The consumer of religiosity is often, as Hitchcock shows, a consumer in more tangible ways as well. Most people cannot fly around the world as Harvey Cox did, sampling religions here and there and bringing back souvenirs. The viability of that life “depends either on personal wealth or skill in obtaining grants.” Nuns doffed their habits not to teach the children of the poor, which they had been doing already, but to enter secular life and rub elbows with the pretty people. Immigrants to America built churches and schools with their own hands, literally paying for them with nickels and dimes. But the Catholics who sent in their checks for the Church of the Future did not build anything with their own hands, paying for them with nickels and dimes. They went in for bigger things; for example, the notorious 1976 Call to Action conference in Detroit, “summoned by the National Council of Catholic Bishops after months of preparation and at a cost of over $400,000.”

That conference was an exercise in sales pitching. As television commercials give you at best only a vague imitation of an argument, and at worst a mere invitation to indulge in a cheap emotional response, so the council gave only the appearance of debate. Well over a thousand delegates were supposed to consider hundreds of resolutions over the course of three days, “and on the last day of the conference a large number of resolutions were approved without any debate at all.” Among them were the usual—the ordination of women, acceptance of homosexuality, abrogation of priestly celibacy, and so forth.

Hitchcock notes that the bureaucratic mind is particularly susceptible to such advertising, to produce it at great expense, to peddle it, and to buy it. That is because the bureaucratic mind is fearful of conflict, fearful of standing up for truth against falsehood. The last thing that the head of a “Human Resources” department wants—and notice the blandly dehumanizing name of such a thing—is a sharp edge. The result, if you will pardon the frankness, is to be stiff where you should be limber, and limber where you should be stiff. Orthodox faith can go the way of all flesh; but not the orthodoxies of the day, sold by the media. “On a wide range of questions,” says Hitchcock, “political, moral, cultural, and religious, liberal ‘thought’ in the 1970s is merely sloganeering, the throwing up of catch phrases designed to halt real thought, to protect liberal dogmas.”

It explains also the very language of the liturgy and the jingle-like advertising melodies that have passed for sacred music in the English-speaking world. So Hitchcock quotes Jacques Barzun: “There is a habitual overuse of the word ‘creative’ to dignify small things. These busy revolutionaries are sure that what they write is poetry. They accept capitalist-industrialist notions with the tainted vocabulary and speak of ‘updating’ a religious order. Pouring blood on Secret Service records,” a bit of anti-war theater engaged in by the recently deceased Father Daniel Berrigan, S.J., “is an ‘educational act.’ They use the words ‘humanize’ and ‘informal’ with the same vagueness as Madison Avenue does in an ad for whiskey or perfume.”

Anthony Esolen, “Buying the Right Toys from Faiths R Us” (Crisis Magazine)

The return to chant based on biblical and liturgical texts will be fruitful only if the liturgical meaning of the words is fully understood by both the singers and congregation. Moreover, it is not enough to understand them: they must penetrate the spiritual and mystical sphere of the individual souls, as well as catechesis, preaching, and church life outside the liturgy. The sung words and tunes built into the memory of communities and individuals will deeply influence their way of thinking. Such church music will be able to contribute to the re-sacralization of our view of the Church. In other words, church music will not be able to fulfill its task, if its position is separated from the other activities of the Church. The ideal relationship is that the life of the praying Church governs church music. But the direction is sometimes reversed: church music may influence the Church’s life. Remember that the renewal of the liturgy in the 19th century began with the Gregorian reform of Solesmes!

In order to carry out the program I have discussed here, church musicians will have need of the four “cardinal virtues.”

  • They need stability in principles rejecting any compromise on the most important points.
  • They need continued learning and workshop activity in order to be able to realize the great principles in the smallest of details.
  • They need collaboration, for today there is no chance of surmounting the crisis except by a unanimous stance and common strategy concerning the main points.
  • And finally they need a great deal of individual and common prayer, because they themselves may plant and water, but God alone gives the growth.

