

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[1] In Joseph Ratzinger, A New Song for the Lord, trans. Martha M. Matesich (New York: Crossroad, 1997), 111–27; also in Collected Works, vol. XI, Theology of the Liturgy (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2014), 443–60.

[2] Lumen Gentium, §13.

[3] See, inter alia, “Historical Examples of Inculturation in Catholic China,” “Liturgical Arts Quarterly 1935,” and “Japanese Madonnas.” The artwork of Daniel Mitsui today draws upon oriental designs with great effectiveness; see, for instance, this “Second Dream of St. Joseph.”

[4] The San Antonio Vocal Arts Ensemble (SAVAE) has done some wonderful recordings of Catholic missionary music from central America. Listen to some samples here.

[5] For further thoughts along these lines, see my essay “Confusions about Inculturation.”

[6] The Way of Beauty: Liturgy, Education, and Inspiration for Family, School, and College (Kettering, OH: Angelico Press, 2015), 48.

[7] See Thomas Storck, “Popular Culture and Mass Culture.” [PDF Link]

[8] Veritatis Splendor, §88.

[9] Clayton, Way of Beauty, 41.

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Published: Sep 17, 2016
Peter Kwasniewski
Peter Kwasniewski is a freelance author, public speaker, editor, publisher, and composer. He holds an M.A. and Ph.D. in Philosophy from The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. After teaching at the International Theological Institute in Austria and for the Franciscan University of Steubenville’s Austrian Program, he joined the founding team of Wyoming Catholic College in Lander, Wyoming, where he taught theology, philosophy, music, and art history, and directed the Choir and Schola. Dr. Kwasniewski published works include Wisdom’s Apprentice and On Love and Charity and Sacred Choral Works.
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28 replies to this post
  1. When in Paris I attended a evening church service, an organ was supplying the music. Such awful noise was never surpassed in my experience. I would think that beauty would have honored the service, or is this an example of a bizarre modernism, cut loose from tradition and taste.

  2. Yes, I agree. The liturgy requires hymns, not pop music. There is a distinction and the twain should never meet. Even if a pop song is a Christian devotional, it does not fit aesthetically. Reverence requires a particular form.

  3. Yes, there are abuses. But you, are uh, wrong. The message of Jesus Christ is not hampered by contemporary music, done at the right moment, in good taste, at all. Tell it to the Pope who has blessed the charismatic renewal. A relationship with Jesus Christ is not based on theology or proper “music”, but is a living relationship. The Catholic Church will continue to be unable to save souls as long as it is taught that Religiosity is the basis of salvation, rather than a living and real relationship with a real and living Lord. Sometimes I wonder why I even converted (sigh). But oh well, thank Jesus, not all Catholics practice a dead faith, but rather a liturgical worship that is enriched by gifts of Christian composers. If you don’t really know what you are talking about because you don’t particularly understand that form of music, then best not to judge and condemn others.

    • “The message of Jesus Christ is not hampered by contemporary music, done at the right moment, in good taste, at all.”

      And the right moment for that type of music lies outside the Liturgy. Wholesome music is essential for the mental health of a society, but all music is not the same. We are Catholics not Protestants. We don’t seek some “relationship” with Jesus as if he was a buddy. He is much more than that, he is our God, and through higher levels of prayer we can connect on a much deeper level than the emotional and vocal which is what a typical charismatic Mass promotes in the worshiper.

      If you want to have a prayer meeting with praise and worship after, fine. I happen to like some of that music, but not in the liturgy. The liturgy should foster prayer not emotion.

      • NO Jesus is not a Buddy in the sense that you speak of and I certainly never meant that. But he does desire to have a relationship with each of us. As most of your Catholic saints discovered and taught. We are all called to be on that path. Your response makes good sense and allows for the use of contemporary music in other settings which I agree. I am not talking about the wimpy contemporary catholic folk songs I sometimes hear at Mass. Not to my liking and rather blatherish. I am talking about well written music by true composers. True it should not take the place of liturgy ever, but can be an adjunct to it. Thank you for the conversation.

