Notre Dame Sacred Music Degree Program Moves out of Theology Department

As of this morning, the music department website of Notre Dame University was still saying this about the Master of Sacred Music degree program:

The graduate program in sacred music is administered in the Department of Theology, and overseen by an interdepartmental committee (Music and Theology). Accreditation is granted through the Association of Theological Schools (ATS). Following the principles of the document Sing to the Lord: Music in Divine Worship (Committee on Divine Worship: USCCB, 2007), the program is multi-faceted, embracing in particular three dimensions: music, liturgy, and pastoral practice.

But the Sacred Music at Notre Dame website was revised last week, and it tells a different story:

The Master of Sacred Music degree program, founded in 2005, is currently situated in the College of Arts & Letters with major participation from faculty in the Department of Theology & the Department of Music.

The updated website reflects a recent significant change in the administration of the Notre Dame’s graduate sacred music program, with possible changes coming also in the character and emphases of the program.

Here’s what happened: program director Margot Fassler secured from the Dean of the College of Arts and Letters, John McGreevy, the relocation of the Sacred Music program out of Theology – without their consultation – and into the College of Arts and Letters as an independent, free-standing program. The change in locus was announced this summer as an accomplished fact to the theology department.

Theology department member Fr.  Michael Driscoll, founding director of the sacred music program in 2005, has now resigned from Executive Committee of the program.

Theology department chair Matthew Ashley spoke supportively of the change in the program, which he said will “recognize its genuinely interdisciplinary character.” He pointed out to Pray Tell that music department members previously “did not have full juridical voice in the program’s governance since they are not voting members of the theology faculty.” Now music and theology faculty will be on equal footing as members of departments with which the sacred music program partners. “We will cooperate with the program in a way that best suits its needs,” Ashley said.

Officials at Notre Dame foresee that the sacred music degree program will lose its accreditation from the Association of Theological Schools with its move from the theology department. But Fassler expressed the hope that this accreditation, and further accreditation with the National Association of Schools of Music, will be attained through her efforts.

The Sacred Music at Notre Dame website shows how extensive the well-funded sacred music program is at Notre Dame. Under Fassler’s energetic leadership, everything is set for the program to flourish in days ahead – not least when it gets its own space in the new music building of the Crossroads Project.

Fassler told Pray Tell that “the Dean wants to strength Sacred Music at Notre Dame by making it independent, more along the model of the Yale Institute of Sacred Music, and this will allow for very strong partnerships with the Department of Music and with the Department of Theology” and with other entities at Notre Dame. Fassler was director of the Institute of Sacred Music at Yale from 1994 to 2004 before coming to Notre Dame in 2010.

It seems that the curriculum of Notre Dame’s program will be changing along the lines of Yale’s renowned Institute of Sacred Music, with greater freedom in course selection. Previously all masters sacred music students at Notre Dame took a core of Catholic liturgy courses, including Eucharist, Liturgical Year, Liturgical Prayer, and two further liturgy electives. In the future, according to Fassler, the requirement will be reduced to four courses in “liturgy/ritual studies,” and these will all be electives. This coming fall, for example, sacred music students will be able to take a liturgy course from Peter Jeffrey on “Ordo Romanus Primus,” an arcane document on seventh-century papal liturgy of great interest to liturgiologists and musicologists. But they will not be required to take core courses in liturgy.

To be sure, Eucharist is among the liturgy courses offered for sacred music students this coming fall – but in the future this will be an elective, and it will be possible for a student to receive a sacred music degree without taking it, or Liturgical Year, or Liturgical Prayer. What a student takes will depend upon what courses are offered by individual professors, whether they are approved by the program’s curriculum committee, whether there are seats available, and ultimately, what the student wishes to take. Some students may come out well-formed in the principles and contemporary liturgical studies, but future employers will want to know that it is not a necessary part of the program. Still, with all these planned revisions, Fassler told Pray Tell that “the MSM curriculum is not changing to a great degree.”

