My wife and son are both parish organists. When our current pastor took over the parish, the arduous responsibility for selecting music for the Sunday Mass was delegated to our family. What's so difficult about looking through the hymnal and picking out something appropriate for the season? Well, it's not that simple.
The typical post-Vatican II Mass has new modern music intermingled with some old traditional hymns. Catholics now find themselves singing religious songs that were only heard in Protestant churches in the past. This is not necessarily bad unless the lyrics express ideas that conflict with Catholic teaching. One would think that all songs printed in a Catholic hymnal would be appropriate for a Catholic Mass, but that is not always the case. Catholics are often unaware that many of the hymns they have come to know and love, may undermine their own faith.
Probably the most common example of a hymn criticized for expressing Protestant thought is Amazing Grace. We have sung it in our church -- number 438 in our hymnal. Some conservative Catholics say Amazing Grace should never be sung in a Catholic Church. The reason is a lyrical implication that salvation is a one-time event that happened 'the hour I first believed.' One tenet of fundamental Protestantism says that once salvation is achieved, it cannot be lost. If that is what the song says, then certainly it should not be sung at a Catholic Mass.
Studying the lyric carefully, I am not sure the criticism is valid. The first verse does speak of being saved in the past tense, but so does the Bible (Rom 8:24 and Eph 2:5). Of course, the Bible also speaks of salvation as an ongoing process (1 Cor 1:8, 2 Cor 2:15 and Phil 2:12) and a future event (Rom 5:9-10, 2 Tim 2:11-13), and this supports the Catholic belief that salvation cannot be assured until death. Speaking of salvation in the past tense does not necessarily express a heretic belief, nor does it rule out future loss. In fact, the third verse says "grace has brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home." There we have the ongoing and future journey to salvation. Sounds very Catholic to me.
The second verse says, "How precious did that grace appear the hour I first believed." Fundamental Protestants believe one is saved at the moment he accepts Jesus as 'his personal Lord and Savior.' Is that the idea the song is expressing here? No. It simply says that God's grace appeared precious at the first hour of belief. Nothing wrong with that. The fourth verse says, "His word my hope secures." Again, this speaks of assured hope, not assured salvation.
One might argue that the referring to oneself as a "wretch" sounds a little like Luther saying we are cow dung. Yes, we are all sinners and sinning is wretched behavior. In the Catholic mindset, however, we are created in the image and likeness of God. Many Catholic hymnals offer an alternate text that omits the word "wretch".
Does this mean Amazing Grace is appropriate for the Mass? Not necessarily. A complete understanding and appreciation for what is happening during the Sacrifice of the Mass certainly brings to mind more reverent and prayerful hymns. Yet, conservative Catholics need not get overly upset if Amazing Grace occasionally finds its way into the liturgy.
Certainly, not all songs in Catholic hymnals are appropriate. An acquaintance with experience in liturgical music recently sent me her idea of what the minimum standards should be. Her recommendation includes "examination of the entire text to insure that it supports Catholic teaching without any error." I consider myself slightly above average in knowledge of Catholic teaching, but I couldn't begin to know every theological nuance that may be inferred by a certain lyric.
Catholic apologists often point to the proliferation of conflicting Protestant beliefs when self-interpretation of Scripture is the only option. Similarly, even if each Catholic Parish had its own orthodox theologian to scrutinize musical text, there would certainly be some disagreement on doctrinal implications of certain hymns. It is safe to say that most parishes would not have anyone sufficiently qualified to study each lyric and determine its compatibility with the fine points of doctrine.
It would then behoove each parish to adopt a hymnal containing only texts pre-approved by orthodox Catholic theologians. Some, such as the Adoremus Hymnal, have been assembled with doctrinal compatibility in mind. While many others may contain imprimaturs, one sometimes wonders how much scrutiny went into their approval.
In the meantime, some of us in the laity will face the task of selecting liturgical music each week from a repertoire that may contain questionable material. At the very least, those choosing music for the Mass should have a keen understanding of Catholic doctrine. Music that undermines Catholic teaching in any way should certainly be rejected. In the case where personal interpretation comes into play, one can always err on the side of caution. But almost any lyric can be construed to say something that the composer may have never intended.
In the 1960's, Peter, Paul and Mary (the folk singers -- not those from the Bible) had a hit song called Puff the Magic Dragon. Some critics interpreted the song's lyrics as describing a drug experience. I saw an interview with one of the members of the group (either Peter Yarrow or Paul Stookey) where he countered the accusation by analyzing each line of our National Anthem in a way that could also describe a drug experience. His point was to show that the meaning of the song is subject to the interpreter. Similarly, we may try to read too much theology into a simple song lyric. It is not necessary to eliminate every hymn that may be construed as sounding Protestant.
Years ago, I attended a baseball umpires' clinic. One of the instructors, an experienced umpire, said the first thing he does when umpiring home plate is to rub out the back line on the batter's box. By doing so, he eliminates all arguments about whether the batter is keeping his stance within the boundaries of the batter's box. With the line obliterated, the call is now up to the umpire's discretion, and the wise umpire will not make the call unless the violation is flagrant.
The key word is flagrant. Many calls in baseball are not made unless the violation is flagrant. Did the second baseman have his foot on the bag when turned the double play? Did the runner leave third base too soon when he tagged up on a sacrifice fly? Did he run out of the baseline? A good umpire doesn't try to split hairs on calls such as these. The same goes for police officers. A good cop will not give you a ticket for going 57 miles per hour in a 55 zone.
The liturgical musician would be wise to follow the same example when selecting songs for the Mass. If the doctrinal violation is flagrant, throw the hymn out. If one must bend the interpretation to find fault, let it go. Unlike the umpire or police officer, you can always seek another opinion from a priest or someone more knowledgeable. If more than one member of the parish expresses a reservation about a certain song, it is probably wise to eliminate it rather than cause discomfort and distraction for them during the Mass. Selecting liturgical music is an important task and should not be taken lightly. It can enhance the liturgy or it can detract from it. Much thought needs to go into the process.
As for Amazing Grace, I would personally avoid its use at Mass, but not so much due to any flagrant incompatibility with Catholic teaching. Rather, there are more appropriate liturgical hymns and sacred music to sing in praise of the amazing miracle taking place on the altar. I am also sensitive to those who do feel the lyrics favor a Protestant belief. A good rule of thumb is to avoid anything that could create a distraction to even a few worshipers. And, study the documents of Vatican II, especially Chapter VI of Sacrosanctum Concilium. You may be surprised what it really says.