Liturgy Wars: Gregorian chant versus Contemporary Music

by Melissa Scott


When Catholics attend Sunday Mass, they are likely to hear some form of music accompanying the liturgy. While the music might be aesthetically pleasing, it also makes the Mass longer. On a college campus, students are busy studying and attending all of their extra-curricular activities and are therefore pressed for time in their busy schedules. This can lead one to ask if music is a necessary component of the liturgy or if it may be eliminated altogether. The question also arises whether any genre of music is appropriate or a particular kind of music is more suitable. At the college I attend, the traditional hymns and Gregorian chant that the Schola Cantorum sings at the 4:30 pm Mass are not nearly as popular among the students as the contemporary Christian music that accompanies the 10:30 pm Mass. In fact, many students admit that if they attend Mass on campus, they prefer the 10:30 Mass, because the atmosphere created by the music is more appealing. Is this simply a difference in taste, or is one type of music preferable to the other, particularly when it comes to evangelizing the youth? Theologians have debated this topic for ages, and the Church has produced many documents on the importance of music in the liturgy and the preference given to particular types of music. While Church documents allow some adaptations based on pastoral considerations, there are limitations to inculturation in regards to the kind of music appropriate for the liturgy in order to maintain the sacredness of the Mass. Many Catholics don’t realize that the Church continues to uphold an ideal model of sacred music in Gregorian chant, given its first priority of worshiping God and sanctifying the faithful.

Blessed Ambrose composed the first Latin hymns and established singing in the Church of Milan. St. Augustine recounts this monumental event when he writes, “This was the time that the custom began…that hymns and psalms should be sung, so that the people would not be worn out with the tedium of lamentation” (Confessions IX.vii). This passage from Augustine’s Confessions points to the importance of liturgical music in adding joy to the celebration of the Mass. Praising God is not viewed as a tedious act, but rather a joyous occasion for praise and celebration. The music also helps to fully raise people’s hearts and minds to God. Augustine famously said “Cantare amantis est,” meaning “singing is a lovers’ thing” (Ratzinger 142). The reception of the Body and Blood of Christ during the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is representative of the spousal unity that exists between God and His faithful people. People’s singing comes from this act of unitive love. Cardinal Ratzinger explains that the “Holy Spirit is love,” and the Spirit produces the singing. The Holy Spirit who produces the singing is the Spirit of Christ, and Christ leads to the Father (Ratzinger, 142). Therefore, liturgical music ultimately directs or leads us to God the Father.


Nevertheless, there has been historical disagreement on the value of music in liturgy. St. Thomas Aquinas defended the significance of sacred music in the liturgy and addressed many apparent objections to the use of liturgical music. These objections are included in Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae, II-II.91.2. The five main objections Aquinas looks at are taken from scripture. The first two objections address the concern that hymns of praise should be sung silently in our hearts, rather than vocally with our mouths. The first objection is that the Apostle Paul wrote, “Teaching and admonishing one another in psalms, hymns and spiritual canticles” (Col. 3:16). We should not do anything that has not been revealed in sacred scripture, and the scripture only includes spiritual canticles or songs of praise in our hearts. This does not include “corporal canticles,” sung with our lips (ST II II q91 a2 ob1). Aquinas responds to this objection by saying that spiritual canticles include songs of praise sung aloud, as well as songs sung in silence. Both actions are considered spiritual devotions, and Aquinas notes that the external act of singing leads to the internal act of singing and praising God in one’s heart. The second objection is that in Jerome’s commentary on Ephesians 5:19 – which states, “God is to be sung not with the voice but with the heart” – the great Father writes, “Nor should you, like play-actors, ease your throat and jaws with medicaments, and make the church resound with theatrical measures and airs” (ST II-II Q. 91 A. 2 Obj. 2). In response to this objection, Aquinas writes that Jerome is not condemning singing all together, but is saying that the music should be sung to praise God, not to show off or provide a means of entertainment.


