Can drums be used at Mass?

Authoritative: YES, BUT...

I am going to begin by presuming the inquiry is regarding the Ordinary Form of the Roman Rite and not the Chaldean liturgy where percussive instruments are the tradition. This first distinction is important, because drums (like any musical instrument) are something intricately bound up with culture, and culture is likewise bound up with worship. Drums are used in certain cultures, and they are used legitimately in those cultural settings. Percussion was used in ancient Israel's temple worship. But the question at hand is not whether it is ever licit to incorporate drums into the worship of God, but rather whether it is permissible to incorporate drums into the liturgical worship of the Roman Rite, which is a more specific question.

Much has been written on this topic, but the three most pertinent documents are the motu proprio Tra le Sollecitudini of Pope St. Pius X (1903), the Second Vatican Council's Sacrosanctum Concilium (1963), and finally the instruction on music in the liturgy Musicam Sacram, promulgated by the Sacred Congregation of Rites (now the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments) in 1968. While there is no single place we can go to in order to get a straight yes or no answer, a brief study of the relevant statements of the above documents will furnish us with an appropriate understanding of why drums are not proper instruments for the Roman Rite.

The Principles of St. Pius X

Pope St. Pius X (1903-1914) was devoted to liturgical excellence and undertook to promote the dignity of the liturgy by issuing a motu proprio on sacred music within the first year of his pontificate. This motu proprio is Tra le Sollecitudini, a document that even today is remarkable for the amount of specificity it delves into when addressing issues of sacred music. Whereas post-Conciliar documents on sacred music generally do not go into specifics, Tra le Sollecitudini not only talks about specific musical instruments but even specific composers! Though Tra le Sollecitudini's precise legal requirements have been superceded by subsequent legislation, its principles are still valid, and many of them, like the eminent suitability of Gregorian Chant, are reiterated in the documents of Vatican II. Let's look at some of the most important principles found in this important document from our last sainted pope.

First, Pius X frames the issue at the outset as one of the suitability of sacred music to the qualities of the liturgy. This has been reiterated by Vatican II and is not a novel concept, but Pius X makes a distinction that is often lost on modern liturgists: that music must conform to the liturgy not only inĀ  its form and content, but even in the manner of its presentation:

"Sacred music should consequently possess, in the highest degree, the qualities proper to the liturgy, and in particular sanctity and goodness of form, which will spontaneously produce the final quality of universality.It must be holy, and must, therefore, exclude all profanity not only in itself, but in the manner in which it is presented by those who execute it" (TLS, 2).

Too often, music "proper to the liturgy" simply means that the words are taken from a liturgical text. But Pius X says that not only the content and structure of music, but its presentation must not be profane. Here we get into the question of the propriety of instruments, like drums, which can reasonably be argued are more suited to profane musical presentations, as the presence of a drum set is pretty much what defines a modern "band" as opposed to any other sort of musical arrangement.

Next, Pius reminds us that these qualities are most eminently found in Gregorian Chant:

"These qualities are to be found, in the highest degree, in Gregorian Chant, which is, consequently the Chant proper to the Roman Church, the only chant she has inherited from the ancient fathers, which she has jealously guarded for centuries in her liturgical codices, which she directly proposes to the faithful as her own, which she prescribes exclusively for some parts of the liturgy, and which the most recent studies have so happily restored to their integrity and purity. The ancient traditional Gregorian Chant must, therefore, in a large measure be restored to the functions of public worship, and the fact must be accepted by all that an ecclesiastical function loses none of its solemnity when accompanied by this music alone. Special efforts are to be made to restore the use of the Gregorian Chant by the people, so that the faithful may again take a more active part in the ecclesiastical offices, as was the case in ancient times." (TLS, 3)

Pius is not interested with nitpicking through every musical instrument and form and commenting on their suitability (though he will tell us later what he finds particularly unsuitable); he takes the approach of stating what the highest good is and then expects the Church to aim for it. How sad it is that the modern Church too often focuses on exceptions and deviations from the highest good! In the following paragraph he allows for classic polyphony (4) and even says that Palestrina is the composer of choice for polyphonic pieces. However, he allows polyphony only by way of concession, and reminds us that "Gregorian Chant is the supreme model of all sacred music."

