I love hymns. I love singing them and I love listening to them. Hearing the robust Cardiff Festival Choir belt out the stirring hymns of Ralph Vaughan Williams at what my wife regards as an intolerable volume is, for me, a terrific audio experience. It was only when I got to know certain Lutherans, though, that I began to think about hymns theologically.
For classic Lutheran theology, hymns are a theological “source”: not up there with Scripture, of course, but ranking not-so-far below Luther’s Small Catechism. Hymns, in this tradition, are not liturgical filler. Hymns are distinct forms of confessing the Church’s faith. Old school Lutherans take their hymns very seriously.
Most Catholics don’t. Instead, we settle for hymns musically indistinguishable from “Les Mis” and hymns of saccharine textual sentimentality. Moreover, some hymn texts in today’s Catholic “worship resources” are, to put it bluntly, heretical. Yet Catholics once knew how to write great hymns; and there are great hymns to be borrowed, with gratitude, from Anglican, Lutheran, and other Christian sources. There being a finite amount of material that can fit into a hymnal, however, the first thing to do is clean the stables of today’s hymnals. Thus, with tongue only half in cheek, I propose the Index Canticorum Prohibitorum, the “Index of Forbidden Hymns.” Herewith, some examples.
The first hymns to go should be hymns that teach heresy. If hymns are more than liturgical filler, hymns that teach ideas contrary to Christian truth have no business in the liturgy. “Ashes” is the prime example here: “We rise again from ashes to create ourselves anew.” No, we don’t. Christ creates us anew. (Unless Augustine was wrong and Pelagius right.) Then there’s “For the Healing of the Nations,” which, addressing God, deplores “Dogmas that obscure your plan.” Say what? Dogma illuminates God’s plan and liberates us in doing so. That, at least, is what the Catholic Church teaches. What’s a text that flatly contradicts that teaching doing in hymnals published with official approval?
Next to go should be those “We are Jesus” hymns in which the congregation (for the first time in two millennia of Christian hymnology) pretends that it’s Christ. “Love one another as I have loved you/Care for each other, I have cared for you/Bear each other’s burdens, bind each other’s wounds/and so you will know my return.” Who’s praying to whom here? And is the Lord’s “return” to be confined to our doing of his will? St. John didn’t think so. “Be Not Afraid” and “You Are Mine” fit this category, as does the ubiquitous “I Am the Bread of Life,” to which I was recently subjected on, of all days, Corpus Christi – the one day in the Church year completely devoted to the fact that we are not a self-feeding community giving each other “the bread of life” but a Eucharistic people nourished by the Lord’s free gift of himself. “I am the bread of life” inverts that entire imagery, indeed falsifies it.
Then there are hymns that have been flogged to death, to the point where they’ve lost any evocative power. For one hundred forty years, the fourth movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony sent shivers down audiences’ spines; does anyone sense its power when it’s morphed into the vastly over-used “Joyful, Joyful We Adore You,” complete with “chanting bird and flowing fountain”? A fifty-year ban is in order here. As it is for “Gift of Finest Wheat.” The late Omer Westendorf did a lot for liturgical renewal, but he was no poet (as his attempt to improve on Luther in his rewrite of “A Mighty Fortress” – “the guns and nuclear might/stand withered in his sight” – should have demonstrated). Why Mr. Westendorf was commissioned to write the official hymn for the 1976 International Eucharistic Congress in Philadelphia is one of the minor mysteries of recent years. “You satisfy the hungry heart with gift of finest wheat/Come give to us, O saving Lord, the bread of life to eat” isn’t heresy. But it’s awful poetry, and it can be read in ways that intensify today’s confusions over the Real Presence. It, too, goes under the fifty-year ban.
Hymns are important. Catholics should start treating them seriously.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.