The Theological Error in Many Modern Catholic Hymns

In September 2020, the USCCB Committee on Doctrine publishedCatholic Hymnody at the Service of the Church: An Aid for Evaluating Hymn Lyrics.” Initial promise notwithstanding, there has not appeared to be too public a follow-up to the document. Coming out in September last year, its impact was likely limited, as the big pew missalette publishers, many of whom have shifted to annual missalettes and/or semi-permanent hymnals, were already probably fairly far along in their printing production schedules for Advent 2020 release.  

Whether we get more relief from theologically shallow, if not outright heretical hymnody this year remains to be seen.

One principle missing from the Committee’s “Aid” that deserves inclusion is the problem of speaking in God’s name. Thomas Day flagged this phenomenon in his Why Catholics Can’t Sing. A number of contemporary composers, wanting to exploit biblical texts (especially from the prophets) for the liturgy, put God’s words on the tongues of choir and/or congregation.

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Dan Schutte’s “Here I Am, Lord,” is a moderate illustration of what is, arguably, an abuse. The verses all involve God speaking: “I, the Lord of sea and sky…” “I, the Lord of snow and rain…” “I, the Lord of wind and flame….” The refrain is the human response: “Here I am, Lord!”  

Such interplay is inevitably leveling: God is reduced to the needy, human level, while man is raised up. While this interplay can be narrowly interpreted in a theologically orthodox way, its practical consequence blurs the lines between God and the human person. God is not bereft of means to come to our assistance; nor is the human agent—whose vocation is itself God’s gift and inspiration—“doing God a favor.”

While a choral alternation between the words of God and man might help hinder this confusion between God and man, most Sunday hymn singing is not choral. A singer, organist, and/or choir do not usually take the verses while the congregation swells in on the refrain. Typical Sunday singing has the cantor, choir, and congregation singing in unison. That, however, just compounds the problem, as the “God part” and the “human part” are all conflated.

A more egregious example is David Haas’ “Blest Are They.” Even worse than “Here I Am, Lord,” the Divine text is the refrain, so it normally is sung by everyone. Indeed, “Blest Are They” seems to feature a God who seems confused about to whom He is speaking.

In the verses, God recapitulates the Beatitudes in the third person: “Blest are they, the poor in spirit,” “Blest are they, the lowly ones,” “Blessed are they who show mercy,” etc. But, in the refrain, God suddenly shifts to the second person: “Blessed are you, holy are you…Yours is the kingdom of God.”

The reason for this pronoun shift is probably due to the structure of the refrain.  “Rejoice and be glad!” is a second-person command. Imperatives work in the first person plural and second person; the third person, not so much. A first-person plural would be bizarre: “let’s rejoice and be glad?”

Having us encourage ourselves to “rejoice” poses the question: who empowered you? To maintain the third person in the refrain would be awkward, linguistically and logically: how would you even express it, and to or about whom would these people today in church be singing? So, one almost has to adopt the second person and appropriate God’s voice.

If the grammar is bizarre, the theology is even more so. Assuring ourselves with God’s words, spoken by ourselves, that we are “blessed” and “holy” possessors of the “Kingdom of God” may be quite appealing, but this universalist sleight-of-hand is quite deceptive. St. Paul warned us to “work out our salvation in fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12) because, as long as we are alive, our unfaithful hearts can wander. We pray that God may one day pronounce us “blessed” and “holy,” but while still running this race short of the finish line (1 Corinthians 9:24), we should be chary about arrogating the crown of victory prematurely, especially since everybody doesn’t get a participation award.

Can we let God’s word remain God’s word, liturgically proclaimed to us in the readings where their lecture to the congregation preserves the distinction of who is speaking to whom? Can we recover the principle that, if hymnody is prayer in song, we confine ourselves to expressing our more than ample needs in our own words, without arrogating God’s?  

Can we hope, if the Doctrinal Committee’s “Aid” proves to be more than a dead letter, that hymnody afflicted by “God fluidity”—the putting of Divine language on human tongues—stops?

[Image Credit: Unsplash]

  • John M. Grondelski

    John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) is a former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. All views expressed herein are his own.

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