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Thomas G. McFaul

The Sad State of Liturgical Music in the Catholic Church

The awful stuff that has passed for liturgical music
in the Catholic Church for the past thirty-five years is a continuing disgrace and embarrassment. The insipid "hymns" and utterly trite musical settings of parts of the Ordinary of the Mass suddenly appeared from nowhere sometime shortly after Vatican II.

Overnight, fifteen hundred years of some of the most beautiful, inspired music in all of Western culture was thrown out and replaced by what sounds like bad 1960s folk-pop-elevator music. In fact, it's worse than that. Nothing in pop music ever sounded quite as loathsome as what is played and sung in the church today.

The magnificent and austere chant as well as Masses and other liturgical music written by a succession of history's greatest composers has largely disappeared from the Catholic Church. As Richard Morris[1] has pointed out, the great tradition of liturgical music flourishes today in concerts, on CDs, everywhere but in the church. How did this great art get replaced by the repugnant drivel we hear today? What happened? Who commissioned this awful stuff? Why has this been tolerated all this time? Who writes this trash? If there is to be new music, why isn't it better? This rubbish is not heard just in regional parishes in the US. It is worldwide. To my horror, I heard this same shameful music performed at the Basilica of St. Peter in Rome!

Try to imagine what it would be like if the rest of the Church's art were dumbed-down to this degree. Paint-on-velvet say, replacing the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Or an upturned bathtub with a plastic Virgin, spray painted blue, replacing the Berninis. Would the clergy and faithful sit by silently and endure such an insult? Is music a less important art form in the eyes of the modern church? It would seem so.

Apparently, part of the reason for the sweeping changes of Vatican II was to make the service more accessible. It was thought that vernacular "folk masses" and other such misguided secular notions would somehow bring the parishioners closer to the service. It has not done so. How could it? Bad music is just bad music. Some of these ideas might have worked to some degree if the job of writing the music had been given to anyone capable. But that didn't happen. The congregation does not participate in singing any more than they ever did. Why would they? Who would want to sing this music?

The choir had always handled the bulk of the singing in past generations, and did so quite adequately. Even in my small parish, the choir was good enough to sing some Palestrina, Vittoria, and other great composers, as well as the chant. This magnificent music was a vital part of the uplifting experience of going to church. The chant worked for illiterate medieval peasants. Are we somehow less sophisticated today than they were?

Did Vatican II really think that the average church parishioner could somehow no longer appreciate the music of Josquin? Did they think that the congregation could no longer relate to the music of Ockegham and Byrd? This is clearly not true. There are more recordings of this music today than ever before, eagerly listened to by people all over the world. Is there something out of line with this music and the interpretation of church doctrine according to Vatican II?

In the 1950s, when I was growing up Catholic, we were taught that one of the distinguishing characteristics of the Catholic Mass was that it was the same everywhere, unchanging. We were taught that the Mass never changed, at least not much since the Council of Trent in the mid-sixteenth century. That's why it was said in Latin, so that it would be the same in any service, in any country throughout the world. It was not subject to regional traditions, local bias, local mores, local interpretations, local reformers, but rather it remained unaltered everywhere, and always would remain the same. One could expect to hear the beautiful chant sung in Latin wherever one went. One also looked forward to the almost endless supply of magnificent contrapuntal music performed at High Mass and special occasions throughout the church year. Gesualdo on Good Friday maybe, if the choir was up to it.

Then suddenly, it all went away. Suddenly, there were bad folk guitar players in church, bongos. The choir disappeared. Why is all of the new music in the church totally uninspired and pedestrian? Doesn't anyone care?

A grave error in judgment has been made and seems to go unnoticed. The Church in its ignorance has willfully reduced the music of the Mass to a numbingly dumb, excruciatingly bad set of fake-folk melodies. The musical part of the service is no longer uplifting, no longer a positive experience. It is an embarrassment of bad taste.

My understanding was that folk Masses, Masses in the vernacular, and the "new music," were meant to be exceptions to the traditional Latin services and their attendant music, that the Latin Mass would remain the standard, that these new things were experiments. Instead, they have become the norm. The old music is now so distant that priests and church choirs no longer even remember the traditions, so all that beautiful chant, all that magnificent art music, is completely lost on younger generations of Catholics. What a shame for a young person to grow up thinking that Marty Haugen is the traditional music of the Catholic church.

Today we are seeing the results of some of the misguided reforms of the church since the 1960s. Catholic congregations diminish in numbers every year in the US. Fewer and fewer Catholics are finding vocations in the priesthood or as nuns. The truly important reforms: Holy Orders for women, celibacy as a choice for priests, the church's view of contraception, and the responsibility of the church leadership in dealing with its own criminals, have not been addressed. Instead, the church has concentrated on secularizing its traditions and with that, diminishing, or getting rid of much of the art that has contributed to the glory of God as well as profoundly enhancing the joy and uplifting experience of celebrating the sacrifice of the Mass.

—T. McFaul July, 2002

1. See The Collapse — and Rebirth — of Sacred Music: An Interview with Richard Morris. (Return)

Copyright © 2002–2011, Thomas G. McFaul
Last modified: Wed May 11 09:50:02 EDT 2011
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