This is the first of two articles by the chairman of the diocesan Liturgical Commission about a recent document from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops on evaluating hymn lyrics. CLICK HERE to read the second article.
On Dec. 10, 2020, the Committee on Doctrine of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops released a short document entitled, “Catholic Hymnody at the Service of the Church: An Aid for Evaluating Hymn Lyrics.”
“What is it?”
This 12-page document (plus six pages of appendices and notes) clearly states its intention “to offer guidance and to heighten awareness of the doctrinal implications of hymn texts.”
Honestly, this Church document is an inspiring read. In the preface, it states the particular theological insight that drives this document to a great extent: “beauty and truth are convertible terms, and thus there is no competition, much less contradiction, between the two.”
In other words, Catholic hymns may have inspiring melodies, but unless the text also communicates the truth of the mystery of faith, they cannot be called beautiful. Beauty is constitutively related to truth.
For these reasons, the document asserts that Catholic hymn-writing and composing is not just a job, but both a “privilege and vocation” requiring “genuine artistry, industry, and fidelity.”
Quoting the Second Vatican Council’s constitution on liturgy, it states, “The texts intended to be sung must always be in conformity with Catholic doctrine; indeed they should be drawn chiefly from holy scripture and from liturgical sources” (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 121).
The bishops recognize “the power of music to reinforce the words that are sung by the people” and so they feel compelled to exercise their ministry of oversight to ensure the integrity of the faith in the beauty and poetry of song. To do this they put forth “two general guidelines for determining whether a hymn is doctrinally suitable for liturgical use:
1.) Is the hymn in conformity with Catholic doctrine?
2.) Is the hymn expressed in image and vocabulary appropriately reflective of the usage of Scripture and the public liturgical prayer of the Church?”
“How does this impact me?”
With the above guidelines in mind, the bishops on the committee reviewed “approximately 1,000 hymns composed and published mostly in the period 1980-2015” and developed six categories of potential deficiencies they found in some of those hymns.
In illustrating the six categories, they name some hymn texts found to be deficient in Catholic doctrine. While they didn’t intend to provide a complete black list or white list of bad or good hymns, the ones mentioned as deficient should no longer be used in Catholic worship or devotionals. The six deficiencies with their hymn examples are as follows:
1.) Deficiencies in the Presentation of Eucharistic Doctrine (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, nos. 1322-1419)
Vague or incorrect language on the Eucharist will not give the faithful “a basis to understand the Catholic belief that the Eucharistic elements can be worshipped because under their appearance is a wholly unique, substantial presence of Christ.”
Such hymns also “downplay or eliminate entirely reference to the sacrifice of Christ, His Priesthood, and His status as both priest and victim, as well as to the role of the ministerial Priesthood in the Church.” Examples of deficient hymns: “God is Here! As We His People”; “Now in This Banquet”; “All Are Welcome”; and “Let Us Break Bread Together on our Knees.”
2.) Deficiencies in the Presentation of Trinitarian Doctrine (cf. CCC, nos. 232, 234, 255)
Because the Church fought long and hard to hammer out a precise language regarding the Trinity, it is important to respect the fruits of that struggle. Sometimes, hymns try to avoid using “Father” or “Son” when naming the three persons, which can erroneously imply that only God the Father is “Creator” when that term can equally apply to all three persons; or only God the Son is “Source of Life” when it applies to all three, but perhaps especially to the Holy Spirit since the Creed names the Spirit “Lord and Giver of Life.” Examples in this category are, “The Play of the Godhead” and “Led by the Spirit.”
3.) Hymns with Deficiencies in the Doctrine of God and His Relation to Humans (cf. CCC, nos. 42-43, 203, 206, 212)
God is not dependent on humans and transcends humans, but He has also revealed Himself to humans and thus is knowable by reason and faith. To imply that we can know nothing of God is to deny that God has revealed Himself. The negative example given here is “God Beyond All Names.”
4.) Hymns with a View of the Church That Sees Her as Essentially a Human Construction (cf. CCC, nos. 770, 772, 766)
Like Christ, the Church is both human and divine, “born primarily from Christ’s total self-gift, anticipated in the institution of the Eucharist and fulfilled on the Cross.” Therefore, the Church (though composed, in part, of redeemed, yet still sinful humans) is not our work to create. Rather, her members are constantly in need of reform and renewal. Two negative examples are given here, “Sing a New Church” and “As a Fire is Meant for Burning.”
5.) Hymns with Doctrinally Incorrect Views of the Jewish People (cf. CCC, nos. 597-598; Nostra Aetate, no. 4)
The teaching of the Church is clear that all sinners are responsible for the passion and death of Christ and it is incorrect to blame the Jews indiscriminately. Unfortunate examples that do this include, “The Lord of the Dance” and “O Crucified Messiah.”
6.) Hymns with Incorrect Christian Anthropology (cf. CCC, nos. 400, 402, 405)
The negative example given here is verse 6 from “Canticle of the Sun,” which “teaches that death is natural and necessary for our life to have something at stake and thus be ‘real.’ In fact, it is the Resurrection of Christ that makes our life ‘real,’…Death is not a necessary part of human nature.”
“Who is responsible for judging which hymns we sing?”
Ultimately, our bishop, Bishop W. Shawn McKnight, has that responsibility, but without direct input from him, the pastor exercises that care. Any Catholic should feel free to approach his or her pastor in order to inquire or express concern about a given song.
If the pastor is not certain, he is welcome to contact me as chairman of the diocesan Liturgical Commission. It should be noted that while the bishops examined about 1,000 hymns, they expressly flagged only 12 hymns for concern.
The Bishops’ Committee on Doctrine has provided this set of guidelines to every bishop to assist him in presenting the fullness of our faith to us, especially when celebrating the Holy Eucharist.
None of us should want to be shorted on the truth, nor held back from an authentic experience of beauty in our Church.
The Committee has presented 12 negative examples, but in some ways the greater work remains for every diocese to ensure not simply that incorrect texts are avoided, but also that all aspects of any teaching is included.
Thus, it’s not enough to avoid Eucharistic hymns that portray the elements as merely bread and wine that make Christ present in some vague “spiritual” sense. We need to have hymns that also treat of sacrifice, altar, Priesthood, grace, sin, redemption, justification, etc.
In the next article, I’ll try to present our efforts in this diocese to do just that.
Fr. Merz is pastor of St. Thomas More Newman Center Parish in Columbia.
The second article in this series can be found HERE.