The last three objections address the concern that music distracts from the liturgy. Objection three states that clergy members “ought not to sing” (ST II-II Q. 91 A. 2 Obj. 3). Aquinas responds that “to arouse men to devotion by preaching is a more excellent way than by singing” (ST II-II Q. 91 A. 2 ad 3). However, this does not mean that there should not be any singing at all, as long as the clergy members are performing their necessary duties. The fourth objection is that musical instruments and song were used under the Old Law, but “the Church does not make use of musical instruments such as harps and psalteries, in divine praises,” and neither should she make use of song (ST II II Q. 91 A. 2 Obj. 4). In reply to this objection, Aquinas writes that the only musical instruments that should be used in the liturgy are those that “make good hearers” (ST II-II Q. 91 A. 2 ad 4). Music is therefore appropriate if it is used to create a good disposition, open to God, rather than to entertain. The last objection ties together the two main concerns that praise should come from the heart and that music can be distracting during the liturgy. The objection states that “the praise of the heart is hindered by singing, both because the attention of the singers is distracted from the consideration of what they are singing…and because others are less able to understand the things that are sung” (ST II-II Q. 91 A. 2 Obj. 5). Aquinas replies that “the soul is distracted from that which is sung by a chant that if employed for the purpose of giving pleasure. But if the singer chants for the sake of devotion, he pays more attention to what he says” (ST II-II Q. 91 A. 2 ad 5). Therefore, when music is used for worship rather than entertainment, people do not get more distracted but rather are able to pay closer attention by focusing on the words sung.


Many of these objections echo the objections raised by people today that it is distracting, unnecessary, or simply superfluous. Aquinas answers by saying that “the praise of the voice is necessary in order to arouse man’s devotion towards God” (ST II-II Q. 91 A. 2). Additionally, whatever is helpful in achieving this end should be adapted to the divine praises, which includes liturgical music. Music has the ability to move souls, and therefore music should be used in the liturgy because “the souls of the faint-hearted may be more incited to devotion” (ST II-II Q. 91 A. 2). In other words, music helps foster prayer and devotion. The purpose of sacred music is “the glory of God and the sanctification of the faithful” (Sacrosanctum Concilium #112). Music is therefore useful, and in fact necessary, to draw hearts and minds to God.

God has given us the precious gift of song. Since this gift comes from God, He lives in all of us, in the place where music originates. Therefore, God is present whenever we sing (Sing to the Lord 1). By dwelling within us, God “lead[s] us to the realm of higher things” (Sing to the Lord 2). In other words, God draws our minds to higher goods, namely spiritual realities, through the gift of sacred music. This is why the importance of music is introduced time and time again in scripture. The verb “to sing” occurs “three hundred nine times in the Old Testament and thirty-six in the New” (Ratzinger, 136). The first time the word “song” is mentioned in the Bible is in the Book of Exodus. After the Israelites cross the Red Sea and escape from the oppressive Egyptians, “Moses and the people of Israel sang this song to the Lord” (Ex 15:1). They celebrated and rejoiced by singing songs of praise to God. After the birth of the Lord in the New Testament, Christians “sing an altogether new song, which is truly and definitively new in view of the wholly new thing that has taken place in the Resurrection of Christ” (Ratzinger, 138). Christians sing a new song in the New Testament, finding true salvation in Jesus Christ. Both the Old and New Testaments stress the importance of singing songs of praise to God. In the Letter to the Colossians, the Apostle Paul writes, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom, teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord” (Col 3:16). By drawing one’s heart and mind to God, liturgical music helps the faithful both praise God and grow in faithfulness.

In order to praise God and grow in holiness, the Church must fully participate in the liturgy (Sing to the Lord, 10). This participation is composed of both internal and external acts of devotion. The external acts of devotion compliment internal acts. Humans are corporeal beings, composed of a body and a soul. As such, St. Thomas Aquinas wrote that “it is part of man’s nature to acquire knowledge of the intelligible from the sensible” (ST III Q. 60 A. 4). It is a part of human nature that people learn and gain knowledge by perceiving physical realities. People therefore can only come to a realization of spiritual realities through visible signs and symbols. St. Thomas Aquinas writes also that in “the Divine worship it is necessary to make use of corporeal things, that man’s mind may be aroused thereby, as by signs, to the spiritual acts by means of which he is united to God.” (ST II-II Q. 81 A. 7). Invisible realities, including spiritual realities, are perceived through physical realities. This is because humans are corporeal beings and need things fitting to their nature. The end goal in life is pure truth and goodness, which is God. Sensible things, or corporeal things, are the means to reach this end because of our embodied spiritual nature.

