Category Archives: Vatican II

Joining the Choir

In the midst of one of the greatest Christian persecutions, Pliny the Younger wrote a letter to the Emperor Trajan seeking his counsel for dealing with Christians.  What makes this letter especially noteworthy is that it is the earliest non-Christian account of Christianity itself, with specific details about the religious practices of the early believers.  In particular, he mentions how those former Christians whom he had met all said that their supposed error was that they “were accustomed to gather before dawn on a certain day and sing a hymn to Christ as if He were God.”  Although understated, it appears remarkable that of all the Christian practices, they remember the liturgical singing best.  It is as if it was so intoxicating that it was a primary cause of their “error.”  They were not alone, even the great St. Augustine expressed a similar conviction, finding the Church mostly vulgar until he heard her singing: “I wept in Thy hymns and canticles, touched to the quick by the voices of Thy sweet-attuned Church” (Confess. ix, 6).

Would either of these two pagans would say anything remotely similar if they were to find harbor in a church during Mass in our own time?  More than likely, not.  Like many aspects of the Sacred Liturgy, liturgical music is approaching a crisis point.  Banal at best, many places throw in a dash of irreverence confusing Mass music with the music of the masses.  Liturgical music ought to be different.  No mere sing-along, it is meant to vest and adorn the liturgy by bringing clarity to what is truly going on around the Faithful. Or, as Pope St. Pius X put it,

“Sacred music, being a complementary part of the solemn liturgy, participates in the general scope of the liturgy, which is the glory of God and the sanctification and edification of the faithful. It contributes to the decorum and the splendor of the ecclesiastical ceremonies, and since its principal office is to clothe with suitable melody the liturgical text proposed for the understanding of the faithful, its proper aim is to add greater efficacy to the text, in order that through it the faithful may be the more easily moved to devotion and better disposed for the reception of the fruits of grace belonging to the celebration of the most holy mysteries.” (Tra Le Sollecitudini Instruction on Sacred Music)

Bad Theology Leads to Bad Music

This is not really a critique of the skills of choir directors or choir members, but a critique of their underlying philosophy.  Many have been trapped within a mindset Pope Benedict XVI calls a “puritanical functionalism of the liturgy conceived in purely pragmatic terms.”  This pithy explanation is rich in substance, saying a number of things all at once.  Foundationally, it lies in a (mis-)application of the call of the Second Vatican Council for the Liturgy to be marked by active participation of all present.  Many have interpreted this to mean that everyone has a function to perform during the liturgy.  But, as the Pope Emeritus points out, the “earthly liturgy is liturgy because and only because it joins what is already in process.”  That is, we are merely participating in God’s work, a work that is cosmic in its dimension.  Our part(-icipipation) is not merely to do a bunch of external activities, but to actively and internally unite ourselves with this Opus Dei, praying that we will personally take ownership of the sacrifice and make it our own.  It is a sacrifice given in “spirit and truth” and thus, first and foremost, requires hearts that are into it.

Anyone who has gone to a concert knows that attentive listening, even if you are not singing or humming along, is a form of participation.  In fact someone doing that, especially when they are out of tune or otherwise don’t have particularly good voices, can ruin the experience for those around them.  Likewise, with musica sacra—listening intently and devoutly to a choir fits the Council’s call for active participation.  But there are those in the congregation who, to quote Pope Benedict XVI again, “who can sing better ‘with the heart’ than ‘with the mouth’; but their hearts are stimulated to sing through the singing of those who have the gift of singing ‘with their mouths.’”  The flip side is that by compelling those to sing who cannot we are not only silencing their hearts, but those around them as well.

The problem, as I mentioned, is not particularly related to skill but to ideology.  With the goal being external uniformity in activity, sacred music suffers.  Musical selection is based upon the ease in which those present may sing along and its capacity to build community through singing.  These two criteria however conflict with what Pope St. Pius X said was the authentic goal: namely that the music be holy and have “goodness of form.”

