One More Disaster to Consider: How Many Deficient Catholic Hymns are in YOUR Hymnal?

Four months ago, in the midst of various international crises, extraordinary US national tensions, vast economic and emotional turmoil, and, last but not least, a global pandemic, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops Committee on Doctrine released a document on evaluating Catholic hymnody.

Perhaps they thought Catholics needed a good distraction.  The document, as our contributor, Alan Hommerding, well-evaluated earlier this month, addresses issues that Catholics “should have had thirty or forty years ago” regarding the significance of the words we use when we sing.

Of course words matter.  But words carried by music seem to have an even more mysterious hold upon our spiritual psyche.  Trapped in a catchy tune, or emotionally tied to some specific event or worshipping community, even dull lyrics bring a prick of (joyful) tears or prompt our hearts to turn toward warm memories.

But, emotional feelings aside, I’m a bit curious about the hymn texts which were pointed out as bad examples.  The document is more subtle than I will be, below, as it does not name names.  The Committee on Doctrine reports having reviewed some 1000 hymns written, mostly, between 1980-2015.  These are the ones named in the document as examples of deficient doctrine:

Deficient in Eucharistic Doctrine:

  • God is Here! As We His People (Fred Pratt Green, 1979, Hope Publishing Co.)
  • Now in This Banquet (Marty Haugen, 1986, GIA)
  • All Are Welcome (Marty Haugen, 1994, GIA)
  • Let Us Break Bread Together on Our Knees (Spiritual)

Deficient in Trinitarian Doctrine:

  • The Play of the Godhead (Mary Louise Bringle, 2002, 2003, GIA)
  • Some doxologies (Magnificat, text by Owen Alstott, tune by Bernadette Farrell, 1993, OCP)
  • Led by the Spirit (Bob Hurd, 1996, OCP)

Deficient in Theological Anthropological Doctrine:

  • God Beyond All Names (Bernadette Farrell, 1990, OCP)
  • Canticle of the Sun (Marty Haugen, 1980, GIA)

Deficient in Ecclesiological Doctrine:  

  • Sing a New Church (Delores Duffner, OSB 1991, OCP)
  • As a Fire is Meant for Burning (Ruth Duck, 1992, GIA)

Incorrect views of the Jewish People:

  • The Lord of the Dance (text adaptation by Sydney B. Carter, 1963, administered by Hope Publishing Co.)
  • O Crucified Messiah (Carmen Scialla, 2003, OCP)

I don’t name names to point out dedicated church musicians and composers as problematic.  Rather, I share them because I was surprised at the number of women composers who were named as having doctrinally deficient texts (in a field where men still outnumber women), and by the heavy number of texts published by OCP and GIA.  Also, apparently someone doesn’t like Marty Haugen.  He’s not the only fine composer among our Protestant brothers and sisters whose hymnody appears in Catholic resources.

Why were these hymns pointed out?  Were they the only problematic ones?  Were there more?  Did they only review English-language hymns?  These are all straight hymns with stanzas—was praise music considered as part of the pool?  Why can I find every hymn in either Breaking Bread or Gather Comprehensive, 3rd ed.?  Did the bishops keep a “White List” of texts which they thought were appropriate?

I wonder, too, why the document does not recommend clearly the potential revision of language used in hymns deemed as problematic?  And, if this is a document by bishops for other bishops, what are local church musicians to do in the meantime?  What about our hymnals and printed resources?  Should we just automatically add these hymns to our personal “do not play” list?

In any case, I have a lot of questions.

And, because perhaps you, too, need something more distracting to think about than world suffering or the peppery spit of ice-rain outside your own window, what do you have to say about our “deficient” Catholic hymnody?




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26 responses to “One More Disaster to Consider: How Many Deficient Catholic Hymns are in YOUR Hymnal?”

