Non Solum: Do All Catholic Choir Members Have to Be Believers and Catholics?

Back when I wrote my big book, I argued in Chapter 18 (“Problem Area II: The Role of the Choir”), in footnote 23 on page 388, that is can be acceptable to have non-Catholics and non-believers in a Catholic choir when the Catholic community has decided that it values the presence of such singers for the sake of its common worship. I was channeling Fr. Aidan Kavanagh OSB, my thesis advisor at Yale, who said more than once to me that the choir had an essentially musical role and hence one should admit members on the basis of musical ability. “It is notoriously difficult to establish … boundaries,” I pointed out. I advocated for flexibility and openness, even as I argued that the choir has a liturgical role.

Then I was on the drafting committee for the US bishops’ document Sing to the Lord: Music in Divine Worship (2007), and the issue came up again and went in a different direction. The final document emphasized at nos. 49-50 (excerpted below) that liturgical musicians are disciples and belong to the assembly of the baptized faithful.

What do you think? The issue is shot through with lots of complication, and application of any principles will require sensitivity. There are reasons why various congregations might come up with different answers to the question, depending on the way in which congregations understand their musical ministry. Is it notoriously difficult to establish boundaries? What should they be? How should they be applied?

49. Liturgical musicians are first of all disciples, and only then are they ministers. Joined to Christ through the Sacraments of Initiation, musicians belong to the assembly of the baptized faithful; they are worshipers above all else. Like other baptized members of the assembly, pastoral musicians need to hear the Gospel, experience conversion, profess faith in Christ, and so proclaim the praise of God. Thus, musicians who serve the Church at prayer are not merely employees or volunteers. They are ministers who share the faith, serve the community, and express the love of God and neighbor through music.

50. All pastoral musicians—professional or volunteer, full-time or part-time, director or choir member, cantor or instrumentalist—exercise a genuine liturgical ministry. [See Sacrosanctum Conciliium, no. 29]


  1. If these guidelines are seen as an ideal, or a goal to work toward, they are fitting. But if they are interpreted as a litmus test for who is or is not allowed to serve it would be short-sighted.

    I have known many people who came to (or back to) faith and to the church through music, i.e. first became involved as musicians and later heard and accepted the Gospel. Sometimes this process takes years or decades to play out. It would be foolish to show these people the door on day one.

  2. I can’t speak in regard to non-Christian choir members, but the church choir in my home parish (decades ago) included several non-Catholic members who sang with us for vigil services at Easter and Christmas. Our priest director was himself a convert to Catholicism, and I know he valued them not only as singers but as members of the church at prayer, linked by shared baptism in Christ.

  3. We use non-Catholic and occasionally non-Christian professional singers with some regularity. I always hope (and pray) that sacred music and experiencing the rites of the Catholic Faith will bring them one step closer to Christ and His Church.

    We only use Catholics as Psalmists during Mass – and this does slightly weigh into my hiring decisions, so Catholics do have a slight advantage. But if I have an A- non-Catholic voice auditioning vs a C+ Catholic voice, the A- will win.

  4. I also wonder if there is a distinction between a paid musician and a volunteer choir member for example.

    When I first started working as a church musician, it was always at Protestant churches, several of which said flat out that they would prefer their organist to not be a registered member of their church for the purposes of church politics and conflicts of interest; neither did the synagogue that I worked at care that I wasn’t Jewish.

    So when I started reading Catholic job postings about looking for a “practicing Catholic in good standing” I was confused and amused. And a little insulted, since it sounds almost like “[insert social group] need not apply.”

    1. @Jonathan Ziegler:

      +1 Jonathan! This is my second-hand experience as well. A good Catholic friend of mine cantored at a Reform Jewish temple. The rabbi and temple board were just fine with the arrangement. I also don’t at all see what’s wrong with a non-adherent providing vocal or instrumental accompaniment for a diversity of religious traditions.

      I think the “no one but Catholics in good stead apply” stipulation is an attempt by pastors and bishops to avoid the possibility of certain perceived scandals. In my view, the scandal which some clergy are trying to avoid is the possiblity that a cantor, organist, chorister, or other participant in the musical ministry of a parish is openly LGBT, uses birth control, is cohabitating, or does not practice the faith despite baptism and confirmation. All of these concerns strike me as petty control-freak machinations. I am not surprised at all that parishioners are often much more tolerant and even protective of their ministers than the clergy.