What Makes Good Liturgical Music

That the music should be holy simply means that it should be set aside as specifically liturgical, that is “closely connected with the liturgical action and… conferring greater solemnity upon the sacred rites” (SC 112).  “Praise and worship” music, Christian rock, and secular “feel-good” music each have their own place, but the liturgy is not that place.  It should be a musical setting of a liturgical text.  This is why the Church has always given the works of Palestrina and Gregorian Chant pride of place because of it solemnity and close connection to the spirit of the liturgy.

Liturgical music should also have “goodness of form” by which Pius X means it should be of high artistic quality.  He said, “it must be true art, for otherwise it will be impossible for it to exercise on the minds of those who listen to it that efficacy which the Church aims at obtaining in admitting into her liturgy the art of musical sounds.”  This is where choirs and choir directors should not fear to shine for the glory of God.  They should strive to play and sing beautifully even if the rest of the congregation cannot join them.  They should see themselves properly as sacraments, making the singing of the angels and saints present.  Their music should raise our minds and hearts to the heights of heaven.

When these two criteria, holiness and beauty, are met, then a third one, universality emerges.  This is what St. Augustine experienced early during his conversion.  By universal St. Pius X means it “in the sense that while every nation is permitted to admit into its ecclesiastical compositions those special forms which may be said to constitute its native music, still these forms must be subordinated in such a manner to the general characteristics of sacred music that nobody of any nation may receive an impression other than good on hearing them.”  One does not need to understand all the words of the music, let alone the Liturgy itself, in order to participate.  As St. Thomas says, “Even if those who listen sometimes do not understand the words being sung, they do understand the reason for singing, namely the praise of God.  And that is sufficient to arouse men to worship” (ST II-II, q.91 art 2).  If the music has beauty, then the clarity of its purpose will emerge and move all those present to worship God more fully during the Mass.

Music has the power to move us in ways that even the best homily could never do.  This power, once harnessed and properly applied, can be the “heart of the Liturgy.”  The crisis point has been reached—it is time to reclaim liturgical music and restore it to its pride of place.

The Spirit of Vatican II?

Shortly after announcing his abdication of the papal throne, Pope Benedict XVI met with the clergy of Rome and spoke (unscripted) to them about the Second Vatican Council.  As a man who was both present at the Council and spent a great deal of his pastoral life energies in implementing it, his comments are particularly relevant as the Church continues to make sense of what St. John Paul II called the greatest gift of the Holy Spirit to the Church in the third millennium.

Volumes could be written on what the Pope Emeritus said that day, there is one point in particular that is worthy of mentioning and that is the struggle within the Church to authentically interpret the Council and to implement it.  This is because there were actually two Councils that “occurred” which Benedict calls the real council and the virtual council.  The latter he saw as a Council of the media in which, led by the press, the teachings of the Council were presented as wholly new.  Thanks to a decided advantage of being able to capture the limited attention span of the priests and laymen in the pew, the “real Council had difficulty establishing itself and taking shape; the virtual Council was stronger than the real Council.”

Of course, any authentic understanding of the Council must begin by examining its purpose.  In an address that he gave to open the second period of the Second Vatican Council, Blessed Paul VI emphasized the pastoral character of the Council and went on to define its four purposes.  They were to come up with a fuller definition of the notion of the Church, to renew the Church, to promote the restoration of unity among all Christians and to initiate a dialogue with the contemporary world.   Perhaps the most overarching theme was the necessity of the Church to be in dialogue with the modern world.  In fact, in the Papal Bull convoking the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, St. John XXIII said that the Council was called “to place the modern world in contact with the life-giving and perennial energies of the Gospel.”   The Pope proposed that this encounter with the world would be carried out through a process of what he called aggiornamento.

