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Is “Contemporary” Church Music a Good Example of Inculturation?


In 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 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. 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 Lumen Gentium, §13.

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 See, inter alia, “Historical Examples of Inculturation in Catholic China,” “" target="_blank">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.” Marvelous examples of inculturation can be found in the fusion of European chant and polyphony with native American instruments and texts.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.

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 For further thoughts along these lines, see my article “Confusions about Inculturation.” 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 The Way of Beauty: Liturgy, Education, and Inspiration for Family, School, and College (Kettering, OH: Angelico Press, 2015), 48.

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

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 Veritatis Splendor, §88. 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 Clayton, Way of Beauty, 41.

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.


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,” “" target="_blank">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 article “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.

50 thoughts on “Is “Contemporary” Church Music a Good Example of Inculturation?”

  1. Some time ago, I practiced Zen Buddhism seriously for six years. The notion that the teacher would adopt modern, contemporary music in our practice is laughable. What would be the goal of such music? To make us–the Americans–feel “closer” to Buddhism? It would have the opposite effect by making the practice seem more trivial. Besides, the music has a specific goal as an aid to Zen practice. The chanting, in a foreign tongue, helps one recollect oneself before the awesome practice of zazen. Any contemporary music may make the student have a sense of familiarity, but the teacher (the authority) knows what music is conducive to zazen, and what music is not. So, the use of contemporary music in Buddhism would ultimately reduce the number of people practicing Buddhism, since it would affect the quality of zazen, which is what keeps people practicing Buddhism (as one drops out of an exercise program that no longer works).

    Note: We used contemporary music at times, but only during the BBQs held after the serious practice of zazen.

    • Spot on. And to an ever greater degree, the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass ought to be experienced as something otherworldly. It should neither sound like nor participate in the fads and pop cultural fashions of the day; instead, it should stand in counter distinction to them as a sign of contradiction; it ought to call us out of the familiar workaday world into something transcendent. It is there to convert the world, with which it is at war, not be converted by it.

    • Thinking about it some more, I’m struck by how silly it would be for the Buddhist master to visit my area in the South and say, well, country music is big here, so let’s incorporate country music into the Buddhist practice, following the principle of inculturation! Such a statement seems like a condescending marketing ploy; it ruptures the Buddhist practice from its magnificent tradition, which attracts so many; most importantly, it is simply not conducive to zazen and the ultimate goals of the practice.

    • There’s an elderly greeter at a local store who relishes his job at the front offering witticisms and warm greetings to everyone. He loves the limelight, and flashes a million dollar smile and sweeping arm gestures. He’s an impressive character: tall and with the confident bonhomie of a game show host. I’ve come to wonder if he’s a former priest. He reminds me too much of the priests I knew growing up in a novus ordo parish.

  2. Peter, a well wrought piece. Ultimately though, like faith (not religion) its defense and application is subjective and conditional. When the concept of “Western/European cultures” is applied, it is difficult to confine exactly what those parameters are musicologically. Your implied sense would be fairly identical to St Pius X’s, roughly from the codification of Trent to Tra le sollecitudini. But church modalism, polyphony and western homophony require qualification. I don’t need to cite Mozarabic, Byzantine, Syriac or Far Eastern Christian modality to illustrate this. Nor do I feel it necessary to dub Orthodox homophony as “eastern.” They are, at best, historical benchmarks by which we can retroactively identify music outside of post-Tridentine eras as having the necessary DNA and resemblance to monody, polyphony or even hymnody in the musical sense to qualify it as worthy of the sacred moniker. Even, as your commenters have noted, when you listen to Bach’s Magnificat or Beethoven’s Requiem, you’re not so much transcending worldliness for the other, you’re more acutely transmitted to the sonic architecture of a master of a certain era and its schools/culture, with all sorts of tangible and not so tangible ensigns. Et cetera.
    I’m just not as sure as you and your students in endowing certain schools as authentic based upon a moving criteria, especially a criteria that requires text as well as musical expression. I suppose what I’m saying ultimately becomes some sort of cliché, namely “There’s stuff I like and stuff I don’t like…..or….I know it when I hear it….or if it walks and quacks LIKE a duck, it’s a duck. Pax tecum, filium meum.

