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Sacred Music vs. “Praise & Worship” – Does it Matter? (Pt. II)

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The Benedictines of Norcia; Photo by de Montfort Music

Part I | Part II

The fundamental problem with Praise & Worship 

In the first part of this essay, I offered a critique of the profane stylistic traits of Praise & Worship music, whether “soft” or “hard.”[1]

Praise & Worship music is not suitable for liturgical use. Its style reinforces a false conception of the Church’s liturgy (Mass, Divine Office, other sacramental rites) as communal gatherings in which subjective feelings, informality, and spontaneity play a large role. In reality, as Guardini and Ratzinger show, the liturgy is characterized by objectivity, formality, and unspontaneity—and only thus is it capable of being for us the fixed principle of our thoughts and actions, the rock on which we can build our interior life, the infinitely pleasing worship that is offered not so much by us as by our High Priest, and by us in union with Him.

The Mass, in particular, must not be so weighed down with sentimentality and subjectivity that its essence is clouded by its accidents and we lose sight of what it actually is: the mystical re-presentation of the supreme sacrifice of Christ on Calvary. This we perceive only by faith-informed intellects, and never by a psychosomatic faculty, whether it be the external senses, the imagination, or the emotions. We participate in this objective, public, solemn offering primarily by uniting our mind and will to the prayers of the priest and to the realities they point to.

There cannot be a place for contemporary pop-inspired or pop-influenced music in the liturgy because it violates several of the principles repeatedly given in the Church documents. The fact that many priests and bishops do not enforce these rules and do not seem to care is beside the point, just as the fact that most Catholics dissent from Humanae Vitae (including many members of the clergy) does not justify contraception. The vast majority of Catholics are in a state of deepest ignorance, habitual disregard, and sometimes outright disobedience, and we must face the fact that this is part of the cause of the current crisis of identity, doctrine, and discipline in the Church.

I would go further and say we need to be moving away from the fashion or fad of using music derived from contemporary popular styles for any liturgical or devotional activity. We would do well in adoration, for example, to return to a much greater role for silence and a consistent use of simpler chants. Silent prayer, combined with chant, allows people of very different temperaments, personalities, ages, situations they are going through on a given day, etc., to be united in prayer in a way that can be adapted to the needs of each. Vocal prayer, or a more “stirring” form of music, while those things can have their place in the Christian life, do not facilitate group prayer, hence liturgical prayer, in the way that silence and chant (and sacred music) do.[2]

Isn’t this just a matter of taste?

 At this point an objection usually arises: “Well, that’s your opinion, but I guess we just disagree. De gustibus non disputandum” [you can’t argue about tastes].”

But this, too, is a false position that cannot stand up to serious scrutiny. As we learn from Plato and Aristotle, there are qualifications on the basis of which some people can and will make better judgments than others in matters of virtue, science, and aesthetics.[3] We can say, following Aristotle, that the closer a man lives to the golden mean, the better he can judge what is deficient or excessive. We can say, with Plato, that those who have the wisdom of age are, ceteris paribus, better judges of what is good for youth than youths are. Those who have more knowledge, training, and experience in the realm of sacred music, liturgy, and theology (for all three are necessary) will have better and more trustworthy opinions and judgments. Such people—Pope Benedict XVI is a shining example—have developed a sensitive ear and a reliable taste for what is better and worse, more or less suitable, according to the principles of art, liturgy, tradition, and Magisterium.

Consequently, we should take their opinions and judgments most seriously, and not fall prey to a form of voluntarism whereby, because we like something, or are accustomed to it, we will bend over backwards to try to find arguments in favor of it, or fall prey to a form of nominalism whereby we end up wanting to deny principles or essences in favor of what we think are self-evident facts. Voluntarism and nominalism were two of the main intellectual elements of the Protestant Reformation and can be said to be the reasons, historically, for the downfall of Western realist philosophy. When you add voluntarism and nominalism together, you end up with relativism. We should be especially on our guard against importing this trio of -isms into our life of prayer and worship, nor should we even dally with them.

It is beyond dispute, too, that our general musical level has declined as a culture, and this has negatively affected the artistic quality of our music in every genre, from radio songs to movie scores to Broadway shows to church compositions. Hence, we should favor masterpieces from the past in order to educate and elevate our taste and know what is the “gold standard” to look to when evaluating new pieces or when attempting ourselves to add to the treasury of sacred music. What is needed, in short, is a lifelong discipleship to great sacred music. We must apprentice ourselves to the masters if we wish to enter into the discipline, assimilate it, and eventually produce fruits worthy of the Divine Majesty and the Christian soul, which is capax Dei—capacious enough to receive God Himself.

Is the traditional music of the Church too hard?

