June 5, 2020

Church Music Philosophy and Guidelines (Roman Catholic)

During Church Music Month, we will give you a chance to look at portions of documents on the subject by various church groups and denominations. We begin with a thoughtful and thorough paper by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, published in 2007, called, “Sing to the Lord: Music in Divine Worship.” You can download the entire document in four parts (PDF) here.

I’d like for us to have a conversation about two small parts of this 87-page document.

First, meditate on the following paragraph about the role of music in corporate worship:

125. The role of music is to serve the needs of the Liturgy and not to dominate it, seek to entertain, or draw attention to itself or the musicians. However, there are instances when the praise and adoration of God leads to music taking on a far greater dimension. At other times, simplicity is the most appropriate response. The primary role of music in the Liturgy is to help the members of the gathered assembly to join themselves with the action of Christ and to give voice to the gift of faith.

In my opinion, that is one of the finest statements I’ve heard about the role of music in the gathered worship of the church. However, it requires accepting a few presuppositions:

  • There is a recognized “Liturgy” in which music functions and to which it is subservient.
  • Music may take a greater or lesser role, depending upon the particular Liturgy being practiced. Again, it plays a servant role, and its specific part in the service is not a given.
  • The purpose of the Liturgy is to communicate the Gospel: to tell the story of Christ (grace) and encourage our response (faith). Music serves these Gospel purposes.

The second part of the USCCB paper involves how church leaders should go about choosing the best music for corporate worship. “Sing to the Lord” suggests that there are three judgments that must be made:

126. In judging the appropriateness of music for the Liturgy, one will examine its liturgical, pastoral, and musical qualities. Ultimately, however, these three judgments are but aspects of one evaluation, which answers the question: “Is this particular piece of music for this use in the particular Liturgy?” All three judgments must be considered together, and no individual judgment can be applied in isolation from the other two. This evaluation requires cooperation, consultation, collaboration, and mutual respect among those who are skilled in any of the three judgments, be they pastors, musicians, liturgists, or planners.

Here’s how they work that out…

The Liturgical Judgment

127. The question asked by this judgment may be stated as follows: Is this composition capable of meeting the structural and textual requirements set forth by the liturgical books for this particular rite?

128. Structural considerations depend on the demands of the rite itself to guide the choice of parts to be sung, taking into account the principle of progressive solemnity (see nos. 110ff. in this document). A certain balance among the various elements of the Liturgy should be sought, so that less important elements do not overshadow more important ones. Textual elements include the ability of a musical setting to support the liturgical text and to convey meaning faithful to the teaching of the Church.

The Pastoral Judgment

130. The pastoral judgment takes into consideration the actual community gathered to celebrate in a particular place at a particular time. Does a musical composition promote the sanctification of the members of the liturgical assembly by drawing them closer to the holy mysteries being celebrated? Does it strengthen their formation in faith by opening their hearts to the mystery being celebrated on this occasion or in this season? Is it capable of expressing the faith that God has planted in their hearts and summoned them to celebrate?

The Musical Judgment

134. The musical judgment asks whether this composition has the necessary aesthetic qualities that can bear the weight of the mysteries celebrated in the Liturgy. It asks the question: Is this composition technically, aesthetically, and expressively worthy?

135. This judgment requires musical competence. Only artistically sound music will be effective and endure over time. To admit to the Liturgy the cheap, the trite, or the musical cliché often found in secular popular songs is to cheapen the Liturgy, to expose it to ridicule, and to invite failure.

136. Sufficiency of artistic expression, however, is not the same as musical style, for “the Church has not adopted any particular style of art as her own. She has admitted styles from every period, in keeping with the natural characteristics and conditions of peoples and the needs of the various rites.” Thus, in recent times, the Church has consistently recognized and freely welcomed the use of various styles of music as an aid to liturgical worship.


  1. Christiane says

    “Does a musical composition promote the sanctification of the members of the liturgical assembly by drawing them closer to the holy mysteries being celebrated? Does it strengthen their formation in faith by opening their hearts to the mystery being celebrated on this occasion or in this season?”

    I think this is an honored Catholic goal for liturgical music,
    and when the holy mysteries are celebrated, a little Celtic influence can just the right tonal touch:


    • Christiane says

      correction: ‘can add just the right tonal touch’

    • Thanks for the suggestion, Christiane-this clip reminded me of the time my husband and I were traveling through Montana and on a whim, stopped at a monastery. The monks were gracious and allowed me to sit up front in the high-backed winged choir chairs and observe the Mass from there. To listen to about 25 focused men raise their voices in solemn worship, much like the video, was amazing. And it made me rethink the purpose of worship music–to God or for me.

  2. A slight correction: “The purpose of the liturgy is to communicate the Gospel” is a bit off. That is one purpose, but Catholic theology emphasizes the real presence of Christ in the eucharistic elements. I would say that is the main purpose, otherwise there would be no difference between a mass and a prayer / Bible study group. Alternatively, one could say that the reading of the gospel is the first half of the liturgy, and the celebration of the eucharist is the second half.