Quod Deus bene vertat!

Laszlo Dobszay, The Bugnini-Liturgy and the Reform of the Reform (2003)

Is there any solution at all? Is it not the case that church music was imbued for over a thousand years by an idea untenable in our own age, and church musician cannot do more than to keep the memory of these one-time values in “Museum Masses”? The question is not quite unwarranted. It seems clear that an 18th-century orchestral Mass composition is inseparably linked with such a special form of celebration and religious mentality that today it can only be recalled in exceptional cases. It is enough to think of how much longer a polyphonic Gloria or Agnus is, than the time allowed for it in a Mass today. An Offertory of Palestrina exactly fits the time of an offertorial rite if the celebration is done at a dignified pace with suitable care, complete with incensation – but this exceeds the one or two minutes in which the Offertory is commonly executed today. Of course, musicians can ask politely: is the ceremonial action of the “offertory” worth only a minute or two?

The question then becomes not merely whether the liturgy today is suitable for preserving the treasures of church music; but also whether the liturgy today is suitable to its own dignity? And yet the task is not simply to fight for the restoration of a liturgy more hospitable to church music. It is the original balance of the liturgy which must be recovered, along with the organic relationship of the three kinds of noble church music mentioned earlier. Of course, this question involves not only musical technicalities, but also spiritual and financial dimensions.

But let us speak briefly about actual practice.

No other music corresponds so perfectly to the inner structure and dramatic form of the liturgy as Gregorian chant (or possibly a new setting of the liturgical texts patterned after it). Only such music offers appropriate language for the dialogues, the alternating chant of the celebrant, singer and congregation. Only this medium is able to adapt itself to the characteristics of the liturgical parts; allows the liturgical words themselves to be sung (instead of substitutions), while faithfully preserving the peculiarities of the words instead of compelling the biblical prose into a network of alien measures, bars and rhythms. If Gregorian chant, or similar vernacular chant, appeared at the structural points of the service, the will of the Council would also be fulfilled, and the cantus Gngorianus would in fact reclaim its “pride of place.”

Laszlo Dobszay, The Bugnini-Liturgy and the Reform of the Reform (2003)

When church music lost its norms, one single principle took over their place: whether it appeals to the people (or rather: whether the leaders suppose it will appeal to them). The new principle could not but lead to the invasion of more and more inferior fashions into the Church, finding justification in each case in “taste.” Moreover, the sort of human being who is now considered the measure of music is not a man destined for greatness and called to spiritual qualities; no, he is the marketable man, homo oeconomicus, subjected to any manipulation. I think that nobody gave serious thought to the shortsighted nature of this principle with respect to pastoral tasks, either.

How can the Church ask to be accented in her teaching if she makes her liturgical action relativistic? How can she avoid creating the impression that if the liturgy and church music can be adapted to different tastes, then also matters of faith and morals could now be submitted to the opinion of individuals or to the different social and psychological requirements of our age? This appeal to “different tastes” forgets how people (especially children and youth) entering the church are open and thirsty for all the good they will learn there. “When the [Church] offers her own genuine goods with motherly tenderness, people naturally accept them because they come from the Church they love and respect. Eventually the goods thus absorbed and appropriated become highly formative of their opinions, tastes, preferences, customs, and in fact, their entire life.” As we read in St. Augustine’s Office: “Cibus sum grandium, cresce et manducabis me, nec tu me mutabis in te, sicut cibum carnis tuae, sed tu mutaberis in me“: I am the food of adults; grow up and eat me; it is not you who will change me into yourself, as is true of bodily food, but you will be changed into me. This is valid for liturgy and church music, as well as for teachings of faith and morals. When we say: “The people like this” we regard them as unable to develop, as animals rather than human beings, and we simply neglect our duties in helping them towards a true human existence, — indeed, in this case, to truly Christian existence.

