My personal ground rules for judging liturgical music:
1) Can I sing this at Mass? My first duty, no matter how artistically bad the liturgy and the music in it may be, is to join my prayers with the other Catholics there in order to praise God and prepare to receive Him. I believe this means singing along with the choir or song leader if at all possible – sitting out songs as a protest over *style* seems unchristian to me. So, the question becomes – is this song, most generously understood, heretical? Does it teach contrary to what the Church teaches? Bad music, stupid lyrics, forced text – these are present in virtually all contemporary music sung at Mass – but, if the words are not heretical, I will sing them. I will sing that “Gloria *clap-clap* song. I won’t like it, but I’ll sing it. I won’t sing “What is This Place?” because it is heretical any way you slice it – we don’t believe that holiness is solely a function of Christians getting together.
2) Given that a given song is not heretical, is it appropriate? I remember, back in my callow youth, singing such mysterious songs as ‘By My Side’ from Godspell at Mass. This ditty is not heretical. In fact, it is simply incomprehensible in that charming way the second half of the ’60s and first half of the ’70s had of substituting feelings for thought – as if they are the same thing. I defy anyone to say what that song means based on the words actually sung. BUT: not heretical (as far as I can tell). But wildly inappropriate. So: I’ll sing it through gritted teeth and – I’m turning over a new leaf – mention to the choir director and maybe pastor that it is nonsensical to sing such a piece at Mass.
3) What is a given song squeezing out? The most egregious examples of this issue occur at Easter and Christmas, but you can sadly find them year around – namely, that there are hundreds of good to great pieces available for every liturgical purpose, so that every time we sing some lame yet not heretical piece, we’re NOT singing some good to great song. An example would be just about anything by the St. Louis Jesuits (or whatever they are calling themselves these days) – there are, without exception, better songs to be sung no matter what the purpose. And, by the way, don’t EVER use the lame ‘we’re doing it for the kids’ excuse – we saw right through that back in 1972, when I was a kid. Nobody asked us what songs we wanted. No real choice was given – the real choirs were euthanized, the real musicians chased into hiding, and a bunch of smiling guitar-wielding thugs took over – very sensitive and hip thugs. We kids had nothing to do with it. Kids today still don’t – I’ve been all around this country, attended dozens and dozens of ‘Folk’ or ‘Contemporary’ or ‘Life Teen’ Masses, and – it’s a bunch of old fogies and people who really want to play in public but would never be hired for real money in the real world to play anything like what they play in church. Teenagers? C’mon. They’ll be there right up until the moment they can stop or the moment they decide to show the world they’ve added a 4th cord to their guitar repertoire.
4) Musically, how bad is it? Some songs are so musically lame, so utterly without merit, that, even if they were lyrically a direct quote from Scripture, they would still be awful. Everything by Carey Landry, for example. “One Spirit, One Church” is a special case – a mash-up of some infantile attempt at poetry and the great hymn ‘Come Holy Ghost’, except simply mashing didn’t get it done, the ‘composer’ chose to change the time signature from a swinging, Trinitarian 3 to a square 4 – because, that way the new lyrics could be shoe-horned in. Somebody at some point needed to say: No. No, you are not a poet. No, the music you write is not good, it’s bad. No, it does not improve the classic hymn to mangle it that way. No, you may not be a church musician unless you sing humbly at the back of the choir and refrain from letting any thought of suggesting a song enter your little head. No. Just No.