Growing up Catholic, I was always turned off by the music in church, which was either plain, dull, or just simply amateurish. A few years ago, I came across the probable cause: an encyclical written in 1903 by Pope Pius X called Tra le Sollucitudini (also sometimes referred to as Motu Proprio), which effectively banned any music more complex than chant and early polyphony for use in church services. (A further blow came during the Second Vatican Council, which allowed for hymns in the local vernacular, spawning a whole movement of folksy improvisation.)
Pius' basic concern was that the emotional impact of more elaborate music would overpower the actual words of the liturgy.
"The Church has always recognized and honored progress in the arts, admitting to the service of religion everything good and beautiful discovered by genius in the course of ages. Still, care must be taken that musical compositions may contain nothing profane, be free from reminiscences of theatrical motives, and be not fashioned, even in their external forms, after the manner of profane pieces...The text must be sung as it is in the books, without alteration or inversion of the words, without undue repetition, without breaking syllables and always in a manner intelligible to the faithful who listen...In general it must be considered a very grave abuse when the liturgy in ecclesiastical functions is made to appear secondary to and in a manner at the service of the music, for the music is merely a part of the liturgy and its humble handmaid."
Pius X goes on to address the particular limits of instrumentation:
"As the chant should always have the principal place, the organ or other instruments should merely sustain and never suppress it. It is not permitted to have the chant preceded by long preludes or to interrupt it with intermezzo pieces. The piano and noisy and frivolous instruments (e.g. drums, cymbals, and bells) are absolutely excluded. Wind instruments by their nature more turbulent and obtrusive, are admissible only as an accompaniment to the singing in processions outside of the church."
As a result, you will never hear in the course of a church service the profound music of such devout Catholics as Haydn, Mozart, Schubert, Bruckner, or Messiaen. Nor will you hear any organ or other instrumental music, except to accompany sung text.
Pius did make one exception, allowing motets to be sung at certain designated intervals during the mass. And so, at St. Patrick's Cathedral yesterday during the afternoon Good Friday service, I was happy to hear Bruckner's Christus Factus Est, Sergei Rachmaninoff's Veneration of the Cross, and Victoria's Popule Meus, all sung ably by the Cathedral Choir. Is it fantasy to think the Vatican may someday acknowlege the power of music to move the human spirit and permit it's inclusion in a more substantial way during services?
After the service, I waked three blocks north on Fifth Ave. to the Episcopal St. Thomas Church, where I was only able to stay for the first half of the service, but long enough to hear the outstanding Cathedral Choir of Men and Boys, conducted by their director John Scott. (You can hear the complete service on the St. Thomas website.) Scott, who was previously the Director of Music at St. Paul's Cathedral in London, is also one of the great organists of our time, and is currently in the middle of a ten concert survey of the complete organ music of Dietrich Buxtehude. Earlier this season, I heard him play Messiaen's La Nativite du Seigneur and Ligeti's complete organ music, both of which were mind-altering experiences.