The U.S. bishops’ 2007 document Sing to the Lord calls for directors of music to be “properly trained to express our faith tradition effectively and with pastoral sensitivity.” The bishops say:

Pastoral musicians should receive appropriate formation that is based on their baptismal call to discipleship; that grounds them in a love for and knowledge of Scripture, Catholic teaching, Liturgy, and music; and that equips them with the musical, liturgical, and pastoral skills to serve the Church at prayer.

With such openness in degree requirement in the liturgy area at Notre Dame, meeting the bishops’ directives will depend upon how students are advised and what courses they elect to take.

For her part, Fassler is very optimistic about sacred music at Notre Dame:

We are not yet 10 years old. The work has just begun. It is far too soon to say exactly how things will play out in the immediate future. But we have an exceedingly devoted group of faculty, extraordinary students, an administration that cares intensely for us, and strong ties to our major partners, the Departments of Music and Theology.


The author teaches in the liturgical music degree program of the School of Theology•Seminary of St. John’s University.


  1. I had a “knee jerk reaction” to this article so I walked away to think.

    I think it is a positive step for Notre Dame to strengthen the Department of Sacred Music but have concerns about what seems to be a weakening of the connection with the Cathlic identity by reducing the requirements in liturgical formation to electives. Could this be a move mindful of students from other denominations? That’s ok to a point. My concern is for those students who specifically have goals to serve in Catholic Parishes. Liturgical formation needs to be a requirement not an elective because the Catholic liturgy is an intergral part of faith formation. It is at the Sunday liturgy that Catholics have the opportunity to meet the “Master Catechist”, Christ truly present in Word and Sacrament. The person that serves as a Catholic Pastoral Musician in a parish is disciple, liturgist, catechist, evangelizer to name a few. The motovation for excellence in sacred/liturgical music and liturgy in a parish setting, is, in my opinion, to proclaim the message of the Gospel and to minister to the people in the pews.

    The study of Sacred Music is very broad and rich with an extensive history of faith and impact on our world and culture. Students will be drawn to various aspects. No doubt about it. My hope is that students of Sacred Music who decide to serve in parish life are as fluent in theolgy and liturgy as they are in sacred music capable of working in colaboration with other parish leadership to proclaim the Gospel and form disciples. Blessings.

  2. What an extremely disappointing but not at all surprising turn of events from the formerly preeminent catholic university.

  3. I don’t have nearly enough knowledge of the ins and outs of things at Notre Dame to know whether this is a good or a bad thing. But I would say that while some might think the Ordo Romanus Primus a bit of arcana, I suspect a course on it taught by Peter Jeffrey would teach students more about the Eucharistic liturgy than a course on the Eucharist taught by many others.

  4. Theology department chair Matthew Ashley . . . pointed out to Pray Tell that music department members previously “did not have full juridical voice in the program’s governance since they are not voting members of the theology faculty.” Now music and theology faculty will be on equal footing as members of departments with which the sacred music program partners. “We will cooperate with the program in a way that best suits its needs,” Ashley said.

    I was stunned when I read this. The music faculty did not have a full say in the administration of the Sacred Music program when it was under the banner of the Theology Department? Talk about second class citizenship!

    I’m trying to imagine a search committee interviewing a potential new hire on the music side of things . . .

    Search Committee Chair: “We’d really like you to join the music faculty to bolster our Sacred Music program. You have a great record, wonderful references, and you would bring so much to our program. We’re excited about the possibilities that your presence would open up. But you know, since you’re ‘only’ on the music faculty and not the theology faculty, you won’t have a full voice in saying how that program is run . . .
    Candidate: Really? I’m good enough to teach, and good enough to get you all excited about my ideas, and good enough that you’re anxious to have me as a colleague, but I’m *not* good enough to fully participate in shaping the program? Thanks for the offer, but I’ll look elsewhere — somewhere that will give me a full voice in the program they want me to be a part of.

    If Fassler went to the dean of the college of arts and sciences to initiate this switch from Theology to A&S, I suspect that having too many conversations like the hypothetical one above played a significant role.

