Finally, the Bishops Talk Sense About Hymns

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It is axiomatic that nothing well-written ever comes from a committee. So, I regard as miraculous the recent report, Catholic Hymnody at the Service of the Church, put forth by the doctrinal watchdogs of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. It is incisive, intelligent, and precise, blessedly free of political correctness, and sensitive to the relationship between the work of the intellect and the delight in beauty that God has placed within our hearts.

“Catholic composers and hymn-writers,” say the bishops, “necessarily inhabit a realm of creative interplay: they have the privilege and vocation of honoring and communicating the mystery of faith in word and music, and this requires genuine artistry, industry, and fidelity.” About the artistry and the industry they have nothing to say here, as they limit themselves to discussing the fidelity of hymns to the faith, a faith which is itself of surpassing beauty.

I will have a few things to say about artistry, but first let me meet two objections, or rather let me show how the bishops meet them. The first objection is born of lassitude, insensibility, and neglect. It is that hymns do not really matter. They are only songs, after all, and no one takes songs seriously.

Plato did not think so. He said that, when a state is falling into corruption, look to the music. That was no flight of sentimentality. Plato knew that the part of the soul he named the thymos—the high spirit, the drive—was moved, not by rational argument, but by the reason-inclining power of imagination. Concede the imagination to stupidity or Satan, and you will not lose the war: you have lost it already.

The bishops appear to agree. “Christian tradition, both Eastern and Western,” they say, “has from antiquity been acutely aware that hymns and other songs are among the most significant forces in shaping—or misshaping—the religious and theological sensibility of the faithful.”

The second objection is related to the first, and what it implies about the verbal acuity among the faithful is faintly insulting. It is that if a text can admit, with some pinching and squeezing, an orthodox interpretation, it should be allowed to pass. But the bishops will have none of it. Wrong emphases, wrong assumptions, wrong expressions, wrong attitudes weigh upon the soul over time, like mud. While granting some room for poetic license, the bishops require texts whose orthodoxy cannot be misunderstood“It is important to avoid language that could be easily misconstrued,” or, I might say, justly construed, “in a way that is contrary to Catholic doctrine.”

The bishops go so far as to evaluate the whole corpus of songs in a hymnal, saying that even should each individual hymn be unobjectionable in its focus upon some dimension of a doctrine, if as a group they neglect other dimensions, “then the catechesis offered by the hymnody would, as a whole, not be in conformity with Catholic doctrine.” If, for example, the eucharistic hymns in Songs R Us stress the community of believers at the table “to the exclusion of the vocabulary of sacrifice, altar, and priesthood,” then the people would be suffering a deficient sacramental theology. I will return also to this business of exclusion.

Taking their lead from Archbishop Daniel Beuchlein’s 1997 report on faulty catechetical works, the bishops give us six categories of error, and they dare to name exemplary names in each category.

Deficiencies in the Presentation of Eucharistic Doctrine. This category captures the greatest number of offenders, for reasons the bishops enumerate, each having something to do with a failure to see the bread and wine as having been made the real Body and Blood of Christ, emphasizing instead our action and our feelings. Out the door go “God Is Here,” “Now in This Banquet,” “All Are Welcome,” and “Let Us Break Bread Together.”

Deficiencies in the Presentation of Trinitarian Doctrine. Most of the mischief here springs from those whom the Lord’s referring to the Father as Father sends into anaphylactic shock. “Father” and “Son” name not only relations but Persons. They are not metaphoricalMy being a father is, by comparison with the Father’s essential being, analogous and derivative. Jesus never says that God is like a father. God is Father, as well as Son and Holy SpiritThey are not modes of one person. The Father is not, by Himself, the Creator. The created universe is the work of the Trinity, and so is man. Out the door go, gnashing their teeth, “The Play of the Godhead,” the common doxology beginning with “All glory be to God, Creator blest,” and “Led By the Spirit.”

Hymns with Deficiencies in the Doctrine of God and His Relation to Humans. “Language which makes it seem that God is ‘beyond all names’ is misleading, and language that makes it seem that God is dependent upon human beings or any creature is incorrect.” Into Gehenna whence it sprang goes “God Beyond All Names,” with its daft and blasphemous claim that “In our living and our dying / We are bringing you to birth.”

