Is contemporary Catholic church music “mediocre, superficial and banal”? Pope Francis thinks so.

A few months ago the pope addressed a conference in the Vatican convened for the fiftieth anniversary of Musicam Sacram – “Instruction on the Music of the Liturgy”— a Vatican document following the Second Vatican Council, which discussed the “ministerial role” of sacred music.

The document established norms for pastors, musicians and the faithful to observe regarding liturgical music.

Lovers of the the suburban “folk mass” (sarcastically referred to as “the old folks mass”) will be surprised to find that the Vatican II document calls for Catholic liturgical music to consist of four types of sacred music: “Gregorian chant, sacred polyphony in its various forms, both ancient and modern, sacred music for the organ and other approved instruments, and sacred popular music, be it liturgical or simply religious.”

When it comes to “other approved instruments” the document states, “In permitting and using musical instruments, the culture and traditions of individual peoples must be taken into account. However, those instruments which are, by common opinion and use, suitable for secular music only, are to be altogether prohibited from every liturgical celebration and from popular devotions.”

That would seem to rule out the saxophone, xylophone, cowbells, slide whistles, accordions, kazoos, bongos, banjos and guitars.

It is astounding how much the parishes and pastors who have embraced “the Spirit of Vatican II” have done exactly opposite of what the documents of the Second Vatican Council actually prescribe.

How many parishes do you know where the liturgical music featured is Gregorian chant or polyphony?

Instead we have sentimental ditties with music that sounds like it comes from a third rate Broadway musical. Most American Catholics listen to music led by a praise band that features dubious theology, cliched music and sappy words about gathering together for a group hug.

“Mediocre, superficial and banal”? Rome has spoken. That settles it.

However, the problem of music in the Catholic Church is vexing. Gregorian chant is beautiful and transcendent when sung well. It can sound like a dreary dirge when sung badly.

Sacred polyphony? Who can pull that off? Does the part time guitar playing worship leader even know what “polyphony” is? A pipe organ is recommended, but they’re pricey and a skilled organist is required to play the thing.

Larger questions arise. How should the liturgy be adapted in different cultures? Shall we impose Gregorian chant and polyphony on Africans, Asians or South American Catholics? If they use tribal music, dancing, drums and native instruments, what’s wrong with American parishes using music that sounds like soft rock, jazz, advertising jingles and show tunes? You could say, “This is America. This is our music.”

Whether it is America, Africa or Asia there are certain principles that underlie the use of music in church.

Firstly, the function of liturgical music is to enhance worship. St. Augustine famously said, “When we sing we pray twice.” In other words, the music serves the prayer. If this is the case, then sacred music should offer worship to God.

When evaluating a hymn or piece of music for the choir we should ask whether the words and music are about God or about us. This should be fairly obvious and yet when you open a contemporary Catholic hymnbook you will find an extraordinary number of hymns which are not about God, but about the community, its needs and its mission.

Secondly the music should be singable. Musicam Sacram insists that full participation is the aim of liturgical music. Ironically, much of the popular church music is difficult for congregations to sing. Often the music was written for a soloist to perform rather than for congregational singing.

The rhythms are irregular, the words and music are often jarring, and when led by a guitar or a praise band the effect is one of performance rather than participation. Simple Mass settings and well constructed hymns encourage congregational participation.

Thirdly, the words should be fully Catholic and complement the liturgy. Music is not chosen just because we like this song or that song. Instead the lyrics express theology.

Not only should the words communicate Catholic truth, they should also echo the readings and themes of worship for the day. In that way the music reinforces the full participation of the worshippers.

Ultimately, liturgical music serves the liturgy, the liturgy does not serve the music. The organ, the choir and the congregational singing is all subservient to the action at the altar. Music, like every other aspect of the liturgy, should not draw attention to itself — either because it is so terrible or because it is so marvelous.

A mediocre praise band and a sincere soloist warbling a Joan Baez number is distracting, but so is a high falutin’ choir intoning an inaccessible medieval anthem or an operatic soprano belting out a Mozart aria.

It should be obvious, however, that there is a place for all kinds of music.

Upbeat “praise and worship” music is great for a youth festival, a charismatic gathering or a prayer and praise meeting. Likewise, music from the sacred, classical repertoire is suitable in a concert setting, or in those churches and cathedrals where a fine choral tradition is maintained.

In the ordinary Catholic liturgy, however, simpler standards should apply. The music should be high quality, reverent and profound — which is the opposite of “mediocre, superficial and banal.”