A post for pondering

I am borrowing (with permission) the following blog post from a friend of ours. It is a bit of a read, but well worth it. Here is the link for the blog he write, but I have copied the whole post here.

A Modest Proposal

Fear not, I have no intention of suggesting that we sell our children to rich families for a source of supplemental nutrition in order to ease the woes of our current economic situation. Instead, I offer a proposal that is the result of a modest amount of criticism I have received followed by a not-so-modest amount of prayer and reflection on my part. I am speaking here about my previous comments on Sacred Music, its nature, and its place in the Liturgy. It seems that we, meaning myself and my critics, are at a crossroads of sorts. The conversation has thus far been considerably ineffective and, on both sides, often uncharitable. For my own part, it appears that there are two paths along which I can travel. The first is to cease public proclamation and seek refuge in a place to worship that will not cause the conflict and angst that has previously plagued my conscience. (Virtually everybody who was upset by my articles said the same thing: if I am so unhappy with the state of the Liturgy in my own parish, then I should leave.) The second is to stay and continue to work for the Kingdom of God, spreading the Church’s teaching on the Sacred Liturgy. It is important to realize that both paths are valid and potentially laudable. While I feel very strongly about the importance of the geographical parish, there does come a time and place when a father and husband must do what is in the best interest of the spiritual development of his family. Admittedly, there have been numerous times in the last month that the thought has crossed my mind. However, I believe I am called to follow along the second path, at least for the time being. Nevertheless, if the conversation is to continue, it is clear that some things must change. For starters, not everyone has the same sense of humor, so it is probably best to leave humor and hyperbole* at the door. The Liturgy is a serious issue, and as such it deserves a treatment that is of a serious nature.

The reality is that worship is the most important thing that we do. In the spirit of St. Thomas Aquinas’ exitus-reditus cycle, worship is the means by which we give ourselves back to the God from whom we have come. It is the recognition that out final cause is the same as our efficient cause. In this sense, when we worship we become fully human because we participate in that for which we were created. It stands to reason then that we insist on getting worship right, not just for God’s sake (which should be our primary concern), but also for our own sake as human persons. I cannot, and I will not, drop the issue; it defines who we are both as Church and as humanity. To “agree to disagree” is simply not an option. Truth by its very nature strives to be both discovered and proclaimed. I can, however, offer a modest proposal about how to make this dialog more fruitful.

Let’s take off the gloves.

Let’s not agree to disagree, but let’s agree to seek agreement in truth and love. Let’s agree that there is a truth, that the truth is worth finding, and that truth will be found only by consulting the source of Truth: Jesus Christ speaking through His Church.

Let’s take off the gloves.

I do not know how often I will be able to write and respond, but I will do my best. I am, after all, not a professional writer, but a teacher and a father, both of which are full time jobs in their own right. I promise to be respectful. I promise to listen. I promise to attempt to abandon preconceptions. But I also promise that I will not back down on the truth simply because it is hard for some to hear. And I also promise that I will not ignore the teachings of Holy Mother Church.

I propose as a ground rule that we make every effort to separate criticism of positions and actions from criticisms of intentions. We are called to critique positions that are not in conformity with the truth, just as we are called to point out when actions do the same. We are not, however, permitted to judge the human heart, which is the seat of personal intentions. I have tried to limit my past criticism to positions and actions and to not let them seep into personal intentions, and while it was my intention to limit my criticisms to positions and actions, it is clear that my comments were not taken the way I intended, and in this, the execution of my intentions has failed. For that, I am sincerely repentant. It was never my intention to criticize others’ intentions.

The question at hand is:

What is the nature of the Liturgy as taught by the Catholic Church?

I will resist the temptation to start stacking up reference upon reference of ecclesial documents. Doing so cannot be beneficial unless we can agree on how to interpret these documents. After all, two people can read the Second Vatican Council’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, and come up with diametrically opposed conclusions. (Well, perhaps diametrically opposed is exaggerated, but certainly the conclusions can be varied enough that not both can be correct.) In a way, this reminds me of the problem that Protestants have when interpreting Holy Scripture. Two people can read John 6 and come up with two very different interpretations on what Jesus meant when he said, “He who eats my flesh will have life within him.” The Catholic Church has a solution to this problem in her teaching magisterium. We believe that Jesus Christ did not leave us high and dry to figure out the mysteries of the Gospel on our own. The Church has the God-given power to speak authoritatively on the meaning of Christ’s words. The Church has the God-given authority to say that Jesus meant literally his flesh.

