Monday, November 01, 2010

Is "Amazing Grace" an "Anti-Catholic" Hymn? (as Michael Voris thinks?)

By Dave Armstrong (11-1-10)

Michael Voris did a video about the song Amazing Grace, claiming that it is "anti-Catholic" (watch it below). Is this indeed the case?

I think it is an interesting presentation, but I believe that Voris' negative conclusion about Amazing Grace as an "anti-Catholic" song is absurd: much ado about nothing (in line with the general criticism of above). Catholics believe in Grace Alone, just as Protestants do. It is presentations like this one that divide Catholics and Protestants unnecessarily, and give the latter the impression that we frown on grace or put works on the same plane with it. But the Church teaches Grace Alone and condemns works-salvation, or Pelagianism, so I don't see this as a contradiction to our theology at all. Grace is amazing!

There is also such a thing as initial justification in Catholicism. There is a beginning-point in the salvation process (baptism). We can receive further grace through the sacraments, but there is an initial time, at which regeneration occurs. And it is all by grace in our theology.

He makes a big deal about "wretch." I grant his point insofar as he opposes total depravity, but I think he over-argues again and misses the main point. We are all sinners in need of salvation, who would be damned but for God's grace. Again, we Catholics fully agree on that point; it has to do with original sin.

But I don't see St. Paul saying anything all that different from the use in Amazing Grace of the word "wretch". In fact, Paul even calls himself a "wretched man":

Romans 7:14-25 (RSV) We know that the law is spiritual; but I am carnal, sold under sin. [15] I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. [16] Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. [17] So then it is no longer I that do it, but sin which dwells within me. [18] For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. [19] For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. [20] Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin which dwells within me. [21] So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. [22] For I delight in the law of God, in my inmost self, [23] but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin which dwells in my members. [24] Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? [25] Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I of myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin.

It's funny; I was looking up Romans 7, thinking it might be applicable here, and happily discovered the phrase "wretched man" in it (as opposed to finding "wretched" by a word search).

Also in Revelation 3:16b-17, Jesus describes the Laodiceans: who were "lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot" (3:16a) -- a prototype of a certain sort of unregenerate sinner -- as follows:

. . . I will spew you out of my mouth. [17] For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing; not knowing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.

Thus, unregenerate sinners are again described as "wretched." That is now twice that the Bible uses the exact same word that appears in Amazing Grace.

For more on the meaning of "wretch", see the entry.

Moreover, John Newton (1725-1807), whatever his theology (he was, in fact, a Calvinist) could very well have been referring solely or primarily to himself in the lyrics, in using the word "wretch," since it is well-known that he had been involved in the slave trade and had numerous other exceptionally unsavory personal traits (see Wikipedia: "Amazing Grace"). It is commonly thought, anyway, that he had himself in mind.



thisrestlesspilgrim said...

Yeah, I've watched a fair chunk of Real Catholic TV and I basically agree with your conclusions.

There's some good stuff, although, in my opinion, it's often rather aggressively presented.

Sometimes I think they're just looking for stuff to complain about... As a wise man once said, the Church doesn't need more critics, only more Saints.

I think this particular video is rather off the mark.

And the wretch in the song?
It's me.

Sharon said...

Thanks for this explanation! I saw that Michael Voris video and I had to admit I was a little surprised, and bummed because I LOVE that song, and decided that I was going to keep singing it anyway, dang it. So glad it's not as anti-Catholic as all that.

Pilgrimsarbour said...

Hi Dave,

Excellent analysis. The irony of the presentation, in my view, was the unnecessary anti-Protestant attitude and language. I grant that differences in theology need to be delineated. I would never argue against his right to do that, of course. But he leaves the impression that all the evils in America can be attributed, in one form or another, to the very existence of Protestantism. I'm pretty sure that evil of all kinds predates the beginnings of Protestantism, even if I were to grant him his premise. He may feel a need for hyperbole in order to keep the Catholic faith "pure," but I doubt he sees it as hyperbolic rhetoric. And do Catholics really dress differently than Protestants? Maybe I've missed something all these years. Do you wear special robes, for example, whenever you blog?

