The Three

Over the years here (on this blog) and there (elsewhere in the Catholic blogosphere) we’ve discussed a good bit of liturgical music. The three judgments, introduced to most American church musicians in the 1972 document Music in Catholic Worship (MCW), were retained in the successor document, Sing to the Lord (SttL) in 2007. And for reasons that don’t appear entirely rational to me, those three judgments remain a point of contention for many church musicians, especially those who stand with or near the reform2 flag.

Like most USCCB documents, MCW was assigned to a group of experts–the bishops didn’t write them. It was an era of collaboration, as I interpret it from a generation or two later. Bishops called upon competent persons, usually priests and theologians, to give sound wording to what the prelates wanted to communicate.

There were few enough church musicians and liturgists among the bishops in the early seventies. (Likely fewer today, the end of the canon law era of JP2/B16.) It makes reasonable sense for bishops to assign a task to others, then review the results and tinker as needed before publishing.

I don’t think the three judgments (musical, liturgical, pastoral) are a product of sublime theology. My take is that they are logical. SttL describes it:

(T)hese three judgments are but aspects of one evaluation, which answers the question: “Is this particular piece of music appropriate for this use in the particular Liturgy?” All three judgments must be considered together, and no individual judgment can be applied in isolation from the other two. This evaluation requires cooperation, consultation, collaboration, and mutual respect among those who are skilled in any of the three judgments, be they pastors, musicians, liturgists, or planners. (#126)

The three judgments are a tool. As a logical piece of analysis, I think them akin to a premise in Musicam Sacram (1967) on the importance of a “spirit of cooperation” among “all parties” involved in liturgical preparation:

The practical preparation for each liturgical celebration should be done in a spirit of cooperation by all parties concerned, under the guidance of the rector of the church, whether it be in ritual, pastoral or musical matters. (Musicam Sacram 5)

I knew two of the four “ghostwriters” of MCW. One hired me as a parish liturgist, and we had a chat or two about those heady days of the early 70’s when the dream of a national Catholic hymnal for the US was alive, and the glow of liturgical renewal was still warm in many places.

He and his colleagues were not aware of Musican Sacram’s consideration of “ritual, pastoral or musical matters.” They never intended their document to be “legislation,” in the sense of marching orders for every parish, music director, and priest to follow. The MCW braintrust was all parish priests. They were realistic about what their brother priests would swallow and what they might reject from their bishops.

My pastor explained that the uncommon situation was to be found when musicians and priests were working together. But what of parish volunteers who had little or no guidance from the pastor? The parish priest who wanted good liturgy but was hamstrung by budget or personality difficulties in the community? How to make sense of the staged emergence of the temporary Roman Missal over that span of 1970-75? How could the bishops and their consultants raise the bar?

MCW was never intended to tell people what to do. It was never intended to legislate. The three judgments were meant to guide people to make good choices, or at least better ones than they were making. Remember this was a time before music publishers gave Sunday-by-Sunday lists, or small reform2 publishing houses packaged the “proper” music that should be sung on any given weekend.

I was reviewing this old argument here and a few other places online. This discussion sure got contentious, didn’t it? I’m not sure I have the energy I might have had during the waning winter days of 2008. But I don’t think that people in 2013 are any more inclined to be told what to do than they were in 1973. A new generation or two of parish musicians have taken the reins. If they’ve been handed the three judgments, are they doing a better job than their grandparents? Or are we just on a treadmill?

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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1 Response to The Three

  1. Pingback: Preparing Music for Liturgy: SttL Outline | Catholic Sensibility

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