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Why Catholics Can’t Sing: The Culture of Catholicism and the Triumph of Bad Taste
by thomas day
crossroad, 177 pages, $19.95

In a moment of exasperation, the novelist Flannery O'Connor wrote to a friend that the motto of the Catholic Church could be: We Guarantee to Corrupt Nothing But Your Taste. O'Connor's remark was penned before the impact of the Second Vatican Council was felt by American Catholics, and anyone alert to the pre-conciliar situation can call up memories of liturgical oafishness that are as painful as biting on a bad tooth. Reform was needed; yet, after twenty-five years at the mercy of the reformers—years that have seen the Mass bent, folded, stapled, and mutilated by any number of liturgical Roundheads—we are entitled to ask whether the demon of bad taste driven out by our would-be healers has not returned with seven devils more wicked than himself to reinfect the host.

While his approach to the problem is by way of liturgical music, the terrain he knows best, many of Thomas Day's penetrating observations are applicable to the predicament of Catholic ritual considered as a whole. Day is a professional musician with a Ph.D. in musicology from Columbia University, and those of us who are musically naive but have been victims of those he calls the “yodeling sadists up in the choir loft” will take deep gratification in finding our instinctive revulsions clarified (and frequently vindicated) by his deft scholarship. The musical defects that Day holds up for scrutiny point to more than a “triumph of bad taste”; they find their birth and their stubborn longevity in convictions about ecclesiology and doctrine that are too often unexamined. The real value of this book—in addition to the macabre delight it gives Catholics in watching their liturgical tormentors so adroitly dismembered lies precisely in the fact that it makes these covertly held commitments a matter of public discussion.

Day's essay is part historical, part descriptive, part critical. He traces the American Catholic taste for unsingable schmaltz as if it were a gene for a birth defect, finding its origin in the constraints imposed on Catholics in Ireland, whence it was borne by immigrants to the New World and institutionalized with the Irish clerical ascendancy: an ingenious and plausible thesis, but one which remains for other historians to verify. Particularly noteworthy is his brilliant demonstration that the treacly sentimentalism of Irish-American music—in popular songs as well as hymns—was not repudiated but continued,seamlessly, by the liturgical “folk music” of the 1970s and later.

This book is most trenchant, however, in detailing the ironies of the liturgical movement. Very often, changes in ritual practice have created effects precisely opposite to those in virtue of which they were justified. “Very little is being done to understand the reasons for this awkward situation,” says Day, yet “most of the people-in-charge and the experts still go on at great length about the beauties of the emperor's new clothes.” Within the guild at any rate, the gush of exhortation and (self-) congratulation runs on unabated.

The isolated sacerdotalism of the older rite, for example, was to give way to greater involvement of the entire congregation in the liturgical action. Day argues that, on the contrary, the “presider” has come to monopolize the Mass to an extent inconceivable in times past, and with this difference: that the monopoly is effected not qua priest but qua personality. In a chapter titled “You're Lookin' Great, Narcissus,” he points to the celebrant's banal greeting at the beginning of the Eucharist:

“Good morning” really means, “I wish you a good morning. I [the person, the individual called Father Hank, Father Chuck, Father Bob] deign to wish you a pleasant continuation of the morning. I, the center of your attention and probably the reason you have come, I, the one and only me, welcome you to my show and it will be a good show with a good performance by me, and for this reason you will be fortunate to have a good morning.”

A second irony might be called The Despotism of the Extreme Democrat. Tom Wolfe showed us some years ago how the masters of Bauhaus worker-housing chic used every form of tyranny at their disposal to frustrate the desires of real proletarians, who wished to add a little warmth and humanity to the concrete slab pillboxes built for them by their self-appointed caretakers. In the same way, simple Catholics uneasy with the clown mass or the offertory dance troupe have met a wall of unshakable resolve: there simply is no turning back [say the “enforcers”]; it is for us, the university trained, the licensed and commissioned, to judge the beauty of the emperor's wardrobe; no others need apply. Contemporary ritualists are famously intolerant; in Catholic seminaries it is common to refer to priests who have “a black-belt in liturgy.” Yet all this, it need hardly be said, takes place in the name of a counter-hierarchical program.

Day also contends that some of the liturgical innovations purported to renew the Church, once their theological credentials are examined, will be found to have the effect of replacing the Church. He connects the “Voice of God” song (his term for an alarmingly common practice wherein the congregation arrogates the first-person voice of God to itself) with the thesis of Thomas Sheehan that Jesus came to destroy the notion of God-in-Himself:

The current disarray in Christianity is, Sheehan suggests, a hopeful sign that the false ecclesiastical institution called the church is crumbling and will be replaced with the Kingdom that Jesus actually promised—and the doctrine of the kingdom meant “that henceforth and forever God was present only in and as one's neighbor.” A visit to any parish where the reformed-folk repertory dominates and where the “Voice of God” song is a great favorite will provide enough evidence to suggest that the beginnings of Sheehan's kingdom may have already come.

This is a very serious charge, and deserves to be taken seriously—by the public theological academy.

Day cites a number of other examples of grave malfeasance, yet leaves them in half-shadow, undeveloped. He points to a transparent conflict of interest wherein the publisher of a scholarly book celebrating contemporary music is also the “world's major publisher of music in the folk/'contemporary' manner.” He claims that a recent study of Catholic parish life commissioned by the University of Notre Dame uncovered several failures on the part of the promoters of the new ritual, but that “some of the warts are edited out” of the book version of this study. If this is the case (and it should be investigated impartially) it should not be disguised. Finally, Day makes reference to the gunshot suicides of two prominent liturgists, deaths which he says were “not mentioned in most of the Catholic press.” He asks whether these liturgists were “finally pushed over the edge not by personal difficulties but by the realization that their academic liturgical ‘vision' was a failure.” We are far beyond questions of culturally induced “bad taste” here. Is this book really about why Catholics can't sing?

Timeo Peritos,” said Cardinal Heenan during the Second Vatican Council, “et dona ferentes”: I fear the experts even when they bear gifts. Notwithstanding his mordant wit and many felicities of expression. Day has given us excellent reason to wonder whether we feel too little concern at the antics of the professionals, whether the late Cardinal knew more than he was letting on. A sobering thought; a sobering book.

Paul V. Mankowski, S.J., is a frequent contributor to First Things .

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