      Many of the most talented and dedicated organists and choirmasters I have known have been or are gay. Most have not declared their sexuality to the churches they work for. However, if a musician or chorister declares that he or she is indeed gay or lesbian, I would give him or her my complete support. I’m sickened by parishes who will turn out gay or lesbian workers in the vineyard simply with the pathetic excuse “what would the parish think?” Lemme tell you — most people of good will do not care about this. Let’s all get real.

  5. As for the choir, I don’t “check ID’s” but I do teach the choir that their role is not only liturgical but a statement of their Catholic Faith. If I am aware that there are non – Catholic members, I welcome them as they are and leave it up to the Holy Spirit to do her job. At times, it is necessary to explain facets of our Catholic Faith to all the choir members and I do so in a simple, matter of fact, manner.

    I believe that we are first disciples who use quality sacred/liturgical music as our language to profess the Gospel. Although I have participated in inter – faith services, I would not serve in the role as a paid/volunteer pastoral musician outside the Catholic Church because the ministry in which I serve is an outward sign of my Catholic Faith.

    Anytime I say “Amen”, I am saying, “yes, I believe”. “Amen” is a powerful word we take for granted. This is why I would not hire a non-Catholic to serve as a cantor or psalmist. Those are leadership roles in which people in the pews sees the psalmist/cantor as models of the Faith that the psalmist/cantor is proclaiming while in that specific role. Respectfully, I would not ask a non – Catholic to say “Amen” to something that is outside of their own belief system.

    When people see us serving in a specific role in Church, there is an expectation that we live as we proclaim to believe. In the early days as a volunteer music minister, I was shopping at the local grocer after Mass. As I am minding my own business, I hear a child’s voice yell, “Mommy, Mommy!. Look! It is the Church Lady!”

    For the sake of that child, I am reminded that my role as a Catholic Pastoral Musician, paid or volunteer, does require that I do strive to live as I proclaim to believe. It is not an issue of hospitality or elitism.

    When the people in the pews look at me or anyone else who serves at liturgy there is an expectation and trust that we strive to live as we proclaim to believe as members of the Catholic Church. It is a responsibility not to be…

  6. Why would a non-Catholic or non-believer want to join the choir in a Catholic church? A number of possible reasons, I suppose: They love music/singing. Their Catholic spouse goes to Mass at that church. They get paid a generous stipend for leading the bass (or alto or soprano or whatever) section. They like Catholic ritual. It may be their way of exploring the possibility of entering the Church.
    How does the Church or a parish regard choir members: as functionaries performing a task or, like every liturgical minister, as members of a community/Body called to give praise and sent forth to give witness?
    Should an educated and competent non-Catholic serve as the director of a parish faith formation program?

  7. It’s an interesting question, but I can tell you from personal experience there are lots of non-Catholic choir members here in the South. Some are paid professionals, some are spouses of Catholic members, and almost all of them know more about music than your average Catholic. Most of us are grateful for their help, and probably haven’t considered the underlying liturgical issue.

  8. LOL. The Bishops should start by reforming the choir in the Basilica of the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception then.

    Honestly, I actually think it’s the right policy strictly for theological reasons. However, It is honored in the breach at way to many Cathedrals for anyone to take it seriously.

    1. @Todd Orbitz:

      LOL. The Bishops should start by reforming the choir in the Basilica of the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception then.

      A very cheap potshot, Mr. Orbitz, unbecoming of the legacy that Dr. Latona has brought to SIMC. Perhaps the quality of that choir during the Liturgy of the Hours at which HHE Benedict XVI was present had some sway in the improvement of Capella Sixtini of late.

      1. @Charles Culbreth:
        I guess I didn’t read it as a cheap shot. Todd was just pointing out that this is the policy at the National Shrine. That could be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on your perspective. I think Todd was only pointing out the interesting difference between the Shrine and a literal reading of SttL.

      2. @Anthony Ruff, OSB:
        Father, you and I know both know that a literal reading of SttL is a fool’s errand. I’m, like my now Left Coast Bro Todd F., very tired of proof-texting (even of legitimate legislative documents) in order to advance preposterous notions of orthodoxy. I am at PrayTellBlog, am I not?

      3. @Charles Culbreth:
        It wasn’t a cheap potshot. I served Mass at the Shrine for over 10 years. It has been common there for literally decades. I was commenting on the irony of the fact the Bishops would suggest this when they seem to ignore it there, across the street from the USCCB and Theological College.