    • There’s no question at all that a vast diversity of music exists that would be recognizable as sacred or compatible with liturgy. But I’ll just echo what a teacher of mine once said: When you hear rock music, there’s no doubt in your mind that it’s rock. You don’t stand there, puzzled, and philosophize about it. Similarly in this sphere, while tastes will differ, and the appropriateness line will be drawn differently in various situations, music such as Gregorian chant, Palestrina, Victoria, Byrd, Monteverdi, Bach, Telemann, Handel, Vivaldi, some classical composers, Bruckner, and moderns who are working in traditional styles is going to be infinitely better for divine worship than the tripe being offered by the mainstream publishers or P&W bands.

      • And yes, this is a “Eurocentric” perspective — but our religion is a synthesis of cultural currents from Jerusalem, Athens, and Rome, and it’s all about the “scandal of the particular.” No one should make any apologies for bringing Gregorian chant and Palestrina across the oceans and into every mountain, jungle, desert, village, or metropolis.

  3. If we’re being perfectly honest, we’ll acknowledge that what passes for “contemporary” music in most Novus Ordo parishes in the U.S. is at least 30-, if not 40-year-old drivel peddled by OCP and GIA to ill-trained parish music directors, many of whom lack the formal schooling required to a) know the difference between high-quality and lowbrow music and b) play the organ and/or direct a choral ensemble with any degree of proficiency. There are exceptions, to be sure, but “Church music” has become as political a matter as any facing the average parish these days, in which the masses have been reared for so long on Schutte, Haugen, Dufford, and the like that they have no conception of what real Catholic music is supposed to sound like.

    Ever since the rigid distinctions between high and low Mass were abolished with the promulgation of the Novus Ordo, all musical hell has been unleashed upon our parishes. Sung propers (a requirement in any high Mass in the traditional rite) have become more ephemeral and elusive than the proverbial snipe, replaced with banal, unsingable tripe (think “and I will RAAAAIIIIIISE you UUUUUUPPP on the LAAAAAAAST day”) that bears no resemblance to traditional hymnody; indeed, many a potential convert I have known with a strong Protestant background in congregational singing has been horrified by what they’ve heard at Mass.

    The solution is really very simple: In the average parish, use only traditional four-part hymns for congregational singing, while building up a schola of dedicated individuals who are willing to learn the propers for one Sunday per month, increasing gradually to two per month, then eventually every Sunday. In our cathedrals, our bishops need to set the example by finding the financial resources to hire musicians and trained singers to sing Masses by Mozart, Haydn, Palestrina, and other titans of Western music on a frequent basis. Would it take work, money, and dedication? Most certainly. But no more than what is so frequently spent on “youth ministry”, “outreach”, “social justice”, etc. that rarely produces any sort of tangible return.

    • Thanks, you have that stupid “raise you up on eagle’s wings” song stuck in my head now. Haven’t heard that garbage for 2 years and now it’s back.

      Thank you sir.

      • If it helps at all, I like to think that every minute I’m forced to endure such “music” during a Novus Ordo Mass amounts to time off my (hopefully!) eventual sentence in Purgatory. As a musician, I fear that my personal Purgatory will include being forced to listen to St. Louis Jesuit music on a perpetual loop, complete with screeching sopranos-that-really-aren’t-sopranos-so-they-shouldn’t-try-for-those-high-notes-after-all and an orchestra of guitars that aren’t even in tune with themselves, much less with each other.

        • That sounds about as bad as waddling up to Holy Communion as the sappy ‘one bread, one body’ or ‘here I am, Lord’ plays in an effort to get the women all emotional.

          Eternally grateful that we have access to the traditional Mass.

      • I actually would like “On Eagle’s Wings” and “I Will Raise You Up” and “Servant Song” — if I hadn’t heard them a zillion times. Those songs and so many others in the OCP and GIA repertoire are songs that would be good for youth retreats or kids sitting around a campfire at a Christian summer camp, with somebody on a guitar singing the verses, and the rest of the kids chiming in on the refrains. That would be awesome. But those songs are not for congregational singing and they are NOT songs for the Mass!

        Sometimes I think this stuff ends up at Mass because Catholic parishes don’t organize enough other opportunities for people to get together in a prayerful way. The result is that music that would be much more appropriate for a small, informal group just kind of gets dumped into the Sunday Mass. My Protestant friends don’t just have a worship service on Sunday; they also have “small groups” that meet during the week, Bible study groups, youth groups, etc.

        Of course, my theory could be entirely wrong. It might have more to do with OCP and GIA just getting a lock on the market. And it might have to do with “liberated” lesbian liberal nuns in chancery offices pushing this stuff down people’s throats. And it might have to do with vain, preening, self-regarding “liturgists” running all the liturgical workshops and conferences, which in turn are attended by parish music directors who are eager to keep up with the latest “thing” being promoted.

