In Part II of Aleteia’s interview with cantor, conductor and composer Dr. Peter Kwasniewski, we discuss the Catholic Church’s teaching on sacred music
NORCIA, ITALY — Why has there been 100 years of papal teaching on sacred music, and what did Vatican II say on the matter that no pope or ecumenical council had ever said before?
In this article, we continue our conversation with Dr. Peter Kwasniewski of Wyoming Catholic College. In Part I, we discussed Dr. Kwasniewski’s background as a church musician, the creative process, and some of his current projects. In this part, we move into the Catholic Church’s teaching on sacred music.
Dr. Kwasniewski, although the Church has, over the centuries, legislated about church music, people tend to see Pope St. Pius X as the one who inaugurated the modern Magisterium on the subject. Why was he the one who paid so much attention to it?
When he was a bishop, Giuseppe Sarto, the future Pope Pius X, heard a lot of crummy music in church. In the late 19th century, the problem wasn’t the sacro-pop or pseudo-folk music we have today; it was the rage for Italian opera, a sentimental, theatrical, emotional genre—very distracting for worship. Sarto recognized its ecclesiastical adaptations as second-rate entertainment music rather than first-rate sacred music. So one of the first things he did when he ascended the papal throne in 1903 was to issue the motu proprio Tra le Sollecitudini on the restoration of authentic sacred music. This document reflects Pius X’s deep love of the Church’s liturgy and his ardent desire, as a pastor, to restore it to the full splendor, nobility, and sacredness that should belong to its celebration. He knew that the first and most important place to begin was with the music. He demanded that everyone return to the purity and the simplicity and the beauty of Gregorian Chant. While his appeal didn’t meet with acceptance everywhere, it did create a huge movement in favor of Gregorian chant, including all sorts of programs for schoolchildren around the world. As a result, chant was employed much more between 1903 and the Second Vatican Council, and generally with a better sound, than had been the case for a couple of centuries prior.
Did Pope Pius X’s successors deliver the same message?
Yes, absolutely. After Pius X, Pius XI issued an important document called Divini Cultus, where he repeated the same principles and urged the Christian people to sing the chants that belong to them, especially the Ordinary of the Mass. Then you have Pius XII who wrote several times about sacred music, for example, in the encyclicals Mediator Dei and Musicae Sacrae. So we have much from Pius XII that enunciates the same teaching. Pope John Paul II, who had such a long pontificate, touched on music many times. (I wrote an article summarizing his teaching: “John Paul II on Sacred Music.”) Probably his main contribution was the chirograph on the centenary of Tra le Sollecitudine in 2003. Finally, Benedict XVI is the pope who, of all popes in history, has the most detailed and the most profound teaching about Church music—one thinks of such texts as the post-synodal apostolic exhortation Sacramentum Caritatis, his books The Spirit of the Liturgy and A New Song for the Lord, and so much else. All of these are immensely worth our time, since they do so much more than declaim rules or traditions; they offer a thorough explanation of the rationale behind the Church’s teaching.
Can you give us that rationale, in a nutshell?
The Catholic Church has a very beautiful teaching about sacred music, which unfortunately most Catholics don’t know about. The root principles are given in St. Pius X’s motu proprio. Sacred music should be holy—that is, it should be characterized by a kind of recognizable and palpable holiness. You should be able to hear it and say “This is music for the temple of God; this is not profane or secular music.” This is not music from the cinema or from Broadway or from the disco or the campfire, but it’s music for the temple of God. It should be good; it should be artistically well-crafted and noble. Nothing of poor quality, nothing shoddy, nothing that’s trite or banal. The third quality he talks about is that it should be universal. It should be such as to characterize the Catholic Church, which is the same all throughout the world, which celebrates the same mysteries with fixed liturgical rites. So, in other words, it shouldn’t be the music of a particular tribe or camp or school or subculture. It should be as universal as possible. Pope Pius X says Gregorian chant is perfectly these three things, it’s the exemplar. It’s holy, it’s artistically beautiful, and it’s universal. This is why it’s the normative music, the gold standard. Therefore, other music is welcome into the temple to the extent that it embodies these qualities of chant. Renaissance polyphony deserves special praise because it derives its melodic vocabulary and liturgical spirit from the chant.