  1. Christopher Urbiel Avatar
    Christopher Urbiel

    “In any case, I have a lot of questions.”
    That is probably the best and pithiest summation of 2020-21 that many of us could offer! Thank you, Katherine, for a thoughtful post. I can’t speak to the entire list, but (as just one example), would hesitate greatly in eliminating “Let Us Break Bread Together.” As we all know, spirituals possess layers of meaning – a reason for their existence and a trait shared with other hymns that some (some!) might consider better statements of orthodoxy. Historically, though, Christian believers have had no problem understanding different ways of referring to the Eucharist. “Breaking bread” is one of the central actions of the Last Supper and of the Liturgy’s fourfold shape. As a poetic expression, were it actually deficient in meaning, it would be no more deficient than Thomas Aquinas’s assertion that the “bread” of angels (“Panis Angelicus”) becomes the “bread” of men. I don’t think the Doctor Angelicus was attempting to be a maverick low-churchman there. Moreover, each hymn has layers of cultural meaning. As one who spent time with African-American Episcopalians, I learned that, for them, this spiritual’s text could refer quite literally to receiving “on [the] knees,” at the rail, with the “face to the rising sun” (especially for those who converted from a less liturgical tradition). Thus, we have a reference to “ad orientem” where some of the bishops might least expect to find it. Moreover, the worship of those same communities is profoundly Eucharistic, a fact underscored in the introduction of the hymnal Lift Every Voice and Sing II (Church Publishing, 1993 – worth a read). As the late Dean of Nashotah House (Steven Peay) once admitted of the Real Presence, “there are multiple ways to talk about it. There is a Real Presence and that is what is important.” We might (and often should) be unequivocal in our prose statements of theology, but hymns belong to a different category of catechetical means, potentially providing an even more memorable “way in” for all who seek a greater understanding of truth.

  2. Tom Hovel Avatar
    Tom Hovel

    Bishop Robert Morlino made a preference known about ten years ago to not use the hymn “All are Welcome” in the Madison, WI Diocese. The following will link to an article in the Wisconsin State Journal, which has some quotes from Mr Haugen:
    I recall the printed newspaper giving a much stronger statement by Mr. Haugen.

    Of course, Pray Tell had a few comments on this at the time:

    No surprise that the US Bishops are picking up where Bishop Morlino left off.

  3. Lynn Thomas Avatar
    Lynn Thomas

    I think the bishops are woefully deficient in poetic imagination, for starters. From (a stuffy, academic) one viewpoint, they’re correct probably correct. So what? From a perspective of reaching hears and inviting them to love God and neighbor, or even just join in active participation during Mass, they function pretty darn effectively. Must every single hymn offer a perfect reflection of doctrine? Or is that which helps a soul draw closer to the Almighty, even though it might be a less than perfect statement of doctrine, still a good and useful thing?

    We are all deficient and yet God loves us still. Music and poetry usually work, indeed usually aim to work, on levels of expression not reached by (staid, dry, doctrinally rigorous) prose.

    1. Chuck Middendorf Avatar
      Chuck Middendorf

      I’m remembering Pope Francis saying we should put theologians on an island to argue about ecumenical minutia. Here’s another item for them to discuss!

      I think we all can find countless examples of saints who used music and poetry (or wrote!) that isn’t theologically buttoned up. As Christopher noted, Thomas Aquinas among them.

  4. Rita Ferrone Avatar
    Rita Ferrone

    I was particularly nonplussed by the documents’ self-exoneration for using the Reproaches, while condemning “Lord of the Dance” as anti-Semitic. Their argument (that Israel represents everybody in the church) is specious at best, given the details and history of anti-Semitism and the very specific references to Israel’s sacred history in the Reproaches.

    But if this argument has any weight at all, surely the very same argument would apply to the far more generic line in Lord of the Dance, “the holy people said it was a shame.” This puts the blame on “holy people” of every stripe, istm, including our own self-righteous and small-minded Catholics (of which there are many, incidentally). In fact, I have NEVER read that line as an indictment of the whole Jewish people, but rather as a slam on religious hypocrites who pretend to be devout yet would resist giving mercy and help to the afflicted whenever it does not fit nicely into their categories of proper religious observance.

    The instruction, to use a biblical metaphor, is straining at a gnat and swallowing a camel here. I believe that some critical theological review of hymn texts is a good thing, but the examples give away this effort as rather an attempt to go after pet peeves rather than take a fair view of the texts in question.

