A few weeks ago, I received this question via the Café’s Facebook page:
Sunday at Mass the concluding was a song written by David Haas, the songwriter from St Paul [Minnesota Diocese] who “allegedly” seduced and or raped women while in his musical role in the church. Dozens of women have come forward with claims. He has apologized (so that makes it ok?!?!?). He has been rebuked by his home Diocese, he has had his music removed from some dioceses, had publishers remove his songs from their hymnals, has had awards demanded to be returned related to his role in the church.
After mass, I questioned why we were using his music (he certainly can’t have been the only viable closing song for a random week in Ordinary Time) and I was told “we ran it up the chain and they did not tell us we couldn’t use it”. All music directors know this guy or they shouldn’t be music directors.
In my opinion, this is an ultimate “tone deaf” response. For context, this comes from an institution with a half century’s experience of turning a blind eye to sexual abuse. I learned a long time ago just because you have the right to do something does not make it the right thing to do.
First, I am grateful to the writer for raising a painful question that deserves attention. In fact, there are so many issues here that one hardly knows where to start. In the first instance, there is the conduct of David Haas himself and how he used his ministry and reputation to damage dozens of lives in the Church. Second, there is the legal, moral, and liturgical question of his musical legacy in Catholic circles, as the question is complicated. Third, there is the question of music ministry in the Church as a whole, as in who is responsible for who and what gets published in coordination with the Vatican II principles of worship. And finally, how healthy is the state of music ministry in the American Church—are people in the pews nurtured and enlivened by our present hymnody and musical leadership? [The third and fourth points will be addressed in a future post.]
Who is David Haas? His Wikipedia entry begins: “David Robert Haas (born 1957 in Bridgeport, Michigan) is an American author and composer of contemporary Catholic liturgical music. In 2020, dozens of women accused him of sexual misconduct spanning several decades, and he issued a public apology for harmful behavior.” Haas’s music has been published in hymnals and other products of GIA Publications, Oregon Catholic Press, Liturgical Press, World Library Publications, Augsburg Fortress, The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, The Australian Catholic Bishops' Conference, Celebrating Grace, Disciples of Christ, and The Anglican Church of Canada, among others. Several of his hymns are staples of Catholic worship and enjoy immense popularity. A YouTube performance of his hymn, “You Are Mine,” has 12,081,000 views as of today, and his music is frequently requested for special occasions such as weddings, funerals, ordinations, etc. His theology—as well as that of many of his musical contemporaries--as expressed in his songs has come under criticism by, among others, Thomas Day, the author of Why Catholics Can’t Sing. But there is no denying that Haas’s music has enjoyed widespread appeal over the past thirty to forty years, and disengagement will probably be a lengthy protracted process.
[I decided not to provide a link to the support group “Into Account” because of its graphic description of abuse alleged by at least two dozen women. However, “Into Account” can be found easily enough on-line, and it may be required reading for those who continue to use Haas’s music.]
Should his music be banned from Catholic usage? Can it be banned? This is the heart of my correspondent’s question—why are we continuing to use the music, given what we know about the author today? I left the active ministry and the responsibility of liturgical planning just as Haas was coming on the scene, and truthfully, I don’t pay much attention to the music at Mass these days because it is usually pitched too high for me to sing, and the style/lyrics are painfully bereft of anything related to testosterone. But I still have friends “in the family business” and I called around to get a feeling for how dioceses are dealing with the “Haas problem,” and here are some things I learned.
As of this writing about eighty dioceses have issued prohibitions of Haas music at Catholic worship, and about one hundred have not, give or take. Not all church leaders are convinced that David Haas’s identity and ministry are well known or recognized by the average Catholic, to warrant a public declaration that might draw attention to a sordid narrative when, in their view, few people are impacted. For example, a spokesman for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee responded to an inquiry about Haas’s music from a victims’ advocacy group: “It doesn’t appear to be of concern to parish staff or Catholics in the pew,” he said. “I would guess the vast majority of Catholics have no idea who David Haas is. This is not his diocese.”
In one sense, this diocesan spokesperson is correct; how would Catholics even know about the David Haas scandal? Most Catholics do not know the composers of their parish music. [And, if Thomas Day is correct in Why Catholics Can’t Sing (2013), most Catholics are not interested in their parish’s music at all.] American Catholics are not generally attuned to Catholic news media, and I deliberately omit parish bulletins and diocesan newspapers here from the classification of media because they are, as a rule, house organs, and not journalism.
Here are some thought-provoking statistics: AARP the Magazine, the nation’s leading magazine by circulation, has 24,099,602 subscribers. By comparison, the national blue-chip Catholic news and analysis journals [all with paper and on-line formats] posted these numbers in 2021: National Catholic Register reported a circulation of 39,000; Our Sunday Visitor 43,000; America 45,000; National Catholic Reporter 35,000. I do not have figures on the relatively new but highly popular Crux news service funded by the Knights of Columbus and private donations. The Wall Street Journal reports that there are 82,000,000 Roman Catholics in the United States, which makes the above circulation numbers look even more paltry. In truth, the widest circulation on the Haas scandal has come from The New York Times and other secular sources. Not for nothing do we use the term “parochial” when discussing Catholic life.
