IVEN the increasingly obvious failure of much of contemporary church music to embody the spirit of sacredness and the link with Tradition that Vatican II demands of all new compositions for the liturgy, it is surprising that there are still so many places left in the Catholic world where one can find guitars and pianos, those quintessentially secular instruments, furnishing accompaniment and interludes. This is all the more surprising, given that it has never been difficult to discern the mind of the Church on this matter.
Summarizing the view of the Popes prior to the Second Vatican Council, Venerable Pius XII teaches in his encyclical Musicae Sacrae of 1955: “Besides the organ, other instruments can be called upon to give great help in attaining the lofty purpose of sacred music, so long as they play nothing profane, nothing clamorous or strident, and nothing at variance with the sacred services or the dignity of the place” (n. 59).
The post-conciliar Instruction on Sacred Music, Musicam Sacram, of 1967, hones this judgment as follows: “One criterion for accepting and using musical instruments is the genius and tradition of particular peoples. At the same time, however, instruments that are generally associated with and used only by worldly music are to be absolutely barred from liturgical services and religious devotions. Any musical instrument permitted in divine worship should be used in such a way that it meets the needs of the liturgical celebration, and is in the interests both of the beauty of worship and the edification of the faithful” (n. 63).
At the time this document was written, guitars played in the folk style were strongly associated with worldly music—the music of the counterculture—and not with sacred music in church, which was the hallowed domain of the pipe organ, and on special occasions, strings and wind instruments.
In an Address to the Italian Association of Saint Cecilia on 18 September 1968, Pope Paul VI had this to say: “The primary purpose of sacred music is to evoke God’s majesty and to honor it. … Since that is the essential function for sacred music, what ground is there for allowing anything that is shabby or banal, or anything that caters to the vagaries of aestheticism or is based on the prevailing excesses of technology? … Vocal and instrumental music that is not at once marked by the spirit of prayer, dignity, and beauty, is barred from entrance into the world of the sacred and the religious. The assimilation and sanctification of the secular, which is today a distinguishing mark of the Church’s mission in the world, clearly has limits; this is all the more the case when the issue is to invest the secular with the sacredness proper to divine worship.”
Now, the piano—or, to give it its full and telling name, pianoforte—is a percussion instrument, a concert hall and jazz festival mainstay, a lounge and bar-room fixture. It was developed exclusively in the world of secular entertainment music in the classical period by musicians like Beethoven who were looking for a penetrating sound that would carry well through a concert hall. The whole point of the “Hammerklavier,” the precursor to today’s instrument, was to seize the listener and pin him to the music for its own sake. We are dealing here with a worldly instrument that announces to its audience: “I’m playing now for your entertainment, so sit back and (—fill in the blank—-) [sip your drink; tap your toes; read the newspaper; chat pleasantly with your companion; or, in Liszt’s day, swoon before the virtuoso].
For its part, the acoustic folk guitar was never an instrument used in church. In the baroque period the theorbo and lute were occasionally used as accompanying instruments with strings and organ, but the solo guitar, even played in a classical style, was simply not part of the tradition—much less a guitar played in the strumming and syncopated style of folk-music or pop music. In the late 1950s this instrument meant one thing and one thing only: secular entertainment music. That is why the strictures of the documents quoted above (to which more quotations could be added) apply so unequivocally to it; and these are strictures than no Church document has ever repudiated or relaxed.
Let us recall a fine saying of Blessed John Paul II: “Christians should rediscover the newness of the faith and its power to judge a prevalent and all-intrusive culture” (Veritatis Splendor, n. 88).