“King James Only" Catholics

I never had personal dealings with them, but in the South, I always heard of “King James-only fundamentalists.” In contrast to conservative Anglicans or mainline Protestants with a strong preference for the King James Version of the Bible, some of these fundamentalists actually believe the KJV is divinely inspired in the same sense as the original Hebrew and Greek texts, or even more inspired or a correction of certain ambiguous passages. The most extreme adherents insist that translations of the Protestant Bible into other languages must be based on the KJV, not the original languages. This mentality would be slightly more understandable if we were dealing with a certain faction of Anglicans arguing a position along the lines of “This is the version of the Bible that was given to us by our church in the seventeenth century and no other edition has surpassed it in beauty, eloquence, or accuracy,” but the reality is that most of the King James onlyists are far removed from the Church of England of past or present in their doctrine, practices, and aesthetic sensibilities.

In my childhood, I also heard of “fire and brimstone” or “hellfire and damnation” preaching in other churches. At times, I would like to have heard a little more of this style of preaching in my church, but I digress. I read an article, the name of whose author escapes me, which expressed the opinion that such preaching was essentially lazy. It takes far less effort to get in the pulpit and rant and rave for 40 minutes than to prepare a sermon that actually expounds on the spiritual meaning of the word of God. And rather than calling sinners to true repentance, it often serves to bolster the congregation in their own self-righteousness. Similarly, KJV onlyism is a lazy approach to the Bible. If we have an English version of the Bible that is divinely inspired, inerrant, or infallible, why bother studying the Hebrew or Greek texts? I am aware of a marginal group of traditionalists Catholics with similar views toward the Clementine Vulgate. Whether the Catholic Church has declared that version alone to be inerrant, I neither know nor particularly care, but I can say with certainty that other versions are used in the chants of the Mass, which brings me to my point.

With regard to the Vatican edition of Gregorian chant, we must not become like King James only fundamentalists. While it is true that the Church has promulgated the Vatican edition to be used liturgically, it is also true that it contains errors. Furthermore, the Church is not infallible in matters of musicology. There were other official editions before the Vaticana, and there will be others after it. Let us never fall into a lazy mentality regarding our study of the chants. The Liber Usualis is a truly remarkable book, but we now know with certainty that it contains errors and that the rhythmic theories upon which it is based are faulty. Devotion to the Solesmes method of interpretation is no excuse for ignoring the ancient chant manuscripts and the testimony of the medieval writers.

Historically speaking, with the exception of religious sisters and schoolgirls, Gregorian chant is primarily men’s music. Nowadays our churches tend to be full of effeminate men, who only want to do what is easy and pleasurable rather than applying themselves to challenging or rigorous pursuits. Others veil their ignorance under the guise of piety with comments like, “But the Solesmes style is so prayerful!” or with a certain sort of progressive musical attitude: “Chant is a living musical language and not a museum piece.” Still others insist that the Vatican or Solesmes style is the only “approved” interpretation, despite rather clear evidence to the contrary. All four of these—the lazy, the pious, the musical elitists, and the misguidedly obedient—resent the very notion that they should relearn anything. It is beyond question that the authority to regulate liturgical books belongs to the hierarchical Church, exercised by the Dicastery for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments; that point is not up for debate. What I wish to stress is that the manuscripts have their own authority. Is this not true in biblical studies as well, unless we’re King James onlyists? And generally, an older source is judged to have greater authority than a later one.

Regarding the musical elitists, is it unfair to charge that the Solesmes defenders are actually the ones treating the chant like a museum piece? As I have written elsewhere: Many of the rhythmic indications of the ancient manuscripts were misinterpreted by the monks that edited the Solesmes editions. This is old news, now well known, and should no longer be a controversial statement in 2022, but here we are! I have colleagues who are knowledgeable about what is called historically informed performance practice for the music of the 16th through 18th centuries, but who nevertheless prefer the style of performance in vogue in the late 19th or early to mid 2oth century. That is a personal preference, a matter of opinion, but the evidence of the medieval manuscripts is factual. Whether one regards this or that interpretation as prettier or more prayerful really isn’t the point. One can make similar claims about Bible translations, but it tells us nothing about accuracy and fidelity to the most reliable sources. Study the chant manuscripts copied in the triplex editions, compare my edition with Solesmes, then judge for yourself.

Patrick Williams, June 2022