Don’t people say that Vatican II got rid of this whole view of things?
It’s incredible how much nonsense people attribute to “Vatican II.” In the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy Sacrosanctum Concilium, the Council Fathers reiterated this teaching of St. Pius X and went on to say something no pope or ecumenical council had ever said before—namely, that because Gregorian Chant is the music proper to the Roman Rite, it should have the chief place (or as some translations say, “pride of place”), in the liturgy. No qualifications were made: in each and every liturgy. Even with the proviso “everything else being equal,” the Council is saying that chant should still have chief place because it’s the very music of the rite. It’s not just music tacked on to the rite, it’s the music that grew up with it, “bone of its bone and flesh of its flesh.” Gregorian chant is the Roman rite in its musical vesture.
That certainly doesn’t sound like the view that has prevailed in the past 50 years.
The Council’s teaching on the primacy of Gregorian chant was ignored or belittled because of the revolutionary spirit behind the liturgical reform and its implementation. Still, the teaching is there, giving expression to a fundamental reality of Catholic tradition, and anyone who wants to be Roman Catholic can follow it. The first thing we have to recognize is that the Church’s teaching about sacred music is true. This is not just a subjective opinion, something culturally relative. There really are objective qualities that belong to properly liturgical music, and the Church has recognized what those qualities are. Whether we take up old music or whether we write and sing new music, we need to follow those principles. This is how church music thrives and how it serves the true spiritual needs of the faithful.
Some people say that the Church’s teaching on sacred music is no longer relevant to our modern, pluralistic situation. How would you respond?
Our modern situation is more, not less, in need of the Church’s wise counsels and her rich tradition. We need to take her advice seriously. Human beings need beautiful things; human beings long for beautiful music that is suited to divine worship. The liturgy is supposed to be special; it’s not supposed to be an everyday affair. It’s not supposed to look or sound like the prevailing popular culture. It’s supposed to be different, distinctive, an encounter with the transcendent God. When Catholics encounter this mystery through music—and also, of course, through other things: vestments, architecture, the ars celebrandi, the way the priest and the ministers bear themselves at the altar—it actually helps them to know their faith better. This is not just some abstract aesthetic preference. It’s about recognizing the distinctiveness of the Catholic Faith and living it more fully. The music we use at Mass is not just window dressing; it’s essential to who we are and what we’re doing. Why has there been a hundred years of papal teaching on this subject? If it was just a small matter, it wouldn’t have been on the agenda for such a long time and gotten into the Second Vatican Council. People who want to be faithful to the magisterial documents and who want to bring out the treasures of the Christian tradition know what to do. The path is clear for those who have the right understanding of what the liturgy is, and, sadly, the path is not clear for those who don’t.
You say the liturgy is “not supposed to look or sound like popular culture.” Why is this?
I learned this crucial point from Benedict XVI, who is concerned about the deplorable state of church music in most places. He recognizes it as an invasion of secularism, a sort of pathetic attempt on the part of the Church to compete with secular culture. Somebody once said about Christian rock music that “it’s only relevant for five minutes, and four of those minutes were not worth it.” Or as another person said: “If you can’t deliver a product that’s ten times better than your competitor, you shouldn’t even bother.” And the Church can’t do that with secular culture. She’s not meant to do that, and she’ll never succeed. What’s necessary is to bend the stick in the opposite direction and make sure that the liturgy is absolutely holy and sacred and reverent in every way. Music plays a huge role in that necessary orientation to God. In fact, music is the most obvious element of the liturgy, even if it’s not the most important. It’s the thing that hits you most, affects you most immediately. If it’s wrong, the whole experience is wrong, and the meaning of the event will be compromised, too—maybe even corrupted. But if it’s right, it gives glory to God and assists in the sanctification of the faithful. What a noble ministry, what an immense responsibility!