It's true that the word wretch as Paul uses it helps to inform Protestant (Calvinist) doctrine on Total Depravity (which for the sake of your readers is not utter depravity). Kudos to you for being fair and balanced!

On a special note, I recognise that today is the one year anniversary of the passing of your Father. It's my prayer that the passage of time will strengthen rather than lessen the memory of him for you and your family through stories, pictures, and the poetry that he left you.

God's greatest blessings in Christ,


Dave Armstrong said...

Thanks for all the great comments and a special thanks to Tim for being extraordinarily thoughtful, to remember the one-year anniversary of my father's death. I was truly touched to read that. Wow.

Brian said...

His website is a mixed bag and you need to filter through it. But, there is a lot of great information and commentary offered. His voice is an important (may be too aggressive at times) voice in the Church right now.

juscot said...

No Protestant song or hymn shold ever be sung in a Catholic Church. Protestant songs reflect the doctrines of the churches they came from. Catholic songs and hymns reflect what we believe in, so we should sing them, instead of the songs of the heretics.

Dave Armstrong said...

There is nothing wrong with this song, but there is a great deal wrong with your Pharisaical attitude.

juscot said...

Dave, Catholic songs for a Mass should reflect the theology of the Catholoc faith. No Protestant song or hymn can do that. After all the Protestants don't sing Salve Regina in their services because it doesn't echo their beliefs. Catholic songs for a Catholic people. No Lutheran (Mighty Fortress) Shaker (Lord of the Dance) Rock of Ages (Calvinist) or Oh For A Thousand Tongues To Sing (Methodist) are needed. We got our own thing going!

Pilgrimsarbour said...

Having just gone through all six stanzas of the hymn, I still don't see what a Catholic would find objectionable. Perhaps there is something missing in the lyrics that a Catholic would feel should or must be included, but the focus of the hymn is on the grace of God Himself and not on the mechanism by which that grace comes to us--admittedly spoken of differently between Catholics and Protestants.

I do agree with Juscot that certain hymns would not work well in different denominational settings. But it seems to me that "Amazing Grace" is general enough to be enjoyed by all.

I.M Fletcher said...

I don't mind "wretch", but I have noticed that in our (Catholic) parish, someone has changed the wording to "save a soul like me".

juscot said...

Pilgrimsarbour, I'll clarify why Amazing Grace should not be sung by Catholics. 1.AG is Protestant. It teaches Protestant theology. As a Catholic, I'm not supposed to go to the services of Protestant churches, so it makes no sense to sing one of their songs. 2. The emphasis is all on grace. Faith without works is dead. God doesn't do everything, we must do our part too. Grace makes it possible to do it, putting the love of God into our hearts, but we must act, or our faith is dead. 3. The means of grace are not mentioned. God, unless he acts in an extraordinary way, always acts through the sacrements instituted by his Son, Jesus. None of these are mentioned in AG. What is mentioned here is the 'born again' experiance so beloved by evangelical Protestants. That's the closest thing they have to a sacrement, since they don't believe the Spirit of God acts in baptism, and the bread and wine of the Lord's Table are just symbols of the blood and the body of our Lord Jesus Christ, rather than being his true bodey and his true blood. I could probably rattle off several more objections, but these are the main ones.

Pilgrimsarbour said...


Thank you for your comments. I thought it would be a good idea to go through the hymn and make some comments on my own blog. Anyone here is welcome to come and comment on my post.

But let me here speak to one of your concerns(copied and pasted from my post).

One Catholic commenter objected to the hymn on the grounds that grace is operative in the sinner from the time of baptism, and not merely at the point where one first believes in Christ. I would point out that what is in view here is Newton's perception of grace, his recognition of it as it came to him, not the actual application of it to him by God. He is not saying that grace only put in its first appearance when Newton believed. If he had, that would be contrary to biblical and Reformed teaching, as well as Catholic teaching.

Blessings in Christ,


Nick said...

First off, the Catholic Culture rating thing is misleading, since really what matters most is orthodox theology. How one chooses to express their opinions shouldn't be a mark of "caution".

The movie had good points and bad.

