One of the useful things Stephen Schloesser’s “Jazz Age Catholicism” does us is to remind us that the church and the world are not hermetically sealed off from one other; things that happen in the church are very often related to what is happening in the world.

Jazz Age Catholicism: Mystic Modernism in Postwar Paris, 1919-1933 by Stephen Schloesser (440 pages, University of Toronto Press, 2005)

Jazz Age Catholicism is an extremely interesting work of scholarship published in 2005, now hard to come by.

Its author, Stephen Schloesser, posits that France after the Great War saw a revival of Catholicism similar to the one that occurred in the wake of the French Revolution in the early 1800s. Such diverse figures as Jacques Maritain, Georges Rouault, Charles Tournemire, and Georges Bernanos led a renouveau catholique and achieved a “synthesis of Catholicism and culture” that influenced not only France but the rest of the Catholic world—defining “the religiosity of many throughout Western Europe and the Americas into the 1960s.”

What made this revival different from previous ones is that it redefined Catholicism as something modern, and its principal figures engaged with synthesizing Catholicism and modern trends, particularly in the arts. This had seemed impossible a generation before (i.e., in the late 19th century) when Catholicism was usually viewed by secular-minded folk as being “traditionalist” and “reactionary.” The intellectuals and artists of the renouveau catholique in no way compromised the integrity of orthodox Catholic faith; on the contrary, they attempted to show how the tradition of the church moved through time and adapted itself to new situations. To cite one example, Maritain used Thomist ideas of aesthetics to argue that modern abstract art was an expression of eternal form—indeed, in this respect it echoed the art of the Middle Ages. Perhaps, then, it would be more apt to say, not so much that Catholicism is modern, but that it is timeless.

I thought recently about this book and about the connections between Catholicism and modernity, especially as regards the aesthetics of worship. Schloesser’s book struck me as incomplete in that it did not show what happened to this renouveau catholique. Did it survive, or was it merely a passing phase? My interest was piqued when I happened upon a piece the music critic Virgil Thomson wrote in 1947 commenting on the then-recent encyclical of Pope Pius XII Mediator Dei—the first papal encyclical devoted entirely to liturgy. Thomson’s interest in the encyclical lay in the fact that it showed the church officially embracing modern music.

What do we find in that succinct and generous-hearted papal letter? Pius starts by identifying first principles, three essential qualities that should be present in all liturgical celebrations: sacredness, nobility, and universality. Perhaps the hardest of these to define is nobility; if one guessed that it had to do with dignity, worthiness, fittingness, and the lack of vulgarity, one would probably be close to the mark. Sacredness of course means dedicated to God alone; Pius specifies that it “abhors any profane influence”; thus, the liturgy should have a quality of being set apart for God, without any stylistic element that is explicitly secular or mundane. Universality denotes that the Catholic liturgy is a continuum across time and space; there should be nothing of an excessively local character, nor anything excessively “of our time.” Similarly, Pius bids us to concentrate on the “essential and necessary things” in our worship and not clutter up our altars with “a multitude of sacred images and statues” that do not relate directly to the central liturgical act. Liturgy should be compact and focused, not overcomplex and diffuse.

Pius has interesting words to say about music and art, some of which modify or moderate previous papal pronouncements. Indeed, Virgil Thomson’s review of the encyclical was adorned with the enthusiastic heading “The Catholic Church Accepts Modern Music.” But let’s look at what Pius says.

“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.”

Now, what is meant by “modern music” here? Bear in mind that Pius was writing in 1947. If one is talking about contemporary art music, then Stravinsky, Poulenc, Messiaen, Duruflé are possibilities that come to mind. Virgil Thomson perhaps goes a little overboard when he starts speculating about twelve-tone Mass settings. But one could envision a choir singing, say, a Poulenc or Vaughan Williams Mass as part of a major ceremony.

In any case, Pius XII is clearly revising the position found in an earlier papal document, Pius X’s motu proprio of 1903, which laid down guidelines for liturgical music. Pius X asserted that Gregorian chant and Renaissance polyphony were to be regarded as the church’s official styles of liturgical music. The earlier pope was writing at the end of an era that saw an increasingly operatic, showy and secular style of music invade the churches; he wanted to stem this tide and return to the church’s ancient tradition, taking advantage of recent advances in the study of Gregorian chant. But Pius XII, writing 45 years later, modifies the ruling: He reaffirms Gregorian chant but at the same time accepts “modern music” (however this is defined) into the fold.

