Monday, December 3, 2007

Sing to the Lord: Music in Divine Worship Released

The US Bishops have released guidelines on sacred music. Striking a balance between reverence for the Church's treasury of sacred music and an openness to new musical forms and instruments that allow us to lift our hearts to God according to local musical genres, the document places an emphasis on participation by the congregation. It is true to the ever creative freedom of man in worshiping Christ and at the same time recognizes the enduring contributions of those who have given their gifts of music in previous times. Perhaps disappointingly to some, the document does not make dogmatic, reactionary, and exclusivistic pronouncements about musical forms or instruments, though it does note the pride of place of ancient music and the organ (not the one from your local mall). Stringed and percussion instruments are explicitly allowed, where they may be adapted for sacred music.

It is to be expected that the usual cacophony is to be heard about this just being the Bishops' Confernce, its not from Rome, not what Rome really wants, etc., ad nauseam. Whatever else it may be this argument is, however, not the teaching of the Church on the issue, as the Church has explicitly given to the Congregations this authority.

The teaching of the Church on sacred music (which is a discipline not dogma and thus is subject to change over time, so you can't rely on what Pius X said in 1903 about guitars and the piano, for example) stems from the Second Vatican Council's Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (1963). It leaves specific implementation of the Constitution and changes in liturgical music, Chapter IV, to the Bishops Conferences: "Within the limits set by the typical editions of the liturgical books, it shall be for the competent territorial ecclesiastical authority mentioned in Art. 22, 2, to specify adaptations, especially in the case of the administration of the sacraments, the sacramentals, processions, liturgical language, sacred music, and the arts, but according to the fundamental norms laid down in this Constitution." See 39. It likewise notes that some countries have unique musical traditions that may be incorporated into the liturgy: "In certain parts of the world, especially mission lands, there are peoples who have their own musical traditions, and these play a great part in their religious and social life. For this reason due importance is to be attached to their music, and a suitable place is to be given to it, not only in forming their attitude toward religion, but also in adapting worship to their native genius, as indicated in Art. 39 and 40." See 119. And that instruments other than the organ may be approved by the local ordinary. See 120. SACROSANCTUM CONCILIUM may be found at:

The above was reiterated in the 1967, Vatican II document, Musicam Sacram, which left to the competent territorial authority decisions about incorporating contemporary music and instruments into the Church's already rich musical treasury. See, e.g., 53, 54, 55, and 62.

MUSICAM SACRAM (INSTRUCTION ON MUSIC IN THE LITURGY, promulgated by the Sacred Congregation for Rites and approved by Paul VI): may be found at:

Then in May 2001 the Congregation for Divine Worship published Liturgiam Athenticam, and mandated to the territorial conferences of Bishops to implement musical norms. See, e.g., 99.


Although, it is somewhat exasperating to have to do so, I suppose it is necessary to address the inevitable and now somewhat tiring argument that the US Bishops have been disobedient to Rome, so we should not follow their guidlines. To that I say that on a matter of faith and morals, where a bishop or priest errs, we must not follow. But on matters that do not involve eternal verities, the bishop is the apostle of our diocese and the local priest is his representative, to whom we do owe our obedience in matters of liturgical norms. To be Catholic is in part to follow them, on such matters, even if, or more precisely when, their taste or judgment differs from ours. If they have truly erred, take it up with Rome, but until Rome (and I don't mean merely the head of some Congregation speaking off the cuff) says otherwise, it simply is not Catholic to say that we should not take to heart the guidelines of the Bishops' Conference.

So, Sing to the Lord a new song, or a very old one!