The Way of BeautyBenedict XVI on Sacred Music

Not since Pope St. Pius X (1903-14) has a pontiff befriended sacred music more passionately than Benedict XVI.  At the Counter-Reformation, musical excesses were corrected. In the nineteenth century, concerns about church music that was pietistic, devotional, and non-liturgical came and went with minimal reform. Since Vatican II, the issue of sacred music has mushroomed into bitter debates, a fact well-known to Benedict. This essay summarizes his catechesis on sacred music in his own words.

A complete theologian, Benedict is also a connoisseur and patron of the arts, and a fine pianist.As with the legacies of past pontiffs, the Church carries forward his overall teaching into a new papacy.

A Style like Mozart’s

Benedict’s literary style resembles Mozart’s: simple, profound, balanced, unique.  It goes to the point without rhetoric, tangent, or fluff. All is essential; all filled with purpose.

Another Church?

“The new phase of the will to liturgical reform no longer sees its foundation explicitly in the world of the Second Vatican Council but in its 'spirit.' . . . It is rather a question of a basically new understanding of liturgy which one wishes to use in order to surpass the Council whoseConstitution on the Sacred Liturgy bears two souls within itself.  The liturgy takes its point of departure from the gathering of two or three who have come together in the name of Christ.  This reference to the Lord’s words of promise in Matthew 18:20 sound harmless and traditional at first hearing.  But it receives a revolutionary turn when one isolates this one biblical text and contrasts it with the whole liturgical tradition.  For the two or three are now places in opposition to an institution with its institutional roles, and to every “codified program” (“Liturgy and Sacred Music,”Adoremus Bulletin Online Edition, 2008, translated from the Italian by Stephen Wentworth Arndt in Communio, Winter, 1986, 377-90. A New Song for the Lord published by Crossroad and translated by Martha A. Matesich (1995) also contains this essay, 142-63).

“The sacrament of Orders presents itself as an institutional role which has created a monopoly for itself and dissolved the (Church’s) original unity and solidarity by means of the institution. Under the circumstances, we are told, music then became a language of the initiates just like Latin, the language of the other Church, namely, of the institution and its clergy” (Ibid)

“The isolation of Matthew 18:20 from the entire biblical and ecclesiastical tradition of the common prayer of the Church has far-reaching consequences here. The Lord’s promise to prayers of all places becomes the dogmatization of the autonomous group. The solidarity of prayer has escalated into an egalitarianism of which the unfolding of the ecclesiastical office means the emergence of another Church” (Ibid).

Musica Sacra

“. . . The wealth of the musica sacra, the organ as queen of the instruments, and the universality of Gregorian chant now appears as mystifications (obscure and outmoded phenomena) for the purpose of preserving a particular form of power.  Gregorian chant and Palestrina are said to be tutelary gods of a mythicized, ancient repertoire . . . . representing a cultic bureaucracy” (A New Song for the Lord, translated by Martha M. Matesich, 144-5).

“For this group, the content of Pope St. Pius X’s motu proprio on church music is described as a culturally shortsighted and theologically empty ideology of sacred music” (Ibid).

Spontaneity and Creativity

“Liturgy ‘manufactured’ based on human words and opinions is a house built on sand and remains totally empty, however, much human artistry may adorn it” (The Spirit of the Liturgy, 168).

“Only respect for the liturgy’s fundamental unspontaneity and pre-existing identity can give us what we hope for:  the feast in which the great reality comes to us that we ourselves do not manufacture as a gift. In any case, this is a word that developed within the Marxist world view.  Creativity means that in a universe; man can creatively fashion a new and better world. 

Modern theories of art think in terms of a nihilistic kind of creativity.  Seen in this way, art appears as the final refuge of freedom.  True, art has something to do with freedom, but freedom understood in the way we have been describing is empty.  It is not redemptive . . . .  This kind of creativity has no place within the liturgy” (The Spirit of the Liturgy, 168-9).

“In such a view, any directive from the Church is a fetter, a shackle that one must cast off and resist for the sake of the originality and freedom of the liturgical celebration.  Not obedience toward the whole but the creativity of the moment becomes the determining form of the celebration. The group arises on the spot from the creativity of those gathered. It lives from the autonomy of the group” (A New Song for the Lord, 143).

“Dancing is not a form of expression for the Christian liturgy.  It made its appearance in the third century in certain Gnostic-Docetic circles to introduce it into the liturgy.  For these people, the crucifixion was only an appearance.  I myself have experienced the replacing of the penitential rite by a dance performance, which, needless to say, received a round of applause.  Could there be anything farther removed from true penitence?  Liturgy can only attract when it looks, not at itself, but at God, when it allows him to enter and act.  Then something truly unique happens, beyond competition, and people have a sense that more has taken place than a recreational activity. None of the Christian rites includes dancing” (The Spirit of the Liturgy, 199).