        I have no problem with the quality of the chant or the choir itself at the Shrine. It’s pretty good. I haven’t been back recently, but I wonder if the screeching blue lady cantor is still there. I always thought that she must be the one Thomas Day referenced in his early work.

        Look if the Bishops wish the choirs to be Catholic (as I actually agree they should be), they should damn well focus on their own choirs in their cathedrals and also fix their issues at the Basilica of the Shrine.

      4. @Todd Orbitz:
        Well, Todd, you’ve not been keeping with current events with your citation of Mrs. Brubaker under the direction of my old friend Leo Nestor. And that’s not recent, Todd. Nor is her mention necessary to the discussion. “If the Bishops wish…” was a most unfortunate criteria to hang your hat on, and the notion that they could even “damn well focus” is patently, regrettably laughable.

      5. @Charles Culbreth:
        I will note that it was not me who introduced the particular name of a person. Perhaps you should reach out to Mrs. Brubaker and let her know that you though I was referring to her when I referenced a “screeching blue lady”.

        That was you putting a name with a description, not me.

      6. @Todd Orbitz:
        Look, Todd, the unnecessary and unflattering citation you used in order to advance your contention is on you. The world of liturgy geeks is fairly small, so drawing a conclusion about who you were defaming wouldn’t have been difficult. I have the utmost respect for the husband/wife team, and since we both respect Leo, one would have to wonder how anyone could think he’d deploy a “screeching blue lady” as a Psalmist. The lady in question is/was a trained soprano, bel canto. There was never a “screecher” in the epistle ambo at the Shrine.

      7. @Charles Culbreth:
        Again, you draw the concludion you draw, and I heard overpowering screeching into a microphone that overwhelmed the congregation on a regular basis.

        While I respect and admire Leo, I have never favored his choice in that area.

        Having been an infantryman, I had some normal hearing damage, but I never had tinnitus until I stood next to a speaker in the Shrine one day while the floating blue lady intoned a verse in a particularly horrific way. Ever since then, my left ear will start ringing once or twice a month for 45-75 seconds. It throws me entirely off balance, and I usually have to sit down on the floor for a minute or two. Do I have proof this is a result of the blue lady? No. It may well have been one of the maledictory psalms. Who knows.

  9. Further on in Sing to the Lord, the document talks about Directors of Music at the diocesan or parish level, and how it is probable that many of them will not be Catholic becuase of the necessary skills required to successfully discharge those duites. In my limited expperience with non-Catholic diocesan Music Directors, the lack of Catholic faith did not seemingly matter. Some of the liturgies planned and directed by this man were the most Big C Catholic liturgies I’ve experienced.

    We have a non-Catholic cantor with extensive vocal training and experience singing at my parish where I work as Music Director. I feel that as long as she is willing tio deliver the prayers with her whole heart and soul, which she certainly does, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, (and her Music Director) are all quite pleased.

  10. Two points:

    (1) People who are not baptized can still attend Mass without receiving the Eucharist, so it seems odd to say that choir members are part of the “assembly of the baptized faithful” when not all people in the assembly may be baptized or particularly faithful.

    (2) I would say that whether they intend to or not, everybody singing in the choir IS ministering to the church. If they are agnostic but sing beautifully, help the other choir members, and communicate that to the assembly, that is a marvelous ministry. God accepts our best gifts whether we give them intentionally or accidentally!

    I am biased; I grew up Presbyterian, but was employed by Catholic churches, and was confirmed Catholic at the Cathedral of the Madeleine. Think that would have ever happened had not some pastors decided to value skill above actual Church membership? I doubt it. And the fact was, because I took the time to study the documents, I was more knowledgeable than many Catholic musicians, I am sorry to say.

    The Madeleine Choir has quite a number of singers, both adult and child, who are not Catholic. Sometimes they go through baptism and/or confirmation, and that’s great, but regardless, they are all providing a rich liturgical ministry. To be blunt, if all the adults had to be Catholic in LDS-dominated Salt Lake City, they would never be able to pull off the rep they do. That’s fairly typical across the country – with notable exceptions, Catholics tend to have poorer musical education, so the Protestants are almost always more skilled singers.

