Mahrt Misses on the Three Judgments, Too

Since the post on William Mahrt’s critique of instruments was so popular, I thought I’d have a go with his misunderstanding of MCW’s Three Judgments and their retention in SttL. His whole essay is here. But here’s the relevant portion:

Music in Catholic Worship famously proposed three judgments: musical, liturgical, and pastoral, and even suggested by placing it first that the musical judgment was prior to the other two, though not final. It made a statement about the artistic quality of the music:

To admit the cheap, the trite, the musical cliché often found in popular songs for the purpose of “instant liturgy” is to cheapen the liturgy, to expose it to ridicule, and to invite failure.

This statement turned out to be prophetic, for who has not heard the cheap and trite regularly performed in the liturgy? Who would have thought that such a statement had been made 1972? The seeming priority of the musical judgment in the 1972 document was relegated to the dustbin before the ink was dry on it.

I think this is less prophetic than a statement of fact. The cheap and the trite were well-known in American Catholic liturgy in the years and decades prior to the Council. They continue to exist in places where music is not a priority of pastor or parish and where communities have declined to hire competent leadership.

That said, some clergy and communities fare pretty well. My pastor at the Newman Center (late 70’s) introduced MCW and its principles to the musical groups there. There was an emphasis on the liturgical judgment as opposed to programming songs the group leaders liked. We were encouraged to grow musically, to recruit good musicians in the university community, to attend workshops, to better ourselves as musicians and to improve our groups. All without a professional director. But what we lacked in talent, we were able to provide enthusiasm and a willingness to learn.

So nothing will change, because the present document denies the priority of any of the three judgments, placing the musical judgment last, devoting the least attention to it, and giving the criterion of excellence no more than the statement quoted above, this in a document ostensibly about music.

I think Dr Mahrt is too pessimistic here. Unlike Roman documents, in which the ordering of options is a priority, USCCB write-ups tend to be a little more loose.

I don’t know where Dr Mahrt learned his priorities or how he saw the Three Judgments applied in practice. From the late 70’s, my experience has been that any of the three judgments had a “veto” power over the others. That’s how it was introduced to me, and that’s how I’ve applied it since.

Great music that the people would like, but not liturgically appropriate? The judgment would be the same for Psalm 51 during Christmas, or a secular inspirational song. The former we would tell to return later, at the right time of the year, and the latter would be saved for something outside of liturgy.

Liturgically appropriate setting of something the people would like, but the music was poor? Go back to the drawing board for a better setting of the Mass or the Psalms.

Good music, and appropriate, but in a style the people would find difficult? Or asking them to sing something without rehearsal or preparation? Sorry. Find something they know.

If the bishops had put their heads together with musicians, I’m sure they could have developed case studies. The assumption behind MCW was that clergy and musicians and probably parishioners at-large would be working together on music selection for parish liturgies. Maybe that was too much optimism coming from 1972. But it’s not a bad approach, in my opinion.

Similarly, even though the document regularly uses terms like sacred music and sacred liturgy, there is practically nothing about what constitutes the sacred and its role in the liturgy. This would be, of course, a controversial topic, since so many of the styles now adopted into liturgical practice are blatantly secular. It seems that as long as the texts are acceptable, no judgments from this document will concern the acceptability of musical styles, however secular—until it comes to weddings and funerals.

Again, I think Mahrt is reading into MCW from his own negative experiences. I wouldn’t doubt that the musical judgment is deep-sixed in a lot of places. There just aren’t enough good musicians out there in parishes. I get the sense from many commentators that good music has been forced underground. I know from talking to colleagues that it’s just darned hard to find competent accompanists, singers with good cantor chops, not to mention priests looking for music people. Within twenty miles of my house, I know four parishes who have been advertising for a staff position for a long time.

I agree that bishops and pastors give very little guidance on matters sacred and secular. When musicians complain about it, my sense is to tell them to take a number: lots of other Catholics don’t get the guidance either.

The period of Western Early Music, acknowledged as rich with the development of musical styles, including its crown achievement, polyphony, was also a time in which secular styles were making their way into sacred music. I repeat my earlier contention that this is not necessarily a bad thing. The optimist in me considers it has great potential.

First, I have known many secular musicians develop a thriving ministry by coming to church and offering what they know. By and large, they come with open musical minds and are willing to adapt to the needs of liturgy. Most are very willing to put their music to task in the service of others.

Second, I think styles perceived as non-Catholic: Protestant hymnody, Gospel music infused with blues and jazz, and praise choruses have high potential in Catholic worship. Their fruitfulness in Christian worship, in some cases for centuries, cannot be denied. We should study why organ hymnody works, why the emotive strains of American Gospel styles have broad appeal, and explore what makes modern praise music tick. Sift through it, adapt it, utilize it as the inspiration of God. That’s how others see it.

Third, I have faith in the transformative power of Christ and the liturgy itself. Assuming the liturgical and pastoral judgments are in place, I don’t have a problem with secular styles in parish music. The pastoral judgment presumes an openness in the assembly to “different” music, and if there’s doubt, then I would say the judgment does not apply. The Church has a long history of being tough on paper with new music, but in practice, the Spirit’s inspiration has let a lot in from the side door.

And lastly, there’s always the wild hope that a musical style will be completely coopted by the sacred, sort of like how the organ was in antiquity. Or how polyphony went from being officially bad-mouthed by chant-only proponents to being in the silver medal spot just a few hundred years later.

Or perhaps you think differently. Bring on the comments!

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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7 Responses to Mahrt Misses on the Three Judgments, Too

  1. Liam says:

    Praise choruses: May God bless and keep them…far away from us!

    I am happy to report that parishes the explored them close to me abandoned them after a couple of years. I leave to others why they are not promising for Catholic worship.

    Appeal and ticking are not really the musical judgment.

    Now, Gospel music in its more restrained (less emotive) expressions has found some good use in Catholic liturgy – primarily as a worthy idiom for choral or cantoral psalm tones. Because Gospel music can be a form of cantillation – which is the root idiom of psalm tones.

  2. Todd says:

    Appeal and ticking cover all three judgments. The structure of the praise chorus is not dissimilar to antiphons or Taize refrains. The principle strikes me as identical: short Scripture-based pieces of music for ease of memorization and minimal music reading by the assembly.

  3. Liam says:

    And the effect tends to be quite different.

  4. Tony Neria says:

    On Palm Sunday, it is the tradition of my local Catholic Church to sing “Were You There” as the recessional song. This Negro Spiritual based on the simple pentatonic scale speaks to us from deep within our hearts. The melody is simple and makes sense to our western ears. When it is sung, not a soul leaves the pews early.

    In studying Gregorian Chant, it is interesting to note that many medieval folk songs and other secular compositions were adapted from church melodies and the church in turn adapted secular melodies to its own use.

    Doesn’t that sound familiar?

  5. Liam says:

    Indeed. That’s a good example of great music that’s very unlike praise choruses.

    A good practical rule of thumb: if it doesn’t sound good (and I don’t mean “not bad” – I mean “good”) unaccompanied, it either has to be an exceptionally fine piece of sacred liturgical music or it lacks promise for Catholic liturgy.

    Praise choruses (unlike Taize, Gospel-inflected cantillation, or white/black spirituals) tend to rely on accompaniment to provide interest. The texts tend to dull over time, and lack durable depth.

    Not all secular melodies are created equal. Many have promise; many don’t.

  6. Todd says:

    Liam, your rule of thumb is excellent. I find that if a piece of music can be well done in a variety of formats, including a cappella, it’s probably a keeper.

  7. Pingback: Some History of MCW « Catholic Sensibility

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