However, on the surface does it not seem that the Catholic Church has the same problem as the Protestants but merely relocated? After all, if Jesus gave us a teaching Church so that we don’t have to argue about Scriptural exegesis yet we turn around and argue about how to interpret the Church’s interpretations, then we are no better off than the Protestants. To avoid this dilemma, it is essential to realize that the teaching magisterium is a living reality, and as such, she continually interprets herself and clarifies her positions when people go astray. This living reality provides a tradition strong enough to serve both as a foundation for interpretations and also a mechanism whereby that foundation can reach the present situation. It is precisely because of this living reality that we are not faced with the Protestant impasse.

Recently, there has been a tremendous amount of discussion about the Second Vatican Council, what it said, what it did not say, and what we are to make of all of it now that half a century has passed. Pope Benedict, in his 2005 Christmas address to the Roman Curia, has given us direction on how to make sense of this treasure of Church history.

“Why has the implementation of the Council, in large parts of the Church, thus far been so difficult?

Well, it all depends on the correct interpretation of the Council or – as we would say today – on its proper hermeneutics, the correct key to its interpretation and application. The problems in its implementation arose from the fact that two contrary hermeneutics came face to face and quarrelled with each other. One caused confusion, the other, silently but more and more visibly, bore and is bearing fruit.

On the one hand, there is an interpretation that I would call ‘a hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture’; it has frequently availed itself of the sympathies of the mass media, and also one trend of modern theology. On the other, there is the ‘hermeneutic of reform’, of renewal in the continuity of the one subject-Church which the Lord has given to us. She is a subject which increases in time and develops, yet always remaining the same, the one subject of the journeying People of God.

The hermeneutic of discontinuity risks ending in a split between the pre-conciliar Church and the post-conciliar Church. It asserts that the texts of the Council as such do not yet express the true spirit of the Council. It claims that they are the result of compromises in which, to reach unanimity, it was found necessary to keep and reconfirm many old things that are now pointless. However, the true spirit of the Council is not to be found in these compromises but instead in the impulses toward the new that are contained in the texts.”

In short, the Holy Father is saying that we must read the Council in continuity with the entire teaching of the Church. The Council is not to be ignored, but nor is that wealth of teaching that preceded it and the wisdom of the magisterium that follows. To be sure, this is not simply the opinion of this Holy Father; a hermeneutic of continuity is the very “glue” that keeps the Church from falling apart and lapsing into Protestant division. A hermeneutic of discontinuity has no remedy against the ill of the “that’s-your-interpretation” phenomenon. If we see the Second Vatican Council as a rupture that separates the history of the Church into “pre-Vatican II” and “post-Vatican II” we thereby give up any objectivity in how to interpret the Council’s words.

In my original post, I quoted the following:

“The employment of the piano is forbidden in church, as is also that of noisy or frivolous instruments such as drums, cymbals, bells and the like. It is strictly forbidden to have bands play in church, and only in special cases with the consent of the Ordinary will it be permissible to admit wind instruments, limited in number, judiciously used, and proportioned to the size of the place—provided the composition and accompaniment be written in grave and suitable style, and conform in all respects to that proper to the organ” (Inter sollicitudines, Pope Pius X).**

This particular passage caused quite a stir, and many people kindly sent me references from Vatican II’s Sacrosanctum Concilium. The most commonly quoted paragraph reads:

“In the Latin Church the pipe organ is to be held in high esteem, for it is the traditional musical instrument which adds a wonderful splendor to the Church’s ceremonies and powerfully lifts up man’s mind to God and to higher things.

But other instruments also may be admitted for use in divine worship, with the knowledge and consent of the competent territorial authority, as laid down in Art. 22, 52, 37, and 40. This may be done, however, only on condition that the instruments are suitable, or can be made suitable, for sacred use, accord with the dignity of the temple, and truly contribute to the edification of the faithful” (paragraph 120).

