ORRECTION AND CRITICISM—charitably or otherwise given—is deeply humbling to receive. Placing aside one’s ego and acknowledging necessary adjustment can be salutary to one’s soul. I am mindful of times in which I have written or spoken in highly public forums on matters that later needed rectifying or amendment. To my personal shame, such errors included theological matters. Once recovering from the initial embarrassment, I hope I am wiser for it.
To quote Winston Churchill:
“Criticism is always advantageous. I have derived continued benefit from criticism at all periods of my life, and I do not remember any time when I was ever short of it.” (House of Commons, November 1914)
It is with this spirit that I implore publishers of Roman Catholic hymnals to begin — and continue — a process of emendation and rectification of poor and erroneous theology where it exists in their publications. Furthermore, with an abundance of new texts from a diversity of authors that enrich the Church, I implore publishers to continue to uphold Roman Catholic theology as requisite to assisting the Church in its mission of evangelization.
Adherence to Roman Catholic doctrine in song is hardly unreasonable. It is imperative. It is the right thing to do. The faithful deserve resources with reliable theology with which to give voice to their praise of the Almighty.
This appeal is not a matter of liberal or conservative ideology. As Vatican II states: “The texts intended to be sung must always be in conformity with Catholic doctrine; indeed they should be drawn chiefly from holy scripture and from liturgical sources.” (Sacrosanctum Concilium No. 121)
Holy scripture is neither liberal nor conservative. It is the Living Word of God, and the Word became Incarnate and dwelt among us. We are all united in the Eucharist as “the Eucharist makes the Church.” (CCC No. 1396)
WHY AN APPEAL TO PUBLISHERS?
What may seem intrinsically odd is that my appeal is made to publishers when the ultimate responsibility and authority canonically belongs to the Diocesan Bishop. For example, the fourth option for the Entrance chant in the GIRM, No 48 is: “another liturgical chant that is suited to the sacred action, the day, or the time of year, similarly approved by the Conference of Bishops or the Diocesan Bishop.”
Why this appeal to publishers? The answer is most pragmatic. Oversight to pew resources and theological content has historically been outsourced to independent publishers. Such resources are driven largely by the market. Catholic publishing has often paralleled the market driven music industry with recordings and tours. This has yielded unprecedented creativity and opportunity for many who truly strive to serve the Church and has been one of the great fruits of the last five decades. However, at times one need not be a theologian to recognize problems. Greater oversight — from within or without — is necessary.
Once a pew resource is printed it is perhaps awkward for each bishop to issue directives regarding publications deriving from another diocese, although they have the authority to do so within their own diocese. There are potentially administrative or bureaucratic challenges to overseeing each new disposable hymnal, or each new edition. It is akin to “drinking out of a fire-hydrant.”
Further down the chain of command, pastors are stretched thin and overworked.
This often leaves the local parish musician — perhaps underpaid, part-time, or volunteer with another full-time job — as the last line of defense in upholding theological integrity. With such a vacuum, publishers wield enormous sway in shaping spiritual formation of the faithful.
“LITURGY IS THE FIRST ‘TEACHER’ OF CATECHISM”
With such influence comes great responsibility. As Pope Francis stated, “Do not forget this: the liturgy is the first ‘teacher’ of catechism.” (Pope Francis’ Address to the ‘Scholae Cantorum’ of the Italian Santa Cecilia Association 28 September 2019) The purpose of music in the liturgy “is the glory of God and the sanctification of the faithful” (Sacrosanctum Concilium No. 112). As a catechetical tool, the music we sing influences the spiritual formation of all the faithful. This influence upon our children is great. The stakes are high.
USCCB DOCUMENT ON HYMNODY
During the past year, many of you have seen dramatic headlines regarding the USCCB (United States Conference of Catholic Bishops) document “Catholic Hymnody at the Service of the Church: An Aid for Evaluating Hymn Lyrics.” You can download and read the document here:
* PDF Download • “Catholic Hymnody at the Service of the Church”
—An Aid for Evaluating Hymn Lyrics (USCCB).
It is important to know what this document is and what it is not.
The document is a statement from the Committee on Doctrine which is a sub-committee of the USSCB. As such, it was not voted on by the bishops. It was presented by Bishop Kevin C. Rhodes, Bishop of the Diocese of Fort-Wayne South Bend and distributed to the bishops and intended as a guide for them. As such it was not initially visible to the public when first authorized by the USCCB Administrative Committee in September of 2020.