The bad point was that he misrepresented Protestant theology when he said "grace does not appear when I decide to believe." Protestants don't teach that either. He's taking it in a Pelagian sense. Granted, the lyrics come off as saying that, but that's more due to Old English way of speaking/thinking.

He goes onto say the correct view of grace is the Sanctifying and Actual Grace distinctions, but the song says in the next verse:
"Grace that brought me safe thus far and Grace will lead me home"
which is the notion of actual grace (at least on the surface).

The real theological 'caution' here is that "the hour I first believed" gives off the impression of Sola Fide and framed in terms of the Protestant individualist scheme of not needing the Church or Sacraments.

Now of course there's nothing wrong with saved by faith or grace, the catch is that what's behind the theology is what the intent is. In other words, there is a heretical way to understand saved by faith and a orthodox way. Many Protestant songs are written with the intent and understanding (whether explicit or implicit) of unorthodox theology.

The use of the term "wretch" is at least objectionable if not wrong since Total Depravity is the notion implied and framework of classical Protestant theology (as even Dave grants).

In terms of practical benefits, Catholics have our own heritage of music, and the scandal here is that it seems tossed aside in favor of mainstream Protestant hymns and Protestant mindset towards worship. Protestantism doesn't have the Sacrifice of the Mass, so their worship is of a *very* different nature than Catholics, even incompatible. Protestantism repudiates the Mass as a grave heresy, so ecumenical worship de facto is impossible.

While such songs could be given a Catholic "spin", that doesn't make them fit for mass. Heck, even many secular songs could be given a secular spin, yet they're still unfit for Mass.

And when it comes to authors that have a questionable past, even heretics like Luther, we should not be giving their work any mention at all. That's outright scandal. It would be like saying Hugh Hefner throws together some song mentioning grace alone and we give that place in *our* worship. It doesn't matter if it can be given a Catholic spin, or even if it (miraculously) were orthodox Catholic teaching, it doesn't belong.

juscot said...

Nick, I loved your comments. You were right on target about Protestant hymns being unsuitable for Catholic worship. "Mighty Forttress" is a very good example of this unsuitabilty. This hymn was used as a anti-Catholic battlesong since it's publication. Why would any knowledgable, sincere Catholic want to sing a song that is basically anti-Catholic hatred? Yet, the publshers of missals and Catholic songbooks put this piece of trash into their publications. Are these pblishers that ignorant of the unsavory origins of MF? I don't think they can be, unless they were born in 1960. The wikipedia folks aren't that ignorant, that's where I got the ingformation on MF.

Paul Hoffer said...

Hi all, considering that the Church has always taken things that were non-Catholic and re-cast them in a Catholic light (Christmas trees, OT Scriptures, Holy Water and salt, etc...) I for one do not have a problem with songs like 'Amazing Grace' or 'How Great Thou Art' or even 'Almighty Fortress' being sung at Catholic Mass particularly when they can be understood in a Catholic light. I have far more problem with insipid modern 'Catholic' hymns that deny the Real Presence and other Catholic distinctives; sanctuaries that have been stripped of Mary, Joseph and the saints; and the tabernacle hidden away in some corner than a couple of hymns that happen to have been written by non-Catholic Christians.

Besides, if we stripped out every hymn out the hymnal that happened have been written or sung by Protestants, we would have a pretty thin hymnal. Favorite hymns like 'Praise to the Lord the Almighty, King of Creation' by the Dutch Reformed Neander, 'Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring' by Lutheran J.S. Bach, or the Lutheran Handel's 'Messiah' would all have to be strickened, too.

God bless!

juscot said...

Paul, we Catholics and our songs and hymns have been arond since 33AD. That means we've had 1967 years of music writing under our belt. The Prots have only been around for 493 years. Protestantism is a heretical movement from the get go. Their songs, hymns, and other music reflect the false doctrines of their religion. We Catholics have the true faith, our music should come from that true faith not from the lies of the heretics. And your claim that our hymnals would be "thin' if we struck all of these Protestant hymns out is nonsence. We have a 1967 year history to fall back on. What we would have to toss out could be easily replaced by the abundance of music from our own tradition. Interestingly enough, the original Protestants threw out all of the music that they had from the Catholic days. It took them years to build up their hymnals from scratch.

