03 July 2014

George Weigel Briefly Awakes, Groggily Moans, and Falls Back Asleep

I escaped the dreadful regime of novus ordo hymn-ditties nearly a decade ago, but am still interested in sending in messages of hope to those trapped inside (Think: Patrick Swayze and Charlie Sheen's trip to talk to their father in the drive-in-turned-prison-camp in Red Dawn, prompting Harry Dean Stanton's character to defiantly scream, "BOYS, AVENGE ME, AVENGE ME!!!").

Thus, you may imagine my initial delight in seeing an article by George Weigel, of all people, with the title Heretical Hymns, with an undertitle that suggests they should be eliminated. Knowing better than to hope too much, and as a service to you, the reader, I read the article. Yes, it was too much to hope for.

Instead of actually examining the real crisis of "Catholic" vernacular hymns-- that they are an inorganic fabrication dating to 1969 and should be banished from the Mass according to even the conciliar documents themselves-- he just sort of disses some songs he doesn't like.

And, so you couldn't possibly get the wrong idea, he spends much time reassuring the reader that he loves loves loves hymns, the n.o., Luther and his ilk, and all that sad trap, so don't tell the Pope he's a trad. Or something like that.

For classic Lutheran theology, hymns are a theological "source:" not up there with Scripture, of course, but ranking not-so-far below Luther's "Small Catechism." Hymns, in this tradition, are not liturgical filler. Hymns are distinct forms of confessing the Church's faith. Old school Lutherans take their hymns very seriously.

Most Catholics don't. Instead, we settle for hymns musically indistinguishable from "Les Mis" and hymns of saccharine textual sentimentality. Moreover, some hymn texts in today's Catholic "worship resources" are, to put it bluntly, heretical. Yet Catholics once knew how to write great hymns; and there are great hymns to be borrowed, with gratitude, from Anglican, Lutheran, and other Christian sources. There being a finite amount of material that can fit into a hymnal, however, the first thing to do is clean the stables of today's hymnals.

There are great hymns to be borrowed, with gratitude, from the heretical sects? Great. Can you "borrow" some Gregorian chant instead? Or perhaps some of the great polyphonic Catholic sacred music from some of the greatest composers not named Cat Stevens?

Sorry, but the first thing is not to "clean the stables of today's hymnals". It is to make a mountainous pile of them and, Savonarola-like, burn them with wild celebration.

Weigel continues: The first hymns to go should be hymns that teach heresy. Thanks, George. A bold call. But why have they been included in Catholic hymnals for fifty soul-killing years? Any connection with the banishment of the ancient Mass or Vatican II? No, don't worry, you and your friends at the Register assure us it is pure coincidence. We just need more time to experience the fruits of the Council!

Next to go should be those "We are Jesus" hymns in which the congregation (for the first time in two millennia of Christian hymnology) pretends that it's Christ.. Yes, they are dreadful, George. But be careful or you'll be sacrificed on the altar of the common priesthood of the faithful.

Then there are hymns that have been flogged to death, to the point where they've lost any evocative power.. May I suggest, Mr. Weigel, that it isn't the repetition of dung-production that gives it its unpleasant odor?

Well, the article in toto is basically this: "These deck chairs don't belong here-- place them near the Titanic's rail." Commentary such as this might have done some good in 1970. It seems a bit late, and a bit weak, now.


Anonymous said...

I'm going to push back a bit against this. (“somebody who agrees with you 80% of the time is an 80% friend not a 20% enemy” and all that.)

A lot of people have never given serious thought to the appropriateness of certain liturgical music. I know I didn't for a long time. I knew on an instinctive level that there was something about the music that wasn't right but, hey, it's right there in the hymnal, and the choirfolk are some of the most sincere, hardworking people in the parish and they seem to love the music, and I just didn't have the vocabulary to articulate that whatever you think of 'Lord of the Dance', maybe it's not fit for the sacred liturgy.

George just gave a lot of those people food for thought and permission to be more discriminating.

Baby steps.


Jane Chantal said...

Timman, you've made my day with this :-D

I so agree. Except that I can live with the finger-poppin' hootenanny stuff and the saccharine Human Be-in stuff being restricted to Protestant campfire sing-alongs.

My bonfire, otoh, is kept in readiness for gangsta rap, lyrics that promote sexual sin, and the Plastic Ono Band.

Athelstane said...

To quote Pope St. Pius X, in his landmark encyclical, Tra le sollicitudini (1903):

Sacred music, because it is an integral part of the liturgy [la musica sacra, come parte integrante della solenne Liturgia], participates in the same general purpose of this solemn liturgy, that is: the glory of God and the sanctification and edification of the faithful. It enhances the beauty and splendor of the ceremonies of the Church. Since its chief function is to clothe with suitable melody the liturgical text presented for the understanding of the faithful, its own proper end is to make the text more meaningful for them.

Note that: It is the texts themselves which are "clothed" - in short, we are to sing the Mass, rather than sing at Mass. His prescription might not quite amount to a total ban on hymns, but it is clear what should be normative. Sing the Mass, which means chant the Mass.

Weigel, on the other hand, gets it half right. He clearly sees that many of the hymns being sung today are deeply problematic (banal at best, heretical at worst), and this constitutes real progress. No question that the best hymnody from Anglican and Lutheran traditions (filtering out the theologically problematic ones) would be a giant step forward for the great majority of parishes - then again, so would running a vacuum cleaner. But the lack of any mention of chant is very disappointing, especially since even Vatican II gave it pride of place.

Of course, the argument I have heard offered - and I suspect Weigel subscribes to it - is that, on the whole, it is a much easier task getting a parish to move from bad hymns to good ones than it is to move mostly or entirely away from hymns altogether. It is a bigger shift of mindset to chant the Mass. Chant setting resources in the vernacular are also hard to come by - shamefully, are only coming available now, five decades after Sacrosanctum Concilium and Musicam Sacram - as are trained choristers who know chant.
Of course, it's obvious there are other, deeper objections, but given that those who object to chant are likely to offer just as much opposition to something like what is found in an Adoremus Hymnal as they are chant, one might as well start multiplying regular Mass offerings which really make the effort to fully incorporate chant rather than a "better" four hymn sandwich, and increase the general exposure to it.

St. Corbinian's Bear said...

I was struck today that even the older hymns we consider stalwarts could just as easily be singing the praises of Baal the Storm God as Yahweh. As for the H&H showtunes, they are at least entertaining -- to the Bear, anyway -- when sung in only slightly exagerrated enthusiasm.