    • The solution is really very simple: In the average parish, use only traditional four-part hymns

      Four-part polyphany is out of reach of the average church choir. Though polyphony is ideal, chant is great too.

      • To be clear, I’m referring not to polyphony, but to hymn tunes harmonized in 4-part harmony in the classical style exemplified by Bach in his chorales, such as “Christ the Lord is Risen Today”, “O Sanctissima”, “Holy, Holy, Holy”, etc. These pieces are actually hymns in the classical sense; the terms “hymn” has sadly been bastardized over the past few decades to include St. Louis Jesuit-style “folk” (and I use that term very, very loosely) songs that are so popular with the over-60 crowd but make the younger generation grow nauseous with their insipidity.

  4. Prof. E. Michael Jones said it perfectly.

    “Christian rock” is like doing pelvic thrusts while chanting “chastity”.

  5. I might agree that much of contemporary Christian/Worship music is banal, immature and certainly lacking the soaring majesty of proper Catholic music. I happen to attend mass at a wonderful parish that uses the propers, chant and beautiful polyphony. Lucky me. I am however a songwriter of contemporary Christian music. Are my songs appropriate for mass? Many of you would think not. Are they banal, I hope not since they stem from the deep well of faith within me.
    If you are interested you are welcome to listen to the demo’s at this site.
    I would welcome your feedback.

    • No Randy, your music is not banal. I find it hard to articulate my thoughts, because I’m no scholar, but I’ll muddle on through it and hope I make sense. There has been much fine poetry written about God. Beautiful poetry which we all need, both to write, and to read. But this poetry would not be used in the liturgy. This is the same in my mind as music. There is the music that some people need to write, it is a part of their expression of faith. And others need to hear this music. Family members, and maybe members of the community that we want to share our faith with. But this music has it’s special place outside of the liturgy.

      My husband is a guitarist. I have seen over the years what playing music means to him. I think it is a very vital and necessary form of expression for some. Keep writing your music Randy. Keep sharing it! Thank you for sharing your songs here!

      God bless you!!

      • Thanks for your encouragement Sharyn. I agree that this kind of music is not ideal for liturgy. It is indeed a way for me to express my faith and others have found it a help to their own. I hope your husband keeps on playing, it is good for the soul 🙂

  6. There’s another aspect that needs to be considered: ignorance. Since about 1965, instruction in the arts and humanities has been uprooted from curricula, all the way from kindergarten through graduate school. Prior to 1965, most people received public school instruction in what was called “good music”, that is, Western classical music. A clear hierarchy of aesthetic excellence was demonstrated and explained, with Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms at the top and Elvis Presley at the bottom. For example, in my public middle school children were taught to recognize the difference between the sonata form and the concerto grosso (among many other forms); we were required to identify the instruments of the orchestra by ear; we were taught to draw a seating chart of orchestra musicians; we learned to sing major symphonic themes set to simple lyrics. In elementary school, all teachers played the piano and led sing-alongs of American folk songs. Most children learned to play instruments or sing in the school chorus. People also sang routinely at public meetings, school assemblies, girl and boy scout camping trips, at sing-alongs at the movie theater, and to TV shows such as “Sing Along with Mitch”. Visual art instruction wasn’t as high quality as instruction in music, but all Western Civ courses in high school and college included a stiff dose of art history. In music, “good” was defined as Bach through the late 19th century nationalist romantics. In art, “good” was defined as the Italian Renaissance. Literature probably had the most definitive instruction in aesthetics, with all literary forms explored thoroughly, from folk tales to Shakespeare. Clear distinctions were drawn between excellent literature and pop culture. For example, the sonnets of John Donne were presented as clearly superior to a Superman comic book, and the reasons behind the designation as superior literature were explained in full. In all cases, pop culture was presented as mere cheapo entertainment, not to be respected or taken seriously, but harmless fun in small doses.

    All this is gone, partly due to cultural relativism. If we define some works as good, others must be bad or mediocre.

    People who lack any formation in aesthetics are at a loss, they drift helplessly in a state of confusion…just like when people are denied intellectual or spiritual formation. Lack of aesthetic formation is a serious issue because the purpose of any art is the education of feeling. The emotions need to be educated just like the mind and the spirit. Indeed, if any of these aspects of formation are neglected, people become stunted and de-humanized in one way or another. The idea that beauty is rational and can be discussed philosophically is news to most people …a shocking assertion that stimulates an initial combination of resistance, confusion, going around in circles, and powerful attraction.