    • Agree with your comment. Although i’m also often disheartened by the poor quality of liturgical music in RC, I agree that it’s not in the best of Christian spirit to judge how others should pray and praise God.

      Besides, not all churches have the resources to draw trained music directors, organists or choir members who can read music. Many parishes in poor neighborhoods are doing the best they can with what little they have. Best to leave the judgment to Our Lord who sees within hearts.

  4. Ultimately,though, and pastorally — no matter the origins and pedigree of music, if it serves to express faithfully the true Gospel according to Catholic magisterial teaching, without express contradiction, contemporary Christian music serves the same purpose as historically Western music – the lifting of the musicians’ and worshipers’ hearts and souls to the true God. that’s a lot of necessary if’s , but not impossibly so. whatever is truthful is good and worthy.

  5. What’s funny in all these litanies of what’s wrong with contemporary music and its place in liturgy is how little agreement there is about when things went south. Some maintain it all went to hell with the Renaissance, others when hymnody entered the Mass, others the 60’s, etc.

    This goes to show how subjective it all really is. Just find some important figure you agree with and quote him as though that ends all discussion. The fact is that cultural connotations change. The idea that culture, and even liturgy, should be a fly in amber is the result of looking back to a golden age that didn’t exist. If I had the inclination, I’m sure I could find plenty of voices decrying the corruption of contemporary worship in every era. So it goes.

  6. “Restore to me the joy of your salvation and strengthen me with a perfect spirit.” Is. 50:14

    “Give praise to the Lord on the harp; sing to him with the psaltery, the instrument of ten strings.
    “Sing to him a new canticle, sing well unto him with a loud noise.” Psalm 32:2-3

    Who judges whether the order and sequence of notes is appropriate? Is it disordered to praise God in a song with a key change? Are there certain keys that are inappropriate?

  7. I couldn’t agree more, it can be a great distraction and I think it would be beautiful to every once in a while have something traditional or Latin. There’s a reason music was chosen as it was. For those who love contemporary music, such as myself, it would be best to leave it on the dance floor or at best at special youth conferences, not the holy sacrifice of the Mass.

  8. Christian music that praises the Lord is a heart-lifting experience and has a proper place in the context of the Mass, the highest form of prayer. It doesn’t need to be every song, but one or two in there at the appropriate times in Liturgy is a beautiful, transformative event if done properly.

  9. Pius XII disagrees:

    “193. It cannot be said that modern music and singing should be entirely excluded from Catholic worship. For, if they are not profane nor unbecoming to the sacredness of the place and function, and do not spring from a desire of achieving extraordinary and unusual effects, then our churches must admit them since they can contribute in no small way to the splendor of the sacred ceremonies, can lift the mind to higher things and foster true devotion of soul.

    195. What We have said about music, applies to the other fine arts, especially to architecture, sculpture and painting. Recent works of art which lend themselves to the materials of modern composition, should not be universally despised and rejected through prejudice. Modern art should be given free scope in the due and reverent service of the church and the sacred rites, provided that they preserve a correct balance between styles tending neither to extreme realism nor to excessive “symbolism,” and that the needs of the Christian community are taken into consideration rather than the particular taste or talent of the individual artist.”

    — Pius XII, Mediator Dei

    • The key phrase being “if they are not profane nor unbecoming to the sacredness of the place and function.”

      Profane means music that is secular. Guitars (especially electric guitars), drum sets, pianos, tamboreens, are all secular instruments. Praise and worship really is contemporary soft rock. The difference between that and traditional chant is the difference between holy music and profane music.

      Pope Pius XII also says this about music in Musicae Sacrae:

      42. It must be holy. It must not allow within itself anything that savors of the profane nor allow any such thing to slip into the melodies in which it is expressed. The Gregorian chant which has been used in the Church over the course of so many centuries, and which may be called, as it were, its patrimony, is gloriously outstanding for this holiness.