The question thus arises: if St. Pius X allows even classic polyphony only by way of concession, will he assign any place to forms of music that more closely imitate the profane and the secular? Of course, profane does not equal bad, and many things that are profane or secular can be put to the use of the Church and the worship of God, following St. Auustine's maxim of "taking gold from Egypt." Pius has this to say on the incorporation of modern music:

"The Church has always recognized and favored the progress of the arts, admitting to the service of religion everything good and beautiful discovered by genius in the course of ages -- always, however, with due regard to the liturgical laws. Consequently modern music is also admitted to the Church, since it, too, furnishes compositions of such excellence, sobriety and gravity, that they are in no way unworthy of the liturgical functions. Still, since modern music has risen mainly to serve profane uses, greater care must be taken with regard to it, in order that the musical compositions of modern style which are admitted in the Church may contain nothing profane, be free from reminiscences of motifs adopted in the theaters, and be not fashioned even in their external forms after the manner of profane pieces." (TLS, 5).

Since the pope said above that he insisted on the restoration of chant in public worship, what he has in mind here is not necessarily Mass parts performed as modern music, but modern hymns or other songs added that go on concurrently with the Introit or otherwise do not replace a fixed Mass part; in fact later on in paragraph 10 he specifically says the "parts of the mass and the Office must retain, even musically, that particular concept and form which ecclesiastical tradition has assigned to them, and which is admirably brought out by Gregorian Chant." But note also that, writing in 1903, what he means by "modern music" is certainly not the rock band with drum set. Some music, he will go on to say, "is diametrically opposed to Gregorian Chant and classic polyphony, and therefore to the most important law of all good sacred music. Besides the intrinsic structure, the rhythm and what is known as the conventionalism of this style [modern music] adapt themselves but badly to the requirements of true liturgical music." (TLS, 6). Pius will then lay down this general rule, which we ought to adopt as the guiding principle when examining any question about what is and is not suited to the Latin Rite:

"Gregorian Chant has always been regarded as the supreme model for sacred music, so that it is fully legitimate to lay down the following rule: the more closely a composition for church approaches in its movement, inspiration and savor the Gregorian form, the more sacred and liturgical it becomes; and the more out of harmony it is with that supreme model, the less worthy it is of the temple." (TLS, 6)

To demonstrate that even when the pope says "modern music" he means mainly modern choral or polyphonic music (i.e., modern music written in the traditional form), not the more profane forms of modern music, look at his admonition in paragraphs 19 and 20:

"The employment of the piano is forbidden in church, as is also that of noisy or frivolous instruments such as drums, cymbals, bells and the like. It is strictly forbidden to have bands play in church, and only in special cases with the consent of the Ordinary will it be permissible to admit wind instruments, limited in number, judiciously used, and proportioned to the size of the place, provided the composition and accompaniment be written in grave and suitable style, and conform in all respects to that proper to the organ." (TLS, 19-20).

When we realize that even piano and wind instruments are considered too profane for inclusion into the Church, then it must be quickly ascertained where drums must fall, which Pius classes with those "noisy or frivolous instruments" that are therefore "forbidden in Church." Therefore, when Pius says that "modern music is also admitted in the church", he means modern music in the traditional mold. He does not mean music written in the secular style, which is why he specifically prohibits not only drums, but even piano and wind instruments, save with the Ordinary's permission.

Since the specific legal prescriptions of Tra le Sollecitudini are superseded by subsequent legislation (and hence we cannot say that the use of drums in 2013 is prohibited because of this 1903 motu proprio), we can very strongly say that the use of drums violates the spirit of the liturgy and that their inclusion in Catholic liturgical worship is completely antithetical to the sobriety that St. Pius X says should pervade the Roman Rite. But our most important takeaway from Tra le Sollecitudini is that liturgical music must be appropriate not only in content and substance, but even in its exterior form and the manner in which it is presented. Pius X's warning that liturgical music shouldn't even bear an external resemblance to secular, profane music remains a guiding principle.

