The standard parish wisdom is that, so long as a song says something about God, or at least ourselves qua Christians, and does not brazenly declare any obvious heresies, then it qualifies as "sacred music". The minimalism of these criteria is sometimes stringently enforced, so that all other criteria are dismissed as "impositions of taste,"--a kind of liturgical positivism, since we have not yet discovered how to scientifically measure reverence.
The following are my guide-posts to, well, basically whether or not I get worked up about bad music at Mass.
- Singing a song of ourselves.
God should have an obvious primacy of place in the actual message of the hymn. Importantly, I mean God-as-Other, not ourselves-as-Body-of-Christ, which is not the same thing. Now, this does not necessarily exclude songs which mention our activity more frequently than they mention God. A clear example would be a recent hymn I heard at the monastery, which exhorted us to ask God's blessing on our daily work, and it described that work at great length.
[Edit: Upon further reflection, even though a single hymn might legitimately favor talking about our activity--such as the entrance hymn--it should probably be limited to one. A string of songs "mostly about us," even if not bad individually, make the Mass overly self-absorbed.]
The "violators" may incidentally mention God more often, but only to banish him into shadows of our own activity, make him coextensive with that activity, or relegate God to one actor among ourselves. The key to this principle is a firm emphasis on transcendence, without which our immanent significance is nil.
(a) God is ultimately the focus of our attention [even if other things are mentioned], so we should avoid excessive introspection,
(b) God is the initiator of our works, worship, and sanctification, so we should avoid semi-Pelagianism (the idea that grace starts with our free choices).
(c) God's singular, objective call to Caritas and incarnational saving work in Christ is the true principle of our unity; no other impetus to unity can substitute--not justice, not peace, not mission, not welcoming or hospitality, not even the immanent desire for unity itself. These are consequences of the true unity, not causes--if made into causes, they are counterfeit.
(d) God is the goal for which our lives are given and destined, so we should avoid singing a mere worldly eschatology.
(e) God is ineffable mystery which yet condescends to us in grace, so we should avoid Hegelianism (reducing God being or activity to our activity, e.g., prayer, social justice, gathering, etc.)
- "Supper" at the total expense of "Sacrifice"
People living in the years after Vatican II must have been really excited to discover that the Eucharist's meaning was not limited to oblation, sacrifice, and atonement--because their songwriters went promptly to work eliminating those qualities from Catholic worship altogether (lending credence to Peter Burger's claim that modern Catholics are experts at excluding the middle).
I will say it plainly: I do not believe that any Eucharistic hymn can exclude the sacrificial dimension without irrepairably distorting the essence of the Last Supper, whose significance is rooted in Christ's saving atonement on the cross; not vice-versa. Yes, it is God's love for his children, from the beginning of Creation, that brings Christ to the cross in the first place. But the apostles are "no longer slaves, but friends" precisely in view of the fact that they will all partake of the same cup of the martyrdom of Christ. There is no banquet without the cross; there is no friendship without suffering; and let's not fool ourselves--there is nobody in those pews whose daily pains accrue any meaning when we pooh-pooh them with a damn picnic.
That said, I have no problem with hymns that tend to focus on the banquet aspect of the Eucharist--which, after all, is our final hope that we must always keep in view. Depending on the context, I might be satisfied if a hymn only bothers to include reference to the bread being "broken," which itself has wonderful sacrificial significance (even if it doesn't jibe perfectly with the point that none Christ's bones were broken--hey, his life was). But there are hymns whose hostility to sacrifice practically screams underneath the veil of vapid smiles and token hugs... I'm looking at you, Table of Plenty!
- The nefarious "voice of God"
Contemporary songs have an irritating habit of employing the "voice of God"--giving God's words to the congregation to sing. This is especially disfunctional when the words are not a quote from Scripture, presumptuously ascribing to God our own words. Whether the text is Biblical or not, this interrupts prayer because it is not prayer--it is pretend, and it wobbles on the precarious edge of parody. Who, in their private prayer, pretends to be God? Who, in ordinary conversation, speaks as if he was his conversation partner? The partner would rightfully be confused, if not offended.
Singing "God's lines" is not a legitimate expression of the presence of God in each of us, because that presence is manifested instead through our humility, praise, thanks, and obedience to God--just as Christ did in his earthly ministry. Nor is it an authentic expression of the dialogic quality of the liturgy, because this dynamic is effected by the dialogue between the congregation and the celebrant, who is a sacramental presence of Christ as the head to the body.
The liturgical, symbolic significance of the congregation singing the "voice of God" is, ironically, the silencing of God--of God as Other, as distinct from our own voices and as the object of our worship. When we sing as if we were God, we cease to be in dialogue with God and instead engage in mimicry and monologue.
- The triumphalist indicative.