Paul Hoffer said...

Hi juscot,

As I have been playing in orchestras and singing in choirs and professional groups since I was 9, I am well aware of the wonderful Catholic musical tradition we have. That said, music does not belong to anyone, but to all. As I stated before, I do not have a problem with singing "Protestant" hymns so long as they contain lyrics that do not go against Catholic teachings. Many of those "Protestant" hymns like Almighty Fortress are merely a restatement of one of the psalms (I think 46 or 47 off the top of my head) or lifted right out of the Scriptures. We do not cede to the Protestants the Scriptures merely because they quote from them, so why should we cede any music to them merely because they happen to quote Scriptures in them?

Further, I own a number of Catholic hymnals, one or two that go back to the 1860's, and Catholics even then had no problem singing something written by Bach or Handel or Haydn, so why should we? Music is a special gift from God, I am not one to refuse to accept it because He gave that gift to a Bach or Pachebel or even a Luther or a Newton.

Personally, I would rather spend my energies arguing against insipid modern-day "Catholic" tunes whose lyrics deny the Real Presence, the Trinity or promote pluralism, etc. than fight over a hymn that happen to have been written by a Protestant that does not contain any offensive lyrics.

God bless!

Dave Armstrong said...

Amen, Paul. It is only so-called "traditionalist" anti-Protestantism, I submit, that leads to such an opinion about music.

Nick said...

Hi Paul

I think you make some pretty solid points, but I would add an important distinction in this case. While those originally pagan things were Catholicized, in this case of many of these songs they are not.

When the Catholic Church "Christianized" various previously pagan things, it was a form of "conquering" them when that culture submitted to Christianity. In the case of these songs, it's more of an one-way "ecumenical" outreach without any notion of reciprocation or (more importantly) conversion which results in a watered down Catholicism at the end of the day.

I also agree the problem is just as bad if not worse with wishy-washy "Catholic" music, stripping down the altar/sanctuary, etc, etc, but I also think everything is inter-connected. Typically, where you find one, you'll find the other. Stripping the sanctuary goes hand in hand with Protestantizing it.

As for great composers like Bach and Handel, I'd have to see just how anti-Catholic they were, or whether this was a typical case of invincible ignorance but good hearted Christian (e.g. CS Lewis, Wesely), as well as the degree their music gave off a uniquely Protestant vibe. There is a big difference between the latter and say someone like Luther who actively devastated God's Church as never before. Like I said earlier, singing a song written by Luther is a form of paying homage in our most intimate act of worship, akin to singing a song written by hugh hefner. Remember, when I originally commented on Amazing Grace, I didn't bash it or the author at all, I just lamented the fact Protestant hymns got more attention with our heritage being tossed aside.

Overall, the goal is to counter the deeply entrenched mindset of "anything but traditional Catholic music," which includes substituting that heritage for the package of new watered down "Catholic" music, Protestant music with a Catholic spin, and (the next step of that slippery slope) secular music with a Catholic spin.

Nick said...

Here is a good article I came across from Catholic - who surely don't put any 'cautions' on their own work (lol):

"The Hidden Hand Behind Bad Catholic Music"

It's focused on the fact Oregon Catholic Press produces the music books and missalettes for a great number of parishes across the US. The article says OCP prints 4.3million misalletts 4 times a year, for about 17million books total (not counting all other accompanying books). (That's also over 17million books thrown away each year, which is a scandal in itself)

In terms of costs (e.g. $5 or $10 each): that's $85-$170million that company is generating. No chump change, that's corporate figures.

And on top of that, the article says OCP owns copyright for 10,000 songs (mostly modern music), which would only encourage them to promote OCP music.

What we have is classic case of an unauthoritative body basically imposing it's own agenda on a large population of Catholics as well as keep up it's sales. So we have special interest involved as well.

Paul Hoffer said...

Hi Nick, I do not know about the agenda of OCP, I do know that they have to comply with the liturgical norms set out below in Canon law and by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in order to sell liturgical music literature:

Their board of directors include Cardinal Levada, at least two bishops and number of priests so presumably they would follow those norms.