    The sacred liturgy is the single most powerful aesthetic experience that’s available to us. All the arts are combined perfectly and their impact is heightened because the arts are used to serve God. This is why the Latin Mass or a complete OF Mass hits people like a ton of bricks. They were deprived and starving but didn’t know it. Real bread and fish are much more appealing than the usual diet of stones and serpents. Once people taste the real thing, stones and serpents no longer satisfy.

    In order to understand WHY liturgical aesthetics are vital for the people, priests and lay people alike need experience with sacred beauty. They also need ideological de-tox so they don’t feel guilty about beauty. Most important, they need theological explanations that include sacred beauty (we know and believe this, so we express it visually and musically by doing thus and such). The gap between the theology we find in the Catechism and the way we actually worship needs to be healed, because the experiential always dominates (and eventually replaces) the theological.

    • As a music teacher in a public school system, I can personally testify that the “aesthetic” approach to music education—in which a core repertoire of what is universally considered “great” music in the Western tonal tradition (typically running from Bach to the late-19th century romantics)—is no longer valued as an ideal curriculum by the elites in university music departments. Rather, such an approach is looked upon with contempt as being inherently racist, as it suggests that the music of “dead white men” from the European tradition is in some way inherently superior to indigenous/non-Eurocentric music, which in turn (according to the elites) leads to the “disenfranchising” of students who, they claim, find the music of Beethoven and Brahms “irrelevant” to their experience.

      You are absolutely correct that Western society has, in the main, abandoned any pretense of placing value upon aesthetics and recognizing that certain works of arts are of inherently higher quality than others. Instead, we now live in a postmodern cultural wasteland where any form of expression, no matter how profane (think modern art depicting Christian symbols in sacrilegious ways, for example), is just as valid as another and where to make any sort of judgment as to whether or not one form of artistic expression possesses more beauty, craftsmanship, et cetera, than another is to brand oneself an “intellectual throwback” to the pre-WWII (if not earlier ) era of educational and cultural thought.

      • Good point! Postmodern political correctness applied to the arts is a manifestation of hyper-individualism, which involves erasing the distinction between the act and the person. Among those who’ve absorbed postmodernism by osmosis, never examining its premises, to criticize an act is to condemn and reject the person. In the great Western tradition, the One, the Good, the True, and the Beautiful are all “Out There”, objective realities that everyone is created to perceive and understand, provided one chooses the narrow way and struggles toward the light. Postmodernism denies the existence of anything greater than ourselves; nothing is Out There, all that matters is what is In Here, in other words, Me (and my tribe). So when there is no truth, only power, a statement that a symphony is better than death metal is taken as a personal attack on the death metal noise-makers plus all their fans. Informed judgment about the quality of a work of art becomes prohibited. This is a recipe for sterile conformity and mediocrity. The intellectual collapse of university humanities departments is a case in point.

        Postmodernism and Catholic faith are inherently incompatible for the very simple reason that Catholicism knows that Truth is a real Person, but Postmodernism denies this possibility. If a pastor wants to lead his parishioners toward genuine sacred music, he needs to deal explicitly with these philosophical and cultural issues. In other words, it’s OK to explain things to the people. WHY are chant and sacred polyphony suitable for the Catholic Mass, but Pentecostal-style praise bands are not? Few people have ever heard any kind of explanation that references a coherent philosophy of aesthetics. The Catholic Church just needs to rescue these convincing explanations from its vast intellectual attic, dust them off, and present them to the people. Once people are invited to open their minds and ears, many become interested, and later on, converted, provided the instructor doesn’t drop the whole nine yards at once. There’s a necessary interplay between experience with beautiful liturgies and explanations about why beauty is a fundamental aspect of worship. As with many things in Catholic faith, it’s “Both / And”, not “Either / Or”. To free people from postmodern enforced mediocrity, we need both beautiful liturgy and explanations that reveal the reality of beauty.

  7. An excellent article. My experience of this sort of thing is when “folk masses” were introduced in England. I can’t remember if it was the end of the sixties or the early seventies. Those of us who “were into” folk music thought the new hymns were trite when compared to traditional Irish, English and Scottish folk music, and that is only the tunes. Our attitude to the lyrics (I can’t think of another word to describe them) cannot be posted on a respectable site like this. For the last thirty odd years I’ve been in Africa, and our church music here is terrific, except when one of the modern Western songs comes in. I can’t bear to describe them as hymns. NB. there are great traditional Irish and English religious songs which I think deserve to be considered as hymns. I presume that they were not as they were in the vernacular of the time. The canon of Western Christian music might not be just Bach, Gregorian chant etc. The riches of the low culture should also be considered as it came from a Christian culture, not as Dr. Kasniewski points out, the contemporary anti-Christian culture.

