To Whom Does the Liturgy Belong?

By Tucker, Jeffrey | Sacred Music, Spring 2010 | Go to article overview

To Whom Does the Liturgy Belong?


Tucker, Jeffrey, Sacred Music


An e-mail recently landed in my in-box from the International Commission on English in the Liturgy to a convent hoping to make a CD of chant to sell to raise money. The nuns were making in inquiry concerning permissions. ICEL of course informed the nuns that they must pay royalties to ICEL for all music sold insofar as it used their texts-which is not very surprising even if I find the practice of charging to record liturgical texts to be an offense against the Catholic moral sense.

What really alarmed me about this email was another claim: ICEL told the sisters that even to record Latin chants from the Liber Usualis, they had to get permission from the Holy See and the Vatican Press--even though the book in question was published neither by the Holy See nor the Vatican Press and, moreover, the book itself has been in the public domain for decades.

What this suggests is not only copyright imperialism but legal ambiguity at the heart of the raging controversy concerning the "intellectual property" of liturgical texts. All good sense suggests that these texts should have the same status they have had for nineteen hundred years, namely they are not owned by anyone in particular even as the church herself bears responsibility for validating their integrity--the same status in law today that the Book of Common Prayer has.

The more I've looked into this subject, the more the complicity of Catholic publishers becomes obvious, and in ways that similarly violate the moral sense and also stretch legal boundaries.

Consider the strange claims of the missalette publishers. Unlike a book you buy at Borders, every issue comes with a restriction. "The use of this publication is licensed only to current subscribers during the 2010 year." What about those left over from last year? You must "discard any remaining printed material covered by the license at the end of the designated time period shown on the license."

What about saving up three years of missalettes and reusing them just to eliminate waste and saving parish money? Don't even think about it. That's not allowed. One of the publishers, OCP, tells us that it is illegal and violates "moral rights."

And so, at the beginning of every liturgical year in Advent, there must be a bonfire of the missalettes. They must be destroyed, lest you be immoral, or so we are told. Actually what happens is that they are all collected and hurled into the garbage bin out back and taken off to the landfill.

Can you imagine? When I think of the work of the scribes of the first millennium and a half of Christianity, when every book was the result of many thousands of hours' labor, and when a book itself was the greatest treasure of a monastery, and when I think of the time spent even to publish a Gutenberg Psalter, it truly boggles the mind that parishes are now under a legal obligation to destroy the Word of God.

Now, when I first heard this (in fact, it was William Mahrt, president of the CMAA who first told me), I didn't believe it. Even after all that I've learned about the way these companies operate, I didn't believe that we were all under some kind of requirement to torch our missalettes at the end of the year.

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