The outcry against bad liturgical music has been growing in volume and numbers. Crisis author and professor Anthony Esolen has provided deeply insightful explanations of why many modern hymns are aesthetically and theologically shoddy compared to older, more traditional ones. Podcasts such as “The Catholic Talk Show” devote episodes to mocking the worst church music to come out of the 1960s and ’70s. Polyphony and chant are returning slowly to many parishes—typically ones frequented by a younger generation sick and tired of the “Fr. John Denver” style of hymnody. Responding to the renewed interest in tradition, the internet is teeming with resources—many of them free—to teach the fundamentals of sacred music.
Yet a common objection remains: perhaps you hate certain types of music, but that does not mean everyone does. Perhaps no sentient human can stand “Gather Us In,” but how about some of the other hymns found in the Gather hymnal? Seemingly, quite a few devoted Catholics are genuinely moved by “Eagle’s Wings” and the like. Most conversations about modern sacred music include one voice defending some old favorite from being tossed on the musical pyre. It’s an understandable pushback: if a certain hymn or style leads someone to prayer, then who are we to force our preferred worship tastes upon them? Live and let live. Pray and let pray.
While arguments over harmony and lyrics—“singability”—are important in the larger conversation about Catholic sacred music, they do not address these honest questions asked by faithful Catholics. Some do not mind the twang of a guitar at Mass. Some even feel inspired by “The Servant Song.” Here’s the problem: the Church’s choice of sacred music is not simply a matter of taste. Hymns should not only be compared on the basis of which sounds better or is older, or even has more theological depth. An essential element, often forgotten these days, is a hymn’s implicit aesthetic and ethical telos, or purpose—and that is precisely where most contemporary hymnody falls short.
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To illustrate: suppose you have two kitchen tables. Their practical purpose is obvious: to eat at. As long as the tables are able to fulfill this purpose, then seemingly, they are good tables. I shouldn’t fault you for picking one over the other if the practical purpose is the only one we care about. The fact that the first table is beautifully made of heirloom Amish oak with stout, curved legs and the second table is a flimsy Ikea product of pressed wood dust with a chipping laminate top does not change the identical practical purpose of both tables. Similarly, then, you could argue that Gregorian Chant and the Gather hymnal have the same practical purpose: to enhance the Mass as a form of prayer and meditation.
However, telos does not only take practicality into account. This is especially true for art. In the case of the tables, one is of superior craftsmanship, economic value, and style. Many people, however, actually prefer the stark, modern aesthetic of Ikea over the more traditional Amish farm style. If individual preference and “look” were the only considerations, then it would simply be elitism to insist upon one over the other. But crafted things—be they tables, paintings, or hymns—have values implicit in their aesthetic expression, and these values instill themselves subconsciously in the mind of the user or audience. An object’s design impacts how you view and treat it, and being surrounded with enough of the same sort of object habituates you to treat everything else the same way. Surrounded by disposable things, you run the risk of forgetting how to appreciate something built to last.
The value system of the two tables could not be more opposed. The Amish table is made out of real wood, is minimally processed, and integrates the natural beauty of the tree. The Ikea table, processed out of wood chips coated over with glue and plastic, dominates and eradicates the personality of the old tree, creating a flat, artificial uniformity. The Amish table is the picture of stability and longevity: even when age fades the stain, a light sanding and touch-up restores it to its original glory. This table is meant to be passed down from mother to daughter, with generations of the family assembling around it over the years. It becomes a symbol of the home and family tradition. The poor Ikea table, with its flat-pack design, is not designed to last even its original owner more than a few years. If this table scratches or chips, it can be tossed in a dumpster with no emotional regrets and replaced by an identical one that will itself last only a few years. This table is the symbol of a mobile lifestyle unencumbered by relics of the past. The Amish table teaches its owners care and preservation; the Ikea table, expendability.
The difference is instructive. Each table fulfills its own aesthetic and ethical telos, but each telos is opposed to the other. The Amish table is meant to steward the natural resources of Creation, rendering them useful and beautiful for centuries. The Ikea table promotes quick, materialistic utility and disposability—as the consumerist brainwashing repeats in Brave New World: “Ending is better than mending. The more stitches, the less riches.”
Without diminishing the oft-forgotten ethical value of household objects and daily life, at the end of the day, the table you have in your house is vastly less important than the music you have in your church. Most modern church music suffers from the same telos problem as that Ikea table. They both promote the value of extreme adaptability to “new situations” and shallow fashions at the expense of tradition and stability, with both table and hymn easily disposable in the face of “new needs.” Such an aesthetic encourages that unique arrogance of modern people: thinking our needs are so completely different from every previous generation that the past has limited value for us. The cheap, shoddy workmanship—of both the table and the hymn—comes from a consumerist approach that has detached itself from the wisdom accumulated over millennia. The easy, untutored individualism that drives both Ikea furniture and modern hymnody is a sneaky attempt to mimic tradition. But the assembly-line “homespun” pastiche of Ikea and the saccharine attempts to include “old-fashioned” metaphors in modern hymnody fail to conceal their modernist, anti-traditional ethic. In a Church that derives its identity and authority from Sacred Tradition, there is no place for modern heresies, even subtle aesthetic ones.
Gregorian Chant has the aesthetic telos of liturgical unity and continuity across the ages of the Church, much like the Amish table. As the common musical heritage of the Roman Rite, chant prioritizes tradition, as one generation passes its musical inheritance down to the next. Twenty-first-century Catholics can join their voices in unison and harmony with eighteenth-, fourteenth-, twelfth-, and ninth-century Catholics. Chant teaches us timelessness, evoking the Eternal Now of heaven. The mystical, otherworldly quality of chant so shook the pagan Russians visiting Constantinople in the tenth century, that they reported back to Prince Vladimir: “We did not know if we were in heaven or on earth.” Thus, the proper musical expression of corporate liturgical worship should not be pinned to the individualistic tastes of a decade.
Dom Daniel Saulnier, OSB, traced the history of the development of Gregorian Chant over the millennia in his book, Gregorian Chant: A Guide to the History and Liturgy. Starting in the third century, Dom Saulnier demonstrated that the Church’s use of chant was a slow development, where innovations, additions, and reforms prioritized continuity: “The succeeding centuries were to add new rituals in the completion of the solemn Mass of the eighth century, without disturbing this basic structure, which was to remain as a fine tracery underlying all subsequent ceremonial development.” The “natural wood” remains with all of its organic beauty.
Modern church music, while sometimes inspiring and at times insightful, is fundamentally disruptive of tradition. Rather, it prioritizes individual taste and choice, as parish choirs can craft their unique style—be that drums, saxophones, the ubiquitous piano, or—quod absit—the accordion. Yet for all the seeming variety, modern church music is also, like that Ikea table, blandly uniform and impersonal in its aesthetic telos, for it explicitly cuts off the modern congregation from all previous generations of the Church and—due to the fluctuations of fads—from the future as well. When the modern Catholic sings, he sings alone.
Even from parish to parish, there is no universal common heritage: if you were to assemble a hundred average churchgoers from random parishes, it would be hard to find a single hymn they all could sing together from memory. On the other hand, if you could assemble church goers from multiple past eras of the Church, most—no matter their language, educational background, or country—could unite around Pange Lingua, Regina Coeli, and the Gloria … most, that is, except your average contemporary Catholic, who has been deprived of his musical patrimony and given a cheap, disposable replacement.