One reaches invisible realities through visible signs. Liturgical music can serve as such a sign. This sensible object points to the invisible reality of God’s love and beauty. Therefore, by listening to the liturgical music and developing “the art of interior listening,” the faithful praise God and grow in faith and holiness (Sing to the Lord, 12). Internal participation “can be expressed and reinforced by actions, gestures, and bodily attitudes, and by the acclamations, responses, and singing” (Sing to the Lord, 13). This active participation helps express and strengthen one’s faith. In the liturgy, words are used to “proclaim Christ’s presence and to reply with our worship and praise” (Sing to the Lord, 6). Therefore, the faithful are called to worship God externally through acts of devotion, including through song, as well as internally through prayer.

As liturgical music is an essential component of the liturgy, the question arises if a particular type of music is more appropriate for the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. “Liturgical wars” have broken out between the people who support traditional liturgical music and those who support more contemporary music (Janco, 48). There have been efforts to reverse the reforms initiated by the Second Vatican Council to adapt and modernize liturgical music. Traditionalists are “seeking to weed out liturgical abuses, promote a stricter interpretation of liturgical documents, and argue for higher musical standards” (Janco, 48). These groups are seeking to “reform the reform” (Janco 48). Some radical groups are even advocating for a return to the Tridentine rite in all churches, returning to the way the liturgy was celebrated before Vatican II. This would allow “Gregorian chant [to regain] its pride of place,” among other forms of liturgical music (Janco 48). On the other side of the debate are those who support contemporary music, featuring guitars, keyboards, and drums. One must examine both sides of the argument to make an informed decision on the matter.

People must first consider the purpose or significance of music in the liturgy. As previously stated, liturgical music is meant to glorify God and sanctify the faithful. Music must serve the Liturgy, as opposed to dominating it. Liturgical music must not “seek to entertain, or draw attention to itself or the musicians” (Sing to the Lord, 125). The music is “not an autonomous work of art,” meant to be admired in and of itself (Janco, 53). Its main purpose is to enhance the liturgy by drawing one’s heart and mind to God, and help establish an environment conducive to prayer. When students primarily attend the Mass with contemporary Christian rock music because they find it entertaining, they are missing the proper role of the music in the liturgy. While the music may be aesthetically pleasing, music in and of itself cannot be the end goal. All music should be intended to help the faithful gathered together to “join themselves with the action of Christ and to give voice to the gift of faith” (Sing to the Lord, 125).

The Church acknowledges that Gregorian chant is “especially suited to the Roman liturgy,” and “other things being equal, it should be given pride of place in liturgical services” (SC #116) Gregorian chant is given a favored position, as it is the Church’s own form of music. It is the traditional music of the Roman rite, and as such, it provides a “sign of communion with the universal Church,” thus binding the entire body of the Church together (Sing to the Lord, 72). A debate may be had on this issue, as the Church has stated that “other kinds of sacred music, especially polyphony, are by no means excluded from liturgical celebrations, so long as they accord with the spirit of the liturgical action” (Sing to the Lord 116). As long as the music remains faithful to Catholic doctrine, other forms of music have been deemed acceptable by the Church. Specific requirements, however, have been established to ensure the integrity of the Liturgy is maintained.

