I'm Stuck Up

This article originally appeared on Sacred Music at Notre Dame's blog Music and the Sacred.

"Hermeneutic of continuity," a term that was originally coined by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, was presented to me by a scholarly Franciscan Friar several years ago. He presented it in the context that Benedict first used it, but ever since, I haven’t been able to stop considering how poignant and important this idea is for church musicians in contemporary America.

Let me begin by giving an overview of Benedict’s own thoughts about this idea. It seems that the term “hermeneutic of continuity” arose out of an address given to the Roman Curia shortly before Christmas in 2005. Although Benedict never actually used the full term “hermeneutic of continuity”, the idea is implied by his use of terms like “hermeneutic of reform” and “hermeneutic of discontinuity.”

“Well, it all depends on the correct interpretation of the Council or - as we would say today - on its proper hermeneutics, the correct key to its interpretation and application. The problems in its implementation arose from the fact that two contrary hermeneutics came face to face and quarreled with each other. One caused confusion, the other, silently but more and more visibly, bore and is bearing fruit.

On the one hand, there is an interpretation that I would call "a hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture"; it has frequently availed itself of the sympathies of the mass media, and also one trend of modern theology. On the other, there is the "hermeneutic of reform", of renewal in the continuity of the one subject-Church which the Lord has given to us. She is a subject which increases in time and develops, yet always remaining the same, the one subject of the journeying People of God.

The hermeneutic of discontinuity risks ending in a split between the pre-conciliar Church and the post-conciliar Church. It asserts that the texts of the Council as such do not yet express the true spirit of the Council. It claims that they are the result of compromises in which, to reach unanimity, it was found necessary to keep and reconfirm many old things that are now pointless. However, the true spirit of the Council is not to be found in these compromises but instead in the impulses toward the new that are contained in the texts.” (Address Of His Holiness Benedict XVI to the Roman Curia Offering Them His Christmas Greetings, Thursday, 22 December 2005)

I’d like to now apply this understanding of the "hermeneutic of continuity" to the life of the church musician in the modern church. I think that the “hermeneutic of rupture” is a product of the human condition. While it may not be what I always resort to, this “hermeneutic” tends to arise in me most apparently when I choose to turn off my creative thought about a problem and go instead with my “default position.”  A common thought pattern of mine will illustrate:

JJ Thoughts - New Page.jpeg

But this is a divisive idea, because through it I dismiss much of what hard-working, sincere church musicians have strived for in the last fifty years, and this denial severs my own continuity with things as they are now. I can easily create an idealized world where every church musician is amazingly talented and well-practiced, and the quality of the music is as good as any offered outside of the church…if only we get rid of this plague that has been haunting us since Vatican II. Unfortunately, these ideas haven't gotten me anywhere. So where does that leave me? Do I give up on church music because it’s too hard to recover what was “originally there”? Do I stay and work bitterly to overturn so much of the poorly crafted music of the last fifty years? Neither of these options are ideal, but what else is there to be done?

In the spirit of the “hermeneutic of continuity” I think it’s critical that we encounter the whole continuity. We have to open up to the music in the traditional sacred music repertory, AND we have to figure out ways to bring the music written post-Vatican II up to the same level of composition and musicianship, while keeping our eyes on the importance of participation.  Most crucial in this hermeneutic is new music for the liturgy that’s informed by everything that’s come before. The authentic place to find renewal in the Church and in individual hearts and minds is found, as Pope Benedict says, "in the continuity of the one subject-Church which the Lord has given to us." (Emphasis added)

In my next post, I’m going to write about how encountering the music throughout the whole tradition of Catholic sacred music is a spiritual discipline that enables both the church musician and congregation to grow in faith and in understanding of the liturgy.


J.J. Wright is currently pursuing his Master's of Sacred Music with a concentration on Choral Conducting at the University of Notre Dame and expects to graduate in May 2014. You can visit his website here: jjwrightmusic.com.