When my son, who was no child prodigy, was five years old, he could sing all the Marian antiphons (Salve Regina, Alma Redemptoris Mater, Ave Regina Caelorum, Regina Caeli); when he was six, he could sing the Missa de Angelis and other chants familiar in our church, without being able to read the music. My daughter was the same way. Since children are gifted learners by their ears and many chants have captivating melodies, children quickly pick up these chants if they live in communities that prize them.

That, indeed, is how tradition is always passed down: naturally, painlessly, through a common treasuring of traditional things and a common use of them. In the heyday of the Gregorian chant revival before Vatican II, Justine Ward had hundreds of schools throughout the world teaching chant to hundreds of thousands of children. There were famous congresses at which 10,000 boys and girls would chant the Ordinary of the Mass. All of this could have grown and should have continued well into our day, propelled by Vatican II’s favoring of chant, but the 1960s and 1970s were not a propitious time for the preservation of tradition, which quickly became a dirty word.

If we look East to the Byzantine sphere, we can find congregations accustomed to singing liturgical texts in three or four harmonized parts. This is common throughout the Eastern Christian world, and Western Christians easily adapt to it, as I experienced firsthand in Austria, and as I have seen at Wyoming Catholic College whenever we are fortunate enough to have Byzantine liturgies.

At Taize in France, an ecumenical monastery of sorts, large congregations of worshipers, Catholic and Protestant, sing repetitious Latin and vernacular chants harmonized in four parts. Visitors pick up these songs quickly and never forget them.

Truly, the capacity of the human soul for great music is limitless. We should not underestimate either the capacity or the need for excellence in this domain.

All great things are demanding 

Fr. Samuel Weber makes a crucial point about the need for hard work and discipline any time there is something great at stake. Indeed, we regularly expect this of business people and sports teams—but will we not expect it of music ministry? Is that arena really so much less demanding and worthy of our attention, care, and effort? “Speaking from experience,” says Fr. Weber,

I would agree that Gregorian chant may require a greater discipline, more attention and sacrifice of time and energy in order to “make it happen” in our parishes. But difficulty is not a real impediment. In our American society we greatly value sports. I’m a Green Bay Packers fan myself, rabid, actually. I’m really grateful to the Packers for all the hours they spend in practice and preparation for their games. All the sacrifices they make. It’s worth it. The payoff is really something awesome. We, the fans, would settle for no less. Doesn’t this same expectation apply to the things of God? It really isn’t that hard to understand, is it?

St. Augustine taught the people of Hippo: Cantare amantis est. Singing is characteristic of a lover. If the supreme love is, as we believe, between Christ, the Bridegroom, and the Church, his Bride—can any effort be spared to express this love in true beauty? Is any sacrifice too much? We don’t have to guess at the song. This tremendous Lover of ours tells us the song that he wants to hear from our lips and our hearts. This is our Catholic faith. What more need be said? Let us begin![4]

Why is it that “we don’t have to guess at the song”? Because Our Lord Jesus Christ, through the Church’s Tradition and her Magisterium, “tells us the song that He wants to hear from our lips and our hearts.” The problem of poor church music will be overcome when, and exactly to the degree that, both ecclesiastical tradition (part of the very essence of Catholicism) and magisterial teaching are embraced with respect, humility, and gratitude. The major problem of the Church of our time is the loss of any conception or idea of tradition, much less the kind of knowledge and appreciation of it that a healthy condition of Catholicism presupposes.

The worst thing would be for a society to have no laws whatsoever. But the second worst thing is to have good laws and not to follow them, or even to know they exist. The latter is the current condition of the Catholic Church in regard to many aspects of her life. The consistent legislation on sacred music affords a notable example of law unknown, ignored, or held in contempt. A society whose members routinely violate its laws is in perilous condition and certainly cannot be said to be flourishing.

Let us begin, if we have not yet started; let us continue if we have already begun; let us bring to perfection all that concerns “the holy, awesome, immortal and life-giving mysteries of Christ,” for the glory of God and the sanctification of the people.


[1] For a fuller treatment of its problematic theological, liturgical, and psychological assumptions and consequences, see Fr. Christopher Smith’s articles “Why Praise & Worship Music Is Praise, But Not Worship” and the follow-up article here.

[2] Romano Guardini makes the same point about liturgical prayer in general: “Prayer is, without a doubt, ‘a raising of the heart to God.’ But the heart must be guided, supported, and purified by the mind. … If prayer in common, therefore, is to prove beneficial to the majority, it must be primarily directed by thought, and not by feeling. It is only when prayer is sustained by and steeped in clear and fruitful religious thought, that it can be of service to a corporate body, composed of distinct elements, all actuated by varying emotions. … Dogmatic thought brings release from the thralldom of individual caprice, and from the uncertainty and sluggishness which follow in the wake of emotion” (The Spirit of the Liturgy, trans. Ada Lane [New York: Sheed & Ward, 1935], ch. 1).

[3] We can also add spirituality to the list. All this is no doubt hard to swallow in our egalitarian era.

[4] Accessed here on March 30, 2016.

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