QUAERITUR: Women singing in church

From a reader:

I’m a catholic musician. I’ve been reading papal and other magisterial documents about liturgical music.  I would like to ask what is the status quaestionis concerning women participation in liturgical actions, namely singing in mass. The only reference to this particular question I’ve found is in Pius X Tra le sollecitudine which prohibits women to sing in mass quite clearly.

I think it is fairly clear that women are permitted to sing in church.

There was a time when there was need of permission for the bishop for women to sing in church.

The idea behind this is is that only clerics should speak liturgical texts, clerics and those who substituted for them.  Women could then never substitute (and in my opinion still shouldn’t).  Therefore they shouldn’t sing sacred texts in church.

However, I believe all that has been pretty much swept aside, and rightly so.

Yes… women can sing in church.

Here is an example from Sunday of a women singing in church during communion.

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26 Responses to QUAERITUR: Women singing in church

  1. A. J. D. S. says:

    I think Pope Pius XII’s 1955 encyclical Musicae Sacrae was the first to make this allowance:

    74. Where it is impossible to have schools of singers or where there are not enough choir boys, it is allowed that “a group of men and women or girls, located in a place outside the sanctuary set apart for the exclusive use of this group, can sing the liturgical texts at Solemn Mass, as long as the men are completely separated from the women and girls and everything unbecoming is avoided. The Ordinary is bound in conscience in this matter.”

    The quotes refer to references from Decrees of the Sacred Congregation of Rites, nos. 3964, 4201, 4231.

  2. J Kusske says:

    Considering what goes for music at many churches these days, half the population not participating would be a positive development–maybe that would get the attention of the music directors! But to do serious music in the best Western tradition really necessitates treble voices, and barring male sopranos and altos that means one has to have females taking part. This concern seems to be rather chant-centric, IMHO, to say nothing of its downplaying of the role women can play in making the world more beautiful. I’ve always been a sucker for lovely 4- or 8-part harmony though!

  3. GordonB says:

    I would be interested in reading or being directed to an apologia regarding the role of females at Mass. A truism, spoken by a priest I know (in the context of female altar servers) was that, if girls do something, the boys will tend to stop doing it. I hate to say, but I notice that those who assist at Mass (including the servers) are comprised of probably 75% women. I feel rather ill equipped to address questions why that is a bad thing.

  4. Supertradmum says:

    For centuries, women sang in convents. Women who were in schools sang with the nuns. Nuns sang the same thing as the men-Gregorian chant, and some wrote hymns, such as Hildegard of Bingen, a great saint and mystic. That this long tradition “came out” into the open, into parishes, is a natural development, not some sort of aberration. Caedmon himself, the great poet and writer of song mentioned in Bede, was a herdsman-lay brother of a double monastery; that is, the great male and female institution at Whitby. It was the abbess who ordered his song to be written down, and who directed Caedmon to study Scripture, Church History and Doctrine. Those who do not want women to sing ignore the great tradition of the Church through-out the Medieval Period.

    That the saint of liturgical music and musicians is St. Cecilia should also indicate the Church’s understanding that women have a place in our tradition. I find the misunderstanding of the place in the Church as singers as odd, growing up in a school where we learned Gregorian Chant as a mixed choir to sing in Church, way before Vatican II.

  5. In some places, women are the only ones who know chant and can do it competently.

  6. Daniel_Nekic says:

    Father Z,

    What about women singing in Tenebrae (including singing the lessons)? Is this permitted?

  7. Phil_NL says:

    Maybe it is admissible for women to sing, but could his Holiness please contemplate a canonical limit on their pitch? This will not only reduce expenses for new windows, but also increase attendance among the faithful who wish to maintain working eardrums.

    (tongue firmly in cheek, ofc)

  8. C. says:

    The follow-up question is, now that “all that has been pretty much swept aside”, are traditional scholas of men and boys to be discouraged?

  9. catholicuspater says:

    If women can darn near die from multiple pregnancies, miscarriages, etc, as well as spend a quarter of a century dying to self daily in homeschooling their children, they can certainly sing the sacred texts. [That's not a good argument.]

    One of the things I loved about Karol Wojtyla was his deep respect for the f’eminine genius’, as he put it. I sometimes wonder if this respect and admiration is found in all traditional circles.

    Thank you for your correct answer on this, Fr. Z.

  10. chironomo says:

    Catholicuspater;

    There are far better arguments for women singing in Church than as payback for past injustice.

    Our schola (EF Parish) is about 2/3 women and does an incredible job. I cannot imagine a reason why a schola singing outside of the Sanctuary would need to prohibit women.

    Some past legislation is directly a result of the prohibition on women serving in clerical roles. Hence the historical permission for female religious to serve in choirs. Without being apologetic or making excuses, I think it had more to do with a division between the ordained and the laity than between men and women in many cases. I’m sure there are experts on the subject who could speak to this issue better than myself however.

