How to deal with occasional objectionable hymns
  • I imagine this topic had been discussed before, but I haven't been able to locate it in a search of the forum. My question is: does anyone have an appropriate method to handle when a choir director has chosen hymns/music that one feels is not orthodox or appropriate for use in the liturgy? In particular, as a choir member I am divided between passively choosing not to sing those songs I find objectionable and singing but raising my concern to the director. It feels as though I could be the only one who has an issue, and it doesn't feel like my place to make this sort of judgment (aside from prayerfully following the guidance of conscience). What are your thoughts?
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  • WendiWendi
    Posts: 638
    Well, I've had choir members flat out refuse to sing something they thought I had programmed (I hadn't but that doesn't negate their response.)

    If you truly object to something on the grounds you state, then in charity, tell the music director. I'd do it privately rather than publicly. Be prepared to have your concerns dismissed, but that doesn't relieve your obligation to speak out. Maybe you aren't the only one bringing this concern to the music director.
  • Do you have a theology degree or any formal theology training? If the answer is no, what makes you qualified to say that the hymn is unorthodox when it has already passed the theological review of the bishop's designate of the diocese where it was published?

    Not an attack, an honest question and food for thought.
    Thanked by 1Gavin
  • dad29
    Posts: 2,160
    For crying out loud, PGA, there is a long, long, list of Bishops and priests who are "theologically trained" and who are/were heretics. Ever hear of Martin Luther?

    Get off the "qualified" high-horse and grant that even choir members may have common sense.
  • melofluentmelofluent
    Posts: 4,160
    Dear Dad!
    There is something to what PGA is advancing. The OP doesn't provide any details whatsoever. We are being asked to presume a great deal and then opine upon those presumptions and the content of the post.
    Barring receiving further information, subsidiarity remains a prudent suggestion.
  • matthewjmatthewj
    Posts: 2,678
    PGA is jumping to conclusisions and assuming this piece of music is from a Catholic hymnal. It could be an anthem from a Protestant source or some piece of religious music from a secular source.

    My advice to the choir member would be to sing that piece in a very reserved manner (perhaps lip syncing if the section is large enough), write an email telling the Music Director your concerns, and/or look for another choir to sing in. If this is happening on a weekly basis, it is probably best to either move to a pew or at least reconsider your commitment.
  • Yokel,
    .
    Not knowing the nature of the hymn or of your objection, and taking into account Melo's observation, may I suggest that you phrase your conundrum as a question: how does it accurately represent the teaching of the Church on ..... (whatever the topic is). That way, especially if you remove even the slightest hint of snark, you have the chance to LEARN from the choir director ( and, in the event, learn ABOUT the choir director).

    AVOID chattering behind the choir director's back, as this is both ineffective in solving the problem and uncharitable. Avoid challenging the choir director in open forum.

    As to Matthew's point, it is sadly true that a great many hymns in "approved" missalettes and such have many qualities, but orthodox belief isn't often one of them. Even if it is approved by the Archbishop of Chicago, you may still ask questions.
  • matthewjmatthewj
    Posts: 2,678
    When I was Music Director of a large, suburban, progressive Catholic parish I would get tons of catalogues and sample CDs from non-denominational publishers. I would often find pieces in there with direct conflicts to Catholic teaching. The melodies, orchestrations, and accompaniments were often quite good - better than their Catholic music counterparts - and so these pieces might be attractive to someone who didn't go through the lyrics line by line and find that sentence that might be considered a denial of the immaculate conception of Mary or a very Protestant theology of being "saved."
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  • Since the word "hymns" was used, there's no assumption being made. It sounds like these are hymns from a hymnal. If it's a Catholic church, it is a fair assumption that these are from a Catholic hymnal or worship aid. If it's not a Catholic church, that fact should have been clasclarified since this is a group of Catholic musicians.

    Therefore my comments and cautions stand.
  • Also, not saying this is the case with the OP, but many times "objectionable" and "unorthodox" and "heretical" mean "music I don't like."
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  • JahazaJahaza
    Posts: 468
    Do you have a theology degree or any formal theology training? If the answer is no, what makes you qualified to say that the hymn is unorthodox when it has already passed the theological review of the bishop's designate of the diocese where it was published?


    Well in my case, it was once a Catholic Newman Choir programming "Imagine," as their contribution to a campus interfaith service, so yeah, it was pretty clearly not orthodox!

    Since the word "hymns" was used, there's no assumption being made. It sounds like these are hymns from a hymnal.