The indicative voice gives a phrase the character of unqualified statement. Thus there are a plethora of reasons to avoid indicative statements about our own good works, eschatological destiny, or sacramental status. First is the fact that not everybody in the congregation will be singing the truth about themselves; unbaptized guests are not (yet), per Catholic faith, the Body of Christ; similar crimes of logic occur when ecumenical services sing "One Spirit, One Church". Second is the fact that, given the prevalence of sin and evil in the world, and in our own hearts, there is absolutely no excuse for self-preening at the Mass. Whether it is "we" or "I," songs that declare us holy before God reek of the insidious self-praise of the Pharisee (Luke 18:11-12).
This principle is not, strictly speaking, a denial that there is great good in the worshipping community. But liturgical prayer, if it is a radical imitation of Christ, cannot praise itself before the Father--not even to acknowledge its objective merits ("Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone" [Mark 10:18]).
A comparison between OCP's "Today's Missal - Music Issue" and the hymnal included in the back of the one-volume "Christian Prayer" reveals a marked difference between traditional and modern hymns. Modern hymns are in love with indicative proclamations about our status as Christians; none of them wrong, per se, but always exceedingly positive--"We Are the Body of Christ," "We are the light of the world," "we are one body in this one Lord," "You and I are the bread of life," "we come as gift to you..." Now, what is striking about all of this is not so much that any of it contradicts Catholic theology as such--but the sheer absence of it from traditional Catholic hymnody.
In 200 pages of hymns in Christian Prayer, there is hardly ever an indicative statement about us. Not only are the lion's share of hymns about God, Christ, God's work in Christ, (whether in the second or third person), but the few hymns that do mention us are exhortatory ("Now Thank We All Our God"), confessional ("Firmly I believe and truly God is three and God is one"), penitential ("We have not loved you"), or subjunctive ("That I may love the things you love").
Implicit in this consistency on the part of traditional hymns is the principle that we do not name ourselves in the liturgy. If we are made into the Body of Christ by the sacraments, it is God, and God alone who does so. Exalting ourselves through song--even if we give technically correct names; even if we exalt ourselves as 'People of God' rather than "I, me"--is tantamount to reclining "at table in the place of honor" (Luke 14:8).
- The congregationalist "we" vs the individualistic (?) "I".
If Henri de Lubac's book Catholicism is any indication, there was probably a widespread pre-Vatican II opinion that Catholicism was too individualistic--given it's focus on individual sins and guilt, individual means to salvation through the sacraments, etc. The fact that traditional hymns and the official liturgical prayers all favored the word "I" rather than "we" (true even of the official Latin prayers today!) perhaps further fostered this notion.
Thus it is understandable, perhaps, after Vatican II, that 'Catholic individualism' was the new bugbear among liturgical reformers... as evinced by the clerical movement imposing the practice of holding hands during the "Our Father" upon congregations, and the virtual erradication of the word "I" from modern Catholic hymns. Apparently, there is no 'I' in "Church" (except, of course, when priests' homilies consist in long personal life stories).
Yet what has been the effect of the now dominant "we" in Catholic hymns? I fear it has not got us as far as celebrating Catholic universalism, as much as it has turned individualism into congregationalism. Most modern gathering hymns take no note of the connection between 'this Mass' and the One Mass; some of them, in fact, deliberately isolate the Mass into "this place" - "Here, the cup we raise: here, in this holy place;" "...and the Spirit that is here in this place;" "What is this place, where we are meeting?" "Here in this place, new light is streaming..."
There is an irony in all of this, that in the transition from the singular to the plural, we have slipped from the old Catholic sense that "I am taking part in universal mysteries of salvation" to the congregationalist sense that "We are having ourselves quite a hootenanny." What was once an point of access to a globe-spanning (and world-transcending) truth has become a provincial, placenta-like bubble of local influence.
Is it possible that the "I" of those old hymns and in the Roman Rite does not mean what the reformers thought it meant--a self-absorbed individualism? I had always believed as much, before I even knew what it actually meant. The General Instruction of the Liturgy of the Hours is clear: "Where possible, the principal Hours should be celebrated communally in church by other groups of the faithful." And yet, in the same book, the prayer begins, "God, come to my assistance." It seems we have a contradiction! My thought-process moved as follows: "Did they make a mistake? It seems an awfully stupid mistake to be printed again and again. Is the commission that assembled this book full of idiots? I severely doubt it! Therefore, there must be some reason behind the use of the singular." Originally I believed it was simply meant to retain a faithful rendition of the Psalm texts used to structure the liturgy; and that was good enough for me.
Only two years ago did I learn that that was not the reason behind the singular "help me." Fr. Douglas Martis, the Director of the Liturgical Institute at Mundelein, explained to us the concept of liturgical solidarity--the "I" in the liturgy is not "me, myself" but "I" the Body, "I" the Church, "I" Israel. For more on the ancient (!) 'singular solidarity' see this great article by Fr. Charles Miller, CM