    Regarding Matthew’s point about psalmists – I find STTL ambiguous, because it gives permission for the psalm to be sung from some other location than the ambo, in which case it would not be part of the Liturgy of the Word, right? That produces a strange situation in which it would be fine for a non-Catholic to sing it from another location, but not from the ambo.

  11. Oh here we go again with “non-Catholic” being played around. Is this non-catholic baptized? Is this a liturgical function heretics buddhists, orthdox, Jews, cannot participate in? A “non-catholic” who marries a Catholic and who has been married before has to get an annulment and so is bound by Catholic marriage discipline. While waiting for the annulment, maybe they can sing in the choir?

  12. View from the pew:
    Regarding: “They are ministers who share the faith, serve the community, and express the love of God and neighbor through music.”
    – If something like this is part of a job description or announcement, then, no doubt, potential applicants would self select or deselect before applying.
    – Happily, the sentence provides a very broad context to questions such as, “why I like to sing?”, and, “why do I want to sing in a church during liturgies?”. The answers, fumbling though they could be, would indicate a willingness to contribute to the benefit of the community as the community understands those benefits.
    – Perhaps, the foundation for receiving a non catholic or non christian as a choir member is the teaching that even non-christians can baptize, as long as the intention is there to do what the church would have done. That is, even a non christian choir member having decided to sing in a church choir would then sing of God as the church would.

  13. If baptism starts one on the journey of discipleship than clearly “disciples” include more than Catholics.

  14. As has been noted a couple of times above, there are real regional differences as to how this plays out. I am a church organist, Lutheran, and my wife is Catholic. When living in Kentucky and Georgia, I regularly played at Catholic parishes, for Mass of the Air, and was organist for five years in a Catholic parish. When we moved to Michigan, we discovered it was absolutely unheard of for a non-Catholic to play or serve as cantor at a Catholic Mass (before I realized ythis, I once was asked to play a Mass, mentioned in passing conversation after the service that I was Lutheran, and not only was never asked to play again – the parish refused to pay me for the service I had played). The Catholic church here is much less ecumenical, in every respect, than what we experienced further south.

    1. @John Schuster-Craig:
      John, your experience may not be universal. When I was first working in the Catholic Church, I had jobs in the Diocese of Evansville (Indiana), Archdiocese of Detroit, and Archdiocese of Omaha before I ever became Catholic. I suspect it may be more of a parochial issue rather than regional. However, I grant you that there may be more of these issues in areas that still have some Catholic-Lutheran antagonism.

      I supervised several organ scholars/assistant organists in Salt Lake, all of whom were LDS. My predecessor there, Andy Unsworth, was also LDS (now one of the Tabernacle Organists). I had to gently suggest to the organ scholars that they probably shouldn’t be playing their favorite LDS hymn arrangements that had no relevance in the Catholic liturgy. The best of them were willing to adapt to what we were doing – when in Rome…

      1. @Doug O’Neill:
        I should have said *Western* Michigan, rather than just Michigan. Over here, the largest Protestant denomination is Christian Reformed, which, until just recently, had some very strong anti-Catholic language in its catechism. Since Lutherans and Espicopalians are pretty rare around here, I think many Catholics in the area tend to see all Protestants as fundamentalist, if not genuinely anti-Catholic. Again – the regional variations are significant – even within the same state. Thank you for your post.

  15. It sounds to me like this question is actually a particular instance of the broader issue of whether non-Catholics have some/any place within the liturgy.

    Last year, in a sermon series on the New Evangelization, the pastor of a large, Midwestern Catholic campus ministry explained that we first evangelize through secular social means–growing in fellowship through relationships formed out “in the world.” Then, and only then, comes the liturgy. Harkening to the patristic practice, he described the liturgy as a “closed door” club for the initiated–not part of the process of evangelization but rather the culmination of it.

    Yes, but…

    What would Dorothy Day or Thomas Merton have to say to this? Or for that matter, the actual experience of the Church as she’s grown over centuries. Getting at this question is getting at the question of non-Catholix liturgical musicians.

    Thinking of the theology historically it’s easy to say that the Rites belong to the baptized–end of story, as it were. But of course, it’s never that simple. Nowadays we have non-baptized non-Catholics and baptized non-Catholics. In the latter case, there’s clearly some ecclesial affinity, albeit imperfect. Where to draw the line (if hard lines must be drawn)?

