The Roman Catholic Church officially holds that Gregorian chant should have “pride of place” in the Roman liturgy. Though this position was reaffirmed at the last ecumenical council, we can all agree that it is not a teaching of apostolic origin and is not a de fide dogmatic definition. How weighty is this official position? Could it ever change? Should it? There is good reason to think that it both could and should.

The official understanding of the Roman Catholic Church that Gregorian chant holds primacy of place in the Roman liturgy, and that it is a model for sacred music in the liturgy, has found frequent articulation in modern times. Pius X, in his famous motu proprio on sacred music of 1903, asserted that Gregorian chant is the “supreme model of sacred music.” He wrote, “The more closely a composition for church approaches in its movement, inspiration and savor the Gregorian melodic form, the more sacred and liturgical it becomes; and the more out of harmony it is with that supreme model, the less worthy it is of the temple.”

Between 1903 and the Second Vatican Council all the papal and curial documents on sacred music contain some type of statement giving primacy to Gregorian chant, and every listing of the genres of sacred music lists Gregorian chant first. The liturgy constitution Sacrosanctum Concilium of the Second Vatican Council stands in this tradition when it states at no. 116, “The Church acknowledges Gregorian chant as specially suited to the Roman liturgy; therefore, other things being equal, it should be given pride of place in liturgical services.” The liturgy constitution directed at no. 54 that the faithful be enabled to say or sing the people’s parts in Latin. In the decades since the Second Vatican Council, the Holy See has repeatedly reaffirmed these statements.

For many readers, there is probably something disconcerting about this litany of official affirmations of Latin chant, which stands in such stark contrast to postconciliar liturgical life. By far, most celebrations of the Roman liturgy, in the United States and around the world, have little or no Latin chant in them. Most, if not all, the music in the liturgy is in the local vernacular(s), with a wide variety of styles of music. In some particular communities, for example  cathedrals and monasteries, including Saint John’s Abbey here in Collegeville, some Latin chant is regularly sung by congregation and schola—but chant is typically one genre among many rather than the dominant genre that sets the tone for everything else. To be sure, there has been a remarkable resurgence of Latin chant in conservative quarters of the US Catholic Church in the last decade or so, but this is limited in scope and thus far has not affected most of the wider church. Taken as a whole, fifty years after the Second Vatican Council, the church does not give primacy to Gregorian chant.

In the spring semester 2014, a young monk of Saint John’s Abbey, Br. Lew Grobe, OSB, undertook a study of the opinions of monks, graduate theology students, and guests on the use of Gregorian chant in the liturgy of Saint John’s Abbey. His study, which involved learning about the history of Gregorian chant and official church statements on its value, was part of the field education component of his seminary studies. He concurrently sang in the Gregorian chant schola I conduct. The schola sings two or three times a month at abbey Sunday and weekday liturgy, primarily singing Latin Mass propers, with verses either in Latin or, less frequently, in English. The results of the study from the 175 respondents, though not claiming to be scientific, are highly suggestive. The study offers a rare opportunity to see how, in one particular place, the intentional cultivation of Latin chant is received by worshipers.

Respondents from all groups in the study appreciate Gregorian chant. Most respondents, but certainly not all, think that it is important for a Benedictine monastery to preserve Gregorian chant. A strong majority of respondents reports that they are spiritually engaged when the schola sings Latin chant and that they listen not just to the sound of the music but to the Latin text as it is interpreted (a translation is always provided in the leaflet). I was gratified that the schola gets very high marks for the musical quality of its singing. Most seem to think that the amount of Latin chant in abbey liturgy is about right, with a small number thinking there should be more, and a substantially larger number thinking there should be less.

Respondents’ comments show a very wide diversity of experiences and opinions. For the purposes of this article, it is important to attend to the many comments that are critical of Latin chant and skeptical of its liturgical value, for these comments reveal the gap between the ideal of official documents and the worldview of not a few contemporary people.

