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Deregulating Music

Gary Penkala

"The [U.S.] bishops have virtually 'deregulated' liturgical music … they have allowed it to be controlled almost totally by commercial interests" [Thomas Day, in Where Have You Gone, Michelangelo? p.198].

These successors of the apostles have offered us little substanital guidance in this area. In 1972, Music in Catholic Worship was printed by the liturgical committee of the bishops. A follow-up document, Liturgical Music Today, came out of the same group in 1982. Neither book was approved by the full body of bishops; and neither came anywhere near the Vatican for approval. Products of their eras, these pamphlets spoke in generalizations, in rather vague and idyllic language. The notion of "judgments" (pastoral, liturgical, musical) bloomed. Lip-service was paid to "quality" in music, but no definitive guidance was given for actualizing that term. The spectrum of "quality" music was so outlandishly broad that almost anything printed with black notes on white paper fit the category. The documents suffered from weakness, both in the tepid guidance and the timid leadership, not wanting to "offend" anyone by singling out their favorite music as unworthy of liturgy.

"The bishops must have sensed that anybody who poked his nose into this matter of 'good and official' church music, would get a bloody nose." [Day, p.196]

A full 25 years passed before the bishops sought to correct the insipid prose [and even error] of these two documents. In 2007, the liturgy committee prepared a new document, Sing to the Lord, which this time was voted on and passed by the full USCCB. For this document to have the force of liturgical law in this country, however, it would have needed approval of the Holy See. The bishops decided not to pursue this (perhaps fearing that changes would be required or that Catholics might feel forced to follow what it said). This booklet, which abrogates the previous two, goes well beyond what they said and establishes some concrete guidelines. Everything is not "clear" though; only "less cloudy." The bishops are, needless to say, still living in an era of "political correctness," such that they recoil from telling a pastor he needs to scrub the 1970s drivel that the parishes is still singing.

And so, American liturgical music was deregulated — every parish could do exactly what it wanted. In that vacuum of leadership, anything that smacked of helpful authority ruled. The free-market system became our messiah.

Thomas Day makes the argument, "It would be so useful if one brave bishop could say out loud, 'Let the buyer beware.'"

  • Beware of the publishers who issue planning guides and reviews that are really promotional advertising for their products.
  • Beware of the Master Gurus and other composer hucksters who cry, "Lord! Lord!" in public but are really trying to get another message across: "Ignore the competition; buy my music."
  • Beware of anyone who thinks that the Catholic faithful would be so much happier if they totally surrendered themselves to the today music of Bob or Dan or John or … "Well, they're old-hat now, but there's this brand-new group called Something-or-Other Ministries and I think they finally hit upon the real liturgical music of our time."
  • Beware of this commercial enterprise, this liturgical music industry. Its motives are not always pure. [Day, pp. 198-199]

What is called "the pastoral music scene" in the Catholic church of the United States is something that is pushed and pulled in different directions by businesses that exist to make profit. What is called "folk/contemporary religious music" and the "grassroots revolution in church music" is a commercial undertaking for profit. Yes, there are good intentions and religious motives, but the music still has to come to the parishes through the private sector, which needs a profit to survive — and economic survival means the following realities:

  1. A company only makes a quick, one-time profit by selling a song book that will just stay there in the pews for thirty years.
  2. There is little money to be made by selling music that is old and has no copyright protection, no matter how good it is.
  3. The only way to survive (i.e. to keep the cash flowing in) is by constantly selling music that is garbage. Musical garbage, from an economic point of view, is the best music, because it becomes obsolete very fast [Day, p.197].

Lest you think that the leadership vacuum exhibited by the bishops is being filled elsewhere, consider: "the management of [the leading paperback songbook] and other Catholic publishers moisten one finger, as it were, and check which way the wind is blowing. They follow; they do not lead" [Day, p.199] Surveys are distributed and the compiled results fashion the future of parish music. In times when many Catholic parish music personnel have little musical training and negligible liturgical acumen, it is these people who set the tone for the nation's music. One publisher's philosphy: "We're following your lead."

The free-market, independent, "mammon-driven" liturgical music scene produces some rather odd situations.

The Lutheran pastor buys a hymnal. He knows that the book contains Silent Night. He also knows that this beloved old Christmas carol will be available in the pews for the life of the hymnal, maybe twenty or even forty years.

The Catholic pastor makes out a check for a missalette — every year. He knows that, every year, he gets another copy of Silent Night. (The previous year's copy is thrown out.) For the foreseeable future he has to buy a new copy of Silent Night every single year. This is a very good deal for the publishers, when you think about it.

So what's the solution? A National Catholic Hymnal has been debated, tabled, ignored, for decades. What about, as Day suggests, a "half-hymnal," a book of basic, standard hymns in English and Latin [or Spanish and Latin], with some excellent service music [certainly, the chant of the Roman Missal], and some primitive chanting, for churches with limited resources. To that, I would add a very simple way of singing the Propers, along with their pointed texts. This "half-hymnal" could be used alone, or a parish could add its own preferences in a companion volume, which could certainly change from time to time. Hymnal publishers, to be sure, could incorporate the "official" repertoire into future editions of their own books.

Even this National "Half-Hymnal" has its problems. Who would compile it? Could we trust that ideological forces, particularly progressive parties, would not slant the book such that the enduring quality of standard [i.e. not contemporary] hymnody would be destroyed?

More and more bishops (and pastors and parishes following their lead) are speaking out strongly for good liturgical music. May this continue — and grow! In the meantime, education seems to be a viable solution to ending the pattern of bad music in our churches. Once music directors know about Propers, it's harder to ignore them. Once they analyze the music that's so popular, they recognize the banality (or even heresy) of the texts. Once they know what the Church expects in her music, they can find means to actualize it. Education, then, is key … from good, faithful sources. And thank you for reading this article!

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