In our year-long course on music at Wyoming Catholic College, students read and discuss a chapter from Joseph Ratzinger’s book A New Song for the Lord, “The Image of the World and of Human Beings in the Liturgy and Its Expression in Church Music,” one of the best things ever written about church music. Ratzinger masterfully shows how the music we employ in church always embodies and communicates an ecclesiology, a Christology, and an anthropology—it is that significant! There is no escaping it: Every bit of music we perform in church is expressing a vision of the whole and inculcating it in those who listen. This is why church musicians will have much glory or great shame on the day of judgment.
A question always comes up in connection with this reading. It seems that the missionaries who went to the New World were able to take up elements of the culture of the people they encountered, including something from their music. Vatican II tells us that we should do the same thing wherever the Gospel is preached. Why can we not take up elements of today’s popular culture around us, such as rock or pop styles of music, and turn them into vehicles for evangelizing our contemporaries?
My answer—at least as far as the realm of the liturgy is concerned—is a resounding no, for the following reasons.
Inculturation, correctly understood, is the process of carefully discerning and integrating harmonious elements of an indigenous culture into the teaching and practice of the Faith, so as to make the Faith at home in a culture. In this way the people to whom it is being introduced experience it not as something completely foreign to them but as something that completes and elevates the good already present in their midst. The Church does indeed promote inculturation understood in this way:
Since the Kingdom of Christ is not of this world (cf. Jn 18:36), however, the Church or People of God in establishing that Kingdom takes nothing away from the temporal welfare of any people, but on the contrary, it fosters and takes to itself the abilities, riches, and customs of each people, insofar as they are good, and by taking them up, purifies, strengthens, and ennobles them. The Church in this is mindful that she must bring together the nations for that king to whom they were given as an inheritance (cf. Ps 2:8), and to whose city they bring gifts and offerings (Ps 71:10; Is 60:4–7; Rev 21:24). This characteristic of universality, which adorns the People of God, is a gift from the Lord Himself, by reason of which the Catholic Church effectively and continually strives to bring all humanity with all its good things back to their source in Christ, under His Headship, in the unity of His Spirit.
With prudent sensitivity, the great missionaries adopted and adapted some of the customs and art forms they found, in order to evangelize the pagans more effectively and to enrich the Church’s treasury with the gold of Sheba. We can see examples of such inculturation in vestments, architecture, and music. New Liturgical Movement has run several pieces about how the Chinese and Japanese missions intelligently promoted this approach. Marvelous examples of inculturation can be found in the fusion of European chant and polyphony with native American instruments and texts.
On the basis of the foregoing model, then, aren’t we supposed to find ways to embody the Faith in the surrounding secular culture so that we can more effectively reach our contemporaries? Isn’t this what the missionaries did? There are, however, crucial differences between this and what the original missionaries did.
First of all, there is the overwhelming and undeniable fact that when Catholic missionaries came to native peoples in the Age of Exploration, they brought with them a fully “realized” religion, founded on fixed dogmas, issuing in definitive moral teachings, crowned and nourished by a stable sacred liturgy, all intertwined with a rich culture of art and thought. They fully intended to plant this religion and its culture on foreign soil and to win over the pagans to its truth and superiority. The Catholic Faith, in all its specificity and plenitude, was the non-negotiable controlling paradigm by which indigenous elements had to be judged and into which they had to be fitted. It played the dominant role; like form in the philosophy of Aristotle, it was to be imparted to the receptive matter. In this way the missionaries never balked at “the scandal of the particular”: They were preaching Jesus of Nazareth and establishing the Church of Rome.
This precedence of a universal and traditional Catholic orthodoxy and orthopraxy—the doctrine of the Council of Trent, let us say, and the organically developed sacramental rites of the Roman Church, replete with Gregorian chant—is not what proponents of a modernizing inculturation assume; in fact, they are more likely to ignore, marginalize, or exclude such things, failing to see how they could ever be relevant to our contemporaries. In this way, they run the risk of no longer inculturating the Catholic Faith. They might even end up fashioning new micro-religions, somewhat like the proliferation of local craft beers (no offense to craft brewers!).
Second, when the missionaries came to the pagans, the latter had no Christian heritage at all. They were a blank slate in this regard, although they were disposed, better or worse, to hear the Gospel due to their pre-existing religious beliefs, sentiments, and rituals. True pagans are not “scientific” atheists, elegant agnostics, smug liberals, or materialistic consumers; they believe in one god or many gods, they fear and placate them, and are ripe for conversion to a more divine and more humane religion. Coming to such religious non-Christians, the missionaries could make a discernment about which elements to take up from a genuinely pagan milieu, all the while remembering that the message they brought was authoritative and controlling.
