Music for the Masses

picture 20With Pope Benedict XVI in town, the media are running with every angle imaginable on the Catholic Church. While the playlist for today's mass at Nationals Park has been looked at in detail, the Washington Post took it a step further by looking at the worship wars being waged in masses across the country. And most notably, the article is good. Particularly considering it's in the often dreadful and or snarky Style section.

Here's how the piece by Hank Stuever begins:

Catholics don't argue about abortion or the death penalty nearly as much as they argue about what music is sung (or not sung, or used to be sung) at their local Sunday Mass. It was ever thus -- at least since the 1960s, when Sister first shortened her habit, strummed a G7 chord and, to hear some Catholics tell it, all heck broke loose.

It is true that music can be a hotter topic in Catholic parishes than the hot-button political issues that get reporters all jazzed up.

Stuever says Benedict isn't a big fan of irreverent music but neither is he married to the 10th century either. The playlist for today's pre-Mass festivities includes African hymns, something called a "celebratory merengue" and even some Mozart (this pope is a huge, huge Mozart fan). The Mass itself will have the Kyrie in a gospel-style and traditional Latin chants.

Stuever brings the story back to how the worship wars are played out throughout the country:

Imagine a bizarro world where all the 25-year-olds want Mozart and all the 60-year-olds want adult-contemporary. The kids think the adults are too wild. The backlash against "Kumbaya Catholicism" has anyone under 40 allegedly clamoring for the Tridentine Mass in Latin, while the old folks are most sentimental about Casual Sunday (even more rockin', the Saturday vigil Mass), and still cling to what's evolved from the lite-rock guitar liturgies of the 1970s. The result, for most parishes, has been decades of Masses in which no one is entirely satisfied, and very few enjoy the music enough to sing along.

CatholicsNoSing 01Like I keep trying to tell my parents, everything is the baby boomers' fault.

Just kidding. Anyway, the article is funny and very engaging. Because it's in the Style section, it is not surprising that the article completely shortchanges the substance of the debate -- that is the many theological questions underlying discussions about appropriate music and the degree to which the "worship wars" in a Catholic context link in to debates at Vatican II, inclusive language and other hot-button issues. (For an engaging critique of the piece along those lines, go visit Amy Welborn.)

Another problem is its very stark characterizations. You're either a hippie or you rock the Gregorian chants. The fact is that there are people who are in neither camp.

Another problem is that the piece quotes Jeffrey Tucker (of the New Liturgical Movement) and Thomas Day (of Why Catholics Can't Sing fame) but doesn't provide any balance from a contrasting viewpoint.

Still the article provides a fun and engaging look at an important issue. It's a good sidebar topic to the larger stories that are dominating page one, offering a pew-level look at Catholic life today.

I stole the headline, by the way, from Gene Edward Veith. He stole it from Depeche Mode.

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