More in The Way of Beauty

Note: Avery Dulles summarizes. “This new church favors creativity and spontaneity and is disinclined to favor Tradition holding that the group makes the Eucharist; the liturgy is produced by the people. It is repelled by a petrified hieratic liturgy that sees the Church as separate from the modern world.  It accuses conservatives of having canonized the past by turning the Church into a museum piece. Instead, worship must be made relevant to the actual situation.   The liturgy is a matter of feeling and self-expression” (“The Ways We Worship,” First Things, 28).

Doing and Active Participation

“The beauty and the harmony of the liturgyfind eloquent expression, in the order by which everyone is called to participate actively” (Sacramentum Caritatis, 53). 

“The Latin actio means oratio as the center and fundamental form of the liturgy; 'oratio means not prayer but public speech.' Although 'the priest speaks with the I of the Lord,' the action is of God who speaks and acts. The Assembly participates in the action of Christ himself, and through him, we have become one body and one spirit.” (The Spirit of the Liturgy, 173-5).

“It is God who does the activity, and we are drawn into the action of God: Everything else is secondary. Doing must really stop. . . if the liturgy degenerates into general activity, then you have radically misunderstood the theo-drama of the liturgy and lapsed almost into parody” (Ibid, 174).

Silence and Singing

“We are realizing more clearly that silence is part of the liturgy.  We respond by singing and praying to God who addresses us, but the greater mystery, surpassing all words, summons us to silence.  For silence to be fruitful, as we have already said, it must not be just a pause in the action of the liturgy.  No it must be an integral part of the liturgical event” (The Spirit of the Liturgy, 209).

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“Silence is another mode of active participation, a fact verified by throngs who nightly fill concert halls. Is it not active participation at being moved by a piece of music, sung or played?  Are we to compel people to sing when they cannot, and, by doing so, silence not only their hearts but the hearts of others too” (The Feast of Faith, 123-4).

“The singing of the Church comes ultimately from love; ‘only the lover sings’” (The Spirit of the Liturgy, 149; Josef Pieper, Only the Lover Sings).

“Wherever an exaggerated concept of ‘community’ predominates, a concept which is complete unrealistic precisely in a highly mobile society such as ours, there only the priest and the congregation can be acknowledged as legitimate executors or performers of liturgical song.  Today, practically everyone can see through the primitive activism and the insipid pedagogic rationalism of such a position which is why it is now asserted so seldom.  No longer can it be denied that the schola and the choir can also contribute to the whole picture . . .” (“In the Presence of Angels, I Will Sing Your Praise” Adoremus Bulletin Online, 1996).


“It is strange that the postconciliar pluralism has created uniformity in one respect at least: it will not tolerate a high standard of expression. We need to counter this by reinstating the whole range of possibilities within the unity of the Catholic liturgy” (The Feast of Faith, 125).   

In four translations of Psalm 48 (47), verse eight exhorts the Israelites to sing well in their praise of the Lord:

(1) Sing an art song; play for God with all your art (with all your skill);

(2) Sing artistically;

(3) Sing with understanding,

(4) Sing the way the ars musicae teaches” (A New Song for the Lord, 123-4).

“The Church must not settle down with what is merely comfortable and serviceable at the parish level; she must arouse the voice of the cosmos and, by glorifying the Creator, elicit the glory of the cosmos itself, making it also glorious, beautiful, habitable, and beloved” (The Feast of Faith, 124).

Five Types of Music

Benedict identifies five kinds of music that are opposed to the essence of the liturgy.

“First of all there is the Dionysian type of religion and music.  In not a few forms of religion, music is ordered to intoxication and to ecstasy, music supposedly of holy madness, through the delirium of the rhythm and the instruments.Music becomes ecstasy.  We experience the profane return of this type today in rock and pop music. … Music has become today the decisive vehicle of a counter-religion. … Because rock music seeks redemption by way of liberation from the personality and its responsibility, it takes, in one respect, a very precise position in the anarchical ideas of freedom, which predominates today in a more unconcealed way in the West than in the East.  But precisely for that reason, it is thoroughly opposed to the Christian notion of redemption and of freedom as its exact contradiction. Not for aesthetic reasons, not from reactionary obstinacy, not from historical immobility, but because if its very nature, music of this type must be excluded from the Church.” (Liturgy and Sacred Music)

“Second, there is music that provokes; it rouses people for various collective goals. Third, there is sensual music which drives people into the erotic or is in some other way essentially intent on sensual feelings of pleasure. Finally, there is rationalistic music in which the tones simply serve rational construction, but no real penetration of the mind and senses ensues” (A New Song for the Lord, 156).