As the Church has expanded into different cultures throughout history, she has always done so by a spirit of inculturation.  The Church would look at each new culture and see what elements could be “baptized,” helping to explain the truths of the faith by using something the people were already familiar with.  Think of it as using parables in time.  Parables used some familiar image and make some change to it in order to highlight a truth that had never been seen before (like the farmer who everyone would think “stupid” throwing seed on the walkway to show the “recklessness” of God in giving grace).  So something like local gods were replaced with patron saints—not gods, but powerful intercessors before the One True God but with powers for good similar to their local gods.


Although the word Aggiornamento literally means updating, it is more accurately described as being akin to inculturation, except as applied to a specific time rather than a specific culture.  The Church wanted to examine the modern paradigm, especially the prevailing philosophies and see what elements could be “baptized” to better explain the Faith to the modern world.

Why this was even necessary was because the spirit of the world had eclipsed the Christian spirit.  The Church had been true leaven in the world for a number of centuries and that was no longer the case.  Previously Christian societies were becoming non-Christian, or even decidedly anti-Christian.  In other words, the Church and the World had grown such that they were once again at odds with each other.  This led to a prevailing attitude of pessimism about anything “secular” and a rejection of anything that didn’t have its source in the Church.  This pessimism led to the formation of Catholic ghettos and a serious loss of apostolic zeal.

Even if the members of the City of God wanted to be apostolic, they lacked the language to engage those who lived in the City of Man.  Thus a need to examine the world and see which elements could be included in the Church’s explanation of Revelation and herself.

In order to counter this pessimism, the Council Fathers thought it necessary to point out the positive aspects of the elements of the surrounding culture.  And this is where Pope Benedict’s identification of the two councils is particularly apt.  Because many aspects, heretofore only mentioned in a negative way, are now mentioned in a positive way it appears to be a “change” in the Church’s teaching.  Since the council of the media will only report news, i.e. that which is “new,” then most people will only hear about change.  It will appear as if the Church is finally updating the faith and getting with the times.  If those things changed, then why can’t everything change with the world?  And thus we see the invention of the virtual council’s “Spirit of Vatican II.”

In short, there was a widespread tendency to fall into the most fatal of all fallacies, what I call the “either/or” fallacy.  Fatal, because to be Catholic is to see “both/and.”  This should not surprise us since the basis of our faith is that Jesus is not either God or man, but both God and man.  How this applies to the Council is that it was never intended to replace the negative with the positive.  It emphasized the positive so that we could see the wheat amongst the chaff.  It never meant to say that we should swallow the chaff with the wheat or to say that it was all wheat.

The Power of the Footnote

Take for example the Council’s teachings on other religions, a point that Philip Trower makes in his excellent book on the Council called Truth and Turmoil.  There are two ways of looking at other religions.  They can be seen as systems of belief that make a claim on man’s total allegiance and thus as obstacles to the Gospel or they can be viewed as man’s groping for truth without the help of divine revelation and therefore contains seeds of truth even if imbedded in error.  It is in the latter sense that it is a preparation for the Gospel.  The Council’s emphasis on the latter was just that, a point of emphasis, and not a rejection of the first viewpoint.  Both, of course, are (still)true.

This is why Pope Benedict XVI repeatedly insisted that the “spirit of Vatican II is in the letter.”  What he meant is that you had better read the documents of the real council and not the virtual council before rendering judgement on what actually happened.  Many people are surprised at the contents of the documents when they actually read them.  We all have a tendency to skip over footnotes when reading, but with Church documents it is important to pay attention to them.  They are not merely “prooftexts” but show how the teaching fits within Tradition.  Before you quickly rule something as “new” or “changed” you better make sure the footnotes don’t say something different than your interpretation.  There is great power in the footnotes.

Rather than fall victim an “either/or” mentality, it bears mention that even the “real council” is not without its problems.  But rather than emphasize those problems the question is how to move forward.  It was a valid Council and any Catholic that bears the name must believe that the teaching of any Council ratified by the reigning pope will always be capable of a Catholic interpretation.  That interpretation might not be clear and it may be convoluted because of poor wording.

