Law and Inspiration

I notice the cry for legal guidance on the Musica Sacra forum, and the accompanying discussion.

I’m continually surprised that some people in such a creative endeavor like making music have such a strong drive to find justification in legal guidelines. Musicam Sacram is the the “last” law. No, it’s not; the GIRM supercedes it. What about SttL? Forget it; those scaredy-cat bishops didn’t even submit it to Rome.

My impression of music is that the great leaps of inspiration come from using law as a framework, then expanding from there to explore new possibilities. Organum from chant. Polyphony from organum. Fugue and counterpoint from polyphony. Why one would want to be confined, as an artist, even an artist for God and the assembly, in principle to the exact prescriptions of the law is beyond my understanding.

On the other hand, we’ve had a rather thorough treatment here of some of the documents in question. I’ve yet to find a conservative website so willing to delve deeply into what we’ve examined here.


About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in the Pacific Northwest, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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5 Responses to Law and Inspiration

  1. Don’t blow a gasket, Todd, but I’m aligned with you on this one (whoda thunk it?)
    Thinking that at one moment in history, one legal document stands alone as an ultimate authority guiding human endeavors and praxis in all situations gives me a Terry Gilliam/Monty Python vision of the animated, greybeard God parting the clouds, extending his big arm to slap us and remind us we can be such Upper Class Twits of the Year.

  2. Liam says:


    Why don’t you provide your source on the 1983 adoption to the clamoring masses, and thus reinforce Fr Ruff.

    Not that it will be good enough for many, but still, it would be good to get that record over in the MS discussions.

    I’ve been travelling the past day, so I miss the fun.

    Part of my emphasis on being particular with law is, in case you don’t realize it, that when people are more careful to understand what is and is not law, they will be better informed to consider the meta-question of reconsidering the reliance on legislation, and a kind of legal positivism about papal and episcopal power in that regard, in the past millennium in the Western Church. There is a method to my madness.

  3. Todd says:

    Hi Liam,

    I scoured my own archives by title and by search and while I’m sure I’ve blogged on this, I was unable to find something specific enough.

    I suggested to Fr Ruff by e-mail that with his liturgy archives, he might find something on MCW/LMT from the NCCB in Origins or something from 1983.

    In my chat a few years back with one of the priests who wrote MCW for the bishops, the notion of formulating liturgical law for the US was very far from their minds. The purpose was similar to the notion attributed to Pope Benedict: lead by gentle urging, by suggestion, and by example. MCW wanted to raise the bar and encourage people. It wasn’t intended to mandate the singing of psalmody, or retain Latin, or require keyboard accompaniment at every Sunday Mass.

    In context of the time: a new Missal and new translation, some very poor folk groups, a certain retention of the four-hymn sandwich from the old Low Mass, MCW offers substantial upgrades for this period of upheaval and from these poor practices. The document Sing to the Lord is a very different type of effort. It was intended to offer boundaries, and less to inspire church musicians to excellence.

    One example from MCW and from my contact: he said that presider chants weren’t emphasized because their assessment of their brother priests was that a majority wouldn’t take it seriously. They didn’t attempt to write liturgical theology because they didn’t think the average folk group, organist, choir director, or animator would want to delve that deep.

    It strikes me that some of the criticism of MCW, and the lack of it being a lawful document as such, is not unlike the criticism of Red Grange for not wearing a plastic helmet with a facemask when he played. When the NCCB “endorsed” it in 1983, they did so not with the intent to make liturgical law, but to continue the encouragement of what were at this point, time-tested principles of music preparation, planning, and the like.

    That isn’t to say that MCW or LMT hasn’t been misused as a bludgeon. Because they have. Ditto many pronouncements coming from pastors or music directors. Are some protests more about the misuse of authority and less about the actual tools? That would be my sense.

  4. Sam Schmitt says:

    True, people may make the law an idol, an end-all and be-all, but I think there’s more danger in making it so open to development that we don’t appreciate the riches that are already in the rites. That’s how I see the much maligned Liturgicam Authenticam – a call to recognize the Roman rite as a precious entity in itself, to calm the insatiable need for change and adaption and tinkering.

    • Jim McK says:

      Sounds like a great reason to malign Liturgicam Authenticam — it tinkers, adapts and changes the Roman Rite to calm the insatiable need to tinker, change and adapt.

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