The Committee on Doctrine of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops completed work on a document dealing with the doctrinal content (or lack thereof) in hymns used in the Sacred Liturgy in September 2020, releasing it recently under the title of “Catholic Hymnody at the Service of the Church: An Aid for Evaluating Hymn Lyrics”. The document is a damning critique of the harmful diet many Catholics have been fed by the liturgical establishment of the past half-century. It should be noted that this text deals only with doctrinal concerns, not the musical quality of hymns, which is a different (but not unrelated) element for consideration.1
I deem this “guide” a long-awaited response to an alarm I sounded way back in 1999 when I wrote to the late-Cardinal Francis George of Chicago about the content in many hymns published in the Paluch Missalette. My reason for appealing to Cardinal George was that Paluch is located in the Archdiocese of Chicago and their publications carried the assurance that they were produced with ecclesiastical approbation. The Cardinal replied to my query on December 14 in detail. Among other points, he said that Paluch indicated that “all of their Missalette materials are reviewed by the Secretariat for the Liturgy at the National Conference of Catholic Bishops.” However, he went to say that, according to the policy of that office, “no official approbation is required for hymns, songs and acclamations written for the assembly.” In a hand-written note at the bottom of the page, he assured me that he intended to “take [my] letter to the BCL (Bishops Committee on the Liturgy).”
How bizarre that the lyrics of hymns used in the Sacred Liturgy would not be subject to review. Was that a function of the laziness of personnel at the BCL? Was it passively to allow these harmful texts to poison the spirituality of Catholics in the pews? Was it their suspicion/awareness that “the Deep Church” which included the liturgical publishers would not heed their interventions?
As I highlighted in the first installment of my Advent series here at CWR, Hans Urs Von Balthasar linked truth, beauty and goodness, referring to them as “three sisters.”2 While the musical quality of hymns deals with beauty, the lyrics deal with truth. Hymnody is one of the most significant ways the truths of the Faith are taught and reinforced. The fourth-century heretic Arius knew this and so committed his heresies to singable ditties for the consumption of the people.3 On the good side of the ledger, we know that the “hidden” Catholics of Post-Reformation England used music to communicate the truths of the Catholic Faith in a covert manner through the ever-popular “Twelve Days of Christmas.”4 In “Only the Good Die Young,” Billy Joel pilloried “you Catholic girls” because “you start much too late” (that is, sexual activity) – a 1970s version of “shaming” through song. Put simply: Attention to what we sing is not an exercise in nit-picking.
Now, we are poised to cull the evaluations of the doctrine committee.
The paper begins by linking truth and beauty, following the logic of Hans Urs von Balthasar, as we have already seen. In fact, even the title of the paper is instructive: “Catholic Hymnody – at the Service of the Church.” Sometimes one could get the impression that one wag got it right by asking, “Is it ‘What’s the place of music in the liturgy’ or is it, ‘What’s the place of liturgy in the music’?” And so, we are reminded: “There is a necessary and direct relationship between the living Word of God and the Church’s worship. Thus, the sacred texts, and the liturgical sources which draw on the living Word, provide something of a ‘norm’ for expression when communicating the mystery of faith in liturgical poetics, or hymnody.” Calling on the Catechism of the Catholic Church (which, in turn, is having recourse to Vatican II’s Sacrosanctum Concilium), the text teaches:
The harmony of signs (song, music, words, and actions) is all the more expressive and fruitful when expressed in the cultural richness of the People of God who celebrate. Hence “religious singing by the faithful is to be intelligently fostered so that in devotions and sacred exercises as well as in liturgical services,” in conformity with the Church’s norms, “the voices of the faithful may be heard.” But “the texts intended to be sung must always be in conformity with Catholic doctrine. Indeed they should be drawn chiefly from Sacred Scripture and from liturgical sources.” (n. 1158)
We are reminded that “Christian tradition, both Eastern and Western, has from antiquity been acutely aware that hymns and other songs are among the most significant forces in shaping – or misshaping – the religious and theological sensibility of the faithful,” as we have already seen. With that in mind, the document lays out “two general guidelines”:
1. Is the hymn in conformity with Catholic doctrine?
2. Is the hymn expressed in image and vocabulary appropriately reflective of the usage of Scripture and the public liturgical prayer of the Church?