A typical critical comment is this: “Now that we have our liturgies in English and are used to praying in English, I see it as backward movement to have Latin and Gregorian chant at our liturgies.” Another is this: “I feel that chant is not needed at all in any liturgy.” One person writes, “It is more prophetic for our monastic witness to look to new forms of liturgical music and be less reliant on past forms. Occasional Gregorian is inspiring. Regular use of Gregorian is nostalgic but belongs now more in concerts and music halls and less in church.”

One commenter loves the “ ‘universality’ of chant,” that “there are monasteries and churches all over the world who sing the same words.” But several other commenters say that Latin chant impairs participation. One guest appreciates listening to the schola but says this of congregational chant: “Since I sing stumblingly and do not have any comfort with Latin, when we sing Mass parts in Latin (Sanctus, Agnus Dei), I try to sing but do not succeed at getting my mind into the fact that I am praising God’s holiness or mercy because I am too taxed by the pronunciation of the next word.” One person writes, referring to our occasional practice of interpolating a congregational English refrain between Latin antiphon and verses, “If the congregation is involved, I prefer that everyone sings the Latin rather than schola Latin followed by congregational English. It feels like there is a message that the congregation isn’t ‘smart enough’ to handle Latin.”

Several respondents write that solo singing by the schola feels like a “performance” that excludes the congregation. Although some commenters appreciate the spirited interpretation of chant coming from recent European research, other commenters nonetheless say in various ways that Gregorian chant is dull or uninteresting. For example, one person writes, “Unfortunately the chant Gloria and Mass settings are not festive and do not add to the festivity of the day.” Several commenters express preference for congregational hymns in English over Latin Mass propers sung by schola alone.

There are significant differences between the views of various groups. These no doubt reflect generational difference among Catholics in general. Graduate students, whose average age is considerably younger than that of the monks, are much more affirming of the value of Gregorian chant than monks. Graduate students affirm more strongly than monks that it is important for a Benedictine monastery to preserve Latin chant. They are more likely to desire more Latin chant in the liturgy, whereas a very large group of monks, including those who affirm the value of Latin chant, say they would like less Latin chant in the liturgy.

So we have, on the one hand, official church statements that give Gregorian chant primacy of place in the liturgy and, on the other hand, worshipers from one particular locale with quite extensive experience of Gregorian chant who give it rather mixed marks, including a good number who find it impacts negatively on their liturgical participation. And this is at a Benedictine monastery where one would expect Gregorian chant to be more widely used and appreciated than in other worshiping communities! If the official position on the primacy of Gregorian chant faces such challenges even in this setting, one can only imagine how that position fares in the rest of the church.

Any time one encounters such a chasm between theory and reality, between official statements and actual practice, it cries out for explanation and resolution.

One response would be that the church’s official understanding of the primacy of Gregorian chant is not adequately understood, and greater pastoral efforts are needed to bring about assent to church teaching. One might diagnose the dissent as a symptom of harmful influences coming from a shallow entertainment culture, or perhaps harmful influences coming from liberal theology and progressive liturgical reform, eliciting a failure to appreciate and accept in humility the beauty of the church’s liturgical tradition. This response, which tends toward authoritarianism, gives the benefit of the doubt to tradition and church authority rather than to the existential reality of people in specific cultural contexts.

While there is no doubt some truth to this response, and I would not rule it out entirely, I think it falters as a comprehensive explanation. There are deep methodological issues at play which suggest that the official understanding of the primacy of Gregorian chant is not the last word on the matter. The official understanding rests on assumptions that stand in tension with other aspects of church teaching, and this sets up an instability. Working out this instability will ineluctably lead to a more evolved articulation of the church’s understanding of the place of Gregorian chant in Catholic worship.

The central methodological issue was stated well by longtime Worship editor Kevin Seasoltz in this journal in November 1980 in the article “Monastery and Eucharist: Some American Observations.” Fr. Kevin wrote:

In the past four centuries there has been a gradual change in the cultural context of Western theology from what has been called a classical culture to what is known as a scientific or contemporary culture. The former culture was preoccupied with the abstract, the ideal, the universal and the essential. Concerned with sameness and permanence, it did not attend to differences, process or development. In contrast, contemporary culture, influenced above all by the development of modern science, is preoccupied with probability, process and the particular. This shift has resulted in the dissolution of a common world of suppositions, principles and methods.