      And no it doesn’t have to be Gregorian Chant. There are many other modern styles of high music that could be similarly called “holy” that could be used.

  10. St. Pius X clearly laid it out in 1903 and JPII confirmed him in 2003 with Tra le Sollecitudini Instruction on Sacred Music –

    There is a lot of good stuff there but the fun things to quote are below, especially 19 & 20;

    VI. Organ and instruments

    15. Although the music proper to the Church is purely vocal music, music with the accompaniment of the organ is also permitted. In some special cases, within due limits and with proper safeguards, other instruments may be allowed, but never without the special permission of the Ordinary, according to prescriptions of the Caeremoniale Episcoporum.

    16. As the singing should always have the principal place, the organ or other instruments should merely sustain and never oppress it.

    17. It is not permitted to have the chant preceded by long preludes or to interrupt it with intermezzo pieces.

    18. The sound of the organ as an accompaniment to the chant in preludes, interludes, and the like must be not only governed by the special nature of the instrument, but must participate in all the qualities proper to sacred music as above enumerated.

    19. The employment of the piano is forbidden in church, as is also that of noisy or frivolous instruments such as drums, cymbals, bells and the like.

    20. It is strictly forbidden to have bands play in church, and only in special cases with the consent of the Ordinary will it be permissible to admit wind instruments, limited in number, judiciously used, and proportioned to the size of the placeprovided the composition and accompaniment be written in grave and suitable style, and conform in all respects to that proper to the organ.

    So…. if an instrument is actually “forbidden”, I think in the future, in order for it to be used, it would need an expressed permission to be used rather than a general note that “other” instruments may be used in later documents from VII and beyond.

  11. A commenter citing the 1947 (!) encyclical Mediator Dei to rebut the author’s argument against the use of ROCK/pop music in the liturgy? Perhaps the Holy Father was a fan of “Sister” Rosetta Tharpe?

    Or perhaps Pius XII was thinking of the Rite of Spring?

  12. How disrespectful to native cultures to say that their customs were human and not for God (the great Spirit, among other names). Native Americans, for example, are probably more in tune with God and nature than Europeans will likely ever be.

    And when talking about the wonderfulness of western European music, remember that this came about mid-history, not at the Last Supper.

  13. Thank you so much Aaron. Forgive me for feeling an elitist tinge to many criticisms of contemporary music. Indeed, what is the cut off point for “acceptable” music. I am uncomfortable with some contemporary Christian music, yet I have been brought to tears by some contemporary music at Mass. I have played and sang in Mass music groups for 40 years and have a love for all well done, uplifting music. I would go with the admonitions of God in the psalms and his representative Pope Pius XII and the continual admonitions to liturgical ministers to have competence in singing or playing so as to uplift the congregation. Then one could “inculturate” to whatever was most inspirational to your congregation, while not ignoring the various styles of music. “Let all the nations be glad and sing for joy” (Psalm 63:4). What leads us deeper in the Lord, this is true worship. Amen?

    • God bless you. Please continue to make beautiful music for the Lord. It seems that some in the traditionalist movement want to strip the faith of all emotion and sentimentality. I don’t quite understand how that is supposed to help the Church.

  14. Mediator Dei was promulgated in 1947, so when Pius XII mentioned “modern music,” he had no idea about what we now know as “modern music” and most certainly did not have that in mind.

    Pius died in 1958. No one knew who the Beatles were yet; they didn’t show up until two years later.

    Kumbaya, which is the quintessential “hymn” representing that era and which we all endured, is great, but not for Mass.

    As far as the “Charismatic Renewal,” the idea that anything has been renewed since that Protestant movement came on the scene (initially condemned by Pope Paul VI in the spring of 1972, later reversed) is ridiculous.

    It can’t even exist in the Byzantine Rites of the Church, as their traditions, which, unlike the modern Roman Rite, have been preserved, don’t allow for such nonsense.