From the Memorandum: “In order to assist bishops in their oversight of liturgical celebrations in their dioceses and in the granting of the Imprimatur…The intention is to offer guidance and to heighten awareness of the doctrinal implications of hymn texts.”
However, the Memorandum notably encourages wider distribution to pastors, parish musicians, composers, hymn publishers in their diocese stating: “You may also wish to share it with diocesan worship offices, pastors, and parish musicians.”
Fr. Andrew Menke, Executive Director of the USCCB Divine Worship Secretariat observed that this document is not a list of banned hymns. Rather, it provides guidance for bishops who have authority over liturgical music in their diocese, as well as for musicians and liturgists. I recommend reading this document in the spirit of prayer, especially, the appendices which include materials from the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
Alan Hommerding, editor at GIA and World Library Publications and a highly respected author of hymn texts, clearly distills the intention of the document:
“… this is a catechetical document [from] the Committee on Doctrine catechizing other bishops. It was particularly meant for places (primarily Chicago, Portland, and St. Cloud, MN) where parish pew resources are reviewed for ecclesiastical approval. As in all matters, the USCCB does not have the canonical authority to instruct any individual bishop what to do in his own diocese.”
• You can also read Hommerding’s insightful article on this subject here.
• You may also read a comprehensive commentary by Rev. Jan Michael Joncas, S. J. here.
EDITORIAL PROCESS AND TEXT REVISION
In January of 2021, National Catholic Reporter stated:
Alan Hommerding, a composer who has worked in publishing for decades, agreed it’s a natural part of the process in reviewing hymn lyrics to say, “This is not correct, but this would be another way to say it that would fall within Catholic doctrine.” (emphasis added)
“We need to realize that we are starting to have the conversations that we should have been having 30 or 40 years ago,” he added.
It seems obvious that a theological review of hymn lyrics is a requisite part of the editorial process. Despite this, problems arise from time to time.
Rather than “banning” hymns, my personal hope is that that publishers make revisions to problematic texts in order to retain certain beloved songs and hymns. Quite often, there are very good elements within hymns that also contain theological errors. For example, “All Are Welcome” received the most ink within the USCCB document and in subsequent commentary. The refrain is not the problem. It contains a most important message. The difficulties lie in the verses with regard to Eucharistic theology and problematic ecclesiology. I do not have a problem with the composers of such texts. It is the responsibility of the editors to flag issues and offer alternatives. Most do. Often, such problems would be easily remedied by a single revision. Sometimes, such as in this case, it may take significant crafting and guidance.
I offer one very happy example of a successful text revision. The USCCB document cited the hymn, “As a Fire is Meant for Burning.” The document quotes the text and states:
“As a Fire is Meant for Burning,” Verse 1: “As a fire is meant for burning, With a bright and warming flame, So the Church is meant for mission, Giving glory to God’s name. Not to preach our creeds or customs, but to build a bridge of care, We join hands across the nations, finding neighbors everywhere.” (emphasis added) This seems a seriously deficient account of the evangelizing mission of the Church, particularly, the rejection of preaching “our creeds and customs.”
This text was actually revised a decade ago in the Third edition of Gather published by GIA in 2011:
“Verse 1: “As a fire is meant for burning, With a bright and warming flame, So the Church is meant for mission, Giving glory to God’s name. As we witness to the gospel, We would build a bridge of care, Joining hands across the nations, finding neighbors everywhere.”
This about-face revision is precisely the kind of identification and theological adjustment desperately needed for this and many more hymns. It is redirected toward a more Christ-centric text, and towards Lex orandi, lex credendi, lex Vivendi – the law of prayer is the law of belief, which points to the law of how Christians must live.
Required text revision is hardly unprecedented: e.g., changes required by the 2010 translation of the Roman Missal, the 2009 prohibition on the name “Yahwey,” and the end to publishing paraphrased psalm texts around 2003 — thus requiring the use of approved liturgical texts. (I.e., 1998 lectionary or Revised Grail/AP text) Furthermore, the introduction (and sometimes reversal) of inclusive language and general revision of hymn texts for stylistic or societal reasons are ubiquitous. Hymn texts are historically mutable.
Among the mainstream publishers of Roman Catholic hymnals, many editors are brilliant, highly competent, and dedicated to the service of the Church. I know this from over thirty years of direct observation. I know this from direct experience with World Library Publications and G.I.A. Publications, and others with whom some of my works are printed.
There are highly skilled authors of hymn texts who possess the unusual combination of holding degrees in theology, have training in music, and express the faith beautifully in poetry. My hope is their skills, which have generously served the Church, are further employed by publishers to assist in the joyful expression of our Catholic faith.