Disintegration of the Liturgy

“(What) we are experiencing today is to a large extent due to the disintegration of the liturgy which at times has even come to be conceived of as a liturgy celebrated as if there were no God. It is a matter of indifference whether or not God exists and whether or not He speaks to us and hears us. But when the community of faith, the world-wide unity of the Church and her history, and the mystery of the living Christ are no longer visible in the liturgy, where else, then, is the Church to become visible in her spiritual essence” (Milestones: Memoirs 1927-1977, 149).

Gregorian Chant and Renaissance Polyphony as Orientation

“The liturgical music of the Church must be subject to that integration of the human state which appears before us in the incarnational faith.  Such redemption is more arduous than that of rapture, but the struggle is the exertion of truth.  On the one hand, it must integrate the senses into the spirit: it must correspond to the impulse of the sursumcorda (lifting up of your heart).  On the other hand, this effort aims not at pure spiritualization but at an integration of sensuality and spirit so that in one another both become person” (A New Song for the Lord, 157).

“Sacred music that is in the framework of this movement (of continuity) thus becomes a purification of human, their ascent. But let us not forget that this music is not the work of a moment, but participation in history” (Ibid).

“An authentic updating of sacred music can take place only in the lineage and according to the orientation of the great tradition of the past, of Gregorian chant and Renaissance polyphony” (“Tribute to Professor DomenicoBertoluccci,” Sistine Chapel, June 24th, 2006). 

“This does not mean that all church music has to be imitation of this music (Gregorian chant and Palestrina). They are models given here that provide orientation” (Ibid, 158).

“Liturgy is for all. Catholicity does not mean uniformity.  Thus it must be simple, but this is not the same as being cheap. When admitted into the Liturgy, the cheap, trite, or the musical cliché often found in secular popular songs cheapens it, exposes it to ridicule, and invites failure. The craze for utility over virtuosity leaves nothing but schmaltz for the general public. A Church which only makes use of utility music (Gebrauchsmusik: music for the masses) has fallen for what is, in fact, useless.  She too becomes ineffectual.  The difference between functionality (uti) and relationship (frui) is rooted in the beauty of gratuitous love as expressed in the Eucharistic liturgy. Sacred music can never be seen as primarily functional” (The Feast of Faith, 100-1).

Note: Gregorian chant provides the orientation for sacred music, because it is uniquely the Church’s own music. It should be sung for four reasons:  (1) It facilitates participation by the faithful because the music is the perfect confluence of text and music and is most suited to the liturgy (2) its austere melodies distinguish the essentialdifference between sacred art and entertainment (3) it is characterized by its unobtrusiveness, serenity, and universality, and (4) it is a sign of unity among diverse ethnic Catholic groups who gather either internationally or in the local parish churches.

Inculturation: One Heart and One Voice

“The first and most fundamental way in which inculturation takes place is the unfolding of a Christian culture in all its different dimensions:  a culture of cooperation, of social concern, of respect for the poor, of the overcoming of class differences, of care for the suffering and the dying, a culture that educates mind and heart in proper cooperation; a political culture and a culture of law, and so on” (The Spirit of the Liturgy, 201).

Benedict XVI challenges objections to music sung in European countries: 

“It is strange, however, that in their legitimate delight in the new openness to other cultures, manypeople seem to have forgotten that the countries of Europe also have a musical inheritance which plays a great part in their religious and social life. Indeed, here we have a musical tradition which has sprung from the very heart of the church and her faith.  One cannot, or course, simply equate the great treasury of European church music with the music of the Church, nor, on account of its stature, consider that its history has come to an end. ... All the same, it is just as clear that the Church must not lose this rich inheritance which was developed in her own matrix and yet belongs to the whole of humanity” (The Feast of Faith, 125-6).

Latin in the Ordinary of the Mass

As for the use of Latin: “I would be in favor of a new openness toward the use of Latin. When no one can sing the Kyrie or the Sanctus any more, no one knows what Gloria means, then a cultural loss has become a loss of what we share in common.”  He favors the Liturgy of the Word in the mother tongue, “but there ought nonetheless to be a basic stock of Latin elements that would bind us together” (God and the World, 117-8).

Benedict’s Apologia for Sacred Art

“Next to the saints, the art which the Church has produced is the only real ‘apologia’ for her history.  It is this glory which witnesses to the Lord, not theology’s clever explanations for all the terrible things, which lamentably, fill the pages of her history.  The Church is to transform, improve, ‘humanize’ the world – but how can she do that if at the same time she turns her back on beauty, which is so closely allied to love?  For together, beauty and love form the true consolation in this world, bringing it as near as possible to the world of the resurrection” (The Feast of Faith, 124-5).

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