Roman Catholic Sources On The Introduction Of Instrumental Music Into Worship By Christians

By Luther W. Martin

From the Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. X, page 657, we copy as follows:

Musical Instruments in Church Services. For almost a thousand years Gregorian chant; without any instrumental or harmonic addition, was the only music used in connexion with the liturgy. The organ, in its primitive and rude form, was the first, and for a long time the sole, instrument used to accompany the chant. . . .

The primitive Christian Church was, on account of external circumstances, very much restrained in its religious manifestations, and the adoption of the music of the Temple, in so far as it had survived, would have been difficult on account of the converts from paganism. Furthermore, the practice of religion on the part of the early Christians was of such a purely spiritual nature that any sensuous assistance, such as that of music, could be for the time easily dispensed with. Nevertheless, the words of St. Paul, even if only taken in a spiritual sense, remind one forcibly of the conception of music in the Old Testament: ‘Speaking to yourselves in psalms, and hymns, and spiritual canticles, singing and making melody in your hearts to the Lord’ (Eph. v, 19) (Ibid., p. 648).

Although Josephus tells of the wonderful effects produced in the Temple by the use of instruments, the first Christians were of too spiritual a fibre to substitute lifeless instruments for or to use them to accompany the human voice. Clement of Alexandria severely condemns the use of instruments even at Christian banquets (P.G., Vill, 440). St. Chrysostom sharply contrasts the customs of the Christians at the time when they had full freedom with those of the Jews of the Old Testament (Ibid., LV, 494-7). Similarly write a series of early ecclesiastical writers down to St. Thomas (Summa, II-II, Q. xci, a. 2).

In Carlovingian times, however, the organ came into use, and was, until the sixteenth century, used solely for the accompaniment of the chant. . . . (Ibid., p. 651).

Richard Wagner says a vigorous word in favor of purely vocal music in church: “To the human voice, the immediate vehicle of the sacred word, belongs the first place in the churches, and not to instrumental additions or the trivial scraping found in most of the churches pieces to-day. Catholic Church music can regain its former purity only by a return to the purely vocal style” (Ibid., p. 651).

That vocal music is in general more expressive than the mechanically produced tone of instruments is undeniable.

Religious feeling finds its most natural expression in vocal utterance, for the human heart is the source of both devotion and song (Ibid., p. 651).

The development of congregational singing is of early origin. St. Augustine tells us (Conf. vii, 9) that St. Ambrose

introduced it in his own diocese from the Orient, and that it soon spread throughout the Western Church (Ibid., p. 653).

The Catholic Church was not interested in following the practice of the primitive (New Testament) church, so, she soon accepted the music of the theater. But note two more comments:

Song preludes and intermezzi during liturgical functions are forbidden. The organ must be subordinate to the singing, must support and now drown it. The purely vocal style is the ideal of the Church. The papal choir, the sistine, has always excluded instrumental music (Ibid., p. 655).

The wisdom of these restrictions has been cheerfully recognized by such unprejudiced authorities as Wagner and Beethoven – a fact which cannot be too often stated. The former maintained that ‘genuine church music should be produced only by voices, except a “Gloria” or similar text. As early in his career as 1848 this master ascribed the decadence of church music to the use of instruments’ (Ibid., p. 655).

Next, we copy from Voices and Instruments In Christian Worship, by Joseph Gelineau, S.J., and Clifford Howell, S.J., and published by The Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minn.:

Christian worship makes no provision for mere ‘hearers’ or ‘spectators’; each one is an agent and a participator. That is the reason why the Church forbids the use of ‘mechanical music’ (produced by record-players or tape-recorders) in the liturgy (p. 71).

From the standpoint of ritual action, liturgical music can only be monodic and vocal. Throughout nearly ten centuries of its history, Christian worship was in principle, and nearly always in fact, celebrated una voce and a capella (one voice, unanimously; and without instrumental accompaniment, ‘as the chapel’ – LWM) (Ibid., p. 142).

The progress of instrumental music swept the choirs along in its wake, and there was an ever increasing tendency in the great religious musical compositions of the baroque age to treat the voices as self-sufficient parts, like the instruments themselves. Once again the text was drowned. In vain did Benedict XIV recall the golden rule of the primacy of the audible text (Ibid., p. 147).

