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“Human beings need beautiful things”

Diane Montagna - published on 08/23/16

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?

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Sacred Music
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