There are three qualities that may be used to judge the appropriateness of music in the liturgy: the liturgical judgment, the pastoral judgment, and the musical judgment (Sing to the Lord, 126-136). According to the liturgical judgment, the musical piece must meet the “structural and textual requirements set forth by the liturgical books” (Sing to the Lord 127). The structural requirements depend on the rite being used at the time. Textual requirements include the music’s ability to support the liturgy and faithfully uphold the teachings of the Church. Under the principle of lex orandi, lex credendi, the law of prayer is the law of faith. In other words, what the Church prays and sings signifies what She believes and holds by faith. The music must therefore support the liturgy and uphold the truths of the faith.

The second quality that may be used to judge the appropriateness of music in the liturgy is the pastoral judgment. This judgment concerns the needs of the community of believers gathered together to celebrate the liturgy. The music must “promote the sanctification of the members of the liturgical assembly by drawing them closer to the holy mysteries being celebrated” (Sing to the Lord, 130). While this judgment permits musical adaptation, such adaptations should contribute to the sanctification of the faithful and the praise of God. By taking their inspiration from sacred texts, liturgical compositions help teach members of the congregation about the faith and contribute to their sanctification.

The last qualification for liturgical music is the musical judgment. The selected piece must have “the necessary aesthetic qualities that can bear the weight of the mysteries celebrated in the Liturgy” (Sing to the Lord, 134). The liturgy is a beautiful memorial sacrifice, and the music must express that same beauty, to complement this Holy Sacrifice. The music therefore must be “artistically sound” (Sing to the Lord, 135). Popular music that is appropriate at certain times is not appropriate for Mass. That being said, the Church has not developed “any particular style of art as her own” (Sing to the Lord, 136). Over the years, the Church has been known to welcome all types of music in the liturgy. However, does this mean that any genre of music may be played at the Mass without preference? Regardless of the genre of music, “style takes a back seat to function” (Janco, 53). Above all, the integrity of the liturgy and Church teachings must be maintained, regardless of the type of music sung.

While Gregorian chant may officially be the preferred genre of music of the Church, many people argue that liturgical music should be adapted to fit the cultural environment in which the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is celebrated. The Church recognizes that She “has the power and on occasion also the duty to adapt to the cultures of recently evangelized peoples” (Catechism of Catholic Church #1205). The aspects of the liturgy that may be adapted include the language, music, songs, movements, and art forms (Catechism of the Catholic Church, #39-51). The Catholic Church acknowledges that people should “be sensitive to the cultural and spiritual milieu of their communities, in order to build up the Church in unity and peace” (Sing to the Lord, 73). It has been said that traditional music must be adapted to a particular regions’ “native genius” (Sing to the Lord, 131). In other words, liturgical music should be adapted to fit the cultural context in which the Mass is being celebrated, embracing the characteristics unique to that particular region. People are much more likely to be receptive to the faith if liturgical music is adapted to the culture of a given place, as it integrates that which is comfortable and familiar to a specific group. In this mutual give and take, the culture is integrated into the religion and the religion is integrated into the culture, creating a harmonious balance. This must occur, however, while still maintaining the dignity of the worship service. Intercultural adaptation, when done properly, respects peoples’ national, or even regional, identity while presenting the people with religious Truths. This has proven to be an effective tool in evangelical work, as it allows for full and active participation within the community.

While inculturation may bring people to the faith, inculturation has its limitations. There are immutable parts of the liturgy that may not be changed, “that is divinely instituted and of which the Church is the guardian” (Catechism of Catholic Church #1205). These unchangeable parts are essential to the nature of the liturgy.  They include the celebration of the Eucharistic sacrifice, the sacraments, the legislative framework for the organization of worship, the unity of the Universal Church, and that the Church must be present in a given place at a given time. All of these aspects of the liturgy cannot be changed because any alterations would change the fundamental nature of the liturgy. Each individual church must be united with the universal Church, as authority guarantees unity. This authority comes from the Holy Scriptures, which “must not be replaced by any other text” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, #23). The second immutable part of the liturgy is the purpose of celebrating this memorial sacrifice. The main reasons for the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass are “the glorification of God the father and the sanctification of mankind by the power of the Holy Spirit” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, #24). The third immutable part is the sacraments. The Church declares that “the whole life of the liturgy gravitates in the first place around the Eucharistic sacrifice and the other sacraments given by Christ to His church” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, #25). The Church has the responsibility of transmitting the sacraments to all the faithful, just as Christ did. The sacraments were first instituted by Christ Himself, and the Church does not have the authority to change them in any way. Another immutable part of the liturgy is that the Church must be made present in a given time and place. Through particular churches, “the liturgy reveal[s] the Church in its true nature” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, #26). Local churches must be united with the practices established in the Church through tradition. Finally, the legislative framework for the organization of worship, the preparation of texts and the celebration of rites must not be altered in any way, in order to ensure orthodoxy in the Church, as the law of prayer is the law of faith (Catechism of the Catholic Church, #27). All five of these aspects cannot be changed, as they preserve unity in the Roman rite. Any adaptations “depend completely on the authority of the Church” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, #37). No one else has the authority to change these aspects of the liturgy.