At this point it would be beneficial to revisit the quote from Inter sollicitudines. While a Constitution from an Ecumenical Council certainly takes precedence over a Motu Propio, we should ask ourselves if the quotation from Vatican II contradicts anything from Pope Pius X’s document. It seems to me that both documents allow for instruments other than the organ, but both documents issue warnings that this allowance is not a wholesale endorsement of any kind of instrument played in any kind of style. Both paragraphs even make mention of the role of the local Ordinary (“competent territorial authority”). The continuity between the two documents is rather striking; it seems that Sacrosanctum Concilium is merely offering a summary of the corresponding paragraph from Inter sollicitudines. The continuity between the two documents is strengthened by the fact that Sacrosanctum Concilium makes specific mention of St. Pius X in the opening paragraph of the chapter on Sacred Music (112).***

Of course, these are but two documents from the 1900’s. If we wanted a more complete treatment of the subject, we should try to visit every major document written on music from Pius X through the present. (Of course, it would be nice to also look at documents written before Pius X, but I think beginning with him will give us more than enough to do.)

Further, this is only one topic (that of instrumentation in the Liturgy) among many important topics for our time, not the least of which is the place of Latin and Gregorian Chant (in particular the Propers) in the Liturgy.

From here, then, where are we to go? Allow me to formulate the key questions as well as the ground rules for hermeneutics we employ. I will try very hard to state the questions in a neutral manner, not one geared towards my own agenda.

Question One. What style(s) of music are appropriate for use in the Sacred Liturgy?

Question Two. What instrumentation best suits the style(s) from Question One?

Question Three. What language, Latin or the vernacular, best suits the style(s) from Question One?

For a proper hermeneutic, ground rules need established. However, I am willing to discuss these ground rules and not simply take them as a given. They form the hermeneutic from which I approach this problem because it is the hermeneutic that Pope Benedict has proposed, but I readily recognize that others may be viewing the issues through a different lens. Lest we fall into relativism, before commencing a discussion on Sacred Music, we should first reach agreement on a proper hermeneutic.

Ground Rule One.

The Liturgy is not the result of our own creative efforts, but is something that we receive through Sacred Tradition. As such, issues of Sacred Music are not matters of opinion. Truth is objective and can be reached through honest and humble dialog in which each participant abandons himself and, along with the self, any preconceptions that accompany it.

Ground Rule Two.

We abandon ourselves to what the Church has actually written on these matters. I welcome theological arguments; they can certainly be beneficial in aiding our understanding on the Sacred Liturgy. It is clear that both sides can present these sorts of defenses, but in the end we must recognize the axiom Roma locuta est, causa finita est. We must recognize that obedience is only a virtue when we are met with a teaching that we do not fully understand. This is particularly important when looking at Vatican II; it is the documents that are the fruit of the Council, and it is therefore the documents that should speak for the Council.

Ground Rule Three.

When presenting Church teaching, we must read this teaching in continuity with the entire history of the Church. This requires an honest and meticulous analysis of a plethora of magisterial writings. It also requires us to abandon the notion that Vatican II was a deliberate rupture with the Church’s tradition; we must do our best to see the Second Vatican Council as (1) just as important as any other ecumenical Council, and (2) no more important than any other ecumenical Council.

This is a serious issue, and as such it requires serious attention. Let us engage it responsibly in a spirit of prayer and humble self-abandonment with the confidence that the Holy Spirit will guide us to truth and protect us against being “tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine” (Eph. 4:14).

Let’s take off the gloves.

* The request to abandon hyperbole came from one of my more eloquent critics, one who actually attempted to engage the issues and not merely issue ad hominum attacks, for which I am grateful. It is a request that is both insightful and aimed at advancing the conversation for the better.


** The Motu Propio of Pius X (1903) was originally titled Tra le sollecitudini in Italian. A Latin translation followed it immediately entitled Inter plurimas pastoralis officii sollicitudines, which is often shortened to Inter sollicitudines, not to be confused with the 1515 Papal Bull of Pope Leo X. I have opted here for the Latin title.


*** I readily admit that Inter sollicitudines itself is not referenced, but merely the name of Pius X. Nevertheless, the mention of the name of Pius X is but one piece of evidence of continuity. The content of the paragraph itself makes up the crux of the evidence.


Filed under: General Stuff

1 Comment

  1. Kudos to your friend! I need to read this carefully as well as the earlier post on his blog.


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