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CNP Feedback — Sing to the Lord: Where Do We Stand?

Q. Dear CNP:

Can you give me some feedback on the value of Sing to the Lord, published by the USCCB?

Ray C. Domino

A. Dear Ray:

Pure and simple, the US bishops' document, Sing to the Lord: Music in Divine Worship (2007), is both a vast improvement over its predecessors [Music in Catholic Worship (1972) and Liturgical Music Today (1982)] and a disappointment in not moving far enough beyond them.

Sing to the Lord

I wholeheartedly agree with, and can opine no better than, Dr. William Mahrt's own A Critique of Sing to the Lord, which I suggest you read fully. I'll offer merely a synopsis of his discussion here.

Dr. Mahrt first mentions some history of the document, including a 2006 consultation held by the bishops' committee in Chicago. The Church Music Association of America and CanticaNOVA Publications, along with major publishers and other national musicians and liturgists, were privileged to be a part of that consultation, offering input to the bishops prior to the document's publication. He also notes the "non-binding" status of the document, owing to the bishops' choice not to request Vatican confirmation, the granting of which would have ceded the document the force of binding liturgical law. Lacking that approval, it is merely a set of recommendations, approved by the U.S. bishops, but not a matter of law.

The document does quote extensively from approved sources, including the Council's Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (1963) and Musicam sacram (1967). From these are drawn the "hierarchy" of music in liturgy — first, comes the dialogues between priest and people.

Progressive solemnity is discussed, and Dr. Mahrt takes issue with the concept as jeopardizing the goal of a fundamentally sung liturgy. Major steps forward can be seen in the suggestion that the readings themselves be sung. CanticaNOVA Publications, since its inception in 1996, has promoted this chanting with our Book of Sung Gospels.

The bishops' new music treatise holds Gregorian chant in high esteem, as have all the previous Roman liturgical documents. It is good for the U.S. to catch up with the mind of the Church in this regard.

In still offering the less than satisfactory possibility of substituting a hymn or song for the legitimate propers, this document runs counter to the latest translation (2011) of the General Instruction on the Roman Missal that now allows as the fourth option a specific "liturgical chant that is suited to the sacred action, the day, or the time of year" — much different than the previous "another song ..."

The organ is applauded and given "pride of place," but Mahrt notes that the reason for the organ's privileged status (it is primarily a sacred instrument) is never mentioned. Unfortunate that the secular connotations of instruments found in rock bands and cocktail lounges are nowhere mentioned.

Dr. Mahrt lists some glaring omissions:

  • The dignity and special status of sacred polyphony
  • Discussion of internal participation as opposed to mere external busyness
  • Any definition of what constitutes sacred music and sacred liturgy, although the terms are used frequently

There are negative aspects and misrepresentation of Vatican documents. The anthropocentric focus on what we do in liturgy overpowers the view of liturgy as praise of God. The three-tiered "judgments" from Music in Catholic Worship (musical, liturgical, pastoral) are turned upside down, placing the musical judgment last (of least importance), "this in a document ostensibly about music."

The U.S. bishops, apparently to support the willy-nilly acceptance of almost any kind of music at Mass in the last four decades, quotes from Vatican II, "The church has not adopted any particular style of art as her own." Dr. Mahrt reminds us that this quote actually describes art and architecture, wherein the Church has actually not preferred Romanesque over Gothic over Baroque. In music, however (he points out), there is a definitive preference for Gregorian chant and even sacred polyphony over other music.

Another misrepresentation he notes concerns the purpose of the funeral rites to, as the document says, "offer thanksgiving to God for the gift of life that has been returned to him." The Propers for the funeral Mass themselves speak in contradistinction to the need for mourning, for grieving, for prayers for the repose of the soul of the deceased.

The bishops, through their Secretariat on Divine Worship and via ICEL, tenaciously hold restrictive and fiduciary power over every text in the Mass. Music that CNP has submitted for approval prior to publication has come back, rightly so, with the indication that "there is a comma missing here" or "Death needs to be capitalized here." How little are they concerned, though, with the quality of music to which those sacred and revered texts are being sung, or to general music elsewhere in the liturgy!

In his last paragraph, Dr. Mahrt concludes:

What, then, are we to make of this document? We will all find the paragraphs we like and quote them, but their authority is ambiguous: when the document quotes established liturgical law, such as Musicam sacram and the General Instruction on the Roman Missal, their authority is secure; we might as well quote the respective documents. For the rest, since the bishops did not submit them for ratification to the Vatican, they are in a kind of limbo, not liturgical law, but ratified by the bishops. But perhaps like the doctrine of limbo itself, the document will find itself obsolete in due time. We might view it as a transitional document — the revival of Gregorian chant and excellent liturgical music will progress apace, and a subsequent document, though it may only restate the status quo, will have to accommodate those things Sacred Music [Magazine] has perpetually advocated: the sacred and the beautiful as represented by the priority of Gregorian chant and classical polyphony in the service of the liturgy.

I thank Dr. Mahrt for his astute and honest appraisal of Sing to the Lord: Music in Divine Worship, and I strongly encourage you to read the full essay here.

Gary Penkala
CanticaNOVA Publications

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