Heretical Hymns?

Sacred songs that contradict church teachings--or have congregants take on the voice of Christ--should be laid to rest.

BY: George Weigel

 
Reprinted with permission of the Denver Catholic Register.

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?

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