In Christian worship the playing of an instrument all by itself has never constituted a religious rite property so called. A musical sound which accompanies no words is equivocal; even though capable of exalted spiritual meaning, it eludes the discursive intelligence if it be left alone. Now, as St. Paul observes (1 Cor. 14), everything which is done in the assembly should be done for the ‘edification’ of all (v. 26). What does this mean? The Apostle goes on to explain. Each one may have a psalm to sing (v. 26); but if this imparts no revelation, no knowledge, no prophecy, no instruction, ‘Thou, true enough, art duly giving thanks, but the other one’s faith is not strengthened’ (v. 17). In this case, as in glossalaly (tongue-speaking – LWM), the musician is ‘strengthening but his own faith’ (v. 4). And the Apostle concludes: ‘What, then, is my drift? Why, I mean to use mind as well as spirit when I sing psalms’ (v. 15). Already the irrational meaninglessness of his music is not overcome except with the aid of the logos (word – LWM). But above all, its mythical ambiguity is not eliminated except by the revelation of the Christian mystery. That is why Pius X, before discussing instrumental music, recalls the ‘the music proper to the Church is purely vocal music (Ibid., p. 148).

Music expresses the sentiments, but is not capable of defining them, and without the commentary of words, which are absent from instrumental music, the hearer always remains somewhat vague about the nature and object of the sentiment by which the musician is inspired (P. Lanerre, Philmophie du gout musical [Paris, 19221, p. 43)” (Ibid., p. 148).

On the other hand, Canon 74 of St. Basil (Egypt, 4th-5th century) forbids the use of the lyre to every reader – even, it seems, outside worship – under the pain of censure: ‘Whenever a reader falls into playing a harp, he must confess it (?); if he falls repeatedly he will be excluded from the Church (W. Riedel, Die Kirchenrechtsquellen des Patriarchats Alexandrien, p. 267) (Ibid., p. 150).

Nevertheless the abundance and clearness of the texts in which the Fathers of the Church have discussed the questions can leave us in no doubt about the content and firmness of their teaching: musical instruments are to be excluded from the worship of the New Alliance.

The motives adduced for this prohibition are of two kinds. The first motive for excluding musical instruments comes from the role they used to fulfill in ancient civilization and from their inseparable connection with idolatrous worship and depravity in morals. Even though the lyre could be accepted as respectable, the flute and the oboe were erotic instruments, the trumpet was bellicose and the organ, theatrical. Thus, it was to reject the profane and to defend the sanctity of Christian worship that the Fathers excluded all the instruments in use in their day. . . .

Another and more fundamental reason is developed by the Fathers: the use of material instruments was conceded by God to Israel, just as were sacrifices of animals, as a pedagogic measure to help their religious sense, which was still carnal. With the coming of the Word and the imparting of the Spirit, the worship of the New Alliance consists in the sacrifice of the lips and the heart; it is expressed completely by the word and song. . . Never can the vocal and spiritual praise of the Word of God be supplied or supplanted, in worship in spirit and in truth, by the sound of musical instruments alone (Ibid., pp. 150-152).

The organ, which had been mainly a solo instrument in earlier times, became the usual instrument of accompaniment during the nineteenth century. Pius X ‘permits’ it, provided it does not drown out the voices (Ibid., p. 154).

Any kind of instrumentation which is sensuous or redolent of the dance, which relegates the words to the status of mere sounds, every profusion of timbres which drowns out the voices, is incompatible with spiritual worship (Ibid., pp. 155-156).

From Concilium Theology In The Age of Renewal Liturgy (Vol. 2 – The Church and The Liturgy, Paulist Press):

It is true that the Council (Vatican II – LWM) has decisively reminded us of what was clearly the practice in the days of St. John Chrysostom or St. Augustine, but gradually declined during the Middle Ages, namely, that the Church’s prayer and praise included the voice of all its members and not merely that of a group of clergy or singers (p. 62).

In the East the Church, does not use the organ, and in the Latin Church its use is neither always possible nor opportune in every part of the world (Ibid., p. 122)


From the foregoing quotations, it can be readily demonstrated from Roman Catholic sources, that the use of manmade musical instruments in the worship of Christians, is an addition by men, subsequent to the, writing of the New Testament.

Roman Catholicism assumes that she has the right and authority to make sure additions and changes. Nevertheless, her forthright admissions as to what constituted the original and primitive practices of the New Testament church, provide us with ample evidence, in harmony with the New Testament, as to what our doctrine and practice should be.

These quotations and their sources cannot be denied!

Guardian of Truth XXXIII: 2, pp. 51-52, 56
January 19, 1989