One of my favorite discussions is on the topic of modern liturgy and the supposed rise of the heresy of pelagianism. Supposedly, Vatican II liturgical reforms have gone astray. We’ve arrived to the point where the emphasis on the laity has induced a certain extreme horizontality to the Mass. We are in danger, the theory goes, from too much emphasis on ourselves instead of God. Cardinal Arinze and many others have harped on this in recent years. I think it’s bunk. Let me explain why.
First, let’s clarify what is meant by pelagianism. It was a philosophy developed by a monastic, supposedly, who taught that human beings, through asceticism, good works, and personal discipline, could achieve salvation. Jesus is significant, not so much for his sacrifice, but for his role as a moral teacher. St Augustine, St Jerome and others vehemently strove against it in their day.
The charge of heresy is a serious one. Lots of St Bloggers like to label people who think differently as “heretics.” It’s become a euphemism for “something I don’t like.” It’s sort of like using profanity. After a while it loses shock value. Taking a percentage of believers, say 96%, and labelling them as heretics, therefore non-Catholics, strikes me as a convenient way of doing theological business. “I can’t find a reasoned and charitable way to continue this discussion, so I’m just going to label you a heretic and declare myself a winner.”
I think the use of heresy as a general application to a trend is possibly more dangerous. While I do believe there is heresy out there and there are heretics among us, an overuse of the term permits heretics and heresy to hide more conveniently. Cluttering up the ideological landscape with accusations does more to thwart the cause of truth than help it.
So when people complain about singing “I am the Bread of Life,” I have to chalk it up to a matter of personal taste. “Voice of God” songs have been with us long before Vatican II. The development of more Scripture-based songs after the council also saw many of God’s Biblical words put into the mouths of soloists, choirs, and even the pew people. Do we trust Biblical literacy to inform our people we’re singing quotes or paraphrases from Scripture? Or are we going to be literalists about it?
Pelagius was known for his asceticism. My understanding of history suggests he thought personal responsibility for good works was grounded in a life with hard or harsh impositions. I don’t think you can call people pelagians or label their trends by picking and choosing among the movement’s traits. I can applaud many things in the post-conciliar Church. But I wouldn’t say that asceticism is a mainstream hallmark.
I will say that parish music repertoire can be unbalanced. I’ve looked the whole of the repertoire in each of my last two parishes. We examine carefully the balance of songs and psalms. We make sure that our people are presented with a mix of healthy and appropriate texts. They sing “Take and eat; take and drink…” to remind themselves of Jesus’ words. But they also sing their songs directly to God, “You satisfy the hungry heart …” and “O God, I seek you; my soul thirsts for you …” and even talk about God in the second person, “I will bless the Lord at all times …” or even “Glory to God in the highest …”
I believe some music directors have not watched the big picture of repertoire carefully enough. But I have a very hard time with accusations carelessly flung out at composers, even the ones whose work I dislike. Perhaps there are some composers who have gotten stuck in a particular voice or narrow expression. Perhaps parish music people get stuck in a rut, or go back to the same well all the time. I don’t think that’s a flaw of heresy, but one of imagination, if not motivation.
So let’s dispense with calling Tom Conry and others pelagianistic for putting the words, “We are called, we are chosen” into our mouths. Isn’t enough that he asks us “In what can we stand justified, in whom can we believe?” and then give us the answer to sing? I don’t think the song has the legs to take us deep into the 21st century, so let it die with dignity rather than sully the situation by making groundless accusations we can’t prove.