As a correlative to music, Pius evokes the need to have the faithful “take a more active part in divine worship” (here he quotes from an earlier papal document, Divini cultus by Pius XI):

“Indeed it is very necessary that the faithful attend the sacred ceremonies not as if they were outsiders or mute onlookers, but let them fully appreciate the beauty of the liturgy and take part in the sacred ceremonies, alternating their voices with the priest and the choir, according to the prescribed norms. If, please God, this is done, it will not happen that the congregation hardly ever or only in a low murmur answer the prayers in Latin or in the vernacular.”

But Pius recommends Gregorian chant as the best means of achieving this participation: “So that the faithful take a more active part in divine worship, let Gregorian chant be restored to popular use in the parts proper to the people.” It’s not hard to see why this should be the case: Chant is simple and adaptable to a variety of settings and contexts; one can sing it with a chordal accompaniment, for example. In this Pius echoes and confirms what was said by previous pontiffs, including Pius X in his motu proprio. (It’s worth noting too that Pius XI appears to have envisioned the use of the vernacular and the dialogue element, unless I misinterpret him.)

Considering the visual arts, Pius has similar things to say:

“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. Thus modern art will be able to join its voice to that wonderful choir of praise to which have contributed, in honor of the Catholic faith, the greatest artists throughout the centuries.”

Note that Pius does not say that we must embrace all modern art; he simply says that we should not reject modern art out of hand. There is also warning:

“Nevertheless, in keeping with the duty of Our office, we cannot help deploring and condemning those works of art, recently introduced by some, which seem to be a distortion and perversion of true art and which at times openly shock Christian taste, modesty and demotion, and shamefully offend the true religious sense. These must be entirely excluded and banished from our churches…”

Pius does not name any specific artists, leaving it to us to apply the principle. I’m sure many of us have seen modernistic “crucifixes” where the figure of Christ is all but reduced to an abstract shape. This would seem to chime with Pius’ “excessive ‘symbolism.’” And “extreme realism” might perhaps apply to works like Dali’s Last Supper, a most interesting work of art but probably not suitable for a church.

Pius balances this with a warning against an “exaggerated zeal for antiquity in matters liturgical.” Religion is not archeology; tradition must inform the present, not be merely an artifact.

Mediator Dei consists of far more than these remarks about church art and music. But these suffice to suggest that Pius was at one with the program of synthesizing Catholicism and modernity to show the continuity of tradition—the program of the renouveau catholique discussed in Jazz Age Catholicism.

So, to return to our original question: What happened? Surely some elements of this movement passed into the Catholic legacy—the impulses behind the Second Vatican Council derived in part from this group of thinkers—but for the most part it would seem that the renouveau catholique became just one more historical artifact. That is largely because the modernity these thinkers were seeking to engage itself shifted shape (modernity will do that). There was, throughout the early-to-mid 20th century, a body of accomplishment in art and thought and thought that to a large degree fell by the wayside in the march of progress. Thus, the jazz age gave way to the rock-folk age. In many churches a new music was heard at the liturgy, populist, simplified—arguably infantilized—and artificially contrived. Both high and popular culture experienced a severe decline. The other modernism, the theological kind, took root in high places, and large segments of the church began following the ambient culture instead of leading it. It was questionable whether any of this adhered to Maritain’s requirement for innovation, namely that the “new must truly continue the old, and that it add, without destruction, to the substance acquired.”

One of the useful things Jazz Age Catholicism does us is to remind us that the church and the world are not hermetically sealed off from one other; things that happen in the church are very often related to what is happening in the world. Jacques Barzun has written of the “demotic style” that characterizes modern life, with its casual dress and attitudes, its general indifference to beauty. One can look at “postmodernity” from many angles, but the keynote for me is the loss of the continuity of tradition and the loss of norms and standards, whether moral or intellectual or aesthetic. We live in a vast supermarket of lifestyle choices, our minds filled with historical memories but without any clear sense of what we are now. A sad end indeed to the vision and aspirations of Catholics of the Jazz Age.

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The featured image is “The Crucifixion” (early 1920s) by Georges Rouault. 

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