That said, it should be noted that the use of "bad" modern Catholic music seems to be a pervasive problem in the US Church at least. Outside of individual taste, the music used at the Mass should at least mirror the themes and scriptures preached during the Mass. I know that each diocese has an individual or office that maintains a list of music that is deemed to be acceptable and each parish is supposed to check it at least occasionally. However, ultimately it is up to the parishes to determine what music they will use. Folks should get active in their parish's liturigcal planning committee and talk to their parish priest or deacon as to the music used.

God Bless!

juscot said...

Dave, Jesus accused the Pharisee's of transgressing the commandants of God for their own tradition. Since Protestant music is from an alien tradition hostile to the Catholic faith, Catholics who bring in songs like Amazing Grace are transgressing the commandments of God for their own tradition.

Isaac Fox said...

The Catholic Church in its universality has always accepted whatever is good that it can find anywhere. St. Paul quotes a pagan poet in his apologetics; St. Jude quotes a non-canonical writing in his letter; St. Thomas leaned heavily upon Aristotle in his philosophy and theology; priestly vestments worn during liturgy stem from pagan Rome, etc., etc. If there is objectionable theology in a hymn, then I agree that we should not sing it; but if not then what does it matter that the text was composed by a Protestant? And this argument applies to music as well as lyrics. You would be hard pressed to remove from the liturgy musical ideas, structures, and even melodies, that did not have their basis in secular or even pagan culture. Pagans do not "own" melodies, nor Protestants words; they are both common to all men, and we as Catholics may accept what is good in them. I would ask the poster of the previous argument to follow his argument to a logical comclusion, and try to rid religion and liturgy of everything non-Catholic. Harder to do than you might think. But these things become Catholic by virtue of their being good, common to all men (universal), and assumed into the Catholic Faith. Praise God, that He can redeem so many lovely things!

Dave Armstrong said...

Amen, Isaac. Well-stated and I agree all down the line.

Stan Williams said...

The origin of something does not indicate it's significance, value, beauty or truth. There is nothing in Christian/Catholic philosophy that even hints at this fallacious logic. Ex" The great films of LORD OF THE RINGS were directed by a agnostic as best. I was one of several Christian movie critics that asked Peter Jackson what he thought the meaning behind Tolkein's stories were (and thus the movies) and Jackson was quick to reply "save the forests and the earth". We were hard pressed to not laugh in the man's face. Yet, Jackson's brilliant vision for the films (albeit pagan) was not able to usurp the Catholic mythical nature of the stories. There is absolutely nothing theologically wrong (from Catholicism's perspective) with AG, AMFIOG, and a few other songs these comments mention. They SHOULD be sung because they beautifully communicate what is true. If we're to reject everything that doesn't come from Catholic sources then don't buy 95% of the food in the grocery, don't buy gas for your car, and above all don't use money issued by the pro-abort federal government. Go curl up and die.

Pilgrimsarbour said...

Very good, Stan. And for my Catholic friends here, don't tell my Protestant friends that I like John Michael Talbot!

Dave Armstrong said...

So did I when I was Protestant, pilgrim (we played some of his music at our wedding). I also liked (and like) Mozart, Haydn, Schubert, Liszt, Beethoven, Bruckner, Mahler, Elgar, and Stravinsky (all Catholics).

Dan Lower / KKairos said...

I'm with you on "wretch." For me, telling someone not to use a word that's clearly part of the Biblical tradition, as you point out, is like...well, it's like those Catholics I know who want to avoid using the word "predestination" in our theological discourse because the default assumption is some kind of Calvinism, nevermind that the only major place I know of in Scripture seems to set the word in a rather Molinist sense (that's the Romans 8 passage I'm thinking of, and I am reading it rather naively, so my apologies if I'm way off there.) But seriously, it's a Biblically Christian word and shouldn't be excised from the Tradition--same with wretch.

But like some others I'm still troubled by that "hour I first believed" business--even if the author of the hymn originally meant it to be applied to himself, it seems like it could be problematic being applied individually to the members of the congregation doing the singing.

Dave Armstrong said...

Well, it's definitely a Protestant hymn; I just deny that it is anti-Catholic.

Jonathan Watson said...


