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Singing with Wisdom: Music in Roman Catholic Worship—Part 2

July 9, 2024


In part 1 of this series, I attempted to lay some groundwork to show how the liturgical reform envisioned by the Second Vatican Council, in regard to the place of music in the liturgy, was another step in the Church’s ongoing efforts of reform. In this segment, we move on to the council documents themselves and the guiding principle of “organic development.” 

So, to continue this conversation about the role of music in the liturgy, it would be good to reflect for a moment on an important guideline established at the Second Vatican Council for the revision of the liturgy. Article 23 of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (Sacrosanctum Concilium) states: 

That sound tradition may be retained, and yet the way remain open to legitimate progress careful investigation is always to be made into each part of the liturgy which is to be revised. This investigation should be theological, historical, and pastoral. Also the general laws governing the structure and meaning of the liturgy must be studied in conjunction with the experience derived from recent liturgical reforms and from the indults conceded to various places. Finally, there must be no innovations unless the good of the Church genuinely and certainly requires them; and care must be taken that any new forms adopted should in some way grow organically from forms already existing.

The last sentence in this paragraph is key to understanding the reforms in sacred music initiated by previous popes: “There must be no innovations unless the good of the Church . . . requires them.” Just as in the time of Leo XIII, Benedict XIV, Pius X, and his predecessors, guardrails were understood to be necessary to guard against innovations that may move beyond the proper boundaries of tradition. Distortions must be reformed. As the Council Fathers at the Second Vatican Council stated: “Care must be taken that any new forms adopted should in some way grow organically from forms already existing.” 

To evaluate or modify the Church’s worship, looking to that past is not nostalgia. It is the only approved and secure way forward. 

The true, good, and beautiful must be incarnated in the ritual structure of Roman Catholic worship.

So, how do new forms “grow organically from forms already existing,” and why is that directive important? 

To answer that question, we have to retreat back to the fifth century, to Prosper of Aquitaine and his phrase “Legem credendi lex statuat supplicandi”—the law of believing is established by the law of praying. Over the centuries, that important phrase has been simplified to “Lex orandi, lex credendi”—the law of prayer is the law of belief. Some have even expanded it with lex vivendi—the law of living. In other words, what we believe must be represented in how and what we pray, and both affect how we live. 

How we pray in our ritualized worship is more than simply the words we speak. It is the entire ethos of our worship. The “smells and bells” that adorn our worship are not there as entertainment. They are an essential part of the ritual and are key to our remembering what we are doing—namely, joining our prayer with the angels and saints around the throne of God in worship of the sacrifice of our Lord that becomes present upon our altars. 

If we change the way we pray, over time what we believe will also change—at least if Prosper was correct—and there is plenty of evidence to suggest that he was. Human beings are uncomfortable with an incongruence between appearance and content. In our common daily encounters, if there is a disjunction between our body language, tone of voice, and the content of our words, those to whom we are speaking will question our sincerity, right?

Communication is goal oriented. It always seeks truth and understanding, unless it is intended to deceive. The orientation of the Logos has to be oriented toward truth and understanding, and dwelling with the Logos must always precede and govern any actions that we take. The Word was made flesh to complete God’s revelation in the person of Jesus Christ. As a man, he communicated with the complexity of all the uniquely human factors including tone, inflection, posture, gesture, and act. Liars are betrayed when all those elements of human communication don’t convey an internal logic—when they don’t come together to “say” the same thing. 

What we believe must be represented in how and what we pray, and both affect how we live. 

Tracey Rowland expressed this idea in a different context in an article that appears in the first issue of Word on Fire’s new theological journal, The New Ressourcement. The article is called “Principles for a New Ressourcement in a Time of Crisis,” and she wrote that

every word and act carries within it a relationship to the truth, either for or against. [And] that within complex human actions and cultural practices, there is an internal logic, a rationality, defined by the end to which the practice is put. . . . Over the centuries, the Church has built up a body of teachings that are all related to the pursuit of truth and goodness and, thus, also to the beautiful. 

Dr. Rowland writes regarding the relationship between logos and ethos (word and action), and her words can be applied to our liturgical worship. The true, good, and beautiful must be incarnated in the ritual structure of Roman Catholic worship. Liturgy is a “complex human action” expressed in culture with signs and symbols intended to direct us to a specific end—namely, the worship of the one true God through his Son, our Savior, Jesus Christ, who sanctifies us through his sacrifice made present on the altar at every Mass. 

So, what are the origins of this ethos of Catholic worship, and how has its internal logic and rationality developed (been “built up”) and preserved to ensure that its intended end remains true? If we take to heart the injunction of Article 23 of Sacrosanctum Concilium against inorganic innovations, we can understand that a different development, a mutation, or a rupture in development, would risk producing a different end. Protestant worship, for example, might have as its goal praise of God and gratitude for the Savior, but not in the way we understand the sacrificial reality of the Roman Catholic Mass, where Jesus becomes truly present on the altar of sacrifice. 

In The Spirit of the Liturgy, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger spoke of the “cosmic” meaning of the liturgy, which he defined as the means by which, in the Mass, we enter into Jesus’s time brought into the present—where the gap between time and eternity is bridged. How could we possibly presume to possess a liturgy understood in this way? It defies our meddling. In a sense, it belongs to the Spirit and therefore is a wild thing—it is beyond our reach. It is offered to us by the Holy Spirit who communicates the love of God to us through the Father’s Son, Jesus. The power of the Spirit is called down at the epiclesis of every Mass, and faith causes us to kneel in wonder at the great mystery before us. 

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From the introduction of ritual sacrifice in the Old Testament, it was God who specified the way he was to be worshiped. If anyone is uncertain of how specific God was in how he desired to be worshiped, read the first seven chapters of the book of Leviticus. Did God insist on such ritual detail for himself, or for the Israelites? Of course, God needs nothing in himself, so the establishment of the ritual of sacrifice was to secure the covenant between God and his people and satisfy the Israelites need for order and justice. “Gather to me my faithful ones, who made a covenant with me by sacrifice!” (Ps. 50:5)

God communicated the rituals of sacrifice through Moses. When Moses, God’s mediator of the law and the guardian of orthodoxy (right worship) was removed for a time to commune with God on Mount Sinai, the impatient Israelites “exchanged the glory of God for the image of an ox that eats grass” (Ps 106:20)—they made a golden calf and worshiped it instead of the one true God (Exodus 32). When we humans are left unchecked to our own desires—our personal preferences—we too easily repeat their folly. Our nature as worshiping beings can find all sorts of things to worship other than the One who made us—the One who established his covenant with us through the sacrifice of his Son.

The development of Christian worship, like doctrine, has always been moderated by the Church to ensure that any development was consistent with the cosmic, or inherited, nature of the liturgy. Our history shows that when innovations led music astray, right order was asserted so that the sacred temple was not profaned—that is, so that the internal consistency of logos and ethos are retained, and belief properly communicated not just in word but in signs and symbols, which in a sense is the Church’s “body language.” 

Msgr. Robert Hayburn’s excellent book Papal Legislation on Sacred Music: 95 A.D. to 1977 A.D. gives ample testimony of the Church’s interest in preserving the proper order of music in the liturgy. In its more than six-hundred pages, he extensively documents occasional periods of decadence that are then followed by correctives implemented to restore the proper order. I will leave it up to the reader to determine which period we are in now. 

In part 3 to follow, we’ll tie these threads together and suggest a way forward following this principle of organic development.