What makes a hymn Catholic?

Nathaniel Peters at First Things makes a case for Catholics singing Protestant hymns.

Money quote:

Because these hymns can be vehicles for handing on the Catholic faith, they remind us of the real meaning of Catholic. At its heart, to say that something is Catholic is not to say that it was written by a person in communion with the bishop of Rome but that it is in accord with the universal apostolic heritage. This means, of course, that not all hymns are suitable for Catholic liturgies. But it also means that if a hymn proclaims the Catholic faith, then—regardless of its origin—we should consider it a Catholic hymn.

This is the vision of catholicity put forward in Vatican II.

The whole essay is worth a read. You can find it here.


  1. Technically and most easily, if it’s found in the Breviary.
    Or when tradition assigns specific Scriptural passages to thus be designated, ie. “Gloria in exclesis,” “Magnificat anima mea,” “Canticle of Abraham/Simeon” and so forth.
    Or when tradition accepts canonically the traditional practices of other non-scriptural texts, ie. “Phos hilaron” “Adoro te devote” and so forth.
    Or when the Germans want to sing.
    Or when Erik Routley said “That be a hymn.”
    Or when Brian Wren penned that which be-eth a more relevant hymn.
    Or when Kathy Pluth writs.
    Yes, I read the article at “First Things.” Just sayin’.

  2. I agree with the premise. If I was only able to choose one author of hymns for use at Mass it would be Charles Wesley. Not a Catholic, but I can’t a think of a hymn of his that is hostile to Catholic teaching, and all of his songs seem to be eminently singable by almost anyone, which is a plus for congregational participation. I do like chant, not only for its traditional sound but also for its simplicity: almost anyone can sing it with a little practice. I also agree that hymns are teaching tools, so I only object to Protestant hymns that I think of as hostile to Catholic teaching. What sort of hymns are hostile to Catholicism? I think hymns that push sola fide or sola scriptura points of view. Unfortunately, I would argue that Amazing Grace – a very popular hymn – falls into that category.

    Finally, because hymns are an opportunity to teach, hymns that are unnecessarily bland are an opportunity wasted. Far too many of youth “teen Mass” hymns are so generic they mean almost nothing. I understand that involvement is a positive thing, and it is to e encouraged, but I believe kids are smart enough to be willing to engage an actual concept and better understand their faith.

  3. My rule of thumb is very simple:
    If it is good poetry and literature
    If it is paired with a tune that is good music
    If it speaks orthodoxly of truths that are Catholic
    If it contains no heresy (directly, obliquely, or implied)
    Then it is, sui generis, Catholic
    Regardless of who wrote it when or where.

    There is a cornucopia of hymnody that is astonishly Catholic and impeccably orthodox that was written by persons who were not Catholic. They include Martin Luther (on some days), they include the Anglican Divines of the late 17th century, Charles Wessley, and a host of others.
    When I was an Anglican who had yet to cross the Tiber, I was often wont to note that Roman Catholics did not have a monopoly on the Catholic faith. Though having crossed the Tiber I see things rather differently, I can still say that, in regard to many people, we still don’t.

    How elements of Catholicism reside in greater or lesser degrees in, to use VII’s term, other ‘ecclesial bodies’, or even other religions, would make a fascinating study or doctoral thesis.

  4. My heart sinks at the thought of Catholic hymns. I remember the days when we didn’t sing anything that was sung in Anglican/Methodist churches and was delighted when all that nonsense stopped.

  5. I’m not opposed to singing hymns in the least and in our parish we sing many fine “Protestant” hymns that truly are “catholic” in content and style. But it seems to this “lay” person in terms of liturgical music that we’ve spent way too much time on hymns and creating new hymns for the liturgy when the hymns for the liturgy are actually the parts of the Mass, or should I say, the Mass itself, not just its parts, but its whole. I know many are advocating a return to mandated official Entrance Chants, Offertory and Communion antiphons, not to preclude additional “filler” hymns and anthems. But does anyone give thought to singing the Scriptures ever, if only the Gospel? The Eucharistic Prayer, not to mention the “May the Lord receive…” and “Lord I am not worthy?” Don’t we have enough congregational hymns specifically Catholic not to mention those excellent ones we’ve imported from Anglican and Methodist sources? Do we need more? Isn’t it time for a national hymnal to stop the competition of constantly coming up with more new hymnals and more new music? Catholics can’t sing for a reason–many places constantly reinvent their singing repertoire. My previous parish had their hard back Worship hymnal for 20 years until the fall when they acquired a new Worship hymnal. They sing because they know their repertoire that has become an ingrained tradition.

