HEN READING PAPAL DOCUMENTS about sacred music, we often find popes speaking about the need for music that possesses a certain sacrality, conduces to meditation, and exhibits high artistic quality. The popes are assuming that there is (or can be) general agreement—at least among pastors, liturgists, and musicians—about the kind of music that deserves these accolades as well as the kind that does not. In other words, the papal documents assume that the vocabulary of criteria is universally accessible.
I do not mean to say that a given musician will agree that solemn music is the most appropriate for the liturgy; in fact, there are many church musicians who would say “Palestrina’s solemn, for sure, but it’s much too serious and somber for modern-day church-goers. We prefer something lighter and happier-sounding, something you can sing along with and feel good about,” etc. This is significant, is it not? People know what is meant by “solemn music,” regardless of whether it helps them pray or bores them to tears. Many contemporary church hymns are intended to be, and are recognized as, precisely not solemn. A decision has been made, then, to reject one of the criteria of sacred music, namely, that it should respect and venerate the transcendent awesomeness of the divine mysteries.
Similarly, when it comes to artistic quality, few people in positions of pastoral authority are so poisoned by relativism that they would not be able to perceive the objective excellence that belongs to many older works of musical art and to judge them superior simply as exhibits of skilled craftsmanship or products of genius. Still, having made this judgment, many would argue that such works are no longer culturally relevant; they are too difficult to perform, they do not “actively involve the people,” and so on. Once again, a certain quality is shown to be capable of being recognized, even if it is not considered a relevant criterion—even if, indeed, it is repudiated.
The papal teaching addresses precisely the question of criteria; it does not attempt to teach people how to listen to music or how to discriminate different qualities of music. If such discriminatory abilities are lacking, the papal teaching can have no meaning for us. If it ever comes to pass that we can no longer distinguish finely-crafted art from trite toss-offs, a solemn atmosphere from a sentimental or familiar one, or sacral intentions from profane idioms, then the magisterium on sacred music would actually be totally irrelevant in practice, because its very words would carry no weight, no meaning, no force.
What do I conclude from this? That the most important long-term solution for the current crisis in sacred music is education, education, and more education. If faithful Catholics (clergy and laity alike) are not continually educated in the amazing and glorious heritage of sacred music that is ours by God’s gift, we can expect even the clear requirements of the Church to carry less and less meaning.
Some years ago I read a fascinating book by Oliver Bennett, Cultural Pessimism. Bennett observes: “In a ‘dumbed-down’ culture, the idea of an art which might be ‘ennobling and spiritualising’ was destined to be mocked” (129). Try this experiment. Tell someone who doesn’t care for polyphony, Gregorian chant, or the classic pipe organ repertoire that the reason you prefer these types or genres of music for the church is that they ennoble and spiritualize the listener. It can be guaranteed that your claim will be written off as either patronizing or incomprehensible and irrelevant. Bennett goes on to say:
“Why should this rise in relativism be seen as a manifestation of decline? Surely the collapse of old forms of cultural authority should be celebrated as a liberation from repressive forms of cultural domination? . . . The idea of ‘cultivation’, with its connotation of self-improvement, had been one of the chief casualties. It was replaced by an anthropological notion of ‘the cultural’, in which distinctions of value were dissolved and everyday activities, however banal, elevated to the status of ‘culture’. With the same logic, what had once been perceived as the greatest achievements of art turned out to be just another manifestation of ‘the cultural’. This, of course, played straight into the hands of the advertising industry, whose ceaseless hyperbole attempted, in the interest of sales, to bestow the status of ‘culture’ on even the most banal and mediocre of products.”
This is the kind of relativism and even nihilism that church musicians, liturgists, and lovers of tradition are up against—a relativism that can undermine even the comprehension of the vocabulary that papal documents have confidently used, relying all the while on the native intelligence and judgment of educated people. If we want to usher in a day when the consistent criteria of St. Pius X, Ven. Pius XII, Bd. John Paul II, and Benedict XVI are actually followed, we must work today to ensure that their aesthetic and theological language can be well and duly understood, especially among young Catholics.