  5. Rita Ferrone Avatar
    Rita Ferrone

    Do others also find, as I did, that their irritation with the word “wine” is bizarre? They’ve invented a prohibition, and not only that, they have called upon the idea of “guilt by association” to claim that if the word “wine” is used, the word “bread” is contaminated! Now, really.

    1. Joshua Vas Avatar
      Joshua Vas

      I agree that the reasoning for Lord of the Dance is a little specious and contrived, and probably more due to a dislike of the text.

      I did however, understand their argument about “bread and wine” and am personally rather sympathetic to it. Please correct me if I am wrong, but does “Bread and Wine” (as opposed to “Bread and Cup”) have any substantial history of Eucharistic usage prior to the Reformation (and reven in the main traditions of the Reformation until the 19th-20th century)? The whole aspect of referring to Eucharistic elements as “bread and WINE” seems to have originated in traditions with different Eucharistic doctrines on the point of the changing of the elements. I didn’t find anything objectionable or bizarre in suggesting that one should look at context when seeing the word “bread”, and that there is a difference between “Bread and Wine” and “Bread and Cup”.

      1. Rita Ferrone Avatar
        Rita Ferrone

        Thanks for your comments, Joshua. Allow me to respond briefly to the concerns you raise. I too would be unhappy if our Eucharistic hymns somehow suggested that this is merely physical food and drink. But I don’t think that is what is happening.

        Instead, I propose this interpretation: more hymns speak of “bread and wine” nowadays because people are more frequently receiving communion under both forms (and it is good to engage our experience), and because the wealth of theological symbolism of feasting and the eschatological banquet has been rediscovered. The Eucharistic theology of some previous Catholic hymns was deficient, frankly, in this respect.

        Jeff (see below) is correct. “Cup” is a metonym for “wine.” There were ancient eucharists that used water, but today that no longer applies. Bread and cup (as a pair) are the more common expression historically. But we are in the realm of doctrine here (or at least that is what these guidelines claim). And the doctrine is clear. Christ is truly present under each form. It therefore follows, doctrinally speaking, that if it is allowable to speak of “bread” after the consecration, it is also allowable to speak of “wine.” Attributive adjectives may be added to them to amplify their uniqueness: bread of life, wine of salvation, etc. But the words themselves cannot be foreclosed.

        Those Protestants most likely to object to a eucharistic theology of Real Presence in fact use grape juice for communion; you won’t find them lauding “wine” when it’s not their eucharistic element in the first place.

    2. Timothy Brunk Avatar
      Timothy Brunk

      Rita – Are you suggesting that the doctrine of concomitance does not cut both ways?
      (insert smiley emoticon)

      1. Rita Ferrone Avatar
        Rita Ferrone

        Hi Tim,
        I’m not sure I understand your comment. The doctrine of concomitance applies to both Eucharistic species!

      2. Timothy Brunk Avatar
        Timothy Brunk

        I meant only that if concomitance means that Christ is fully present under both species, then by a reverse sort of concomitance Christ’s “absence” from one species implies absence from the other.

  6. Jeff Armbruster Avatar
    Jeff Armbruster

    “…and that there is a difference between “Bread and Wine” and “Bread and Cup”.”

    In the context of the Eucharist, ‘cup’ is a metonym for ‘wine’. In short, ‘cup’ means ‘wine’. Unless one is speaking in a different context, of course. Are there hymns where bread and cup refer to tea time?

  7. Paul Inwood Avatar
    Paul Inwood

    What many bishops and clergy do not seem to understand is that if the elements are not bread and wine, they cannot be the Body and Blood of Christ.

    I so wish Herbert McCabe OP’s unsurpassed 1994 article Eucharistic Change were compulsory reading for all!

    1. Michael Slusser Avatar
      Michael Slusser

      It is also reprinted in Herbert McCabe, God Still Matters, edited by Brian Davies (Continuum, 2002) 115-122. Davies does not tell the reader where the articles reprinted in the book originally appeared. I’m glad to learn from your link that it was in Priest and People, 1994.

  8. Jena Thurow-Mountin Avatar
    Jena Thurow-Mountin

    Wow, I had not realized just how many women composers & text writers were listed in that document. Thank you for bringing it to the forefront.