Therefore, while “many styles and cultures [have] the potential to fulfill the functions expected of liturgical music,” this does not mean that all music should be adapted to the liturgy (Janco, 53). One must be careful in determining what music should or should not be allowed. The style of the music may be adopted to fit the environment in which it is sung, but the text must have a Biblical and liturgical connection. It would be completely inappropriate for liturgical music to transform into a “congregation-become-audience, and a choir-become-entertainer” (Laytham, 1). The choir is not intended to play the role of entertainers nor is the congregation intended to act as an audience. Entertainment is “the free and intentional enjoyment of attending to a communicative performance intended for that purpose” (Laytham, 2). In other words, entertainment is for entertainment’s sake, without any higher purpose. As previously stated, liturgical music is intended for the praise of God and the sanctification of the faithful, not for mere entertainment. Any contemporary music that detracts from this main goal is not appropriate music for the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.

Unfortunately, it is all too often the case that liturgical music loses its higher purpose. It is often found that, “the intentional importation of entertainment appliances, commodities, and practices into worship is often grounded in an urgent desire to revitalize moribund worship that is entirely predictable, mundane, and hence utterly numbing” (Laytham, 1). Composers and liturgical ministers select modern, contemporary music that is intended to revitalize the traditional, arguably boring, music of the past. By doing so, they hope to engage the congregation, particularly the younger members. This well-intentioned act, however, can have an adverse effect. Contemporary music can “dislocate our worship from God,” if the music becomes an end in itself (Laytham, 1). The music must always connect back to the liturgy, as the law of prayer is the law of faith.

In addition to cultural traditions, one must consider the age, language, and education level of those who are in attendance at Mass when determining what type of music is appropriate. The music selected depends on “those ways in which a particular group finds it easiest to join their hearts and minds to the liturgical action” (Sing to the Lord 132). Above all, the music should elevate people’s hearts to God and encourage full and active participation in the Mass. Youth might argue that contemporary music will better allow them to participate in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass by keeping them more engaged. This is a fallible argument, however. The purpose of liturgical music is to enhance the liturgy and elevate one’s mind to God. A church is a sacred place, set apart from other ordinary places. These exceptional places and times “possess a special and unique dignity,” due to their sacred nature (Pieper, 13). People who walk into a Church “step over the threshold to enter that ‘other’ realm,” and are expected “to comport themselves differently from what would otherwise be common” (Pieper, 11). The faithful must act differently in this sacred space to “show reverence and respect,” for God and this sacred place of worship (Pieper, 12). By playing contemporary music, the liturgy loses part of its sacredness. A church is no longer a sacred space, or a place set apart, but rather, it blends in with the modern pop-culture of ordinary life.