The response of church musicians to this kind of apostasy in the Church was first of all protest. However, as soon as they found it hopelessly impossible to change matters, they shifted their tactics and chose what I consider a bad course. And here lies the responsibility of church musicians in the crisis. What they ought to have undertaken, by way of accepting the challenge, was hard intellectual work and almost superhuman courage. Church musicians ought to have learned again the theology (the theologia perennis and not the nouvelle theologie) of worship and its music, and the liturgy, along with the history of church music, so as to be able to diagnose the deepest causes of the malady and to find the means of alleviation. They ought to have formed a firm league in the defense of values, and I mean “defense” not in a rigidly conservative way, but rather a creative way. It might be that even this struggle would have ended in defeat, but a future generation could perhaps have built on this spiritual foundation.

Instead, the church musicians withdrew themselves into the narrow, restricted area left to them. One or two Masses were left to them to enjoy, to conduct a choir or orchestra, to perform the favored Palestrina or Mozart pieces (or their own compositions…). They can organize festivals, church concerts, conferences, Gregorian workshops and Masses. This gives the illusion of rescuing the “treasure of immeasurable value” bequeathed to the universal Church, even if only within the confined limits of this ghetto existence.

Laszlo Dobszay, The Bugnini-Liturgy and the Reform of the Reform (2003)

The second problem is the consequence of an anthropocentric view of the liturgy. The liturgy was traditionally understood as the permanent priestly activity of holy Church: she conducts the highest matters of salvation before God’s throne and at the same time, it is her intimate communication with her divine Bridegroom. The greatest honor for the faithful is to join this divine work (opus Dei) as a member of the Mystical Body, and while the believer strives to live his life hidden in Christ and the Church, while he thus “loses” his life, he in fact finds it, The liturgy is not something we create but an objective reality we share in, a precious patrimony we inherit. What happens in the Mass is relatively true for all parts of the liturgy: it is not we but God Who is doing His work in it, and we ourselves become divine when we receive Holy Communion. So the reality we celebrate becomes our own. With respect to the prayers and chants, this truth is expressed by St. Benedict’s classic saying: “mens concordet voci‘: the mind should be concordant with the voice. It is not the soul who speaks in the voice, but it is the Church and the Holy Spirit. The harmony between soul and voice comes not from expressing the soul by the voice but from adapting the soul to the sounds that the Church and the Holy Spirit put upon our lips.

The Liturgical Constitution of the Council says nothing contradictory to this traditional view. And yet, according to the post-conciliar approach it was precisely the modern man, man hic et nunc, who became the focus of interest and the norm of the liturgy. Consequently the liturgy and its chant are supposed to express the religious experience of the individuals and communities. The result is: “vox concordat menti” i.e. the voice is concordant to the state of the mind. The regrettable outcome of this approach is that the liturgy is unable to elevate and raise up heavenwards the individual and communities: they express themselves and so they remain where they are.

This liturgical approach also influenced the church music. A great part of the clergy can accept music only as the chant of the assembly. The demand of actuosa participatio is taken in a sense that excludes the possibility of silent and attentive listening to the chant of singers or choir. Consequently, in many places the choirs have disbanded and the musicians have fled their posts. To anyone who reads the Constitution it is clear that this fate was not intended by the Council. Par. 28 says that “each person should perform his role by doing solely and totally what the nature of things and liturgical norms require of him.” Even in the new Missal of Paul VI we find the names of items belonging to the schola. Things are even clearer if we examine the natura rei, the nature of things: the liturgy is a dramatic event and the assembly participates “actively” in the ritual by performing the parts proper to them. The Council judged it opportune to stress the actuosa participatio because the role of the assembly had been taken over by others during the course of centuries. But this does not mean that now the assembly has to take over the role of others!

Laszlo Dobszay, The Bugnini-Liturgy and the Reform of the Reform (2003)

The Second Vatican Council used very nice words to describe church music in Chapter Six of its Liturgical Constitution.

