More on the Three Judgments

I underestimated the virulent opposition to the three judgments of Musicam Sacram, the US Bishops’ MCW, and the most recent Sing to the Lord.

For the uninitiated, the basic premise is that sacred music touches upon three conditions: the quality of the music, its appropriateness for liturgy, and the receptivity of the people singing or listening to it. In other words, the musical, the liturgical, and the pastoral.

These three judgments appear in somewhat scrambled form in Musicam Sacram 5-12, the section on general norms. They came to be elaborated upon in the 1972 document Music in Catholic Worship. Though MCW was designed as a document to give guidance to clergy and to church musicians, it was adopted by many church musicians as the most practical and accessible for their needs. Unlike Musicam Sacram, MCW addressed some of the more concrete situations in American parishes. And it benefitted in two ways that Musicam Sacram did not: it appeared after the new Missal was promulgated, and it originated with the American bishops. Believe it or not, that last point once had real legs in this country.

Musicam Sacram itself concedes that it isn’t an exhaustive treatment of music for the post-conciliar era:

The recently begun reform of the liturgy is already putting the conciliar enactments into effect. The new norms relative to the faithful’s active participation and the structuring of the rites, however, have given rise to some problems about music and its ministerial function. In order to draw out more clearly the relevant principles of the Constitution on the Liturgy, it is necessary to solve these problems.

Therefore the Consilium set up to implement the Constitution on the Liturgy, on the mandate of Pope Paul VI, has carefully considered these questions and prepared the present Instruction. This does not, however, gather together all the legislation on sacred music; it only establishes the principal norms which seem to be more necessary for our own day.

In fact, its framers suggest that Musicam Sacram is in part a transitional document. Its intent is to answer questions and address problems that bridge the time from Sacrosanctum Concilium, and as liturgical reform continues.

Many of the seeds of the Three Judgments are found in Musicam Sacram 5 and in the following seven sections which discuss musical quality, liturgical appropriateness, and pastoral implementation.

I was introduced to the basic principles of Music in Catholic Worship almost thirty years ago. The Three Judgments take up sixteen sections of eighty-four in the document. They’re hard to miss.

Over the years I’ve come to take the judgments for granted. I mention them when working with music selection committees or when mentoring new church musicians. My understanding is not exactly congruent to the examples given in MCW. Over the years, one naturally absorbs and refines guiding principles like these. They are not etched into a wall hanging over my desk or piano. They’ve just become part of how I serve the Church.


For me, the musical judgment boils down to the simple but sometimes elusive concept of quality. A musical piece chosen for liturgy must have a noticeable quality. But that quality must be communicated by musicians and singers of skill. A psalm setting, a sacred song, a motet, or other piece of repertoire may be readily judged to be of quality. But if the musicians and choir are incapable of rendering it with skill, then the musical judgment would indicate an alternate simpler choice.

Another application of the musical judgment is in the context of the music leadership itself. If a choir has set the bar high in terms of repertoire and performance, then only the best will suffice. What might be acceptable for a lone cantor, or a youth choir, or a choir lacking in training probably will not suffice for an ensemble of excellence.

Who are the people in the Church most responsible for this judgment? Musicians. Period. Nobody else really. When good musicians plan music properly, they only bring items of high quality to consideration. If they are heading into a meeting to collaborate with clergy and others on liturgy preparation, they come with top quality choices in hand.


This judgment is primarily the one concerned with adherence to rubrics, law, and tradition. Liturgists, plus clergy and musicians trained in liturgy, bring this judgment to bear as they consider the possibilities for a particular celebration or liturgical season.

For me, I apply this in the sense of a musical piece being appropriate for liturgy. I would rule out songs replacing the responsorial psalm, a song of praise bumping the Gloria, an alleluia during Lent, a lengthy hymn or anthem at the preparation of gifts, a choir-only piece where the rubrics indicate the people are to sing–just to give a few examples.