  11. Henry Edwards says:

    I know of no subject on which more nonsense is spouted, including by—and perhaps especially by—folks purporting to quote from various papal documents.

    The quotes allegedly prohibiting singing or chanting by women are actually against women serving as clerics in the sanctuary (behind the altar rail). Dating back to a time when scholas consisted of clerics chanting the Mass from within the sanctuary. And, of course, women should not serve as clerics in the sanctuary—which they are not—then or now.

    But nowadays—and for the past century or more in most parish churches—most scholas and choirs have been located otherwise, e.g., in choir lofts, and there is not now or for a very long time any prohibition against women in choir lofts. Indeed, the idea is simply absurd, is it not?

    Any papal document notwithstanding. If you think some particular papal document prohibits the presence of women in choir lofts, then surely you need to read it again.

  12. Bornacatholic says:

    If women can darn near die from multiple pregnancies, miscarriages, etc, as well as spend a quarter of a century dying to self daily in homeschooling their children

    Dear Catholicuspater. If you think all of that is demanding, try to imagine my life.

    Every fortnight, The Bride and I drive to visit her mother. It is a three hour drive and on the way she likes to listen to NPR.

    I’d gladly give birth, raise the kids, and I’d even be willing to use the rusty Pop Top from an old can of Billy Beer to remove fluid from my Optic Nerve if doing any or all of those things meant that I didn’t have to listen to NPR.

    You have no idea of what tough is :)

  13. A few of these comments, I believe, are confusing the issue.

    When speaking of women being “permitted to sing in church,” the issue is not congregational singing, or even singing in the soprano and alto section of polyphonic choirs. The legislation was confined solely to the traditional role of the “schola cantorum” singing the propers for a particular Mass (the Introit, Gradual, et cetera). Men and women were not permitted to sing TOGETHER in a schola, not only because of its status as a clerical role (and their customary place in a separate “choir section” just outside the sanctuary), but for the aesthetic quality known as “purity of sound.” That said, it has long been permitted for women to chant in convents, as men would obviously not be available there. That is something different altogether.

    In short, earlier prohibitions of females singing in choirs was based on a different understanding of the term, and its role, than is understood today.

  14. Tina in Ashburn says:

    “are traditional scholas of men and boys to be discouraged?”

    No.

    Men singing is the preferred method. Women are allowed to sing. The two concepts are not mutually exclusive.

    The interminable discussions in the music world on instruments is similar. While the organ is allowed, the human voice is preferred. Its not that we can’t use the organ, its that the human, with its breath, soul and verbal rendering, is the ideal choice. When the organ takes over and we are listening to an instrument rather than voices, the emphasis is wrong.

    Men vs. women, instrument vs. voice, choir/schola vs. congregational singing, priestly power vs. lay actions…these discussions are all symptoms of the underlying misunderstanding of the place and purpose of each, and misplaced emphasis on stuff we can get away with.

  15. GregH says:

    Henry,
    This is probably the most mis-understood non-doctrinal encyclical ever. How many vexing questions are still around such as 1) Is it permissible to perform Mozart and Haydn Masses 2) Is it permissible to have a piano at Mass.

    People like to point out that JP II and Benedict have celebrated Mass with the music of Mozart but of course the rebuttal is that JP II also had a lot of other “music” performed during some of his Masses that is far inferior to Mozart & Haydn.

    Greg Hessel in Arlington Diocese

  16. Supertradmum says:

    Phil_NL,

    I have attended Tenebrae in the United States and in England, and in both countries, women sang the choir parts, although the individual parts were sung by men. Obviously, there are traditional and modern settings of Tenebrae. Off the top of my head, I do not know if any of the newer versions call for women soloists.

    As to the readings, those were done by both men and women. As Tenebrae is part of the revised liturgy of Holy Week, there are several appropriate rules regarding when it may be sung, as connected to Matins and Lauds, which I am sure you know. If Tenebrae is an extra-liturgical celebration, that is, not connected to the Liturgy of the Hours, but allowed as a separate time of devotion, like on the Wednesday evening before Holy Thursday, women frequently take part.

  17. Phil_NL says:

    Supertradmum,

    I may have given a wrong impression there, I was not talking about the Tenebrae, but about woman singing in general (not even limited to Mass, actually). While I (tried to) make fun of it, some female singers relish in hitting the high notes, to the discomfort of many. Even more so if the voice is very shrill, which also happens more to women than to men.

    The entire part about a canonical limit on the pitch is of course a joke. But I think that many would have entertained similar thoughts when hearing some women sing. Maybe even as to whishing certain ladies would be limited to speech instead of song. Anyway, you can’t have it all your way.

  18. The Egyptian says:

    Supertradmum,

    I agree we had one soloist who although talented to an extent, usually tried to sing over her level to show how talented she really was, especially with On eagles Wings, ouch

  19. wolfeken says:

    Let us remember that every one of the great polyphonic Mass settings was written for men and boys. Yes, the S and the A in SATB scores were sung by males.

