BALTIMORE — Some Catholics have long complained that traditional hymns have been “modernized,” “vandalized” and “feminized” for “political correctness” at the expense of art and theology.

Last month, the bishops came to the rescue.

At its annual fall general assembly, held in Baltimore Nov. 13-16, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops approved new norms for hymns sung at Mass. The norms would ensure that liturgical songs be doctrinally correct and based in scriptural and liturgical texts.

“I am grateful to the bishops for a measure that’s long overdue,” said Providence College English Professor Anthony Esolen, a Catholic who has been sharply critical of modern translations of hymns.

Conversely, the proposed norms have raised red flags among Catholics who like the music just as it is.

“Our music has changed gradually since Vatican II, and it’s not like there has been some recent radical leftwing feminist shift that needs to be corrected,” said Lisa Sowle Cahill, professor of theology at Boston College, who describes herself as a progressive, feminist Catholic. “And not all feminists see the word ‘man’ as hate speech.”

Leon Podles, author of The Church Impotent: The Feminization of Christianity, said subtle and not-so-subtle changes to traditional hymns since Vatican II have “dumbed down” songs and turned them into entertainment rather than expressions of sacred mysteries.

“The state of Catholic music is very bad,” Podles told the Register. “The silly feminist language police hate the word ‘man’ and they don’t want to hear it in the liturgy or the music.”

The new norms are part of a new Directory for Music and the Liturgy for Use in the Dioceses in the United States of America. The directory responds to a recommendation of Liturgiam Authenticam (The Use of Vernacular Languages in the Publication of the Books of the Roman Liturgy), the fifth Vatican instruction on correct implementation of the liturgical renewal called for by the Second Vatican Council.

Amazing Words

Bishops said the directory serves primarily to outline a process by which bishops should regulate the quality of the text of songs composed for use in the liturgy. The directory warns against untrue statements about the faith.

“The doctrine of the Trinity should never be compromised through the consistent replacement of masculine pronominal references to the three Divine persons,” the directory states.

It also warns against elimination of archaic language, should it be done in such a manner as to alter the meaning and theological structure of a venerable liturgical song.

Podles, a senior editor at Touchstone magazine, said the modernization of hymns in recent years reflects a violation of the spirit and intent of Vatican II, which didn’t call for gender-neutral songs with poor grammar and embarrassing attempts at rhyming new words with the old. He said some hymnals carry a version of Amazing Grace that changes the words “saved a wretch like me” to “saved and set me free.”

“This song was written by a repentant slave owner,” Podles said. “But the modernists don’t like the penitential language of some of the more poetic songs, and they’ve ruined the poetry.”

He said some modern song revisions changed singular male-gender pronouns like “he” to plural gender-neutral pronouns like “they,” a situation that would put an old-school grammarian on edge. In addition, “gorgeous poetry” was sacrificed, as in the hymn Songs of Thankfulness and Praise. “Anthems be to thee addressed, God in man made manifest” became “Anthems are to thee addressed, God in us made manifest.”

Said Podles, “The original was beautifully-worded poetry. The revision is feminist politics.”

He also cited a hymn in which the phrase “Christ our God to earth descendeth” was changed to “Christ our God to earth descended.”

“It seems a subtle change, but it’s a change in tense that changes the meaning of the theology,” he said. “I hope some of the original wording gets restored if bishops are applying new norms.”

Inclusive Language

Esolen said translators have been allowed to make changes designed to “placate implacable feminists” who don’t like doctrinally-correct words like “father,” “son” and “man.” He has collected countless examples from all mainstream Catholic hymnals in which doctrinal changes have resulted from efforts to create gender-neutral lyrics.

“It has been like giving someone a broad paintbrush and a can of white paint and telling him to edit out the parts he doesn’t like on a Michelangelo painting,” Esolen said. “The changes have reflected not only vandalism, but heretical revisionism.”

Cahill rejected the notion that feminists have ruined Catholic songs, saying they have merely insisted on words like “humanity” rather than “man,” where such wording is theologically accurate.

“Hymns can be inclusive in a way that’s respectful to Scripture and liturgy,” Cahill said. “Up through the 1950s, there was simply no effort to use inclusive terms at all. Since the 1950s there has been some effort, but nothing radical.”

Bishops approved the norms by a 195-21 vote, with five abstentions and no substantive debate. The norms state that “approval of liturgical songs is reserved to the diocesan bishop in whose diocese an individual song is published.” A committee consisting of theologians, liturgists and musicians will assist diocesan bishops in their review of songs.

Bishops said it might be a year or two before the norms receive the necessary Vatican approval, and the process of revising hymnals would begin after that.

Wayne Laugesen is based in

Boulder, Colorado.