Hymns with a View of the Church that Sees Her as Essentially a Human Construction. News to hymnodists: the Church is Christ’s creation, not ours. He it is who makes us into stones to build up a new temple. It is a gift to us. Into the empty YMCA building across the street goes “Sing a New Church into Being.”

Hymns with Doctrinally Incorrect Views of the Jewish People. The Jews as a people did not crucify Jesus. We crucified him. Here the bishops tag those goats “The Lord of the Dance” and “O Crucified Messiah,” and send them out of the camp. The problem here is not simply anti-Judaism, as the bishops understand it. It is a failure to admit the dire consequences of Original Sin. The problem is not hierarchy or clerisy. It is the person who looks at me from the mirror.

Hymns with Incorrect Christian Anthropology. The bishops say that this category intersects with several of the others, but might also stand alone, and for an example they give these lines from “Canticle of the Sun,” a modern corruption of the hymn by Saint Francis of Assisi. “Praise for our death that makes our life real,” this version goes; “The knowledge of loss that helps us to feel.” How our editors could bear lines so transcendentally inept, I have no idea—unless it is that when it comes to poetry, they know less than did a nine year old boy in 1900 opening his father’s Tennyson for the first time. That aside, the bishops remind us that “death is the punishment of original sin,” and that our sloping down to die makes us less real than was Adam in his innocence. We may add that our habituation to death makes us less able to feel the goodness and beauty that animate the world.

So far, so good. We owe the bishops a debt of gratitude.

Now let me venture to apply the bishops’ method to two more problems, as I suggested above. The first is simply that of bad poetryI do not mean poetry that fails to attain greatness. A good solid Amish chair is not a sculpture by Michelangelo. It is sturdy, workmanlike, well-crafted, and fit to accomplish its humble task. A chair with a sagging bottom, or nails sticking out of the side, or spindly legs ready to spread and crack, is not sturdy, workmanlike, well-crafted, or fit to accomplish anything. It is not a good chair. It is hardly a chair at all. Why should it be controversial to say that lousy poems do not belong in a hymnal, any more than to say that leaky pipes do not belong in your bathroom?

Almost everything in our Catholic hymnals written after 1960 is lousy as poetry, as rotten as the rusted chassis of a car that you can see the road through. I will take as a mild example the opening lines of a Eucharistic hymn that the bishops allow to pass at least for being orthodox:

Seed, scattered and sown,
Wheat, gathered and grown,
The living bread of God.

Sorry, but there is no verb in that sentence, nor do the participles as ordered make sense:

“What are you doing there, Farmer Brown?”

“Me? I’m scattering seed.”

“What are you going to do after that?”

“Well, then I’m going to sow it. Everything in proper order, you know. The scattering comes first, and the sowing comes later.”

“I see. And what happens in the end?”

“These here seeds are going to become big tall stalks of wheat. I’m going to gather up that wheat, and then I’m going to grow it.”

“I think I’m getting the idea. So that you can eat bread, and bake it?”

“Exactly! And warm my hands before the fire, and light it.”

Some minor demon in the employ of Flibbertigibbet has persuaded teachers that it isn’t poetry unless it is ungrammatical, unmusical, irrational, or all three at once. Alas, the rules that govern good prose govern good poetry too; those rules, and more.

Then there is the business of what the hymnals exclude. I collect old hymnals from a wide variety of sources. I know what is in them, and what is not in Glory N Praise: hymns that rouse to action the manly Christian soldier; hymns of deep repentance for sins, our sins, and not the conveniently imputed sins of other people; hymns that present dramatically some event in the history of salvation and of the Church; hymns of awe before the holiness of God, or that celebrate some specific and magnificent revelation of his glory: No hymn at all like “Soldiers of Christ, Arise,” very few hymns like “Ah, Holy Jesus,” no hymn like “Blessed Feasts of Blessed Martyrs,” very few hymns like “O Wondrous Type.”

It is all white cake with pink icing. Even when such a thing is cooked all the way through and is not laced with arsenic, still, a diet of white stuff with pink icing does not a healthy body make.

[Photo credit: Thoom/Shutterstock.com]

By

Anthony Esolen, a contributing editor at Crisis, is a professor and writer-in-residence at Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts. He is the author, most recently, of Sex and the Unreal City (Ignatius Press, 2020).

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