I don’t think John Paul II was exaggerating or wearing rose colored glasses when he viewed the Council as a gift.  What this means though is that we must look at what the Holy Spirit had in mind when He called (or allowed it to be called) the Council.  That is where the true interpretation lies.  In a time when the Church is greatly divided, it may be the Council and its authentic interpretation that unites us.  This starts with a personal commitment from all the Faithful to read, study and pray through the documents.


Marriage as a Call to Holiness

At the close of the Second Vatican Council in 1965, there were 58,632 priests in the United States, serving a Catholic population of 48.5 million.  In 2014, there were 38,275 priests, serving a total of 79.7 million Catholics.  The number of women religious in our country has seen an even more dramatic decrease, plunging from 179,954 to 49,883 during the same time frame (CARA Church Statistics).    We have labeled this reduction in the number of priests and religious sisters as the “vocation crisis.” We are regularly instructed to “pray the Lord of the harvest to send more laborers” (Mt 9:38).  But what if the issue is really our neglect of the seedbed vocations, namely marriage?  What if we have a priestly vocation crisis because we have a marriage vocation crisis?  The crisis is not just that we have fewer people getting married within the Church (the number of marriages within the Church went from 352,458 to 154,450) , but that we have treated marriage as a second-class vocation for far too long.

This second-class designation is not without a seeming biblical precedent.  In his first letter St. Paul tells the Corinthians that “he who marries his betrothed does well; and he who refrains from marriage will do better” (1 Cor 7:38).  Earlier in the letter (7:9) he tells them that “if they cannot exercise self-control, then they should marry.  For it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion.”  The popular interpretation of this is that the decision between whether one should remain celibate depends upon whether one can control himself or not.  If he cannot, then it is better to be married than not.  Read through the lens of our fallen human nature and thanks to a practical denial of marriage as a Sacrament, marriage became viewed as an outlet for indulging otherwise out of control passions.

This view has predominated for centuries in the Church.  The Church even labeled it as the secondary end of marriage calling it the remedium concupisentiae, which was translated as the remedy of concupiscence (or lust).  It is time that we re-examine this viewpoint to see if it really fits with what St. Paul was saying especially in light of Vatican II’s universal call to holiness.  With this as our understanding, marriage is viewed as being only for those who lack self-control.  It is only a short leap from this to the conclusion that self-control is not necessary in marriage because it offers us a place where we can legitimately engage our lust.  In other words, the call to holiness for married people comes despite their vocation and not because of it.

As an aside, I have to say that the need to work out a theology of marriage should have been a major focus of the Synod of the Family the past two years.  Instead they debated secondary issues like gay marriage and Communion for the remarried, wasting the Church’s time and money.  How many people actually want Communion that are remarried?  Why not focus on properly setting the ideal of marriage and showing how that can be a source of sanctification rather than look for loopholes to let a distorted view seem legitimate?

Once Vatican II and the subsequent popes began looking at marriage through a personalist perspective, framing marriage in terms of its unitive and procreative aspects, the term remedium concupisentiae was dropped from the Church’s vocabulary.  But the question is still open and marriage will still be viewed as a lesser vocation until it is addressed.  Rather than dropping the term, we should return to its roots because it contains an important truth.  St. Thomas and the Church fathers before him translated remedium concupisentiae as the remedy against concupiscence.  This change in a preposition makes all the difference.

Sts. Louis and Zelie Martin

St. Thomas says marriage is a remedy against concupiscence because it offers graces to overcome the self-seeking aspects of (married) love.  Love means making a gift of yourself and marriage offers us a unique way in which our love can be purified because it requires a total gift of oneself.  Through the grace of the sacrament of Marriage, the tendency to live a life of selfish taking is overtaken by a life of generous love.  In other words, one of the primary effects of marriage is that it purifies the love of the spouses.  It is not just a purification of the love for each other that occurs, but a purification of the love for God as well.

