Jun 15, 2003

What’s so Sacred about Sacred Music?

Online Edition

– Vol. IX, No. 4: June 2003

What’s so Sacred about Sacred Music?

Is "Sacredness" a Matter of Taste, or an Objective Reality?

by The Rev. James T. Benzmiller

Over the past thirty years, more and more people, both musicians and non-musicians alike, have come to believe that what constitutes sacred music is simply a matter of taste or inculturation, or worse, has become a moot point. Many claim that there is no distinction, and should not be any, between sacred and secular forms of music. (It is true that in centuries past the distinction between sacred and secular forms was less discernible, but the distinction has been widening for hundreds of years).

Many lengthy articles have been written about the nature of


music. It is my hope to show briefly that the teaching of the Church defines a corpus of music that is


and that she has delineated standards for new


music. Furthermore, the definitions and standards are objectively set forth in the documents of the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, and that therefore the issue is not merely a matter of taste or inculturation.

It might seem too obvious, but the very fact that Vatican documents use the term


to refer to music for the Liturgy, indicates that the Church believes there is such a thing as music which is


. There must therefore be a distinction between that music which is


and therefore appropriate for use in the Liturgy, and that music which is

not sacred

, and therefore


appropriate for use in the Liturgy.

In the United States, publishers of hymnals and worship booklets no longer use the word


in connection with music for the Liturgy. First they gave us the term

Liturgical Music

, a term also used by the music committee of the US bishops conference. This has given way to

Ritual Song

. Such altered terminologies are not insignificant.




are not at all synonymous with



Article 112 of

Sacrosanctum Concilium

, the Second Vatican Councils Constitution on the Liturgy, states that "…sacred music and words…" form "…a necessary and integral part of the solemn liturgy", that "…Roman pontiffs … in more recent times, led by Saint Pius X, have explained more precisely the ministerial function exercised by sacred music…", that "… the Church approves of all forms of true art having the needed qualities and admits them into divine worship", and re-iterated the purpose of sacred music "…which is the glory of God and the sanctification of the faithful".

A few short years after Vatican II the situation regarding sacred music prompted the Sacred Congregation of Rites to issue

Musicam Sacram

on March 5, 1967. It stated:

the new norms concerning the arrangement of the sacred rites and the active participation of the faithful have given rise to several problems regarding sacred music and its ministerial role. These problems appear to be able to be solved by expounding more fully certain relevant principles of the Constitution on the Liturgy…. It is to be hoped that pastors of souls, musicians and the faithful will gladly accept these norms and put them into practice, uniting their efforts to attain the true purpose of sacred music, "which is the glory of God and the sanctification of the faithful" (SC 112).

a) By sacred music is understood that which, being created for the celebration of divine worship, is endowed with a certain holy sincerity of form. 

At this point the document footnotes a most important reference to the Motu Proprio of Saint Pius X, Tra le sollecitudini. Paragraph two of Tra le sollecitudini prescribes what it means for sacred music to be "…endowed with a certain holy sincerity of form". It is that music,

eminently possessing the qualities which belong to liturgical rites, especially holiness and beauty, from which its other characteristic, universality, will follow spontaneously. It must be holy, and therefore avoid everything that is secular, both in itself and in the way it is performed. It must really be an art, since in no other way can it have on the mind of those who hear it the effect which the Church desires in using in her liturgy the art of sound.

But it must also be universal in this sense, namely, that although each country may use in its ecclesiastical music whatever special forms may belong to its own national style, these forms must be subject to the proper nature of sacred music, so that it may never produce a bad impression on the mind of any stranger who may hear it" (emphasis added).

While some might want to argue as to what constitutes holiness and beauty, it is clear that for use at Mass, what is secular is not holy nor beautiful. Musicam Sacram (and the Second Vatican Council) thus exclude from the Mass anything secular. Musicam Sacram re-iterates the genres defined as sacred in Tra le sollecitudini:

"… b) The following come under the title of sacred music here: Gregorian chant, sacred polyphony in its various forms both ancient and modern, sacred music for the organ and other approved instruments, and sacred popular music, be it liturgical or simply religious".

It is clear there is a hierarchy of musical genres that are appropriate in the Liturgy, and this hierarchy has been constant in the Church ever since forms beyond Gregorian Chant developed. But recognizing progress in the arts, Tra le sollecitudini included modern sacred music as a category of sacred music. At the same time it recognized the ever-widening gulf between secular and sacred music and stipulated:

"Nevertheless, since modern music has become chiefly a secular art, greater care must be taken, when admitting it, that nothing profane be allowed, nothing that is reminiscent of theatrical pieces, nothing based as to its form on the style of secular compositions" (n. 5).

The Second Vatican Council and the Sacred Congregation of Rites could not be clearer in defining what constitutes sacred music, and could not be clearer in prohibiting even that which is "reminiscent of theatrical pieces" and that which is secular "as to its form".

Theology underlies the requirement that sacred music, in the words of Saint Pius X and taken up by Musicam Sacram, "…avoid everything that is secular". If the Mass is a sacred action that surpasses all others (cf. SC 7), in which Our Lord Jesus Christ becomes really present under the appearances of bread and wine, and thus God Himself becomes really present, then that has implications for what music expresses those supernatural realities. If we truly believe that the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is indeed a sacrifice, a re-presentation of Calvary, and the Second Vatican Council did nothing to alter that theology, then it is essential that music used at Mass be sacred, otherwise it is incapable of expressing these most sublime sacred realities. If however, Holy Mass were merely a human event, a prayer service, a familial gathering, a communal meal or a tent revival meeting, then a very different kind of music might be appropriate.

Musical form supports and lends its own expressive quality to the text and is not simply a matter of preference of one musical style over another, or of "inculturation". Secular music cannot be wedded to sacred realities any more than sacred music can be wedded to secular realities.

Gregorian Chant is just as inappropriate for the theater as are broadway-style tunes, jazz or polkas for the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. The situation we find ourselves in today however is that much or most of the music admitted into the sacred liturgy is indeed thoroughly secular in form – not to mention often theologically in error. Stylistically, it might be appropriate for a religious radio or TV program, a prayer service or youth rally, but it is not appropriate for Holy Mass.

What can be done?

Ultimately the problem is theological. An erosion in people’s understanding of the true nature of the Mass demands catechesis — real teaching — to enable parishioners to regain an understanding of and appreciation for just what the Mass is, and what is happening during it. Before sacred music will be successfully re-introduced into the liturgy, the Mass as sacrifice, the mediative presence of Christ and His Real Presence in the Eucharistic Species will need to be widely reappropriated. Cultural sources should be considered, as well. Where did the early Christians get their liturgical music? From the Synagogue, not from Herod’s palace.

In the meantime, the best we can probably hope for is to choose from the modern religious music that which comes closest to meeting the requirements set forth in the Vatican documents and that is not doctrinally in error. Put another way, from the standpoint of musical form, the more a piece of music reminds one of or resembles some secular style, the less appropriate it is for use at Holy Mass.


Father James T. Benzmiller is pastor of the Church of Notre Dame, Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin. Before entering the seminary, he was a church organist and music director. He was ordained in 1999 by Bishop Raymond L. Burke.



The Editors