    • And yes, music is entirely optional–the whole thing can simply be spoken.

    • Thanks for clarifying.

      • No problem. This seems to be a common Catholic / Protestant perceptual gap, which even people familiar with the other tradition may not think of. It relates to the theology of what church IS. For Catholics, the eucharist binds together those who partake of it into the Body of Christ. Not that this is unrelated to preaching the gospel, but Protestant approaches often lack this organic dimension in favor of a more contractual arrangement (many churches have charters or constitutions of some kind) or even a business model in which service-providers (so to speak) compete for audiences.

  3. Clearly, the idea of music in a supporting role is quite different than the concerts with prayers thrown in that occur at some large, modern evangelical churches. Even within Catholic parishes, you can see the “flavor” of the parish and the preist in the music mix….are we singing “Tantum Ergo” or “On Eagles Wings”. The latter, from the “Glory and Praise” series, is what I grew up on in the seventies, when I played guitar (badly) at the eleven-thirty “folk mass”.

    However, I still don’t know how we got away with singing a “reflection” song after communion that was as secular, or as poorly performed, as our little group’s version of “A Simple Desultory Phillipic (or~ How I was Robert McNamar’s into Submission) “. I shudder at the memory!!

    What can I say…it was 1974, and at least I was involved!

    • *McNamar’D*

    • Ah Pattie, I remember those days well – (also played guitar at the folk masses). One of our favorites was “Day is Done”…

      I had already departed the fold by the time “On Eagles’ Wings” came out, but encountering it later, I rather liked it, and M. Haugen’s songs too- I was at a place on my journey where I needed to hear the Lord singing such words to me…


  4. This is lovely to read. And it would be lovely if the reality on the ground even sort of resembled this. But for most parishes, the music is awful. And that’s really not an exaggeration, or me just whining because I don’t like the music. There are a lot of parishes where the music is genuinely very bad.

    • Really? Consider: in the parishes I know in a Southwestern diocese, the music reflects various ethnic tastes, from Latino to Polish, from folk to full choir, to baroque, depending largely on the makeup of that Mass’s regular congregation. At the mission I normally attend, the four Sunday morning Masses all have different music (or sometimes plainchant). But … only in one parish do I think the music distracts from the worship, and that’s because the musicians are awful. But that congregation doesn’t seem to mind.

      • Richard Hershberger says

        The question is necessarily subjective, and the answers informed by each of our individual experiences, but… My experience is consistent with Michael’s. I have attended masses across the country. In the vast majority of them the music strives to rise to mediocrity, with banal music poorly performed and a room of parishioners who have apparently been struck dumb.

        There have been exceptions. The spectacular example was when I was in college in California. One of my professors was also the director of music at the local historic mission. He would tip me off when they were going to use, say, a Mozart mass.

        I also have extensive experience with Episcopalian and Lutheran services. They too can be poorly done. The worst examples are when they try to pretend to be Evangelicals, though a room full of extremely white persons of northern European descent singing Negro spirituals is a special sort of painful. But your typical local Episcopal or Lutheran congregation will have an at least minimally competent organist and a church full of people willing and able to open their mouths and sing, as well as a large body of hymns which have stood the test of time enough to have weeded out many of the dreadful ones.

        • But your typical local Episcopal or Lutheran congregation will have an at least minimally competent organist and a church full of people willing and able to open their mouths and sing, as well as a large body of hymns which have stood the test of time enough to have weeded out many of the dreadful ones.

          Yes. It’s not like every parish should be able to whip out a Mozart mass (which, by the way, I’m jealous). Solid song choices, competently played, with congregational response. That’s a perfectly reasonable goal for any parish. And you don’t even need an organ. I went to a Mass once in a really small parish in West Virginia where the only music was a single vocalist, and a flautist playing the melody line. It was simple and beautiful.

          Ironically, part of it is the test of time bit. You would think that the Catholic church, being just a wee bit old, wouldn’t have this issue. But Vatican II was, what, 50 years ago? Only 50 years of Catholics writing music for use in the liturgy in the vernacular. Now, the ideal result of Vatican II would have been to keep the classics like Tantum Ergo, but also bring in great Protestant standards like Be Thou My Vision, Come Thou Fount, etc. But the result on the ground has mostly been to scuttle the old songs altogether and write a bunch of new ones, which are mostly awkward to sing and not very deep.

          And the congregational singing in most parishes needs no comment, does it?

  5. Chaplain Mike, now that you have provided us with the official Roman Catholic pronouncements, all 87 pages of them, on what music is or should be or how it relates to more important things like the Liturgy of the Mass, why bother with the rest of the series? The remaining posts you had planned for October will be unnecessary. We will all simply begin worshiping in the officially proscribed manner.

    (sarcasm off)

    • David Cornwell says

      I really don’t understand this criticism. It does not sound as if Chaplain Mike is attempting make this an official standard of worship for any of us. It’s an informative piece spelling out the Roman Catholic position and guidance as to the proper place and usage of music. In the end it’s up to us to use our minds and arrive at informed conclusions.