Certainly this shift is reflected in the documents of the Second Vatican Council. The Constitution on the Church in the Modern World affirmed the principles of cultural pluralism as a fundamental ideal of the Church. Other documents sanctioned a political shift in the structures of the Roman Catholic Church and the relationships among church members at every level.

This passage shows the problem in asserting that Gregorian chant, always and everywhere, should have primacy of place. Such a position is clearly part of a “former culture [that] was preoccupied with the abstract, the ideal, the universal and the essential.” This position is “concerned with sameness and permanence.” It does not take adequate account of “cultural pluralism as a fundamental ideal of the Church.” Once one takes culture seriously, as Catholic theology must, it becomes difficult to assert that one musical genre has priority over all others. It becomes necessary to attend to the experience of all members of the church, including those in the study who reported negative experiences with Gregorian chant.

To be sure, not everything in Catholic teaching is up for grabs, and the announcement of the fact of cultural pluralism cannot be the trump card that supposedly makes inevitable any possible desired evolution or change in church teaching. But there is a hierarchy within church teachings, and some admit of development more than others. There are core dogmatic teachings, and then there are moral teachings, within which teachings on sexual ethics have greater stability than those on social and economic issues, and then, much further down the line, are statements about the nature of worship, including those about the primacy of Gregorian chant. This is not to say that worship is not central to the church’s life—it is, of course—but to acknowledge that the use of music and the arts in worship occurs in widely varying cultural circumstances, and statements of musical and artistic ideals are necessarily contingent and changeable.

A central teaching coming from the liturgical reforms of the Second Vatican Council, expressed most strongly in the 1967 Roman document Musicam sacram, is that the purpose of music in worship is functional. Music has a specific function within a ritual structure, with particular reference to the liturgical participation of the entire assembly. Taking this functional understanding of music seriously means that one cannot assert a priori that specific music functions in the most ideal way; rather, one must inquire of particular people, within a particular cultural context, how the music functions for them. It can be expected that the answers will vary widely from one cultural context to another. The functional understanding of music in Musicam sacram calls for a shift from the “former culture” to a multicultural context that “attend[s] to differences, process [and] development.” This is the tension within official church statements; this is the instability that calls for a development in the understanding of the place of Gregorian chant.

As someone who appreciates Gregorian chant, and has spent a large part of my professional life promoting it, it is challenging for me to confront this issue. On a personal level, I am sympathetic to Max Johnson’s words in the summer 1999 issue of the Monastic Liturgy Forum Newsletter:

Might I also be so bold as to put in a plug here for the more frequent use of Gregorian chant in monastic communities, not as museum pieces to be dragged out of the archives and dusted off on occasion as a reminder of the past, but as a part of the living liturgical tradition of Benedictines? . . . I am concerned about the liturgical context of Gregorian chant, which is especially preserved in the monastic Office and Mass, which, after all, is its home.

I too hope that Gregorian chant can continue to be used in monastic communities, and also elsewhere, not as “museum pieces,” but as “part of the living liturgical tradition.” But if this is to happen, it will not be because more people accept the official understanding that Gregorian chant is intrinsically superior to other genres of music and that, because of its hallowed history, it deserves primacy of place. It will be because real people in the real world experience it as meeting the functional needs of worship music. Whether that will be the case, and whether Gregorian chant will and should remain in use, must in principle remain open questions.

As for one Benedictine monastery in central Minnesota—since you, the reader, might be curious—Gregorian chant will remain in use, but in response to the input of guests, students, and monks, it will be used less in the future. This decision, like all pastoral decisions about worship, is contingent and subject to revision.

Reprinted with permission from the September 2014 (Volume 88,  Number 5) issue of Worship (“Amen Corner,” pp. 460-466). 

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