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Seminarians, calling themselves The Dameans, set liturgical music to guitars in the 1970s. Photo credit: thecatholiccommentator.org

March 20, 2018 (LifeSiteNews) – Why are traditional Catholics opposed to the use of guitars for music in church? Why, in general, do we think that a popular, contemporary musical style is incompatible with the spirit of the liturgy?

I take as my point of departure the following words of St. Paul: “Do not model your behaviour on the contemporary world, but let the renewing of your minds transform you, so that you may discern for yourselves what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and mature” (Rom 12:2).

My basic objection to the popular idiom of guitar music in church, whether the tunes are sentimental or snappy, is that it is nothing other than a conforming of our minds to a secular age, to the artistic, psychological, and spiritual standards of our times. It is a sort of aping of Bob Dylan and Billy Joel—though such “folksy” singers seem straight-laced in comparison with the noise pollution, the grinding violence and abject sensuality, of the music many young adults now listen to.

It is as if the mass-marketed “rock anthem” is implicitly recognized as a new standard of excellence, to which even music for the worship of God must be conformed. God, too, must be wooed by a streetlamp lover; he has to be cajoled and whined at about sin and grace, much as a popular singer cajoles and whines about whatever cause is in the air—the Vietnam war, Third World poverty, the AIDS epidemic. The sound has to gesture towards the misty-eyed ballad or the happy-cat hop. However one may describe the music, its origin and likeness to secular forms is unmistakeable.

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This is not the first time we have faced this problem in the history of the Church’s liturgical music. The last great epidemic of musical secularism was the age of opera, lasting through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when nearly all church music was dashed off in strict operatic style, a hardly-disguised relative of the tiresome epics and predictable romances played out on the stage night after night, when the audience assembled mainly to hear the gorgeous voices of the lead tenor or soprano. 

When Pope Pius X sought the reform of church music, he had in mind principally its resacralization, its recovery from the worldliness of opera. He wanted to restore a music that was crafted for the church and for her liturgy, a tranquil and soul-searching music that channels attention not to performers but to divine mysteries, fostering an atmosphere of contemplative prayer—a music of many moods and modes, gently and subtly playing upon the emotions, yet always at the service of something greater than itself, something essentially non-emotional: the “rational worship” (logikē latreia) of which St. Paul speaks in the letter to the Romans (12:1). For Paul, the “true circumcision” belongs to those who “worship God in spirit, and glory in Christ Jesus, and put no confidence in the flesh” (Phil. 3:3).

The point is this: although our baptized bodies are the temple of the Spirit and we are to worship the Lord with heart and voice, our worship is not at the level of body, it is not a sensual moving and being-moved, but a spiritual sacrifice and adoration served by a well-disciplined body whose passions are chastened, whose emotions are purified. 

The glory of truly Catholic sacred music is that it has power to move us, in accord with the dignified “dance” of the liturgy, to an ever-higher love of the Lord with our heart, mind, soul, and strength. It is thus a humble instrument of man’s divinization, his becoming God-like in grace and charity. Music should either help, or at least not hinder, the progressive maturation of the soul in her journey through the Teresian mansions, in her arduous ascent of Mount Carmel, up to the summit, the transforming union, the mystical marriage. 

Music that remains stylistically at the level of sensuality, thereby stimulating and supporting “everyday” emotions within the souls of its listeners, is not music fit for divine worship, because it does not help the soul to mature in spiritual dignity, it does not purify the passions and elevate the mind to a more heavenly plane of existence. Indeed, a casual, talkative style of celebrating Mass coupled with a popular musical idiom will give rise to a stunted psyche, an artificially prolonged adolescence of the emotions, out of keeping with the spiritual perfection the Lord intends to impart through the sacred rites and mystic sacraments of the Church. It does not provide the optimal environment for that quieting of the heart, that subsiding of the hyperactive will, which St. Teresa sees as indispensable preparations for the trials and blessings God has in store for souls who persevere through the first three mansions. The soul, she says, has to grow more and more receptive, not getting caught up in a sort of mental activism that makes it nearly impossible for the God who speaks with a “still, small voice” to act sovereignly, on His own initiative. 

The Christian has to develop a heightened capacity for waiting and listening, for welcoming and receiving, and finally, please God, for surrendering to His delicate invasion into the soul, to bask in the warmth of His light. Gregorian chant and Byzantine chant, the polyphony and homophony they inspired, and modern sacred music wrought in the same tradition have the necessary qualities of sacredness, artistic excellence, and universality that the Church’s authentic liturgy itself possesses and demands. Nothing secular, banal, superficial, or noisy is worthy of the holy, immortal, awesome, life-giving mysteries of Christ.

Author's note: This article includes material originally published in Homiletic & Pastoral Review.

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Peter Kwasniewski, Thomistic theologian, liturgical scholar, and choral composer, is a graduate of Thomas Aquinas College in California (B.A. Liberal Arts) and The Catholic University of America in Washington, DC (M.A. and Ph.D. in Philosophy). He taught at the International Theological Institute in Austria and the Franciscan University of Steubenville's Austria Program, then helped establish Wyoming Catholic College in 2006. There he taught theology, philosophy, music, and art history and directed the choirs until leaving in 2018 to devote himself full-time to writing and lecturing. 

Today he contributes regularly to many websites and publications, including New Liturgical Movement, OnePeterFive, LifeSiteNews, Rorate Caeli, The Remnant, and Catholic Family News, and has published ten books, including four on traditional Catholicism: Resurgent in the Midst of Crisis (Angelico, 2014, also available in Czech, Polish, German, Portuguese, Spanish, and Belarusian), Noble Beauty, Transcendent Holiness (Angelico, 2017), Tradition and Sanity (Angelico, 2018), and Reclaiming Our Roman Catholic Birthright: The Genius and Timeliness of the Traditional Latin Mass (Angelico, 2020). His work has been translated into at least thirteen languages.

Kwasniewski is a scholar of The Aquinas Institute in Green Bay, which is publishing the Opera Omnia of the Angelic Doctor, a Fellow of the Albertus Magnus Center for Scholastic Studies, and a Senior Fellow of the St. Paul Center. He has published over 1,200 articles on Thomistic thought, sacramental and liturgical theology, the history and aesthetics of music, and the social doctrine of the Church. 

For news, information, article links, sacred music, and the home of Os Justi Press, visit his personal website, www.peterkwasniewski.com.

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