      The evangelical church desperately needs to arrive at some kind of proper theology of music. It’s all over the place, and seems to fall into a cultural mouse trap controlled more by CCM than any understanding of purpose.

      To me the RC guidelines do just that; they provide guidance. Any church or denomination would do well to somehow come to it’s own formal or informal guidelines.

      • An M.Div. does not make one an expert in worship music; but I don’t see many seminaries requiring such training. In my experience, there is little attempt to coordinate musical elements of the service between minister and music director. And I ‘ve known too many clergy who zing down the first line index to pick out a few likely hymns as an afterthought, often moments before the bulletins need to be printed. It can get embarrassing when you’re using a generic hymnbook, not a denominational one, and the theology just doesn’t jive.

        • David Cornwell says

          I had a little of that in seminary, but mostly I had to learn the hard way. In one church I served, when arriving as the new pastor, I found out they had just thrown out the denominational hymn book and replaced it with a new one. The new one was from a more evangelical publisher, and the people considered it more “singable.” The new book was a gift from the women’s organization.

          So– I had a problem from day one! Even though it had some fine songs, it was hard to work with from a liturgical point of view. But as a pastor, one must learn to cope.

          • Isaac (or possibly Obed) says

            One of my first classes for my Master of Christian Ministry degree was on Christian Worship. In it we read Robert Webber’s Worship is a Verb among other good works. We also spent a significant amount of time talking about planning worship services and how to integrate music, regardless of style/genre. Truth be told, despite the class being at a Baptist university, it was a major part of me winding up in Anglicanism.

          • You should see my Lutheran friends shake their heads in disbelief when I tell them how little instruction I received about worship in seminary. What is primary in their world is nearly non-existent in evangelicalism.

  6. The biggest problem I see with all the documents by the bishops is it puts far too many restrictions on the freedom of the Holy Spirit to guide and direct His people. We must once again make Jesus the head of the church and stop restricting the Spirit through the traditions of man.

    Jesus please save us from religion!!

    • David Cornwell says

      You have a point, but throwing out tradition can be totally disastrous. The Holy Spirit has been present in the long march of church history.In it we find the accumulated wisdom of the centuries and though it sometimes needs to be questioned, it should never be done lightly.

    • The Holy Spirit also speaks through tradition.

    • I would say the document puts restrictions on “many of our false ideas about the freedom of the Holy Spirit to guide and direct his people.”

      Electricity without a system through which it can flow results only in waste and wild fires.

    • “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” – James 1:27

      “But if a widow has children or grandchildren, these should learn first of all to put their religion into practice by caring for their own family and so repaying their parents and grandparents, for this is pleasing to God.” – 1 Timothy 5:4

      Why would you want the Lord to separate you from religion?

    • Well the Holy Spirit is telling ME to bring my tuba and tamburines.

    • “traditions of man”? As opposed to the “traditions of what we came up with yesterday?” The latter is the more spiritual?

  7. Wait, wait, wait… don’t most Catholics bemoan the lack of vibrant singing at Mass?

    While I read these points and agreed with them, this feels like “death by red tape”. Constrictive top down approaches can squelch creativity and ingenuity; both necessary ingredients in musical expression.

    • Dan Crawford says

      Sadly, all too often “bottom up” approaches to worship music are just as awful. Creativity and ingenuity get swallowed up by “I just really wanna praise (worship) (thank) repeated over and over again. I don’t believe the problem is “constrictive top-down approaches”. Much of the problem has to do with the purpose of worship at lease as some see it.

      • You fail to address my opening premise. I understand the problems of grass-roots spirituality and music, but why swing the pendulum to the other end? Specifically when it doesn’t seem to solve the problem.

        • The Catholic Church has tried for a long, long time to regulate music in worship–but it just doesn’t happen. Most music in the Catholic Church is from the bottom up–and is horrible. In the actual liturgy of the Church there are recommended psalms that are recommended to be sung. I have never attended a Church that does what the Church actually recommends–and I’ve never heard of a Church that does.

          My point: the top has little control over what the bottom does when it comes to music in the Catholic Church.

  8. The theology behind liturgical music is one of the great things I value and appreciate about being Catholic. The music is there to support the liturgy and is a servant to the liturgy and the music is there to invite participation. The great news is that there are Catholic music publishing houses (GIA specifically) who provide all the tools a parish needs to honor this call…..with amazing, singable music to fit the personality of any congregation. The trick is to find the musicians and musical directors who can effectively live out this call and a pastor that embraces these guidelines. I have been fortunate to be a part of many Catholic congregations who have effectively lived this out. As a result, the worship was fulfilling, enriching, inspiring, moving and helped to deepen my personal relationship with God.

  9. This is very helpful. I wonder if one person is capable of balancing the liturgical, pastoral and musical. I confess that when I plan a service I don’t feel up to this task.