These two standards are designed to support the liturgy as what the Catechism calls “the privileged place for catechizing the People of God” (n. 1074). Hence, the bishops warn:
It is important to avoid language that could be easily misconstrued in a way that is contrary to Catholic doctrine. The poet always has a certain “license” for language chosen to serve an aesthetic purpose. But in assessing whether a paraphrase or restatement is an appropriate use of poetic license or an inappropriate distortion, Guideline 2 can provide assistance.
While the direction given is quite needed, it is regrettable that, not only in this instance, but frequently throughout the document, one finds the expression, “to be avoided.” If a text is theologically problematic, it should not be “avoided”; it should be banned.
Many, if not most, of the truths of Faith are multi-dimensional; one thinks immediately of the mystery of the Church5 or the Eucharist. Naturally, we could not expect a single hymn to advert to all aspects of a particular mystery, however, the bishops go on to observe (using a theoretical Communion hymn as an example):
Different hymns may legitimately express or reflect different aspects of one doctrine, but if all of the hymns relevant to a particular doctrine express only one dimension of the doctrine to the exclusion of others, then the catechesis offered by the hymnody would, as a whole, not be in conformity with Catholic doctrine. For example, a collection of hymns that emphasized the Eucharist as table fellowship to the exclusion of the vocabulary of sacrifice, altar, and priesthood, would not represent the fullness of Catholic teaching and therefore would catechize those singing such hymns every Sunday with a deficient sacramental theology.
The paper grounds its critiques in a 1997 document of the Ad Hoc Committee to Oversee the Use of the Catechism, under the direction of the late-Archbishop Daniel Buechlein, which “identified a consistent trend of incompleteness and imprecision in catechetical texts being published at that time in the United States,” in ten “categories.”6 The current committee “piggy-backs” on those same categories in their review “of approximately 1000 hymns composed and published mostly in the period 1980-2015.”
The first area of concern, with the most egregious errors, involves Eucharistic doctrine – not surprisingly since that area also reveals the most distressing data about present beliefs of even regular Sunday Mass Catholics. And so, the bishops refer to deficiencies in this area as “by far the most common and the most serious.” Their observation demands heeding their full assessment:
Catholics nurtured on a steady diet of certain hymns will learn from them that at Mass we come together to share bread and wine, which remain bread and wine, a common meal, even if under special circumstances. They will learn that the bread and wine signify in some vague way the presence of Jesus, but they will not be given a basis to understand the Catholic belief that the Eucharistic elements can be worshipped because under their appearance is a wholly unique, substantial presence of Christ. These hymns correspondingly also downplay or eliminate entirely reference to the Sacrifice of Christ, His Priesthood, and His status as both Priest and Victim, as well as to the role of the ministerial priesthood in the Church. A steady diet of these hymns would erode Catholic sensibility regarding the fullness of Eucharistic teaching, on the Mass as Sacrifice, and eventually on the Church, as formed by that Sacrifice.
The report takes particular aim at the recurring reference to the Eucharistic Species as “bread and wine” and names names. Some of these gems of Eucharistic heresy: “God Is Here! We Are His People” – “This hymn speaks of ‘symbols to remind us of our lifelong need of grace.’ We hear that, ‘as bread and wine are taken, Christ sustains us as of old.’ Bread and wine are still bread and wine.” “All Are Welcome” would have a congregation sing these inspiring words: “Let us build a house where love is found in water, wine and wheat; A banquet hall on holy ground where peace and justice meet …” After gagging, theological reality hits, as the document notes:
Someone who sings this song frequently would have a hard time imagining that the Eucharist can be and is worshipped or is in any sense a “sacrifice.” The hymn is also objectionable throughout on ecclesiological grounds as well, since it repeats the phrase “Let us build a house …” as though our actions make the Church. This hymn shows the relationship between faulty Eucharistic theology and faulty ecclesiology.