  15. Much pop music is musically inferior, with meaningless modulations, syncopation and endless repetitions. The texts are usually “me” centered instead of God centered, and sentimental or theologically suspect at best. They have been taken wholesale from the cursillo movement in which composers have a limited knowledge of music other than similar guitar accompaniments. This kind of music should remain in cocktail lounges or pop TV shows!

  16. Rather late in the day to discuss the matter, but since the headline of this article asks, here’s my pew occupier’s take:

    The Mass, even the Novus Ordo Mass, has what are called the “propers.” They are prayers set according to the liturgical calendar and IMHO, should be chanted by the choir without accompaniment. Yes, even in the Novus Ordo in English, they should be chanted. They are what is called “liturgical music:” The opening prayer, the responsorial chant, the Offertory and Communion antiphons, the Gospel acclamation, the memorial acclamation, etc.

    In addition, the Lord Have Mercy, the Glory to God, the Holy, and the Lamb of God are also liturgical music, called the “Ordinary.” But since the congregation is encouraged to participate in them, they may be set to hymn-type or modern music with accompaniment – organ, piano, or guitar, if you want – whatever make them easier for the people to sing together.

    The rest – The processional song, the offertory song, the communion song and the recessional song – what critics used to call “the four-hymn sandwich” – are not liturgical music, but actually fillers. They are not necessary in the liturgy. Hymns or devotional songs may be used, but really, the four-hymn-sandwich is not liturgical, not necessary.

  17. This article makes no distinction between genres, and the fact that the author doesn’t mention Mediator Dei suggests that he is opposed to the use of contemporary music in general in liturgy. While Pius wrote prior to the rise of rock and roll, he did write in the era of jazz, swing, and honky tonk. So even though Pius wrote at a time when many types of popular music proliferated, he did not condemn modern music as a whole.

    The same approach should be taken today. Modern music that assists in bringing us closer to Christ in the Liturgy should be promoted and encouraged, not lumped in with profane secular popular music.

  18. There is a strong spiritual dimension to Christian music. Think of Handel’s Messiah, the cantatas of JS Bach, Christmas carols, hymns, and going further back to Gregorian Chant and even further back, the cantilation marks in the Hebrew scripture. Each word also had a musical tone. The effect of music was noted by Plato. Then notice modern pop groups and their effect on modern culture. Church people want to ape the hedonistic world and its ways and bring that into the church? I think of the scene from movie, The Devil’s Advocate, where Satan dips his fingers in the holy water and enters the church. Is not the same thing being done importing modern hedonistic music into the church? “Et nolite communicare operibus infructuosis tenebrarum magis autem et redarguite.” Ephesians 5:11 (“And have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness: but rather reprove them.”) Just quoting scripture and just asking.

  19. “The history of modern music, whether atonal or jazz or rock or pop, is a history of deliberate rebellion and revolt against the great tradition of Western music, against its high art forms, its slowly-developed musical language, its explicitly or implicitly Christian message.”

    I find this to be an absurd generalization. All folk music throughout the centuries is an anti-Christian rejection of Western music? Gospel music, too? Would the simple folk music that probably originally accompanied the psalms be included in that? What about the (probably similar) music that Jesus and the apostles would have almost certainly enjoyed?

    I have no problem with anyone preferring traditional music in church services because of its aesthetic value and its cultural and historical significance. But I can’t agree it’s more “Christian.” I think C.S. Lewis gives us something to consider on that front:

    “I reject at once an idea which lingers in the mind of some modern people that cultural activities are in their own right spiritual and meritorious — as though scholars and poets were intrinsically more pleasing to God than scavengers and bootblacks…Let us clear it forever from our minds. The work of a Beethoven, and the work of a charwoman, become spiritual on precisely the same condition, that of being offered to God, of being done humbly ‘as to the Lord’. ” –Lewis from “The Weight of Glory”

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