Jonathan Liedl lives in St. Paul, Minn., where he is a graduate fellow in the Catholic Studies program at the University of St. Thomas. He works as the communications coordinator for Catholic Rural Life, a non-profit devoted to revitalizing the Church in the countryside and applying Catholic teaching to rural issues. In addition to writing and editing for the Register, he is a contributing editor of the web-journal Ethika Politika. Liedl earned his bachelor’s degree in Political Science and Arabic Studies from the University of Notre Dame.
Summer is coming to a close, but not without the seasonal flourish of music festivals across the country. Every genre seems to have its own event, but no brand of music seems to own this scene as much as folk music, whose acoustic style and easygoing lyrics connect perfectly with the carefree bliss that characterizes the last few summer days.
The heir of Woodstock, American folk music is in the midst of an incredible resurgence. The Lumineers are one of the groups this revival has given birth to. The five-part act out of Denver, which describes their brand as “rustic, heart-on-the-sleeve music,” produces tunes that are addicting in their simplicity and singability. The group was launched to international stardom with the success of the infinitely catchy (if also a bit cheesy) “Ho Hey.”
But, as is too often the case, The Lumineers’ best tracks are those that aren’t played incessantly on Top 40 radio stations. And many of them promote themes that Catholics should have no problems tapping their feet along to, from the “Dead Sea” and its beautiful metaphor for relational support, to the emphasis on compromise as a key to relationships found in “Flowers in Your Hair.”
However, there is one definite stinker, a song called The Big Parade that, among other little mignonettes, tells the story of a Catholic priest who leaves the Church for a woman. And though The Lumineers may have not intended it to be used this way when they originally penned it, I’d like to highlight The Big Parade as an example of how not to think about love, duty, and vocation.
To begin this critique, let’s take a look at the offending lyrics:
Catholic priest in a crisis
He’s torn between romance and Jesus,
Who will win the civil war?
And he says “I’m in love,
I’m in love with a woman
Yeah this is my confession
I’m leaving I can’t be a priest anymore
And oh my my oh hey hey
There he goes, the man of faith
Left the Church for a fiancée
Let him love, the man of faith
Priests do, in fact, abandon their vows for all kinds of reasons, some good and some bad, so simply describing such a scenario is not necessarily problematic. What is troubling is the endorsement at the end, and the flawed understanding of the priesthood that underlies the whole thing.
The song sets up a dichotomy, a “civil war” as the lyrics put it, between love and duty. A priest, the song tells us, cannot have both. This dichotomy is false.
While it’s true that Roman Catholics believe that a priest cannot romantically love a woman while serving the Church as a priest, this isn’t to say that priests don’t love. Priests, if they’re good ones, are full of love: love for their parishioners, love for the sacraments. love for the Church and all her saints. And, most importantly, a fervent love for Christ and a desire to serve him completely and utterly.
This type of priestly love was manifested most perfectly in the life of St. John Vianney, the patron saint of all priests, whose feast day was celebrated earlier this month. St. John Vianney paints a picture of the priesthood as a vocation absolutely consumed by love, and famously once said to God that he “would rather die loving You than live without loving You.”
We can see the animating role of love in the lives of religious brothers and sisters who make similar vows of chastity, poverty, and obedience. What were St. Thérèse of Lisieux’s writings if not love letters to God?
Certainly, the priesthood is also about duty and obligation. We do owe God something, and priests meet this obligation in a specific way. But duty devoid of love is an impoverished and incomplete version, motivated by a reward or avoidance of a punishment rather than true self-giving. Perhaps this describes some priests, but it is not the standard that St. John Vianney has established.
But if The Lumineers’ treatment of the Catholic priesthood as a loveless vocation is flawed, their articulation of romantic love in The Big Parade is equally deficient. Instead of lacking love, it is devoid of a sense of duty, as the renegade priest runs off into the sunset with his new fiancé. They’d have us believe that he left a life of cold duty for a world of carefree love.
Marriage is not carefree. Properly understood, it is just as much about duty and obligation to God as is the priesthood. Untethered from this understanding, it can devolve into merely a relationship built on feelings and consent; when either of those two disappear, the marriage collapses. Love is obviously a good thing to have in abundance in marriage, but without a proper sense of duty involved, it’s too easily to mistakenly think of marriage as primarily about self-fulfillment, and not self-giving, an error The Lumineers apparently made.
Of course, this flawed account of marriage is hardly unique to a folk band from Colorado; it pervades our society. It speaks to the loss of the understanding of marriage as a vocation, a way of life that one carries out as a duty because they love God (and hopefully their spouse).
Similarly, we can hardly expect a society that grows secular by the day to understand that the love of God is what motivates Catholic priests, just as much as a sense of duty. So if this is the state of our popular wisdom, we’d be wise to seek answers about things like love, duty, and vocation from sources other than our popular music.