    "Hymns/music" actually.
  • matthewjmatthewj
    Posts: 2,678
    Hymns/Music could also mean anthems from Lorenz.
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  • chonakchonak
    Posts: 8,921
    First of all, welcome to the forum, Yokel!

    In many cases, songs that seem unorthodox are rather vague and can be interpreted in an orthodox or unorthodox manner. They don't often directly deny or disparage truths of the Catholic faith, but a few do.

    If there's ambiguity, feel free to sing the song and intend the lyrics in an orthodox manner.

    If there's a direct rejection of some Catholic truth, the best course may be to ask to sit that hymn out. But before you do that, maybe it would help to quote the questionable text here on the forum to get a second opinion, to confirm your assessment.
    Thanked by 1themindfulyokel
  • WendiWendi
    Posts: 638

    The OP doesn't provide any details whatsoever. We are being asked to presume a great deal and then opine upon those presumptions and the content of the post.


    Dearest...the OP wasn't asking us to confirm the orthodoxy of the hymn in question or it's appropriateness for the liturgy. The OP was simply asking for advice on how to address the situation in which he/she finds this to be the case.

    Give that reality, PGA could you explain why you immediately went to the position of telling the OP he/she had no business questioning the choice? Not being snarky, I'm genuinely curious.
  • Thanks for starting this topic, Yokel. I've been in the same situation before. I think it's best to assume that the choir director just doesn't know their faith very well and isn't intentionally trying to pick heretical music. If I were you, I would sit down with them and just point out the problematic part and why it is incorrect. It might be the first time they've ever considered it. If it's just a verse that's problematic, maybe you can just skip that verse. If your priest is supportive, perhaps talking with him about it would help, because I know a lot of choir directors don't listen to choir members because they don't have any authority.

    When I was 15 my church choir sang a very heretical piece for Communion (I can't remember what it was, but it literally said something like, "all this is is bread and wine" or something) and I tried to tell everyone that we couldn't sing it, but everyone just gave me blank stares. So I just didn't sing the part that was problematic, but in retrospect I wish I would have talked to the priest about it. Later on, the choir director was asked to leave, I think because of all of the problematic music he was choosing.

    Now, if the choir director knows that it's wrong and chooses it anyways (that's the predicament I'm in right now), you have a problem. I would ask your priest to talk to them and definitely don't sing the hymn/song. Someone has to stand up for what is right.
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  • ronkrisman
    Posts: 1,367
    literally said something like, "all this is is bread and wine"

    "Literally said" and "something like" should not appear in the same sentence. It literally said something or it didn't. Your "something like" says that it did not literally say that.
    Thanked by 1Gavin
  • melofluentmelofluent
    Posts: 4,160
    W, I'll stand pat on my original response. Yes, communication is the primary concern, but we don't have any perspective on the contentious issues, ie. specifics. These aspects must inform how we, whether DMs or choristers, would advise the OP as to an appropriate manner in which to broach the subject formally.
    A subordinate calling into question the competence of a leader, no matter who's righteous or not, will always prove a delicate and potentially divisive enterprise. This isn't a personnel issue, or one where someone has been wronged. This is about authority.
    My only advice: tread lightly, Yokel.
    Thanked by 2Wendi Gavin
  • CharlesW
    Posts: 11,674
    I once sang in a college choir where the director's chief passion was stuffing his fat face with something horrendously bad for his overall health. Orthodoxy of any kind was way down his list of priorities. I became really good at lip-sync and no one was the wiser.

  • Thank you all for your insightful responses to my question. I understand that it's hard to comment on the situation without knowing circumstances, but I intentionally left out specific examples in order to avoid getting stuck in a debate of what particular hymns are "good" or "bad". In fairness, none of the music we sing is heretical.

    I agree that it's best to address any concerns with the music director privately and not outside of that private discussion. Fortunately, I actually have a very good relationship with our director and I can do so. I feel as though simply not singing certain songs could be misinterpreted as "bad attitude" or something when I don't mean any judgment or negative thoughts about the director or the choir. That was part of the motivation of the question; how do I communicate a concern without stepping on toes or coming across as "holier than thou" as some might put it?

    To clarify in the area of qualification or level of theology training, I didn't intend to declare any specific song or hymn as heretical. The term "unorthodox" was misused in my original wording. A more accurate way of putting it is that I believe it is better not to declare words publicly if they are not words that reflect one's heart and mind, and some of the words we sing are different from what I believe. So, that's very likely on me a bit too. EDIT: In this case, I'm referring to words of certain songs that are poetic and interpretive; nothing of course that is citing or even paraphrasing canonical teachings directly.

