Catholics tend to criticize praise and worship music. I’ve heard it described as sappy emotionalism that has no place in worship. Catholic rightfully criticize its presence in Mass. Yet, praise and worship may have a legitimate place in Catholic spirituality. St. Paul speaks of spiritual songs in Colossians 3:16
Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God
According to this verse, we are to keep the words of Christ in us. St. Paul offers two ways of doing so by teaching and admonishing each other and through singing. According to Paul, we are to sing: 1. Psalms, 2. Hymns, and 3. Spiritual songs. Most Catholics are familiar with singing Psalms and hymns because it happens at Mass. Yet, I’m sure the concept of spiritual songs would confuse most Catholics. I argue that hymns are distinct from Spiritual songs. I also argue that one needs both in order to “let the word of God dwell in us.” Praise and worship songs fall under the category of spiritual songs. I will use both spiritual songs and praise and worship interchangeably. First, I need to explain the difference between Hymns and Spiritual songs.
What are hymns
Hymns are a piece of music that the church uses to give glory to God. In a Catholic context, a piece of music qualifies as a hymn when it also qualifies as Sacred Music. A hymn qualifies when it is: 1. Holy, 2. Has beauty of form and 3. Is universal.1 Traditionally the church only allowed for Gregorian chant and Polyphony. Since Vatican II, the church has allowed newer composition. Newer compositions do not automatically include modern songs. To understand why we need to understand the philosophy behind beauty of forms.
The criteria that allow Forms to be Beautiful 2
The philosophy of Thomas Aquinas helps define these criteria. If you hate philosophy, you may want to skip this section as the concept can get pretty confusing. Aquinas stated that a person conceptualizes beauty. A person bases beauty on actuality, proportion, radiance, and integrity.
Aquinas argues that everything is beautiful in proportion to its own form. Every object that exists has a form. A form helps distinguish different objects. For example, the body of a human takes a different shape than the body of a dog. When a human possesses all the correct body parts, that is beautiful according to form. The object must have action. In other words, the object must be doing a thing that makes it different from other objects. A dog must be acting like a dog. A human must be acting like a human. So to summarize, actuality requires existence, a form, and action. All this is necessary for anything to have beauty.
This pertains to the idea that all the parts relate to the whole in a balanced way. Going back to our human example again. We can imagine a human with all the typical body parts, but those parts are out of proportion. For example, if one arm is longer than the body, then it would be impractical and not beautiful.
Radiance refers to the shine that comes from the object and seizes the attention of the beholder. Music has radiance when it captures the attention of the listener.
An object has integrity in two ways. The object must be perfect concerning it’s being. Likewise, the object must be perfect in operation. In other words, the object is not missing anything.
So, Aquinas laid the groundwork to argue for an objective nature of beauty. So the church states reference the above criteria to determine beauty of form. If an object has beauty of form then it will have universality. Holiness refers to the purpose of the music, which is to give glory to God alone. So a perfect hymn must honor God, be beautiful to everyone. At the very least it must honor God and be in harmony like choir music.
Are praise and worship considered spiritual songs
These are songs inspired by the Holy Spirit. They are spontaneous and have no proportionality. They incorporate multiple instruments. Modern praise and worship music incorporates all of these characteristics. One such example would be Bethel, who will often sing spontaneously. They also create a mashup of two different songs. Catholic artist also performs this style of music. One artist that comes to mind is Emmanuel worship. Some people will mention that praise and worship are repetitive and emotional. This serves the purpose of spiritual songs. Spiritual songs help us reflect on God and his relationship with us. Hymns on the other hand help give God honor and praise. Thus spiritual songs are more meditative. Repeating over and over that God is a good father may sound simplistic, but it helps internalize the truth.
My frustration as of late stems from Catholics wanting to have their cake and eat it too. Some want traditional chants and to look down on praise and worship. Others want the mass to incorporate praise and worship. The songs may not be appropriate to function as a hymn. The former while correct denies the power of praise and worship. The latter waters down the Mass. I would like to see a balance. I would like to see beautiful harmonized music during Mass. The church can also have monthly spontaneous worship events. Yes, I can listen to praise and worship in my own time. Yet, there is something exuberant about worshiping spontaneously with the body of Christ.