In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • Anthropology, Theology, and the Simplicity of Benedict XVI’s Chant
  • Bennett Zon (bio)


For a late-Victorian theologian like John Harrington Edwards music is by its very nature sacred. Writing in God and Music (1903) he claims that “music … speaks of God, from God, for God, and to God.”1 Other Victorians considered music to be neither sacred nor secular. For them music existed only to serve the basic human need of expression. Evolutionist Herbert Spencer epitomizes this materialist view when he suggests that the function of music lies entirely within the human mind, to help develop its “language of the emotions.”2 Chant was often caught in this ideological crossfire. For anthropological thinkers like Spencer chant was primitive and utilitarian; for theologians like Harrington it was developed and spiritual. For both of them, however, chant was also “simple.” For theologians chant encapsulated divine simplicity; for anthropologists, human simplicity.3

Chant continued to be defined by these respective types of simplicity—one theological; the other, anthropological—until the 1960s, when unexpectedly commentators on the Second Vatican Council seemed to invert anthropological and theological criteria of musical simplicity. As this article argues, they applied anthropological [End Page 15] criteria to theological music (Gregorian chant) and theological criteria to anthropological music (primitive chant). Reflecting this ideological switch, and ominously so for the theological future of church music, Karl Rahner and Herbert Vorgrimler preface their translation of the musical documents of Vatican II claiming that church music “of its very nature … [can] hardly be reconciled with the nature of the liturgy and the basic principle of liturgical reform.”4 More frighteningly, while “the treasury of sacred music is to be preserved and cultivated with great care,” it does not mean “that this is to be done within the framework of the liturgy.”5 If Rahner and Vorgrimler are to be believed, then anthropology had usurped theology and the utility of social function had usurped art. Gregorian chant—arguably the most historically artful of all sacred music—began its descent down the slow, slippery slope of ideological disrepair.

Trying to resuscitate the glory of chant and other sacred music seemingly orphaned by Vatican II, Benedict XVI, then Father Ratzinger, decries this state of affairs in his famous essay “The Theological Basis for Church Music” (1974; trans. 1986), criticizing those who would observe a supposed “tension between the demands of art and the simplicity of the liturgy.” Benedict attributes this tension to a misapprehension in the concept of musical participation. For Benedict, unlike Vatican II commentators on music, active participation in the liturgy involves listening as much as it does singing. Listening, in other words, is a type of Eucharistic singing, and singing chant (be it singing or listening) is the very essence of divine simplicity. In the broadest possible sense this article uses chant to explore changing meanings of liturgical simplicity. The first two sections outline the two principle forms of conceptualizing chant before and after Vatican II, firstly through anthropology and the notion of human simplicity, and secondly through theology and the doctrine of divine simplicity. A third section explores how changing attitudes toward simplicity affected a redefinition of active participation in the revised liturgy, and a fourth and final section examines the consequences this redefinition had for the depreciation of Gregorian chant. [End Page 16]

Pre-Vatican II Chant: Anthropology

Anthropology of Simplicity

Simplicity has a well-established pedigree in nineteenth century anthropology, evidenced through the history of morphology and evolutionary thought. The earliest formulation of simplicity with long-lasting historical traction is Ernst von Baer’s axiom of differentiation, according to which features become increasingly specialized as they evolve: “The general features of a large group of animals appear earlier in the embryo than the special features”; and “Less general characters are developed from the most general, and so forth, until finally the most specialized appear.”6 An unapologetic consumer of German idealism, Victorian polymath Herbert Spencer read von Baer and translated his axiom into a principle synthetically applicable to all organic and inorganic life:

Whether it be in the development of the Earth, in the development of Life upon its surface, the development of Society...


Additional Information

Print ISSN
pp. 15-40
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.