Each and every Sacrament is a real encounter with Christ and the Sacrament of Marriage is no different.  Although it is a “great mystery,” (Eph. 5:32) the spouses by being ministers of the Sacrament of Marriage bestow Christ on one another.  This occurs not just on the day of their wedding, but every day.  This is why St. Paul commands spouses to be subordinate to one another out of reverence for Christ (Eph. 5:21).  This isn’t meant to be interpreted poetically, but sacramentally.  The spouses really act in persona Christi to one another.  How often in our married life it is necessary to call this truth to mind!

Returning to the text in 1 Corinthians we can begin to see why St. Paul wishes everyone to be as he is without in any way denigrating marriage.  In the case of celibacy emotional love is purified through a “special gift from God” (1Cor 7:7) while in the case of the spouses, their love is purified through marriage lived out in a “truly human way” (Gaudium et Spes, 49), bolstered by the Sacrament of Marriage.  Both celibates and married however have the same ideal, namely for their love to be purified of concupiscence.  In the case of the married they actually grow in holiness through this struggle, while the celibate simply live out the gift.

This is why the Church has always insisted that the initial discernment should always be between celibacy and marriage.  If one discerns he has been given the gift of celibacy then he would discern how that call is to be lived out (laity or clergy).  Proper discernment would never consist (at least initially) in marriage vs priestly/religious life.

Looked at from the perspective of potential for holiness, Marriage is actually the higher calling.  The celibate gains no merit for the gift of celibacy per se (recognizing there is merit in responding to this gift).  His love is purified by a singular grace.  The married person however must actively cooperate with the grace of the Sacrament of Marriage daily.  St. Paul himself says this when he mentions that married life is the harder path because of the concerns of the spouses and the world (1 Cor 7:32-35).  If the path to holiness is harder, then there is greater merit when it is achieved.

As somewhat empirical proof of this second class status, the number of married persons among declared saints is extraordinarily few as compared to the number celibates.  This sends the message that marriage is not so much a calling but a human concession.  Back in October, the Church canonized Sts. Louis and Zelie Martin who became the first married couple with children to be canonized in the same ceremony, but this should be seen merely as a start.  Surely there are many other married people in heaven and the Church would do a great service to married couples by opening up causes of other married saints.  Sts Louis and Zelie Martin, pray for us!




On the Meaning of Dialogue

Last week marked the 50th anniversary of the promulgation of a small, but significant document from the Second Vatican Council called Nostra Aetate.  This Declaration on the relationship between the Church and non-Christian religions has been repeatedly hailed as a watershed document marking the Church’s newfound openness to other religions.  It is often summed up in two sentences directly quoted from the document, “[T]he Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in these religions. She regards with sincere reverence those ways of conduct and of life, those precepts and teachings which, though differing in many aspects from the ones she holds and sets forth, nonetheless often reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all men” (NA, 2).  Like many of the documents of the Council, its overall positive tone has made the Church look more appealing to many.   But this strategy to “accentuate the positive” because it went unchecked, has led to a culture of universalism.  The Church rejecting “nothing that is true and holy in these religions” has really become the belief that the Church “rejects nothing in these religions because they contain things that are true and holy.”  As proof of this, one well known Jesuit author claims that Nostra Aetate has led to an irreversible openness in the Church and to the belief that “Jesus is radiant and alive in whatever paths lead to God, whatever is true, whatever is life giving.”

Like many of the documents of the Council, Nostra Aetate has been caught up by the “Spirit of Vatican II” and has been used to suck the life out of the Church.  When it comes to this particular document however, the Church offered an authoritative interpretation when the Declaration On the Unicity and Salvific Universality of Jesus Christ and the Church or, simply Dominus Iesus, was issued in 2000.  Anyone who attempts to interpret Nostra Aetate (or Unitatis Redintegratio on the Church’s relationship to other Christians for that matter) without putting on the lens of Dominus Iesus will often succumb to the gravity of universalism.

