Only the most myopic would deny that a kind of mushroom cloud has covered the Catholic Church for the past half-century. A small, but quite significant, part of that spiritual nuclear winter has been the profound collapse of Sacred Music.
Votaries of the “spirit of Vatican II” (in today’s au courant vernacular, “the New Paradigm”) knew well the power of music in liturgy. If their “reimagining” of Christianity was to settle its roots deeply in the souls of Catholics, music was the key. They learned well the perennial wisdom of Plato when he wrote in The Republic, “Musical training is a more potent instrument than any other, because rhythm and harmony find their way into the inward places of the soul.”
Or Aristotle in The Politics:
[E]motions of any kind are produced by melody and rhythm; therefore, by music a man becomes accustomed to feeling the right emotions; music has thus the power to form character, and various kinds of music based on the various modes, may be distinguished by their effects on character—one, for example, working in the direction of melancholy, another of effeminacy, one encouraging abandonment, another self-control, another enthusiasm, and so on through the series.
Almost 800 years later, Boethius echoed these great giants of natural wisdom when he wrote, “Music can both establish and destroy morality. For no path is more open to the soul for the formation thereof than through the ears.”
Added to these, they observed the great success that Arius enjoyed in winning the masses by composing hymns. Whole populations found themselves praising the Arian Christ, no longer God, but only like God. Stevedores sang these Arian hymns as they loaded cargo on ships anchored in the harbors of Alexandria, Carthage, or Thessalonica. In this way, Arius’ poisonous heresy swept over fourth-century Catholicism like a mighty tidal wave. So swift was this heretical deluge that it prompted the now famous, albeit terrifying, lament of St. Jerome, “The world awoke and found itself Arian.”
For all these reasons, we could justifiably add to the venerable theological axiom lex orandi, lex credendi a new one: lex cantandi, lex credendi. Or, more idiomatically, “We begin to believe, the way that we sing.” When Catholics in a typical parish are served lounge music instead of sacred music, their souls suffer a kind of dry rot. They experience not the “fear and trembling” of Calvary but only the wispy breezes of the musical theater. This is no longer religion but vaudeville. Worse still, when the music descends to mimicking the rock concert, the soul undergoes a proportionate excitation. And not to divine things.
If a Catholic denied traditional music is not allowed to be struck to the depths by the likes of “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence” or Franck’s “Panis Angelicus,” then he is left to be drowned beneath the indulgent waves of sentimentality. The former hymns steel the soul for supernatural contest, the latter for mindless self-absorption.
Sacred Music is the indispensable instrument of the Holy Spirit in leading souls in their march toward Heaven: it is gravity and solemnity wrapped in the stunning beauty that only music can offer.
Looking at music in general, or sacred music more particularly, we see two principles at work. One has to do with simply being human, the other, with being a Catholic. Both reasons go directly to the soul of man and his civilization. For those who think narrowly, music in Church is a kind of mood setter, cute but irrelevant. An ampler mind recognizes that music acts like an earthquake upon the soul, unleashing powerful forces for good or ill.
On a purely natural level, music is the sheen that glistens over life’s quotidian dreariness. It is a part of beauty. Without beauty, man’s life becomes flat and self-absorbed. Music lifts man’s soul out of its prosaic circumstance and sends it soaring to heights it would not know without it. Or depths. Music’s power is so potent that it can arouse passions able to perform heroic actions or debased ones.
Almost twenty years ago, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey decided to play only soft classical music throughout its Manhattan Bus Depot because psychologists had proven it would lower crime. On the other hand, nightclub owners know to play loud, percussive music, piquing the passions and producing the emotional abandon that sells liquor and facilitates sexual license. No human heart is exempt from racing to the stanzas of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” or any march of John Philip Sousa. Music has its own grammar and vocabulary. Differences of language, age, and race cannot impede its impact.
Once again, such an impact was duly noted by Plato. In The Republic, he teaches, “No change can be made in styles of music without affecting the most important conventions of society.” It was exactly for this reason that he forbade music in his Republic. As Michael Linton expresses, Plato spoke brilliantly to this subject when he taught that “music does not merely depict qualities and emotional states but embodies them.” A performer singing (or a hearer listening) “about the rage of Achilles, for instance, would not only be depicting the emotional states of anger and violence and the personal qualities of Homer’s hero, but he would be experiencing those things himself.”
In 1570, France’s Charles IX created the Académie de Poésie et de Musique. In his lettres patents, the King declared,
[I]t is of great importance for the morals of the citizens of a town that the music current in the country should be kept under certain laws, all the more so because men conform themselves to music and regulate their behavior accordingly, so that whenever music is disordered, morals are also depraved and whenever it is well ordered, men are well-tutored.
Music is not only integral to a full human life, but it possesses the power to shape human life. Though Plato expresses it with philosophical brio, each one of us already knows this. One need only consult your own experience.
Thus, sacred music builds civilization and ennobles character. It does, however, even more. When music is composed to honor the Blessed Trinity at Holy Mass, it is called Sacred. Under that purpose, music consummates its highest end. It not only brings man to the heights of beauty; it brings man to Beauty Itself, Almighty God. Man is never so intoxicated than when he is surrounded by Sacred Music. This music transforms him and pierces man’s soul to the core of his being. Often, it produces a contrition so profound that a man’s life can take a wholly different course.
St. Augustine attests to this in Book IX of The Confessions: “How I wept to hear your hymns and songs, deeply moved by the voices of Your sweetly singing Church! Their voices penetrated my ears, and with them, truth found its way into my heart; my frozen feeling for God began to thaw, tears flowed and I experienced joy and relief.”
On these grounds, Mother Church has encouraged the most exquisite Sacred Music known to man. Not only that, she has felt it her grave obligation to protect it. The stakes could not be higher. Man’s soul hangs in the balance. If the music is wrong, the teaching of the Church will be wrong, and men will go wrong. So it is that in this century the popes have devoted such energy in defining and carefully regulating the conduct of Sacred Music. They also appreciated the corrupting forces in the last hundred years militating against dogmatic truth and trumpeting sentimentalized subjectivism.
It was this awareness that clearly inspired Pope St. Pius X to promulgate his masterpiece on sacred music: Tra Le Sollecitudini, whose one-hundredth anniversary Pope John Paul II honored with an appropriate tribute. In that document, Pope St. Pius X taught that the three properties of Sacred Music are universality, goodness of form,and holiness. He declared that those properties are perfectly fulfilled in the Gregorian Chant of the Church. They also become the paradigm of all Sacred Music. They raise it above the idiosyncratic in cultural forms (universality), possess the high marks of the grand music of the ages (goodness of form), and excite in souls a hunger for God (holiness).
Pope St. Pius X teaches, “The Church has constantly condemned everything frivolous, vulgar, trivial and ridiculous in sacred music—everything profane and theatrical both in the form of the compositions and in the manner in which they are executed by the musicians. Sancta sancte, holy things in a holy manner” (Tra Le Sollecitudini, # 13).
The Church’s Sacred Music are the wings that carry Christ into man’s soul. Remember that when you hear choirs singing the jewels of the Church’s treasury of Sacred Music. You are witness to a great moment. Culture is being changed, and starved souls are being filled with God.
Victor Hugo once remarked that a man has the power to make of his soul a sewer or a sanctuary. Music does too.
Author: Fr. John A. Perricone, Ph.D., is an adjunct professor of philosophy at Iona College in New Rochelle, New York. His articles have appeared in St. John’s Law Review, The Latin Mass, New Oxford Review and The Journal of Catholic Legal Studies.