Consequently, the odds are that only a fraction of the Catholic community understands the Haas case with any depth, or even knows of it at all. My impression of the past twenty years is that if the Catholic abuse scandal has not impacted one’s family, parish, or diocese, one’s approach to the issue can be disturbingly sanguine. [The same is true, I think, in secular American society.] This on-line response appeared under a YouTube feature of a Haas performance; “No matter what David Hass [sic] did, please let these beautiful and inspiring songs stay. The art and the music are much bigger than we, faults or not, and no saints even were perfect no matter what Haas did. Keep the songs please, Catholic Church.”
However, the Café correspondent’s point is that any church music minister should have known or been sensitive to the complications of using this composer’s music. I would agree with that, but there are some complications here, too. The first, alluded to above, is the uncertain trumpet of diocesan bishops and officers on the question. One diocesan official enlightened me to such a complication. Specifically, Haas has published both hymns and “service music,” i.e., full Mass texts [“Lord, have mercy;” “Gloria,” “Holy, Holy,” etc.] In fact, the largest association of Catholic musicians, the National Association of Pastoral Musicians, continues to list twelve of Haas’s Mass compositions on its resource page here. I searched NPM’s website and two years of its Facebook posts and found little discussion of the Haas matter aside from two official notifications that, strangely, do not seem to formally disengage Haas from the organization as a member and presenter of its programs. By comparison, many dioceses have stronger statements and prohibitions.
This official told me that, in his opinion, some Catholic directors and musicians tend to continue using Haas’s service music—where the lyrics are taken from the Roman Missal—but have more reluctance about Haas’s own lyrics. As he put it, “If you didn’t know the man’s history, his songs wouldn’t be controversial. But if you knew the history, some of his music is deeply disturbing.” Consider these lyrics from “You Are Mine”:
I will come to you in the silence
I will lift you from all your fear
You will hear My voice
I claim you as My choice
Be still, and know I am near
I am hope for all who are hopeless
I am eyes for all who long to see
In the shadows of the night,
I will be your light
Come and rest in Me.
One need not be a Freudian psychoanalyst to parse out the multiple implications of this language to a vulnerable population, nor a theologian to see the impropriety of the congregation singing in the name of God. In case you have forgotten—and that is quite excusable in the current climate—we are supposed to sing hymns to God; we don’t sing in his name. [An aside here: in 2020 the USCCB issued “Catholic Hymnody at the Service of the Church: An Aid for Evaluating Hymn Lyrics.” I recommend this source for the dedicated reader, for it pinpoints theological and doctrinal errors in Church music currently in use.]
One issue of disengagement from the Haas repertoire is sheer logistics. As my wife is convalescing, I went to Mass this weekend at “my parish” where I pastored for a decade and still have old friends. I checked the parish’s congregational hymnal, a monster of a hard cover text copyrighted in 2011. Haas’s hymn music is contained in this GIA hardbound hymnal, and I can safely say that few churches turn over their hymnals very often—it is very expensive and most of the copies are memorialized—nor is there any pressing need to do so in ordinary circumstances. [My guess is that the same is true of the hymnal in the mega-parish I attend with my wife, and I will check when she is able to attend church again.] As I remarked to a liturgist, “I guess we’re not going to be ripping pages out of $50 hymnals anytime soon.” Oregon Press, which publishes the “throw-away missalette” format, had to apologize that its product for the following year—which included Haas music-- had already gone to press when the abuse issue became widely known.
I agree with my Café correspondent that the response to his question was “tone deaf.” I hope that the minister to whom he addressed the question will take to heart the seriousness of the issue. In hymnals with 500 songs, we do not need to sing material with a troubled history. I can say that in recent times I am seeing a renewed interest in reexamining the documents of Vatican II, including the document on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, which includes the role of music in the liturgy. In a week or two I will review Thomas Day’s Why Catholics Can’t Sing, which studies some of the mistakes in the development of church music after Vatican II, including the American development of the “four hymn sandwich” [Entrance Hymn, Offertory, Communion, Closing Hymn] which has veered us away from singing the psalms, for example, or singing in Latin, which contrary to popular belief, was never eradicated from the Mass after the Council.
As my wife and I are fortunate enough to travel, we are aware that church music is so diversified now that there is little or no sense of musical commonality between churches, a curious state of affairs for a Church professing itself to be “One.” It may be that a generation from now there is more attention to the unity of the Church in song with a weeding of the field to a repertoire of music that is doctrinally sound, easily sung by congregations, Biblical [i.e., Psalms] and intimately connected to the action of the sacraments, particularly the Eucharist. Conceivably such a new ensemble might be multi-lingual—Latin, English, Spanish, for example. For the moment, I am sad to say that three components of worship are greatly in need of overhaul: music formats and choir monopolies which discourage congregational involvement, poor preaching, and architecture which makes visual involvement with the action of the altar invisible to anyone past the third pew, and notably obstructs children. [Sacraments are, after all, outward signs!]
It occurs to me, too, that the Synodal sharing would have been an excellent opportunity to raise such issues. Regrettably, Synod participation was not embraced in many parishes, including the one my wife and I attend on most weekends. But it would be my hope that any thoughtful Catholic would follow the example of our Café correspondent and raise concerns about the celebration of the Mass and the other sacraments.
In about two weeks I will provide a lengthy review of Thomas Day’s Why Catholics Can’t Sing [the 2013 edition]. But don’t wait—get your own copy now. It is available in hardcopy and Kindle, but I recommend the former so you will have places to jot your exclamation points. It is an acerbic but funny critique of our present Mass music. It is the only book someone ever threw at me.