These days, we are often told that we need to examine our consciences about our relationship to the natural world. Are we being good stewards? Are we polluting or contaminating the soil or the water? Are we practicing good agriculture and husbandry? Are we re-using and recycling? Are we tempted to keep the air conditioning on too high?
Contrary to his apparent intentions, Pope Francis has, I would argue, made such questions seem less serious and less pertinent to Catholics by the way he has too freely mingled the Vatican with globalist organizations and highly suspicious elites.
Whatever we make of environmental hot button issues in detail, all of us should all be able to agree with his predecessor Pope Benedict XVI’s call to work towards a proper “human ecology”—that is, an optimal environment for man’s flourishing, which means proper intellectual and cultural nourishment, enveloped by the justice, courtesy, and charity proper to our human and Christian dignity. The most important thing, by far, is that we be good stewards of our souls and one another’s lives. The entire non-rational material world is not worth as much as one human child, just as a single act of supernatural love or charity is worth more than all acts of natural virtue, and one mortal sin is worse than all physical catastrophes that could ever hit the earth.
Taking our cue then from Benedict XVI, could we not say something analogous about “musical ecology”?
We must be good stewards of the wealth of our tradition, which the Lord has graciously summoned forth from centuries of faithful Christians, including the greatest artistic geniuses the human race has ever known, and innumerable musicians who have translated their scores into sounds that elevate the soul and pay homage to the “one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in us all” (Eph 4:6).
As good servants of human ecology, ordered by nature to the beautiful and lifted by grace to the pursuit of the face-to-face vision of Beauty Himself, we must not pollute the air with banality or noise; we must not contaminate the souls of worshipers with trite songs lacking in beauty and worthy lyrics. We must avidly “recycle” by continually drawing on the resources already present, even as we strive to augment those resources with well-made contributions of our own.
Modern music outside of the Church is often a toxic swamp of unbridled sensuality and angry rebellion, when it is not a mind-numbing pudding of New Age vibes or soft jazz or background muzak. The Church must be a refuge from this toxicity, a place where the complex ecosystem of Catholicism is protected and fostered, a spiritual garden where we catch an echo of the distant but thrilling music of the heavenly hosts.
Here, then, is an examination of conscience for church musicians—at least those who are working in genres other than Gregorian chant, which is perfect Church music and harbors no evils to be dispelled.
- Are the lyrics we are singing purely and unambiguously Catholic, focused on Our Lord or on the saints, and expressive of the Church’s established doctrine? (Put negatively: Are the lyrics mingled with political correctness; fashionable causes such as feminism, socialism, egalitarianism, or pragmatism; worldly attitudes or horizontal reductionism?)
- Does the music have a beautiful melody that follows the laws of good melodic form, namely, a natural and singable arc in each period, and intelligent reference to modal or tonal centers?
- Is the rhythm natural and orderly, emphasizing the strong beat and de-emphasizing the weak beat, and avoiding frequent syncopation?
- Is the harmony of sufficient interest, diversity, and nobility, without being avant-garde or sentimental?
- Would someone with a serious training in church music be able honestly to describe the music we are using as having the qualities of holiness, good artistic form, and universality, such that it would savor of nothing worldly, would stand comparison with repertoire of acknowledged excellence, and would have the ability to cross cultures because of its inspiration from the liturgy and suitedness for the liturgy?
- Given that St. Pius X said that Gregorian chant is the supreme measure of good church music, and that the further music is from chant, the worse it is for the liturgy, would the music I am performing sound “right and just” alongside a Gregorian chant, or would the two dramatically clash in style and effect?
- Is this music worthy of my rational dignity and supernatural calling in Christ? Is it an invitation to meditate and contemplate the Logos, the eternal wisdom of God?
- Would Our Lord Jesus Christ, the Blessed Virgin Mary, St. Paul, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Catherine of Siena, St. John Vianney, St. Padre Pio, or any other saints you admire, listen to this church music with enjoyment or at least benevolent toleration? (I admit, this is not an easy question to answer, given that probably any Christian prior to 1800 would have fallen off his chair with apoplexy listening to a Mass by Bruckner or a motet by Duruflé. A saint’s personal tastes are never the final measure of art, but in general I think we can say that the saints—because they were serious in their life of prayer and penance and took the divine liturgy seriously—would, and did, instinctively react against anything that seemed really “off.” In any case, it is better in such matters to err on the side of caution. When one is approaching the Burning Bush, one should not be wearing gasoline-saturated rags.)
As regards the music we write, perform, or listen to outside of the temple of God, the foregoing questions could still legitimately be asked, since each of these points pertains to good music in general. But we could add a few further questions:
- Would I want to look like or live like this or that performer I am enjoying? Would I want to marry that performer (if he or she is in the right age range) or one of his/her tag-alongs? Would I pick a spouse for one of my own children from their milieu?
- Are the lyrics in accord with Catholic faith and morals, or are they promoting hedonism, sensualism, materialism, cynicism, a worldly mentality, etc.?
This musical examination of conscience is one that the Church ought to be promoting a great deal more than eco-consciousness. I do not imply that we should be flippant about the natural environment, but I am certain that we need to be much more concerned about human ecology: the habitats of our churches, the optimal conditions for prayer and praise, the duty of integrating our lives around the mysteries of Christ, so that we may give due honor and glory to the most Holy Trinity. The ecological mess men have made (and let’s not deny that it really exists, even if it isn’t the world’s worst problem) is bound up with a gradual departure from Christian wisdom and an embrace of moral depravity, whereby the unrestrained desires of the ego are given free rein. To solve any large-scale problem will require, first and always, returning to that wisdom, restraining those desires, and seeking what is truly worthy of the image of God. That’s as true for music as it is for any other area of human endeavor.
Dr. Peter Kwasniewski, Thomistic theologian, liturgical scholar, and choral composer, is a graduate of Thomas Aquinas College and The Catholic University of America. He has taught at the International Theological Institute in Austria; the Franciscan University of Steubenville’s Austria Program; and Wyoming Catholic College, which he helped establish in 2006. Today he is a full-time writer and speaker on traditional Catholicism, writing regularly for OnePeterFive, New Liturgical Movement, LifeSiteNews, and other websites and print publications. He has published eight books, the most recent being Reclaiming Our Roman Catholic Birthright: The Genius and Timeliness of the Traditional Latin Mass (Angelico, 2020). Visit his website at www.peterkwasniewski.com.