A hymn not mentioned here is “Take and Eat” (“Take and eat, take and eat: this is my Body. given up for you. Take and drink; take and drink: this is my Blood given up for you.”). I bristle at these lines for a different reason. Although the lyrics accurately describe the Eucharistic elements as the Lord’s Body and Blood, Catholics do not “take” the Eucharist; they “receive” It. Even if a communicant engages in the misguided and misleading practice of Communion-in-the-hand, that person does not “take” the Sacred Host but “receives” It. There is a world of difference between the two verbs: “Taking” suggests a proactive stance, while “receiving” suggests an attitude of humility and even that of begging. Furthermore, the verbs also reflect a very different concept of the relationship between the priesthood of all the faithful and the ministerial priesthood, for as Vatican II’s Lumen Gentium teaches, “they differ from one another in essence and not only in degree” (n. 10). The mode of reception of Holy Communion is reflective of that difference “in essence.”7
Trinitarian doctrine in many “contemporary” hymns is also “deficient,” reflected most clearly in “a reluctance to use ‘Father” for the First Person of the Trinity.” Here, the bishops are being kind; I would replace “reluctance” with “refusal.” Calling the First Person “Creator” is a reductionist effort since all three Persons can be called “Creator.” Needless to say, the ham-fisted attempt to avoid masculine pronouns for the Divinity is the surest sign of a non-biblical understanding of the Holy Trinity. We are also reminded of the directive of Liturgiam Authenticam and the follow-up instruction of Cardinal Francis Arinze in 2008 that “Yahweh” is not to be used in Catholic worship since it was (and for Jews, still is) the unspeakable Name (here one thinks of the once-popular, “Yahweh, I Know You Are Near Me”).
A third problematic area involves “deficiencies in the doctrine of God and His relations to humans,” most manifest in hymns that conflate the Godhead with His creation, which is to say, the divine transcendence. A most extreme example of this is found in “God Beyond All Names.” First of all, there are many names for God, which are revealed in Sacred Scripture. This song, however, goes a step farther and would have us sing: “God Beyond All Names … All around us we have known you / All creation lives to hold you/ In our living and our dying/ we are bringing you to birth.” Huh? We hold God? We bring God to birth?
Fourthly, the bishops zero in on “a view of the Church that sees her as essentially a human construction.” Here the document brings to our attention two pieces:
“Sing a New Church” – Refrain: “Sing a new Church into being, one in faith and love and praise.” This implies or even states outright that the Church is essentially our creation. It also leaves open the possibility that there could be a new Church replacing the old one.
“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.” This seems a seriously deficient account of the evangelizing mission of the Church, particularly, the rejection of preaching “our creeds and customs.”
Fifthly, the text calls attention to “hymns with doctrinally incorrect views of the Jewish people.” This deficiency is rather odd since one would assume that would-be “Vatican II Catholics” would almost bend over backwards to accommodate religious differences. However, not a few of the post-conciliar tunes have views of Jewish complicity in the death of Our Lord that would make the Fathers of Trent blush (e.g., “The Lord of the Dance”).8
Lastly, we meet “hymns with incorrect Christian anthropology.” This section, in my estimation, is the weakest of all as I believe that dozens of “contemporary” songs betray a defective notion of the human person; in fact, many of them come to us through the Protestant charismatic movement. Here we must recall that Martin Luther’s basic issue with the Church was not theology, per se, but a view of the human person. Thus would he proclaim that humanity is nothing more than a “massa damnata” and the individual Christian merely “a dunghill covered by snow.” Sacred Scripture, on the other hand, proclaims that a Christian is “a new creation” (2 Cor 5:17). Therefore, for my money, the biggest offender in promoting an “incorrect Christian anthropology” is none other than the “go-to” hymn for all kinds of disasters,
“Amazing Grace,” by the English clergyman, John Newton, wherein we are to sing of the God who “saved a wretch like me.” Wrong, a baptized Christian is not “a wretch”; he is precisely what St. Paul asserts, namely, “a new creation”; even more, we are Our Lord’s “friends” (Jn 15:15).9
The report ends10 with a fine summary of what this effort has been about:
The Second Vatican Council was quite emphatic about the importance of sacred music in the Church’s liturgical worship: “The musical tradition of the universal Church is a treasure of inestimable value, greater even than that of any other art” (Sacrosanctum Concilium, n. 112). The Council also made it clear that this great value derives precisely from the union of music and words: “The main reason for this pre-eminence is that, as sacred song united to the words, it forms a necessary or integral part of the solemn liturgy” (n. 112). When the Council exhorts composers to “produce compositions which have the qualities proper to genuine sacred music” (n. 121), chief among these qualities must be the use of words that are appropriate for liturgical worship.