If musical instruments should be incorporated into the liturgy, there is a need to determine which are the most appropriate, as instruments set the tone of liturgical music. Because humans are made in the likeness and image of God, the human voice is “the most privileged and fundamental” instrument of all (Sing to the Lord, 86). All other instruments may be “an extension of and support to the primary liturgical instrument” (Sing to the Lord, 86). These instrumental accompaniments however must not overpower the human voice. The pipe organ is the traditional instrument used to accompany the vocalists. This traditional instrument adds another beautiful element to the liturgy and lifts hearts and minds to God through its beautiful melodies. The Church has stated that “other instruments may be admitted for use in divine worship,” as long as “the instruments are suitable, or can be made suitable, for sacred use” (Sing to the Lord, 120). This means that the instrumental music must help the faithful praise God and grow in holiness if used in the liturgy. Modern instruments, such as guitars and drums, may detract from this sacred environment. A church is a sacred place, “different from all other locations” (Pieper, 15). When modern instruments are added to the liturgy, the Mass becomes like any other place where contemporary music is played. This process of desacralization detracts from the celebration of the liturgy, and turns the music into an end in and of itself.

While many people may view the music at Mass to be superfluous and unnecessary, it is in fact an integral component of this memorial sacrifice, as it leads to the praise of God and the sanctification of the faithful. The type of music does in fact matter if one is to achieve these ends. As stated in Sing to the Lord, music must not become and end in itself. Liturgical music must therefore fulfill all three judgments, including the liturgical judgment, the pastoral judgment, and the musical judgment in order to be deemed appropriate for the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. Contemporary music may seem to fit these three requirements, and the Catechism of the Catholic Church states that adaptations may be made to the music for the purposes of evangelization (Catechism of the Catholic Church #1205). However, the most appropriate form of music for the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass and the evangelization of the youth is Gregorian chant. Josef Pieper demonstrates how liturgical music must maintain the sacredness of the Mass. Contemporary music leads to desacralization, as a church is no longer a sacred space, set apart from the ordinary. Contemporary Christian music may be appropriate for praise and worship nights or at youth group meetings, but is not appropriate for Mass. There is a time and a place for contemporary music, but it should not infiltrate this sacred time and place. Parishes should offer all-sung Masses, in order to introduce the youth to the beauty of Gregorian chant. Young people are open to alternative art forms, so they must first be given the chance to experience this traditional music themselves. Gregorian chant should also be introduced in religious education programs and religion classes to explain the significance of this genre of liturgical music and its sacred nature. Through a revitalization of the usage of traditional Gregorian chant, an understanding of the sacredness of the liturgy may be better imparted upon the youth, maintaining the Church and bringing her thriving through another century.



  1. Aquinas, Thomas. Summa theologiae. Ed. Fathers of the English Dominican Province (New York: Benziger Bros., 1948; repr., Christian Classics, 1981). Print.
  2. Augustine, Confessions. Trans. Henry Chadwick. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009. Print.
  3. Catholic Church. Catechism of the Catholic Church. 2nd ed. Vatican: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2011. Print.
  4. Chalmers, David, and James Jordan. “Liturgical Music Trends: A Publisher’s Point Of View.”
  5. Choral Journal 53.2 (2012): 57-61. Academic Search Complete. Web. 7 Mar. 2014.
  6. Colossians. Holy Bible, New King James Version. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1982. Print.
  7. Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments. Varietates legitimae. 
  8. Janco, Steven R. “From Stylistic Stalemate To Focus On Function.” Liturgy 24.4 (2009): 48-54. Academic Search Complete. Web. 7 Mar. 2014.
  9. Laytham, Brent. “Liturgy And Entertainment.” Liturgy 28.3 (2013): 1-6. Academic Search Complete. Web. 7 Mar. 2014.
  10. Pieper, Josef. In Search of the Sacred. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1991.
  11. Ratzinger, Joseph. The Spirit of the Liturgy. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2000.
  12. United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. Sing to the Lord: Music in Divine Worship, 2007.
  13. Vatican II. Sacrosanctum concilium, 1963

1 thought on “Liturgy Wars: Gregorian chant versus Contemporary Music”

  1. Extremely well researched and well though out article.

    FYI, there is a funny typo in the paragraph that begins “in liturgical services’ (SC #116).” I think something has been omitted there.

    Also, the quote from “Sing to the Lord”, 134, has a typo in it. It should read: “the necessary aesthetic qualities that can *bear* [not ‘hear’] the weight of the mysteries celebrated in the Liturgy.”


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