Review and Commentary "Why Catholics Can't Sing" by Thomas Day--Part 2Read Now
Sometimes research is pure luck. I was doing some academic legwork for a group in my wife’s parish which was planning an in-depth study of the documents of Vatican II. I was looking for a summary of the documents with group discussion questions and reflections, and I came across Edward P. Hahnenberg’s  A Concise Guide to the Documents of Vatican II. An aside: this was the first book I downloaded to my brand new 7-ounce Kindle, and boy, is that device easy on arthritic hands. And, I should add, this is a fine study guide for individuals and groups attempting to break open the conciliar documents on this, the 60th anniversary of the opening of Vatican.
Hahnenberg offers an overview of all sixteen documents, including Inter Mirifica, “Decree on Mass Media,” promulgated in November 1963. IM has been considered the weakest of all the Vatican II documents. Wikipedia puts it best: “The document's immediate reception was fairly negative. The document was heavily criticized for falling short of expectations, as well as failing to provide any new or different thoughts or instructions on social communications. At the close of the Council, in a brief assessment of the documents it had produced, The New York Times said this text had been ‘generally condemned as inadequate and too conservative.’ These sentiments have been the long-standing memories of the document, with these sentiments continuing 40 years following the decree.” [Wikipedia, Inter Mirifica]
But in writing for a twenty-first century audience, Hahnenberg retrieves contemporary issues that Inter Mirifica could only dimly perceive, notably the influence of television, and he makes a remarkable observation for twenty-first century Catholics to consider. “It is not just what we watch on television, but how we watch it that influences us. Television and other technologies have trained us to a certain way of responding to everything else in our lives—including our religious faith. Thus, the minimal demands that television makes on the viewer transforms us into passive “viewers” at church. The inescapable din of advertising trains us to treat the sacraments like consumer goods. The overwhelming amount of choice made possible by the Internet leads us to expect a variety of options in the moral sphere. The individualism reinforced through personal digital assistants and other technologies can weaken our appreciation for church community.” [Hahnenberg, Loc 2564 Kindle]
This is heavy stuff. Hahnenberg takes the reflection far beyond the matter of singing liturgical music—which was not his primary target at any rate—but I believe that Thomas Day in his Why Catholics Can’t Sing  would find common ground that the reform of Church music after Vatican II, particularly in the past thirty years or thereabouts, has morphed from a drive for eager and full-throated singing of everything that is not bolted down to a more passive acceptance, or at least toleration, of a now-aging repertoire. Further, while it is hard to gather analytical information, I get the sense that where church music is concerned, English-speaking congregations take the music like they take their TV, as a passive entertainment of sorts and make their judgments about music based upon what they like. In fairness, there has been no concerted educational effort to provide the faithful with other purposes for singing.
I devoted an entire day to tracking down research on attitudes toward liturgical music—to find out if in fact more parishioners are listening to the Mass music than singing it--and regrettably, I have little hard data to show for my labors. [Shakespeare said that “knowledge maketh a bloody entrance.” He might have added that “knowledge maketh an expensive entrance” to a little old researcher like me trying to access the full reports of professional studies.] But to be frank, there is neither the money nor the enthusiasm within the institutional Church to assess the status of church music in American pews at the present time. As with the Synodality process, there is reluctance to go out looking for unwelcome news if that is what you expect to find. But the problem is bigger than that. To be sure, there are a decent number of sociological studies on American Catholicism, but what I gleaned from several commentators is the difficulty of analyzing the quality of a parish’s music program. One researcher explained it this way. When a bishop makes his annual visitation to a parish, usually for Confirmation, he has at his fingertips a set of metrics—the financial books, the sacramental tallies, attendance, etc. However, there are no such metric for music, as in how many people sing. The bishop’s assessment, if he ventures one, is based upon his anecdotal impressions of the liturgy he celebrates that day.
I should point out that professional researchers from institutes like PEW or CARA, to name a few, are continuing to study the Church from a sociological vantage point—why people depart, where they stand on “hot-button political issues,” and of course PEW’s famous/infamous recent study of the percentage of Catholics who believe in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. But as a rule, researchers do not know how to analyze the existential musical experience of Mass for its participants. Day points out several critical unanswered questions about the celebration of Mass that deserve critical attention, alongside his obvious interests in liturgical music. In his 2013 edition, Day addresses the persona of the priest celebrant, pointing out correctly the schizophrenic role that the priest has been expected to assume over the past several generations. On the one hand, he is a mystical leader of the solemn ritual of the memorial of Christ’s redemptive act—a drama that should draw us up and out of ourselves as surely as the great dramas Aristotle describes in his pre-Christian classic The Poetics. We fail to appreciate that our Catholic brethren who embrace the Tridentine Rite of the Mass [the Mass of Pope Pius V promulgated in 1570, the rite which preceded Vatican II] are acting in good faith in keeping alive this transcendental experience of the Mass, and their voice is important.
On the other hand, since Vatican II the priest has been asked to preside over a living, breathing collection of the Baptized. I was trained to celebrate Mass in those early years after the Council and to engage my personality in joining the community together as best I could. Priests of my generations were trained to be socially conscious of the people in front of us. The downside of this is an informality that exaggerates the celebrant’s personality. Day gives the quite common example of the opening of Mass, where the congregation begins with a solemn hymn to God, and then the celebrant opens his mouth to say, “Good morning, everybody.” Day’s argument boils down to the point that you cannot have an “informal ritual,” because it only creates confusion for the people, and by extension creates an uncertain atmosphere in which to select and execute the music of the Mass. Are we celebrating our weekend collectiveness or are we raised to a higher plane of divine encounter? There is an element of “squaring the circle” here. A major part of the problem here is a collective failure to study what the Council said about the meaning of the Mass and music in the liturgy in its teaching Sacrosanctum Concilium (especially paras. 112-121). I will address that in a future post.
Researchers have been unsuccessful, overall, in developing a method for determining congregational sentiment and experience of music in the Mass, or for the sum experience of the Mass itself. Even CARA’s standard research template for parish analysis devotes only one question on parish music out of ninety-nine items. Day’s book cites The Notre Dame Study of Catholic Parish Life [1984-89] which, although dated, is possibly the best attempt to examine how Catholics feel about their experience of Mass, and it is by far the most exhaustive, as over one-thousand parishes participated. Regarding liturgical music, the ND study found that “37% of those who responded expressed dissatisfaction with the music in their parishes; 40% were dissatisfied with the singing.” One of the authors of the study, Dr. Mark Searle, would later write of the study in the journal Worship “that the observers sometimes found a lack of conviction about the role and purpose of liturgical music…Rarely was there an atmosphere of deeply prayerful involvement [through liturgical music].” [Day 2013, p. 97]
To actively dislike one’s parish music, as I must admit is often my stance, is one thing. There is a lot of territory between “dislike” and “actively engaging.” There is toleration and there is passively enjoying, and neither was the hope of the Council fathers who wrote Sacrosanctum Concilium. In my next post in this stream, I will focus on the precise language of both the Vatican II teaching and the 2008 document from the U.S. Bishops, “Sing to the Lord: Music in Divine Worship.” Reviewing this material, I am reminded of my father’s oft repeated advice: “Read the instructions first.”
I would close with a clip I discovered in US Catholic magazine, a reader’s response to an article on Church music: "Most people in the United States no longer experience creating music (rather than listening to it) as an integral part of their lives and family celebrations, either with a piano or another instrument at home or in a neighbor's house. We don't have a sense that everyone can sing, just like everyone can cook. Many of us outsource singing at liturgy just like we outsource cooking."
Outsourcing the liturgical singing—what a turn of a phrase!
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