The musical tradition of the universal Church is a treasure of immeasurable value… Sacred music increases in holiness to the degree that it is intimately linked with liturgical action. This Sacred Council maintains the norms and precepts of ecclesiastical tradition and discipline. Great importance is to be attached to the teaching and practice of music in seminaries… and also in other Catholic institutions and schools. Gregorian chant should be given pride of place in liturgical services. Composers, filled with the Christian spirit, should feel that their vocation is to cultivate sacred music and increase its store of treasures. Let them produce compositions which have the qualities proper to genuine sacred music… The texts intended to be sung … should be drawn chiefly from Holy Writ and from liturgical sources.

The Constitution outlined a view of church music in which Gregorian chant (as most suitable for the liturgy), polyphonic music of artistic quality, and religious hymns of the congregation are balanced with each other and “give a more noble form to the liturgical action”; a church music in harmony with the ecclesiastical traditions having “the spirit of the liturgical action”, “the spirit of the liturgy” as its highest norm; church music under the care of diligent bishops, and priests receiving a solid musical education.

In actual fact, however, church music fell into such a deep crises after the Council as never before in its history. In a great part of the Church over the world, church music is not cultivated but neglected; musical rubbish prevailed; sacred music fell in many places into the hands of uneducated dilettantes; its fate and daily practice depends upon decisions of priests who stand in this matter (too) very far from the true spirit of the Council. The “treasure of immeasurable value” is dissipated; in many churches the most frivolous music resounds without a single word of warning from the hierarchy; and the music which predominates can be called anything but “the expression of true art.”

The responsibility for this decline lies firstly with the ambiguous instructions of the post-conciliar committees, secondly with the church authorities who neglected to fulfill the will of the Council, thirdly with the clergy and in fourth place with the church musicians themselves. Before entering into details, I mention briefly that in my opinion the matter of church music is not a question of music. Good church music exudes into pastoral practice, spirituality, church discipline, morals and even theology. Bad church music likewise affects all this but in a destructive manner. And vice versa: behind the lapse of church music, liturgical lapses lie hidden; behind the liturgical lapses an incorrect image of the Church, and in the last analysis, implicitly heretical views. It ought to have been the task of theologians familiar with church music or church musicians with expertise in theology to express clearly the deeper roots of the theology of worship and of its music in order to expel the suspicion of being cultural aristocrats and defenders of purely aesthetic values.

Laszlo Dobszay, The Bugnini-Liturgy and the Reform of the Reform (2003)

The path of the history is clear: during the first centuries of Christianity there was no “church music,” but only liturgy performed in singing. In the course of time, two byways were opened: the first is artistic church music (starting as early as the 7th—8th century), the second is the folk hymn which appears in the 10th— 11th century). At first the use of both was limited and they remained in close proximity to the liturgy. As their autonomous life developed, they moved away from the liturgy: art music toward compositions inspired by religious sentiments, the vernacular folk hymn toward popular genres. Although the church musicians of today have some control over the folk hymn through the hymnals, in fact they left the church music of weekdays and normal Sundays to its own fate. They failed to protest resolutely as a group against the corruption of liturgical music, and to search for the path of a real renewal in the spirit of the liturgy. They regarded the rescue of ecclesiastical art music as their main task and found satisfaction in the artistic production of solemn Masses and concerts.

Thus church music has been broken into two, reflecting the disruption of the Church herself into a low and high Church. The high-church music is in this case the sphere of Gregorian and polyphonic Masses. The low-church music is the multitude of Masses celebrated with popular cantiunculae ditties, and amateur pop music compositions. Somewhere between the two we find a “traditional” low-church music: congregational hymns lead by organ mixed with rather poor Ordinary compositions. Adding up the percentages: high-church music is in one or two percent of the Masses and churches, low-church music in all the other ninety-eight percent.

Laszlo Dobszay, The Bugnini-Liturgy and the Reform of the Reform (2003)