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Michael Joyce has died at age 63. He was a dear friend and, during his fifteen years with the Bradley Foundation, was of enormous help in launching the Institute on Religion and Public Life, the publisher of F IRST T HINGS . A more adequate tribute will appear in a forthcoming issue of the magazine. Michael Stewart Joyce. Requiescat in pace .

As regular readers know, what I intended as a wry comment on Anglican Bishop Gene Robinson’s taking the cure for alcoholism apparently went awry, eliciting a number of spirited exchanges about the differences between alcoholism and homosexuality, and the place of will and discipline in coping with either or both. This is from a young man of my acquaintance:

Yes, there is sound evidence of a physiological basis for alcoholism, unlike homosexuality. And yes, the key to the success of Alcoholics Anonymous in many instances is the recognition that the problem is beyond the control of will and discipline. This can be an insidious factor, however, and is one of the reasons I left AA after a time.

Early on will and discipline is hard to come by; the chemicals are just ravaging your system so badly you can’t make heads or tails of much. But when you start to clear, they very much do have a place. I walk by bars and restaurants almost every day. For a while my will and discipline kept me from going in. It became habit. Now I don’t notice them.

The victim mentality of many recovery movements indicates you can’t get to a place where you do not think about drinking. In fact, the only place I thought about it was in AA meetings. I mean, I willed myself to thousands of AA meetings, didn’t I? AA, bless it, has no graduation and no hierarchy. I don’t want to be “just a drunk like everyone in this room.” I want to make the journey to sainthood. As of now, I have a long way to go.

Al Kimel is a former Episcopal priest who has recently entered into full communion with the Catholic Church. He writes about the "ubiquitous song leader":

The Sunday Mass needs a cantor. I agree. But it’s a minor role¯or at least should be. She should not be the focus of our attention. She should not be standing in front of the congregation at the lectern. She should not be waving her hands around directing congregational singing. She should not be singing into a microphone (though I concede this may be the lesser of evils in the absence of a choir or particularly bad acoustics; but even then she should step away from the microphone during the hymns and service music). Her proper location is in the choir.

In the past nine months I have had the privilege of worshipping in many different Catholic parishes. It has been a great blessing participating in the liturgy as a layman. With only a couple of exceptions, the Ubiquitous Song Leader has been a dominant, oppressive presence in the liturgy. Even in those congregations with good choirs, she who cannot be ignored assumes center stage. Not only does she cantillate the psalm from the lectern, but she also leads the congregation in the singing of the hymns and liturgical texts, drowning out choir and congregation. There is only THE VOICE. I love to make a joyful noise, but I am finding it impossible to sing the hymns when a single amplified voice fills up the acoustical space. THE VOICE overpowers everything.

The incisive Amy Welborn picks up on Mr. Kimel’s observations:

Al’s right, but I think the origins and motivation of the Catholic Cantor Placement deserves more analysis. It’s not going away any time soon - in fact, the determination of music groups to be placed in the front, along with their cantor, doesn’t show any signs of slowing down - most church renovations/new construction feature that front position, which is just really too bad. I’ve been to a couple of Masses this past year in which there was, indeed a cantor, but he (in both cases, different parishes) was in the rear, in the choir loft. Very nice, and no one in the congregation seemed to mind.

What contemporary Catholic music groups and cantors are attempting to emulate, it seems to me, isn’t the classical Protestant structure in which the choir was, indeed, in front, but the more relaxed, mostly evangelical praise-band-group model. And why are they seeking to imitate it? Because it seems, in their eyes, to work.

I watched a few minutes of Joel Osteen’s program tonight, live from Reliant Arena down there in Houston. It’s a unique animal, of course, but it’s just what goes on across America, on a very grand scale. There was the huge choir arrayed on both sides of the stage, and for fifteen minutes or so, a woman stood center stage, dressed in the most amazing outfit that featured what sort of looked like a quilted Victorian topcoat with a purple lining and ruffled sleeves. I’m sure the choir made its noise, but the focus was on the woman, her voice dominated on air, and I’m sure in the arena as well, and her presence filled the big screens.

Different service. Different expectations. Different (very important) tradition of congregational singing. But I’m saying that this is what Catholic music directors see, this is what they think they want to and can duplicate.

I decided a few years ago, in a flash of insight, that the problem with music and Catholic liturgies was, simply, the hymns. We shouldn’t have them, except maybe at the beginning and the end. The Mass is to be prayed, and the singing should be consistent with that sense of the whole Mass as a single prayer to the Father through Christ, therefore the best way to preserve that sense of a unified prayer was to chant the whole thing, not alternate words, music, more words and more music in a different style. Devoted Catholics DO SING when they are consistently asked to sing the liturgy itself. That they are being distracted in the U.S. with hymn wars about whether Haugen or Isaac Watts or Father Faber should be preferred is to ignore the real issue.

As it happened, I watched what must have been the same Joel Osteen broadcast. It was last week when I was speaking at Harvard on authentic humanism and the prolife cause. It had been a lovely evening with a large and enthusiastic audience, but when I got back to the hotel I discovered that I had not packed the book I intended to read. So, surfing the tube, I came upon Joel Osteen, of whom I had heard but had never seen before.

Forget about the egregious music, I was listening to his sermon, so to speak. It brought to mind H. Richard Niebuhr’s terse comment on the theology of liberal Protestantism: "A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross."

Then I told myself to lighten up. The guy is really quite good at what he does. Prancing and preening around the stage, and flashing a smile that must have brought a pleasurable tremor to orthodontists everywhere, he repeatedly assured the audience, numbering in the thousands, that he and they are really, really wonderful. Each one of them, it seems, has an "anointing," which means, as he put it, that you have to be you and I have to be me.

He strongly implied that they were not all as wonderful as he is. He alluded to his truly miraculous success as a preacher, as well as the fine cut of his suit and his modish hair style. Nonetheless, they, too, were wonderful in their own way, for they, too, had an anointing. His flattery did not go unrewarded, and cameras panned folk fairly wriggling in grateful agreement with his estimate of how wonderful they are, with some taking notes lest they forget.

I don’t know if the program was representative of what Joel Osteen calls his ministry. But that evening he was in fine form. The showbiz genre is motivational speaking, and the goal is the building of self-esteem, making people feel really good about themselves. I’m more than OK and you’re pretty OK, too. What he does he does very well, and it obviously draws an appreciative crowd. Of course it has nothing whatsoever to do with the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Modern Physics and Ancient Faith by Stephen M. Barr has just been reissued in paperback by University of Notre Dame Press. Booklist called it “an unusual and provocative affirmation of religious faith. Neither religiously sectarian nor technically daunting, this is a book that invites the widest range of readers to ponder the deepest kinds of questions.” National Review called it “a stunning tour de force.” I, too, think it is brilliant. Now it’s also cheap.

The paperback edition of Modern Physics and Ancient Faith can be ordered from Amazon by clicking here .

In addition to which :

Some of you have been very patient in waiting. There was confusion about the publication date of Father Neuhaus’ new book, Catholic Matters: Confusion, Controversy, and the Splendor of Truth . Mary Ann Glendon of Harvard Law School says of Catholic Matters :

"The author of The Catholic Moment has done it again. From its opening meditation on the death of the Pope that Neuhaus was one of the first to call ‘the Great,’ to the closing notes on the conclave that elected Benedict XVI, this beguiling book brings the reader into conversation on the current state of the Church with one of the great Catholic thinkers of our time. No one is better than Father Neuhaus at reminding us why, even in times of confusion and controversy, it’s a joy to be Catholic!"

The book will be in the stores on February 27 and can be advance ordered from Amazon .

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