Sacrosanctum Concilium

Sacrosanctum Concilium, Vatican II's Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, was meant to implement many of the reforms that had been proposed by the liturgical movement of the 40's and 50's. It is important that this document must not be read in light of what subsequently happened after the Council, but should be taken in light of the existing liturgy and the goals of the liturgical movement, which were relatively conservative and benign compared to what actually occurred. In other words, Sacrosanctum Concilium, like every other document of Vatican II, must be read in continuity with previous Tradition, not in opposition to it. Thus we will take it as a reformulation and recapitulation of Pius X's earlier directives.

Like St. Pius X, Vatican II expresses desire that Gregorian Chant be the option of choice for liturgical music, though it also allows for polyphony:

"The Church acknowledges Gregorian chant as specially suited to the Roman liturgy: therefore, other things being equal, it should be given pride of place in liturgical services. But other kinds of sacred music, especially polyphony, are by no means excluded from liturgical celebrations, so long as they accord with the spirit of the liturgical action." (SC, 116)

That "other things being equal" phrase has caused a lot of mischief in implementation, but basically it is evident that the Church here proposes Gregorian Chant as the music that best suits the Roman Rite - and like Pius X, it presumes that the Catholic faithful will want what is best, not what is permitted or accepted as concessions. As St. Pius X had done (and almost directly quoting Tra le Sollecitudini), a concession or allowance is made for other instruments, provided they are included only with the permission and knowledge of the local bishop:

"In the Latin Church the pipe organ is to be held in high esteem, for it is the traditional musical instrument which adds a wonderful splendor to the Church's ceremonies and powerfully lifts up man's mind to God and to higher things. But other instruments also may be admitted for use in divine worship, with the knowledge and consent of the competent territorial authority, as laid down in Art. 22, 52, 37, and 40. This may be done, however, only on condition that the instruments are suitable, or can be made suitable, for sacred use, accord with the dignity of the temple, and truly contribute to the edification of the faithful." (SC, 120)

Though it does not define what instruments are "suitable", if we read this with a hermeneutic of continuity, then we can safely presume that a suitable instrument follows the guidelines laid down by Pope St. Pius X. Sacrosanctum Concilium stops short of identifying certain instruments as inappropriate, and this was most likely because of concerns about how the liturgy would be "inculturated" in different societies outside the West, but if we presume a continuity with Pius X's principles, then a fundamental point to consider what was suitable would be whether or not the instrument or style was commonly associated with secular or profane music. If this is the case, then drums are definitely out, even under the milder language of Vatican II.

Musicam Sacram

Musicam Sacram was issued by the Congregation of Rites in 1968 and was meant to flesh out the guidelines stated in Sacrosanctum Concilium. Musicam Sacram is thus the most recent general document issued by the Magisterium on sacred music. No new information is given. Sacrosanctum Concilium 120 is quoted, which itself is a paraphrase of Tra le Sollecitudini 6:

"Musical instruments can be very useful in sacred celebrations, whether they accompany the singing or whether they are played as solo instruments. "The pipe organ is to be held in high esteem in the Latin Church, since it is its traditional instrument, the sound of which can add a wonderful splendor to the Church's ceremonies and powerfully lift up men's minds to God and higher things. "The use of other instruments may also be admitted in divine worship, given the decision and consent of the competent territorial authority, provided that the instruments are suitable for sacred use, or can be adapted to it, that they are in keeping with the dignity of the temple, and truly contribute to the edification of the faithful." (MS 62)

In quoting Sacrosanctum Concilium, Musicam Sacram notes that the pipe organ is the instrument of choice, precisely because it is the "traditional instrument." This returns to our theme of instruments that are suited for the Latin liturgy specifically. While Pius X and Vatican II make it clear that solo voices singing chant are preferred, if we do use an instrument, the pipe organ takes pride of place. The following paragraph, however, does furnish us with some new information regarding incorporating instruments that are not common in the Latin tradition:

"In permitting and using musical instruments, the culture and traditions of individual peoples must be taken into account. However, those instruments which are, by common opinion and use, suitable for secular music only, are to be altogether prohibited from every liturgical celebration and from popular devotions." (MS 63)