    Great debate, and a lot of good advice and admonishment. Thanks again.
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  • Sorry, ronkrisman. I didn't proofread my post. My bad.

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  • There are quite a few forum members who are not organists or directors, but are members of choirs or just sit in the congregation.

    The best way for them to make change is to put themselves in a position where they can make change.

    Learning to sing and direct chant is really not a big deal.

    Many music directors in the Catholic church are insecure and poorly trained, if trained at all. As a result anyone who known anything can and will intimidate them. A priest that suggests that they listen to someone with "ideas" can trigger a situation none of us want to be in.

    Move up and move in.
  • Cafeteria choristers are more a Unitarian specialty and their choirs are impressively adept at changing words on the fly. In a Catholic context one should expect singers to be able to substitute miserere for alleluia during Lent as a matter of course.
    Thanked by 2melofluent BruceL
  • GavinGavin
    Posts: 2,799
    I think Melofluent and CGZ have the right path forward. It's good to talk to the director directly, and how to do it is a huge concern. As CGZ suggests, ask what it is about the hymn that makes it orthodox.

    I might suggest phrasing it as a personal statement, as you've here done. "I am concerned that this hymn doesn't accurately reflect my beliefs about Holy Communion, and I'm having a conscientious problem with singing it." The ball is then in his court.
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  • BruceL
    Posts: 1,067
    You must talk to the director or quit. I think anything else would be unfair to all involved. You shouldn't "get a vote" as a choir member. I ask my choir members for input and an happy when they offer it...always outside of rehearsal unless I've expressed otherwise! That said, when I sing in someone else's choir, they're in charge. Unless something is unclear in their directions/conducting/etc., I just sing!

    Speaking to the director (and I would say, if possible, do that rather than email) shows you truly care about the choir...not to mention the person leading it. I can attest that that's nice to experience sometimes!
  • kenstb
    Posts: 364
    Some very good points have been made here. In my ministry, each choir member is encouraged to ask me questions whenever they arise. Part of the duties of leading a choir is to be available to the singers to hear them out and if necessary, to explain my thinking regarding a specific hymn choice. The singers I work with trust me, but they are free to ask me anything about the music we are learning and using.
  • SalieriSalieri
    Posts: 3,091
    One of my problems with certain hymns/songs that I have had the odd chance to hear/play is that they don't outright teach/promote heresy or heterodoxy, but they are ambiguous enough to be taken either in the orthodox way or not. (sound familiar?) -- I can't name names off the top of my head, since the hymnal I use is Adoremus, but I have encountered some bizarre phraseology in hymnals from parishes I've subbed at.
  • Adam WoodAdam Wood
    Posts: 6,428
    One of my problems with certain hymns/songs that I have had the odd chance to hear/play is that they don't outright teach/promote heresy or heterodoxy, but they are ambiguous enough to be taken either in the orthodox way or not.


    The opening line of Song of the Body of Christ.

    We come to share our story


    I grew up assuming that this meant the Christian story specifically, the one story that is common to all of us as members of the Body of Christ. In combination with the second half of that line ("we come to break the bread") I have always interpreted it as a simple description of the two "halves" Mass (Word; Eucharist).

    Apparently a lot of people seem to take it in the New Agey, post-modern, quasi-liberation-theology sense of the idea behind liturgy being that we each bring our own individual stories and [something something about weaving something something].