Today’s Westerners, in contrast, are post-Christian aliens, estranged from their own history and the great cultural synthesis that could and should be theirs. The history of modern music, whether atonal or jazz or rock or pop, is a history of deliberate rebellion and revolt against the great tradition of Western music, against its high art forms, its slowly-developed musical language, its explicitly or implicitly Christian message. In its origins and its inner meaning, much of modern Western music is a rejection of the Catholic (and European) tradition. As a result, it is not morally, intellectually, or culturally “neutral”; it is already laden with an anti-institutional, anti-sacral, anti-traditional significance. This music is not naïve raw material waiting to be Christianized, but highly articulate anti-Christian propaganda. It rejects the ideals of lofty beauty and grandeur, spiritual seriousness, evocation of the divine, openness to the transcendent, and artistic discipline, in favor of vapidity, frivolity, profanity, sensuality, and banality. As David Clayton aptly observes:
The dominant contemporary culture of the West today is the secular culture of anti-culture. It defines itself not by what it is, but by what it isn’t. It is founded on a reaction against Christianity. Therefore, it is a distortion of it and as such is parasitical upon it.
Given the specific requirements and expectations that go along with the cultus Dei, to admit such music into the temple is to profane the temple, to violate its sacredness. We are looking not at inculturation but at “exculturation,” in which what is proper to a unified, historical religion is diluted or obliterated by its opposite.
Third, the pagans had a genuine folk culture—a culture that was, so to speak, of the people, by the people, and for the people. It was vital, personal, immediate. When the missionaries worked on and with this culture, they were working with something organic, spontaneous, and, in a sense, disinterested. In stark contrast, today’s pagans are largely passive consumers of mass-produced, low-quality sonic junk food that earns huge profits for capitalist corporations who know how to manipulate the feelings of poorly educated, emotionally volatile audiences.
What the pagans had to offer, then, were local traditions of truly human dimensions, expressive of their identity and creativity as a people, not today’s monotonous, artistically shallow epiphenomena of cancer-phase capitalism. In those fortunate pagan cultures that were not in thrall to demon worship and ritual violence, the missionaries were confronted with anthropologically rich soil for planting the seed of the Gospel, which they proceeded to do with confident zeal. What they found permitted actual enrichments of devotion and worship. Today’s popular culture, on the other hand, to the extent that it has grown up in revolt against the unifying principles, certainties, and demands of Christianity, is a veritable melting pot of conflicting fashionable ideologies, a volatile mishmash of tribalism, globalism, and techno-barbarism. Its underlying anthropology is suited not for saints and heroes, but for narcissists and manipulators.
Consequently, the prevailing Western popular culture is impervious to and, at times, subversive of, the process of Christian inculturation. What I mean by subversive is this: It is not the secularism that ends up Christianized by the attempt at a merger, but the Christianity that ends up secularized. It is not the vast empire of mediocrity that will be molded and transformed, but the Catholic Faith. The only hope lies in calm resistance, pursuing a course so obviously opposed to that of the world that we will not cease to be a light shining in the darkness, which cannot overcome us as long as we remain truly light. This is why Pope John Paul II said in Veritatis Splendor: “It is urgent that Christians should rediscover the newness of the faith and its power to judge a prevalent and all-intrusive culture.” He was speaking about our contemporary culture of liberalism, relativism, and hedonism.
Clayton has vividly outlined the problem:
So much pop or rock music is of a form that has developed specifically to reflect the culture of hedonism.… [T]o ignore this aspect of the style of the music altogether and just change the words to those of Christian hymns runs the grave risk of communicating something very bad regardless of how pious or holy the words of the song may be. Because worship of God is the activity in which we bare our souls the most, it is where we are most vulnerable to adverse influence. I suggest that we should be more conservative and less inclined to take risks in the choice of music in the liturgy than in the local dance hall. The music of our worship should be rooted in the Christian tradition so that it naturally becomes the standard to which all else points. If we make the secular forms the standard by which the liturgical [forms]are measured, the hierarchy has been inverted and the result is disaster for both cultures—the culture of faith and contemporary culture.
In sum: Due to its origins in a repudiation of the Christian cultural inheritance, its continual appeal to the appetites of the flesh, its negation of the dimension of mystery, and its consequent poverty of artistic expression, contemporary popular music cannot be suitable matter for the process of inculturation; rather, it is a formidable obstacle to the conversion of souls and the creation of a true Christian culture.
 In Joseph Ratzinger, A New Song for the Lord, trans. Martha M. Matesich (New York: Crossroad, 1997), 111–27; also in Collected Works, vol. XI, Theology of the Liturgy (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2014), 443–60.
 Lumen Gentium, §13.
 See, inter alia, “Historical Examples of Inculturation in Catholic China,” “Liturgical Arts Quarterly 1935,” and “Japanese Madonnas.” The artwork of Daniel Mitsui today draws upon oriental designs with great effectiveness; see, for instance, this “Second Dream of St. Joseph.”
 The San Antonio Vocal Arts Ensemble (SAVAE) has done some wonderful recordings of Catholic missionary music from central America. Listen to some samples here.
 For further thoughts along these lines, see my essay “Confusions about Inculturation.”
 The Way of Beauty: Liturgy, Education, and Inspiration for Family, School, and College (Kettering, OH: Angelico Press, 2015), 48.
 See Thomas Storck, “Popular Culture and Mass Culture.” [PDF Link]
 Veritatis Splendor, §88.
 Clayton, Way of Beauty, 41.