    1. To me it seems that we sing some of the songs from the Worship hymnal too much. I understand that the new version of the Worship hymnal has a greater variety of hymns.

  6. It’s nice to know that someone from First Things has moved beyond fortress Catholicism. In case anyone has missed it, Catholics have been singing small-c catholic hymns and songs for a few decades now.
    But in this I also agree with Fr McDonald: the primary use of music at mass is for the liturgical texts themselves.
    Did priests resist chant singing during the days of the Latin High Mass? As I recall, even without a great voice, it was just something that they did. Cardinal Cushing celebrated President Kennedy’s funeral mass chanting the Latin in a very gravelly voice — and on national TV. I don’t know why priests can’t do that in English.

    1. Ann, I don’t know if the psychology of the priest facing the congregation during Mass impacts this, but since I’ve been celebrating the EF High Mass and just this past Monday night an OF Mass ad orientem where I chanted the entire preface and Eucharistic Prayer II, I find that when I don’t see the congregation in front of me as though I’m performing before them, but rather have them behind me as though I’m a part of them, I lose a great deal of my inhibitions especially as it concerns my ability to sing well–in other words, to make it a good performance for my audience when I’m singing toward them. That’s not the case when I’m singing “with them” facing the same direction as they are. But in terms of the High Mass of the Extraordinary Form, the rubric stated what you were to sing and what you weren’t. In the Low Mass nothing of the Mass is sung, but four hymns are allowed. In the High Mass, the priest is mandated to chant the greetings, collect, Gospel, Preface dialogue and preface (not the Roman Canon as this is in low voice) and the Pater Noster. It’s not his choice in other words. Whereas in the OF sung Mass, the priest can pick and choose as there is no distinction between low and high Mass, just Mass with music and without or with some depending on how the priest feels that day.

      1. Dear Fr McDonald,
        Your post March 21, 2012 – 6:42 am seems way off the point. You are writing about your preferences for a particular way of celebrating Mass – “ad orientem.” You seem to use this blog to attempt to “needle” those whose preferences differ from yours. You appear to use your own blog for some very strange objectives which delight your blog “friend” Fr Z who commends you.

        I find such attitudes strange and sad.

      2. Mary, no, I offered two possibilities from personal experience why some priests may resist chanting in answer to Ann’s question about it today compared to the Latin High Mass in the Extraordinary Form. The fact of the matter is that I celebrate Mass facing the congregation 99.9% of the time I celebrate Mass. I’m sorry you took it in a different way.

    2. Actually, famously in the interest of time Cardinal Cushing celebrated a Low Mass for the president’s funeral itself, and later a memorial High Mass with orchestra at St. Matthew’s. So he didn’t chant at the Mass, he merely recited. (Although, as one who grew up in Boston in the 1950s and 60s, it was hard to tell the cardinal’s chanting and reciting apart!)

      1. Thanks for the correction.
        I am wondering why priest and people facing each other defaults to a feeling of performing??? I think Fr McDonald’s observations may be relevant; but perhaps there IS a common thread in the sense of the priest doing something “up there” that is FOR the people — rather than WITH them?? So do doing something FOR them understandably becomes more like a performance when the priest is facing them? And the natural correlate to people who talk about what they “get out of” mass, rather than what they DO at mass. A shared paradigm of priest as provider and laity as consumers. (I don’t think this is what the Fathers had in mind when they referred to the “economy” of salvation! NOTE: this is tongue in cheek; please don’t take me to task or try to enlighten me. I am a theologian, I know the technical meaning of “economy” in “economy of salvation”
        We are such a LONG way from really believing that the entire Church — assembly AND priest — celebrates the liturgy.

  7. I’d like to see a more “catholic” selection of hymns. The hymnal we use has a broad selection, but we seem to stick to rather a small repertoire of modern hymns with an occasional spiritual or Celtic inspired hymn. I miss some of the old German hymns which I haven’t heard in years. The older Marian hymns have gone by the way side as well in my parish. Even the best hymns can be worn out by over-use.

  8. “I am wondering why priest and people facing each other defaults to a feeling of performing???”

    One of the most intimate things we do with family and friends is dine together. When we do that we do NOT face away from each other, whether it is in the same direction or not.

    Parishioners have a right to insist and know that the presiders at their liturgies are believing what they are saying. You learn that by watching them, particularly lookin into their eyes.

    Ad orientem is a form or ritual performance, not active and intimate praying and dining with each other.

  9. “The older Marian hymns have gone by the way side as well in my parish.”

    Get down on your knees and thank God for His intervention!

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