  5. I have hesitated to chime in on this, but I see across the States liturgical music programs which are concerned principally with performance and only secondarily with its theological underpinnings and the liturgical context of the ministry of music. The removal of the ND program from the purview of theology to that of performance arts therefore appears a retrograde step, and the downgrading of required core liturgical modules to electives is regrettable. I imagine that this is why Michael Driscoll has resigned his position.

  6. I graduated with the MSM in 2009, just as Fassler and Jeffrey were arriving – generally, I think this is a good step. While I enjoyed many of the liturgy courses, I at times felt overly caught up in politics and “liturgy wars” and professorial ideologies through these classes. And it can be uncomfortable for a skill-based practitioner such as a musician to be graded and evaluated by a non-musical theologian – based on papers and assignments that touch directly on current ideological struggles in the church. At times, as we were housed in theology, it began to feel something like seminary – where personal ideology and preferences were just as much at the fore as musical or academic chops. A little too personal for my taste as a student. I’m sure many at PTB would prefer that only musicians vetted by academic liturgists get an MSM degree. But you have to keep in mind that ND is competing with purely musical schools for those organists and conducting students. I have no doubt that ND will be more competitive nationally going forward, when students can take advantage of rich offerings in liturgy and theology alongside their music degrees rather than being primarily under the control and evaluation of non-musicians. Perhaps a minor or concentration in liturgical studies could be made more explicit for those students willing to emphasize liturgy classes. After all, in my degree I ended up taking just as many liturgy hours as the liturgical studies masters students. I think it’s more competitive to make such an emphasis possible but not necessarily required.

  7. Jared,

    I don’t think it’s about musicians being vetted/controlled/evaluated by non-musicians (and you’d be surprised, actually, how many theologians are actually musicians themselves or at least know quite a bit about music), it’s about whether musicians understand the context in which they will work, whether they understand the difference between vocation/ministry and pure performance, about whether (for example) the US Bishops’ Three Judgements (which ought to be increased to four, IMHO — add a theological judgement to the others) are at play in the work that they do after graduation. I am very uneasy about a move which potentially makes any knowledge of the rites (their history, their structure, their rationale, their ethos) within which graduate musicians will operate purely optional because those modules are now merely elective. I think if they changed some of the liturgy electives to compulsory core modules, everyone would be a lot happier.

    1. @Paul Inwood – comment #7:

      I agree in principle, and again, I found my liturgy classes very helpful (in spite of some discomfort with ideology taking precedence over academic inquiry). But at the same time I think ND will be more competitive nationally with the MSM housed in the music department rather than theology. Also remember that just because someone passes a course does not mean that they understand the subject well or incorporate it in their personal and professional outlook. Perhaps only those students who desire liturgical courses will truly benefit from them anyway. At any rate, ND students will still have more exposure to liturgical studies than almost any other graduate organ and conducting students in the country.

      1. @Jared Ostermann – comment #8:
        the MSM won’t be housed in music department. It is now an independent entity not housed in theology or music.

  8. Having just completed my MA in Theology at Notre Dame, I saw this transition play out over eight summers there. I am saddened but not surprised for many of the reasons already raised. I remember how Fr. Michael Driscoll championed this program enthusiastically as a way to wed musical rigor to the liturgical excellence ND had been known for over decades.

    Regarding the liturgy core courses, I have no ambiguity. As a musician with 20 years of parish experience, I am outraged by the decision. This does not just diminish the importance of Catholic identity, but Christian identity. Those core courses instilled an understanding of the development of Christianity in the East and West, Catholic and Protestant traditions. But let’s be clear, this was not a question about curriculum as much as a political and economic re-direct.

    Finally, Jared, I had to think hard about your line, “It can be uncomfortable for a skill-based practitioner such as a musician to be graded and evaluated by a non-musical theologian.” It gets to the very heart of the issue, doesn’t it? If you’re a church musician, then you’re not just a skill-based practitioner, you’re a minister and that comes with a responsibility for which music is just the doorway.

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