  8. Hi Peter, loved the article, thank you. I agree that chant and polyphony should have pride of place in the liturgy and I am no fan of the new music that we have seen in our churches – as you pointed out.

    However, I think I am less pessimistic than you are (if I have understood your argument correctly) in regard to the possibilities for engagement with modern culture. I would not distinguish, in this context, quite so strongly as you do between modern secular culture and other non-Christian cultures. I don’t think that any are all bad. There is much that is good in modern secular culture, just as there is much that is good in other non-Christian cultures. Our responsibility, in my opinion, is to engage discerningly with each in such a way that we take what is good and reject what is bad. The point I was making is that this must take into account the underlying form and structure of the music, as well as the text to which it is applied.

    I don’t think that because it has been done badly so far (in my opinion), that it means it can’t be done at all. My response to the music you describe is to say, let’s do this better. Let’s use these examples of the missionaries of the past to inspire to better things. The answer is to have more attempts at engagement, not less; provided that none displace chant and polyphony at the heart of the music of the liturgy as the ever present standard, I have faith that good will out.

    Furthermore, feel that this engagement is something that we must persist with if we want to evangelize the culture. It means that inevitably, there will be some failures, but also there will be successes. I don’t think that this is an easy task, but do I think it is possible.

  9. Most of the music on the Christain radio stations is bad. But there are a lot of great ones too. I like the Newsboys as much anybody! But it has no place at Mass though. That is for the radio, socials, etc.

  10. The most beautiful church music I have ever heard was at the Cathedral of the Madeleine in Salt Lake City. They even have a choir SCHOOL in the cathedral parish.

    Urgent personal business happened to take me to Salt Lake City at Easter, and I was there for the Easter Vigil Mass. It was like being transported to heaven. The next Sunday, I went there for Mass again. Obviously, there’s nothing quite like the Easter Vigil Mass, but the choir was still extraordinary, and the music was still heavenly. They should be a model for every diocese — and every parish, for that matter!

  11. Seems like the OCP and GIA music is one extreme or another: either so banal-sounding that it reminds me of something Barney the Purple Dinosaur might sing, or so difficult that it feels like the composer was just showing off, with tonal jumps that nobody but the best singers can hope to pull off.

    But when the music director throws in a traditional old hymn like “Faith of Our Fathers” or “Holy God, We Praise Thy Name,” the whole congregation sings their heart out. Indeed, they sing so enthusiastically that I get the impression they’re just relieved that finally — FINALLY — they get to sing a song that they actually CAN sing, a song that doesn’t insult their intelligence, and a song that actually has some theological “meat” to it, and that honors the Lord.

    • What are you, an impostor pope?

      It is necessary to show some kindness to those addicted to a certain fashion.

      You, however, show none.

      Makes me want to throw up.

  12. First of all when we talk about “Contemporary” culture in the West we are primarily talking about American culture. The author of this piece makes the common mistake of assuming that America is part of Western Civilization i.e. European Civilization. America is on Europe writ large on another continent. We are a new people and a new relatively speaking civilization. The author writes “whether atonal or jazz or rock or pop, is a history of deliberate rebellion and revolt against the great tradition of Western music” Exactly how where the African American jazz/blues musicians of the american south in rebellion against a musical tradition that was never a part of their heritage in the first place. Where they supposed abandon their own heritage in favor of the heritage of their former masters. Let us be clear I am not accusing you of sir of being a racist so much of as being ignorant of the origins of American culture. I could go on and write about the origins of country western music in “blue grass” but that would belabor the point. Look, I am no expert and I am not going to try argue either for or against the use of American music in the liturgy. I will say though that the development of our culture is a topic that deserves more respect and is much more complex than you have given it. To often articles on this topic come down to “it’s devil music” and so no. I to often get the feeling that traditionalist are trying to hard to baptize personal taste with pseudo intellectual argument that they mean to beat down the opposition rather than engage it and to often ending up looking silly to anyone who wasn’t on their side before they make them.

  13. Church music will not be restored as long as bishops think this is acceptable at Mass:

    If a bishop despises the Mass so much that he behaves like a cross between an attention whore, an American Idol entrant, and an Islamofascist, he needs to be sacked – or even better, tarred and feathered and run out of town on a rail. This incident shows – if further evidence is needed – how little the post-V2 Church values the Mass.


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