A final assessment: This is a most welcome contribution to the life of the Church in the United States, however – and it’s a big “however” – this is, in all likelihood, too little too late. From my initial expression of alarm to Cardinal George in 1999, we find ourselves over two decades later with a document that, most regrettably, has no teeth in it – there is no enforcement mechanism. As a result, the people guilty of these abuses will just say, “Thanks, but no thanks,” and move along on their merry way, continuing their ecological pollution of Catholic worship. This paper will be helpful, however, for embattled laity and priests at least as an authoritative document with which to push forward the battering ram of opposition to these heretical texts.
St. Augustine informs us that he was brought into the fullness of the Faith by the Lord’s “singing Church.” He was referring to his eavesdropping in the garden of Milan’s cathedral on the haunting melodies, emanating from within the sacred precincts of St. Ambrose. That experience caused him to assert that “Cantare amantis est” (Singing belongs to one who loves). True enough, but there is a certain order in things. As the old Baltimore Catechism taught us, we are created “to know, love and serve God.” St. Catherine of Siena asserts: “Love follows knowledge.” Yes, knowledge comes first – which means an accurate presentation of the Faith. That knowledge leads to love, a love which is eager to serve.
Let’s hope that, despite legitimate expectations to the contrary, this document will have a salutary effect on the liturgical life of the Church in our nation.
1For a depressing documentation of this situation, the barn-burner of Thomas Day is a must-read (or re-read): Why Catholics Can’t Sing.
2Hans Urs Balthasar, The Glory of the Lord (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1984), Volume I, 18.
3Brady Raccanello explains:
Arius. . . devised a brilliant plan: publish prose and verse to carry his heresy. He wrote his heretical songs and poems in a book called Thalia (“banquet”) and passed it along to travelers and workmen. The heresy spread like fire. The Arian heresy reached into the life of the Church, plagued the political system, and found a home in the theology of many Christians. (“The Church: Arius the Heretic,” 13 November 2017)
In the carol, two turtle doves represent the New and Old Testaments of the Holy Bible, while three French hens represent the theological virtues of faith, hope and charity. Four calling birds are the four gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Five golden rings represent the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Old Testament of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. Six geese-a-laying represent the Biblical story of the six days of creation. Seven swans-a-swimming symbolize the seven sacraments, and the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Eight maids-a-milking represent the Eight Beatitudes. Nine ladies dancing are the nine fruits of the Holy Spirit while the Ten lords-a-leaping are the Ten Commandments. Eleven pipers are the eleven faithful Apostles of Jesus Christ and finally, the Twelve drummers are the twelve articles of the Apostles’ Creed.
5Here we can recall how Lumen Gentium’s first chapter offers a panoply of images or metaphors for the Church – not one of which is sufficient to exhaust the mystery of the Church.
6It is good to report that, as a result of Archbishop Buechlein’s committee, one would be hard-pressed to find any deficiencies in any catechetical texts in use today.
7Interestingly, according to the universal norm, even a priest (not concelebrating) is also to “receive” Holy Communion on the tongue, not on the hand, let alone “taking” It.
8Thus, the so-called Roman Catechism (produced in response to the call of the Council of Trent) teaches:
Since our sins made the Lord Christ suffer the torment of the Cross, those who plunge themselves into disorders and crimes crucify the Son of God anew in their hearts…. Our crime in this case is greater in us than in the Jews. As for them, according to the witness of the Apostle, “None of the rulers of this age understood this; for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.” We, however, profess to know Him. And when we deny Him by our deed, we in some way seem to lay violent hands on Him. (emphasis added)
9It is probably more than accidental that the remote motivation for Newton’s composition of “Amazing Grace” was his gratitude for having been saved from shipwreck – not unlike Luther’s vow to become a monk, were he to be saved from a life-threatening storm. The lesson might be that we ought not to forge a theology out of perilous circumstances.
10Four appendices are included: Archbishop Buechlein’s “ten common deficiencies in catechetical materials”; a summary of Catholic teaching on the Eucharistic Presence, on the Trinity, and on the Church’s doctrine on the Jews in regard to the death of Christ (all gleaned from the Catechism of the Catholic Church).
If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!