Certainly, if we are celebrating the Mass in Indonesia among Indonesians and the tambourine is a traditional instrument associated with divine worship in that culture, then this must be taken into consideration and might conceivably be integrated. These questions need to be taken into account; but then again, "When in Rome, do as the Romans." The fact that certain instruments might be incorporated in other cultures does not grant indulgence for any musical instrument whatsoever to be imported into the liturgy. This is why Musicam Sacram points out that instruments that are suited for secular use only, and this "by common opinion", are to be "altogether prohibited" from every liturgical celebration, including private devotions. This would apply even in other cultures.

To take the example of the Polish, it is not uncommon for certain parishes to have "Polish Masses" or "Polka Masses" that use the accordion, the theory being that they are taking into account Polish culture and that this instrument is traditionally associated with Polish music. It is "traditional." But according to Musicam Sacram, the question is not whether the accordion is traditional in Polish culture, but whether it is traditionally used for divine worship. Phrased this way, the answer must certainly be no - the Polish Catholics throughout the centuries have never used accordions in their liturgies. Hence, though the accordion might be a traditional Polish instrument, it is not fit for liturgical usage.

On the other hand, take the cymbal in the Chaldean tradition. Cymbals and other percussive instruments are used widely throughout the Middle East. They are a traditional Iraqi instrument. But are they used for divine worship? In this case, the answer is yes, for in Chaldean Masses, according to a very ancient tradition, the consecration of the elements is signified by the clashing of cymbals, just as bells are used in the Latin rite. Therefore, taking into account Iraqi culture and tradition, it would not be wrong or out of keeping with the mind of the Church to incorporate cymbals into a liturgy said in Iraq. Again, the question is not whether or not an instrument is traditional in a given culture, but whether or not the instrument has traditionally been used in divine worship. Those that have not are, by that fact, classified as profane or secular instruments and as such are "altogether prohibited."

Note that Musicam Sacram extends this prohibition even to popular devotions. This must be kept in mind when Musicam Sacram says later on that music that is not necessarily fitting for Mass can be used for popular devotions. It says:

"Sacred music is also very effective in fostering the devotion of the faithful in celebrations of the word of God, and in popular devotions. In the celebrations of the word of God, let the Liturgy of the Word in the Mass be taken as a model. In all popular devotions the psalms will be especially useful, and also works of sacred music drawn from both the old and the more recent heritage of sacred music, popular religious songs, and the playing of the organ, or of other instruments characteristic of a particular people. Moreover, in these same popular devotions, and especially in celebrations of the word of God, it is excellent to include as well some of those musical works which, although they no longer have a place in the Liturgy, can nevertheless foster a religious spirit and encourage meditation on the sacred mystery." (MS 46)

But, in keeping with what the document says later on, even when "other instruments characteristic of a particular people" are used, even if these "no longer have a place in the liturgy", these instruments and musical styles still cannot be "suitable for secular music only." They still must conform to the Church's guidelines, although a little more leeway is permitted. This, of course, applies to popular devotions in a quasi-liturgical settings, not home devotions or private devotions.

Where are we at with drums?

The initial question we set out to answer regards the use of drums in liturgical settings specifically, meaning "drum sets" used in the performance of contemporary praise and worship music. Where do these guidelines leave us with regards to this question?

Here we are looking not so much at regulations as much as we are trying to determine the mind of the Church, the mens ecclesiae. It is unambiguously clear that, from St. Pius X in 1903 right on up to Musicam Sacram, the mens ecclesiae is that instruments suitable only for secular music are to be absolutely prohibited from the divine liturgy and from quasi-liturgical popular devotions. There is no doubt about this. The question then becomes whether or not drums are a purely secular instrument or whether they have a tradition of usage in divine worship in the Latin rite.