    One could look at this practically or normatively too. As many comments have observed, frequently a non-Catholic candidate delivers better than the Catholic candidate. While the theological reality of the liturgy remains the technical components of executing it present a dilemma. At the risk of oversimplifying this in economic terms: the choice often boils down to choosing to maximize either quality or quantity. Musicians who intimately understand the technical hurdles of doing good music well understandably go with the choice that “gets the job done.” Although this might scandalize some Catholics it needn’t do so. (Even paying Catholic section leaders has surprised clergy in my experience). I like Jacques Maritain’s explanation that the virtue of the artist is the…

  16. God knows, the Sistine Choir wasn’t able to get rid of the last of the castrati until the early 20th century, regardless of how many prohibitions had been stated previously.

  17. If one can argue that a talented psalmist who is not Catholic can serve in that capacity at a Catholic Mass, why could there not be talented lectors who are not Catholic. The psalm, after all, is one of the liturgy’s scripture passages.

  18. It’s ironic that SttL 49 seems to be intended to emphasize the role of musicians of servants, not just practitioners; but taken literally sounds exclusionary. I once worked with a Jewish girl who was in the choir. She sang the Creed with gusto no problem. She was willing to abide by our practices, but under a strict interpretation of this, we would have had to boot her out – and not just out of the choir, but out of the church entirely.

  19. Some of the best liturgical musicians who have contributed to Catholic worship greatly are not Catholic, i.e. Marty Haugen. Do we want to exclude these people just because they are not Catholic?

    This also goes for issues of canon law of marriage. We have liturgical musicians who are not adhering to the strict interpretation of what is or is not permissible, do we exclude them? (I suspect some will say yes)

    I am reminded of the time when our liturgical music instructor in seminary converted to Reformed Judaism because of a relationship she was in. The faculty went absolutely nuts and she was eventually removed from teaching.

    I don’t know what the answer is here. Liturgical musicians in the church are supposed to be models of Christian life, but how far can we push this?

  20. The question here strikes me as closely related to another: must the music sung by a Catholic choir be composed by a Catholic composer?

    If the answer is “yes,” then a lot of Catholic hymnals need to be reworked, and a lot of music libraries likely need a thorough cleaning. There’s a fair amount of music from non-Catholics on the lips of Catholic choirs and parish members. See “Bach, Johann Sebastian,” “Wesley, Charles,” . . .

    If the answer is “no,” then that strongly suggests that the answer to the question of this post is also “no.” The logic of the church saying “you can write music for our choirs to sing, but you can’t sing it yourself” is strained at best.

    1. @Peter Rehwaldt:
      No more than the builders of the church, or the organ, or the utility company, or the printers of the hymnal, et cet., none of whom is actively engaged in liturgical ministry during worship.

  21. Having read the preceding 38 comments, I think that this question now suffers from a great deal of overthink. The first choir I sang in was mixed – the Protestant guy sang with the Catholic Choir because he was then engaged to a Catholic woman in the Catholic Choir. He sang also in the Protestant Choir and school Glee Club, as far as that goes. And in the decades since I’ve been in choirs where some of the very talented musicians were not Catholic. From what I can tell no scandal ever ensued and none were led into apostasy.

    On a practical level, do we really need to care? For some years my mom participated in a handbell choir at a local Protestant church after attending mass. She enjoyed the doing and they had a hole filled. I’m going to be bold and suggest that God probably didn’t take offense.

    Can it be enough that a person has musical skill and isn’t going about their life in a notoriously un-Godly fashion? I would have said “notoriously non-Catholic” or “notoriously un-Christian” but that would leave out some talented Jewish or Buddhist or Hindu musicians who are living very upstanding lives. And if a person meets those criteria and offers their skills to the group, why would we NOT make use of the resource in front of us? God does provide, and often enough our prayers aren’t answered completely to our specifications. I think this wouldn’t be any different.

    Might God be able to sort out the rest?

  22. Our choir consists of Protestants (of various hues), Catholics and those of no religious belief at all. For us, the ability to sing the kind of repertoire we have is the key requirement, and even if we were legally allowed to impose restrictions (which we are not), we wouldn’t do so. This is because, without any overt attempt at evangelisation, the beauty and majesty of the liturgy is the best catechetical tool at our disposal, and it is not unknown for musicians who were initially drawn to us because of the opportunity to sing, for example, Allegri’s Miserere in the context for which it is written, to be moved to be received into full communion because of their gradual exposure to the truths of the Catholic Faith that the liturgy unfolds before them.

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