    I wonder, too, about the niche selections, all coming from OCP or GIA. I’ve encountered Catholic pastors across the U.S. who pigeonhole their music ministry into using ONLY Hillsong or other “praise and worship” music, not only which are not composed FOR the liturgy, but that are also composed by explicitly non-Catholic, mega church movements. So my reaction to this document was, isn’t there a first step we need to take in rooting out music that is truly non-liturgical and not intended for the Mass? And then we can look to what’s in our hymnals?

    1. Gregg Schockman Avatar
      Gregg Schockman

      Yes, this!

    2. Katharine E. Harmon Avatar
      Katharine E. Harmon

      Thanks for this example, Jena–I had the same question about content from publishers explicitly publishing for nondenominational churches. This is not to say that such music is inherently bad, but it would certainly seem much less likely to articulate “authentic” Catholic doctrine!

  9. Todd Flowerday Avatar

    This wasn’t the only fumble of the doctrine committee. People like Elizabeth Johnson have, to use a theological expression, had these guys for lunch. By the standards of this document, even a liturgical text like Veni Sancte Spiritus fails the standard. Good thing every song before 1963 gets a pass, eh?

  10. Dan Hager Avatar
    Dan Hager

    The Lord of the Dance is a terrible hymn. We should simply sing the Shaker hymn from which the melody was stolen: Simple Gifts.

    1. Fr. Jack Feehily Avatar
      Fr. Jack Feehily

      Melodies have been “stolen” for centuries to accommodate various sets of lyrics. I don’t regard Lord of the Dance as a terrible hymn, but I do use it sparingly because it is not an easy tune to master. There is much about music that is a matter of taste and as the old saying goes, “matters of taste ought not to be disputed”.

      1. Dan Hager Avatar
        Dan Hager

        “it’s hard to dance with the whole world on your back”.
        I’ll just leave that there.

      2. Paul Inwood Avatar
        Paul Inwood

        It’s actually “It’s hard to dance with the devil on your back”.

        Since we’re talking about this song, it may be a good time to point that hymnals have often perpetuated a simple typo in the text of the final verse that significantly modifies Carter’s theology. He originally wrote “They cut me down and I leap up high”, both verbs in the present tense. Editors have consistently misunderstood “cut” as a past tense verb and have changed “leap” to “leapt” or have simply copied what other editors had previously done.

        The original is much stronger, especially when followed by.”I am the life that’ll never, never die”.

  11. Dan Hager Avatar
    Dan Hager

    Since church hymns usually rely on either doctrine or scripture for their ideas, let me go on record to say that I almost always prefer scripture based hymns. I am not enthralled by nostalgia. “Lord, who throughout these Forty Days” is a terrible hymn as well, with a terrible, thumping rhythm.
    One of my favorites is “The Love of the Lord”, by Michael Joncas. That’s a very thorough treatment of St Paul’s theology of the Cross, straight from the Bible, and it doesn’t feel like I am being explained to by a teacher convinced of my imbecility. I get that feeling from “Lord of the Dance”, along with the unmistakable whiff of old shag carpets and stuffy wood paneling. I feel like I am being preached to by a clever priest who wants to belabor a point. Yes, it’s outdated- it’s a “smiling Jesus” painting in musical form, but maybe Joncas hymns are out of fashion too. The hymn of “Simple Gifts” is lovely, a real American treasure, but perhaps the theology of the hymn is too “horizontal” to be appropriate for our worship. But I’ll never back down on the assertion that “Lord of the Dance” is an atrocious song.
    If anyone can’t understand that “it’s hard to dance with the whole world on your back” brings a grotesque image to mind of Jesus Christ, suffering on the Cross while dancing an Irish Jig, I don’t know what to say. You’ve won the snark war.
    But at what cost victory?

    1. Paul Inwood Avatar
      Paul Inwood

      Matthew 11:17, Luke 7:32, etc.

  12. Dan Hager Avatar
    Dan Hager

    I’m quite sure that when the pipers pipe for Michael Flatley, he dances, our Lord’s words notwithstanding.

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