Here we get into muddy waters, because although it is clear that drums have no part in the traditional Latin rite prior to 1962, they have been widely permitted since Vatican II. But, if they are so manifestly secular in character, how is it that they have been permitted? The answer is to remind ourselves that an instrument is said to be suitable only for secular usage "by common opinion" (MS 63). If this is so, it seems evident that there are few instruments that are so secular as the drum set. The drum set was introduced into western music in the 1920's and 1930's in the Big Band era, whose musical styles were eminently secular, and then popularized with the spread of rock music beginning in the 1950's. To this day, the drum set is still primarily associated with rock music, which is the quintessential secular music. It would be a very, very long stretch to try to say that drums have some sort of pedigree as a worship instrument in the west, or that they are not an instrument primarily associated with secular usage. On this principle then, which has been a constant teaching of the Church, drums would be excluded from any usage in liturgical worship.

However (and this is a big 'however'), "common opinion" is not simply established by polling or by each person giving their own opinion. According to the documents, it is the bishop's job to understand what the common opinion is regarding an instrument or musical style and to either allow or prohibit its usage. In all the documents on liturgical music, the prohibitions are always subject to the interpretation of the Ordinary and can create an ambiguous situation if the Ordinary personally believes that a certain instrument is or is not compatible with the dignity of the liturgy. Let's revisit Musicam Sacram 62, which is a quotation from Sacrosanctum Concilium 120:

""The use of other instruments may also be admitted in divine worship, given the decision and consent of the competent territorial authority, provided that the instruments are suitable for sacred use, or can be adapted to it, that they are in keeping with the dignity of the temple, and truly contribute to the edification of the faithful."

We are left with a situation that is unfortunately more open to interpretation than would be ideal. A bishop can authorize the use of any instrument he wants, but the instrument is still supposed to be "suitable for sacred use", based on the criteria we have gone over. But whether or not it is suitable for sacred use or only for secular music is a matter of "common opinion", but since the bishop makes the final determination, "common opinion" ends up meaning the bishop's opinion. Thus, in all practicality, what ends up happening is the musical styles and instruments permitted in a given diocese end up dependent upon what the bishop is willing to tolerate.

Given the ubiquity of drums in modern American liturgies, and the many other pressing issues faced by the Church, it is rare that a bishop will choose to take a stand against drums and prohibit their usage, and there is probably not a lot of canonical ground to argue that Pius X's absolute prohibition of them remains in force. Most arguments will center around interpretations of Musicam Sacram and the norms adopted by regional episcopal conferences, unfortunately. Therefore, the long and short of it is that if a bishop allows the use of drums in his diocese, they are permitted in his diocese according to the letter of the law.

However, we are not looking necessarily at the letter of law, but of the mens ecclesiae, and it is indisputable that the Church's thinking does not envision secular instruments and styles in the Mass, but Gregorian Chant (which has "pride of place"), and classic polyphony as a supplement, with the pipe organ as the only truly suitable instrument for the Latin Rite. Yes, the Church gives us options, but she gives them to us in an order of preference, so that when the Church says, "Chant is the supreme model, the most preferred form, the most suited to the liturgy, but B, C and D might also be acceptable one certain occasions," she expects us to opt for Chant and only revert to B,C and D in extraordinary circumstances. But too often in modern Catholicism the extraordinary becomes ordinary, the exception becomes the rule, the deviation becomes the norm. Instead of questioning whether or not drums are acceptable, lets just do what the Church asks and return to Chant, polyphony and the organ.

So there it is. According to the mind of the Church, drums are absolutely not an instrument suited for divine worship in the Latin rite; St. Pius X called them "noisy and frivolous." Because they are fundamentally secular in nature and have no pedigree of usage in worship in the west, they are therefore classified as suitable only for secular music and prohibited "absolutely" by the rules of Pius X, Vatican II and Musicam Sacram. A pastor who insists on using drums is not thinking with the mind of the Church. Unfortunately, the particulars of what is and isn't permitted are left up to the local Ordinary, and that's where things start breaking down, because we know that the interpretations and whims of a bishop can be as varied as the weather in Michigan.

Ditch the drums. They are not suited to the liturgy, have no place in our tradition and are not at all what either Pius X or Vatican II had in mind when they made concessionary allowances for other instruments. If we trust the Church's judgment, why not simply do what she asks? Chant is the answer.