To apply this principle positively, I might ask parish musicians to develop their repertoire of psalmody. Thirty years ago, we were asked to sing the responsorial psalm. Today, I might encourage my own musicians to move from common psalms to singing the psalm of the day.  Other examples: I would encourage a true litany to be sung for the Litany of Saints, I might encourage a through-sung Gloria, if the choir sang alone during Communion, I might program a song of praise for the whole assembly after communion along with an instrumental exit.

There are countless examples of applying the liturgical judgment well.


For this judgment, the US bishops in 1972 (MCW #40) quoted Liturgicae Instaurationes, the third instruction for implementing Sacrosanctum Concilium, on which I blogged and we discussed this past summer.

(The document) encourages episcopal conferences to consider not only liturgical music’s suitability to the time and circumstances of the celebration, “but also the needs of the faithful who will sing them. All means must be used to promote singing by the people. New forms should be used, which are adapted to the different mentalities and to modern tastes. The document adds that the music and the instruments as should correspond to the sacred character of the celebration and the place of worship.”

This judgment is commonly applied to how music will be received by the people worshipping. For those squeamish about working without the net of authority, this statement came from a document of the same genre as Musicam Sacram.

 Wrapping It Up

I come to the conclusion that a thorough grounding in all the post-conciliar liturgy documents, not just the one with “music” in the title, is necessary. Certainly, a proof-texting approach would be worst of all, indicative of people ready to trounce adversaries in battle and unwilling to cooperate in a planning process indicated by “Authoritative documents.” Best of all would be to include the GIRM and move then to the rubrics of the Sacramentary and the other Rites.

Church musicians bring an important judgment to the preparation table: determining the quality of music. But a lack of grounding in liturgy and in the pastoral realities of the communities they serve will isolate them in the musical realm. Good pieces of music will be vetoed as liturgically inappropriate and pastorally unsuitable. Good-hearted musicians will accept this judgment from their colleagues as a matter of trust. Or perhaps they will stew. Ideally, they would educate themselves as to why a selection from BWV 248 is inappropriate for the First Sunday of Advent.

I have yet to see a better and more flexible system than the Three Judgments. Certainly it is true that these judgments are misapplied and fumbled, even to the point of calling something a judgment when it is not. However, the misuse of a tool in isolation is not a sufficiently logical reason to retire said tool from the workchest.

I wait to see any alternative from reform2 musicians or traditionalists or any others who seem more than willing to accept the published word of a musical guru above the considered guidance of the national bishops or the prescriptions of Rome.

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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4 Responses to More on the Three Judgments

  1. Randolph Nichols says:

    With the exception of those who find nothing of value coming from Vatican II, few will fault your synopsis of the three judgements. It must be added, however, that of these judgements, the pastoral too often serves as a hedge to musical growth. If a parish is blessed with able leadership, that parish must be amenable to challenge so that its possibilities aren’t wasted. It must also be added that having such an openness also increases the parish’s ability to attract talented leadership.

    A good American literature class doesn’t begin with the teacher asking “What do you want to read this term?” Critical attention to text and appreciation of craft would never evolve under such indecisive direction. The parish, too, will not realize its potential clinging to a “we’ve never done it that way” or “we don’t know that music” mindset. Whether it be an attempt to instill a basic appreciation for ancient Gregorian chant or an innovative style of an emerging young composer, the music director has to be given freedom to teach and share his or her enthusiasm.

    Granted, there are many factors complicating the pastoral judgement. When its application inhibits the range of liturgical experience, however, it only fuels discontent.

  2. Todd says:

    Your Am Lit metaphor is quite apt. As a teacher, it would be my job to know my students, and to assess what they could reasonably absorb, to plot out what they could learn.

    Then there’s college, middle school, or high school; urban, rural, or suburban; ethnic backgrounds. Then factor in a more comfortable starting point and ratchet the experience into the challenging texts.

    Thing is, most pastors and many musicians don’t have a feel for any of this. Musicians sometimes select a comfortable repertoire congruent to their personal taste, and pastors sometimes don’t care or don’t want to rock the boat.

  3. I used to never listen to country music, but it’s changed. A lot of it is more mainstream and I like that. Plus the women are hot and that makes everything better!

  4. Pingback: Music In The Rite of Marriage: SttL 219-224 | Catholic Sensibility

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