    Folks seem to be saying this or that was sung by women in a regular parish. Not true, at least licitly. Women were not permitted to sing in a church choir until the above 1955 document, which was probably aided by Bugnini while Pius XII was ill three years before death.

    Pope Saint Pius X was indeed very clear on this matter:

    “On the same principle it follows that singers in church have a real liturgical office, and that therefore women, being incapable of exercising such office, cannot be admitted to form part of the choir. Whenever, then, it is desired to employ the acute voices of sopranos and contraltos, these parts must be taken by boys, according to the most ancient usage of the Church.”

    http://www.adoremus.org/TraLeSollecitudini.html

  20. catholicuspater says:

    II. The Promotion of Liturgical Instruction and Active Participation

    14. Mother Church earnestly desires that all the faithful should be led to that fully conscious, and active participation in liturgical celebrations which is demanded by the very nature of the liturgy. Such participation by the Christian people as “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a redeemed people (1 Pet. 2:9; cf. 2:4-5), is their right and duty by reason of their baptism.

    If this isn’t a ‘good argument’ as to why women can sing the liturgical chant alongside men, then I really have nothing else to say, [Fine.] although, quite frankly the obvious sense of my previous comment should have been clear to you, Father. [It was clear, and it wasn't a good argument. You perhaps need to deepen your understanding of active participation.]

  21. Precentrix says:

    People always forget that S. Pius X also said every diocese should have a choir-school or ‘maitrise’. If it did, you’d have a load of boys and young men who could sing well.

    There is ‘the ideal situation’. And then, there is the parish situation of today where, quite frankly, you need whoever is competent be they male or female. Especially for the propers.

  22. Sam Schmitt says:

    Wolfeken,

    Perhaps you do not realize that Pius X’s dictate was never really enforced – not even by the pope, as he himself was issuing indults just days after the motu proprio was issued. After that indults were habitually granted by Rome, particularly for the US, so women singing in choirs was indeed licit, if only by indult. By the time of of Pius XII’s 1955 encyclical, his permission was more a recognition of the situation on the ground than a real change in practice.

    See this discussion:
    http://musicasacra.com/forum/comments.php?DiscussionID=2266&page=1#Item_0

  23. catholicuspater says:

    II. The Promotion of Liturgical Instruction and Active Participation

    14. Mother Church earnestly desires that all the faithful should be led to that fully conscious, and active participation in liturgical celebrations which is demanded by the very nature of the liturgy. Such participation by the Christian people as “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a redeemed people (1 Pet. 2:9; cf. 2:4-5), is their right and duty by reason of their baptism.

    You may also need to ‘deepen’ your understanding of active participation if you have trouble seeing that women need no permission beyond this to sing the sacred texts. The obvious sense of the phrase is the first meaning of the text.

  24. catholicuspater says:

    I might also add that a good way to drive women away from the EF is for men to start acting like the Catholic Taliban in discussing patently absurd topics as to whether women can sing the chant and how long their dresses need to be.

    Before I get redlined for that, let me also ask where is the concurrent discussion of the obligations of men, or is it a one way street we’re driving on?

  25. C. wrote: are traditional scholas of men and boys to be discouraged?
    According to Par. 115 of Sacrosanctum Concillium, no: “Composers and singers, especially boys, must also be given a genuine liturgical training.”

  26. Ruth says:

    I am now the director of a ladies schola at Assumption Grotto in Detroit. Some of you may know that our parish has a very strong musical liturgy. Yes, we sing Haydn and Mozart Masses with instruments, we also sing the Chant Propers for the Extraodinary Form every Sunday at the 9:30 Mass. The men have been singing the Propers for many years, (even when the Latin Mass was the Novus Ordo), and they will continue to do so. However, the Extraordinary Form requires the chanting of the Gradual and Alleluia/Tract and these chants are the most complex in chant repertoire. The men just do not have the time to rehearse them as we do not have the forces for a separate chant only schola. The men have been forced to sing the Chant Abreges versions which are a step up in difficulty to the Rossini psalm tone propers. However our Pastor (a very fine musician), wants the full Graduals, and when ever possible, the Alleluias and Tracts chanted. His solution was to allow the ladies who wished and who had the time to rehearse, to sing them. To tell you the truth I was stunned when the suggestion was made as I did not think he would ever want women to sing the Propers. However, it is most definitely allowed or our pastor would not do it, he is known as a stickler for what is correct. Our little ladies schola is less than a month old so please pray for us. Learning these very complex chants is a marvelous opportunity for us but also a very daunting task. They are so beautiful and they should be heard not only because they are a part of our heritage as Roman Catholics but also because they allow for the “active participation” of contemplation. My understanding is that these are the only Proper chants that are sung when there is no liturgical action, everyone listens.