    This seems to depend on context.
    Thanked by 1Gavin
  • There is an old-world solution to this, and every other ailment of the mind, body, spirit, and soul: leech and bleeding. *purple*
  • melofluentmelofluent
    Posts: 4,160
    Adam's common sense and acumen about SOTBOC prompts a few more aspects to consider. This song is the hallmark and harbinger of Haas' (I love alliteration) fascination with Hawaiian culture that dates clearly back to 1981. Oceanic cultures, to me, are perfect examples of their people's deep hospitality to absorb Western influence and fully integrate aspects into their expressions. In music they can appropriate "How great thou art" (and have) and refashion it to a distinctly relaxed manner on their slack-keyed guitars/ukeleles that is obviously genuine, and seemingly their own. "We created this, not some Scandinavian." Likewise, their true chants are a marvel.
    My point (and I do have one) is that Haas either encountered the "genuine" tune and perhaps text meaning at George Camacho's parish on Hawaii big isle, or was inspired by something like it before comporting it to his version. All well and fine with the intent. And if you're a youngster here in the states, like Adam attests, distinctions of theology as well as simplicity of music are easy to acquire and useful at service. The theology doesn't change as one matures to adulthood, but the usefulness of the music idiom does pale significantly. Adult Hawaiians singing this song in their tongue and genre makes sense. In English/Spanish, even with ukes, slide guitars etc., not so much. At that point the taste factor must be taken into account before programming it into the Divine Liturgy, yes? I think that's the context Adam mentions.
    Now don't get me started on deliberating between the KINGS WESTON and Chris Walker faux-gospel versions of "At the Name of Jesus." Oi.
    Thanked by 2Adam Wood CHGiffen
  • Adam WoodAdam Wood
    Posts: 6,428
    I think that's the context Adam mentions.


    I was thinking of the textual/theological context, though your point is a good one as well.

    If a community has a solid grasp on Catholic Eucharistic theology, I see no problem with a handful of "vague" hymns that can be understood in an orthodox manner. Or hymns that don't fully emphasize the True Presence but rather dwell on the bread/wine/meal/feast aspect of Mass.

    On the other hand, if it is clear that the parish has taken on a vaguely Protestant "Jesus is here but we can't say how" meal-only community-centric understanding of liturgy, I'd sing a lot more Adoro Te Devote and I would try not to let things get any vaguer than Come Risen Lord and Deign to Be Our Guest.

    Also: That is how I think about things from the perspective of a Music Director.

    As a PIP, guest, or choir member, I always (TRY TO) accept things in the most charitable light, choosing to read orthodoxy into things as I can.

    I have spoken many times about the ROBUSTNESS PRINCIPLE:

    Be conservative in what you transmit and liberal in what you accept.


    This is a perfect illustration.
  • That is key. As MUSIC DIRECTOR, I'm entrusted by the pastor with some responsibilities that are properly his delegated to me. Therefore, there are hymns that I do not use because I see them as having too much potential for confusion. However, the words themselves are not heretical.

    If I go to sub at a different parish, my prudential judgment has no place there. If one of those hymns is picked, I simply play it. Remember, it's not actually WRONG - it's just that in my own parish I feel that it invites possible confusion.

    As for actually looking at something in the hymnal and deciding it is actual heresy? Above my pay grade and education. If the censors for both the Portland AND the Chicago archdioceses approved of it, and they have more theology training than I, who am I to actually say "They missed this?"

    Again - all too often these discussions REALLY center around music someone doesn't like. Traditionalists who don't like referring to the Altar as a "table," though there is nothing actually wrong with that. Deeply progressive Catholics who don't like references in a song to sin and overcoming it. Most of it has nothing to do with ACTUALLY questionable lyrics.
    Thanked by 1Gavin
  • Putting myself in the place of the choir director, I would welcome comments from choristers regarding the orthodoxy of the music I selected. The complaints I received during my short tenure as choir director were only "that's too hard/much to learn". But if someone had questioned the theology/appropriateness of some music I selected, I would thank them. Actually my children did point out some problems with some hymns I had selected once or twice, and I made changes. Nobody should be slammed for speaking out or questioning. There is way, way, way too much of that in our parishes--people who are intimidated because they aren't "trained experts".

    Speak the truth in love, and let the chips fall where they may. :-) If the choir director is hostile to your questions, I'd think twice about continuing with the choir.
    Thanked by 1Wendi
  • WendiWendi
    Posts: 638
    If a person finds honest questions to be a threat to their authority, they have no business being in a leadership position to begin with.

    The best music directors I ever sang with/for always considered questions to be a teachable moment. Which benefits all concerned.
    Thanked by 2Jenny CHGiffen
  • Putting myself in the place of the choir director, I would welcome comments from choristers regarding the orthodoxy of the music I selected.


    If a person finds honest questions to be a threat to their authority, they have no business being in a leadership position to begin with.


    Yes, thank you. If the choir director really has a problem with choir members having questions or comments, that is a choir not worth singing in. I don't even care if I get the occasional, "Wow, I don't know if I'm going to be able to sing this, it seems really hard." I want to know what choir members are thinking so I know which pieces will need more attention than others. And if there was some kind of theological problem in a hymn I had chosen, I would certainly want to know. It's about providing appropriate music for Mass, not making myself look good.