2. The emphasis is all on grace. Faith without works is dead. God doesn't do everything, we must do our part too. Grace makes it possible to do it, putting the love of God into our hearts, but we must act, or our faith is dead.

The irony of someone complaining about the accuracy of a song's theology and then making a statement like this is pretty thick.

JohnE said...

While "Amazing Grace" is a beautiful song when reconciled with Catholic teaching, I think the context of the Protestant beliefs in which it was written and the Protestant culture in which we live should be considered. The words "the hour I first believed" easily have the "faith alone" connotation that was surely the intention of its writer. Perhaps it's an overreaction to suggest that a single lyric or two out of one song taken in context would have devastating effects, but I don't think it should be blown off as completely harmless either.

Hmm, maybe Protestants could sing "Immaculate Mary" (with the explanation to their congregations that Mary was a very tidy housekeeper, and some other lyric tweaking so that it fits with their theology)

Dave Armstrong said...

I don't deny that it is Protestant or assert that it is perfectly in accord with Catholicism; I'm only saying that it is not anti-Catholic.

Xristoforos McAvoy said...

Traditional belief is returning to mainstream acceptance, it will eventually take over and return the Church to Orthodoxy. To understand why this hymn is not appropriate for Catholic Masses, one must educate themselves in the history and theology of their Church, especially as relates to liturgy and historical hymnody. The majority of Catholic Church Masses in the USA and probably most of the "western world" suffer from pervasive liturgical abuses. In this context the unsuitability of amazing grace is unable to be detected because a great deal of other hymns are in fact also unsuitable, yet regular accepted as otherwise. The very inclusion of this hymn at masses is a result of the ecumenist "world coucil of churches" spirit that entered the Catholic Church during the 1940's and 1950's to flower very fully by the 60's. The nature of the words and emphasis for "Amazing Grace" is very humanistic, calvinist and coarse. While one may not point to any blatant outright heresy in it, one can certainly say it has little if anything in common with any catholic hymnody made by those "within the church" as opposed to those "outside it". One need only study the first 1500 years of christian hymnody to understand why AMazing Grace is a serious departure from the establishled emphasis on the God and the ways that he works. If one compares this to hymns by Prudentius, Sedulius, Bellarmine or Adam of st Victor one finds little if any commonality. Hymns relating to a specific theological term such as "grace" betray the detached humanistic scholastic approach which followed to it's ultimately conclusions of science and man at the center of the control of life eventually leading to protestantism, secularism and death.

The Eastern Orthodox Church has not allowed the hymn "Amazing Grac" in any of it's western rite hymnals, which contain a great many of traditional Catholic and Anglican protestant hymns which are in line with the great majority of genuine Catholic and Orthodox Christian hymnody. There is no precedent for Amazing Grace until the era of the 1960's and 1970's it was never sung in a Catholic CHurch in the entire world - ever.

That does not mind that the hymn can not be enjoyed and appreciates by individuals. It only means that it lacks the integrity to be worthy of representing such sentimentalism and reductionist simpliciation at the holy sacrifice of the mass.

Joyce said...

You would never had heard this Hymn, ever, before Vatican ll...Anything that is not totally Catholic should be avoided like the plague...if a delicous looking cake had a tiny bit of arsenic in it, would you eat's poison! And so is anything that even has a little bit of error mixed in with truth, as this's poison for the soul, slowly but surely, like the frog boiled in lukewarm water..very subtle,and eventually will do harm to the soul...No Ecumenical stuff it was condemn by Pope Pius IX
Catholic's only need to Preach to save our soul and the souls of ohers.

Dave Armstrong said...

Sheer nonsense. You don't have the slightest idea what you are talking about.

The Church has for hundreds of years utilized Protestant hymns, such as those by John and Charles Wesley, and classical music by Protestants (e.g., Bach).

The Catholic view has always been (not just since the dreaded, despised Vatican II) that all truth is truth.

Hence, St. Paul himself cited two pagan poets / philosophers on Mars Hill in Athens, while evangelizing the Athenians.

According to you, he was a lousy compromised sinner when he did so.

It's your sort of muddled and self-contradictory thinking that turn people away from the Catholic faith. It's modern-day Pharisaism.