When Dominus Iesus was released there were accusations that it lacked a certain amount of tact and that it set the Church backwards in her relationship with other non-Catholics.  Once the initial waves of indignation settled down it was mostly ignored despite its clarifying purpose.  It is important to note however that this document carries the same Magisterial weight as Nostra Aetate.  Both documents fall under the category of “Declaration” which means they represent a joint statement of the Pope and another religious leader or leaders regarding what ought to be considered a common understanding of some teaching.

According to Cardinal Ratzinger in Dominus Iesus, there are two truths which go hand in hand in our relationship with other religions.  First, the real possibility for salvation exists for all mankind only in Christ.  The second is not that “Jesus is alive and radiant” in other religions, but that the Church is absolutely necessary for the mediation of this salvation.  One may certainly recognize that within these religious traditions there are elements that come from God and even open up the human heart for the way of the Gospel.  But they also contain superstition and other errors that can also be a genuine obstacle to salvation.  Through the different phases of dialogue we may want to emphasize either of those aspects, but ultimately dialogue that never gets to the superstitions and other errors in order to free the followers of the false religion from them is fruitless.

Dominus Iesus

What then is the purpose of this type of document within the corpus of the Council?  It was meant to be part of an overall call to evangelize.  The Church had become closed in on itself in many ways and so the Council hoped to arm the Faithful with a means of encountering those outside the Church—but always with the intention of bringing them back into the Church.  The openness of the Church always has the goal of closing her doors behind the new members that enter.  As Blessed Paul VI said in his Apostolic Exhortation on Evangelization, the Church “exists in order to evangelize, that is to say, in order to preach and teach, to be the channel of the gift of grace, to reconcile sinners with God, and to perpetuate Christ’s sacrifice in the Mass, which is the memorial of His death and glorious resurrection” (Evangelii Nuntiandi, 14).

For those who are familiar with the Latin Mass, it ends with the words Ite Missa Est, which literally means “She is sent.”  The Mass empowers us to be sent out into the world so that we might return with more members.

The optimism of the documents was meant to supply an opening to the Faithful in their encounters.  By rejecting “nothing that is true and holy in these religions” it presents common ground for the evangelizer to begin their presentation of the Gospel and invitation to discipleship.  From the Church’s perspective, dialog is part and parcel of evangelization.  It should always have the goal of conversion.  Today, dialogue has become something like negotiations.  Many think that it should be approached as some sort of zero-sum game in that if the Church would be willing to concede that Jesus’ salvific role is not unique, then Muslims would be willing to admit that He may be the savior of Christians just not the savior of Muslims.  The Council recognized that when there are truths at stake there are no winners and losers.  One side’s loss is a loss for both sides and one side’s gain is a gain for both sides.

If we only practice an openness to other religions and not a strong desire to bring them more fully to Christ, then we have failed.  What they offer is already found in the beauty of the Catholic Church.  Certainly the emphasis that other religions place on certain aspects of the truth may help us to see it more clearly in the Church, but still there is nothing loving about leaving them where they are.

At the close of Dominus Iesus, Cardinal Ratzinger supplied some additional ground rules for dialogue that are well worth repeating.  Beginning with the idea of equality he clarifies that this “refers to the equal personal dignity of the parties in dialogue, not to doctrinal content, nor even less to the position of Jesus Christ — who is God himself made man — in relation to the founders of the other religions.”  He also reminds us that if we are truly guided by charity and respect for individual freedom then the Church will be “primarily committed to proclaiming to all people the truth definitively revealed by the Lord, and to announcing the necessity of conversion to Jesus Christ and of adherence to the Church through Baptism and the other sacraments, in order to participate fully in communion with God, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.”  The point is that by treating the mission of evangelizing with some urgency we are most assuredly doing the will of God, who wills that all men be saved. Salvation is found in the truth and those who obey the promptings of the Spirit of truth are on their way toward it—but it remains for the Church who has been entrusted as its guardian to “go out and meet their desire.”