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 | Father Joe Waters

Is There Harm in Listening to Secular Music that isn’t Necessarily Clean?

February 21, 2023

QUESTION: I must admit, some of the music I listen to isn’t always what you would consider “clean” music. However, I listen to it because I can relate to some of the lyrics, and it helps me fit in culturally. I used to think there was no harm in it, but then I saw this year’s Grammys. The imagery some of the artist chose to go along with the lyrics made me uneasy, and now I’m questioning if it’s a good idea to continue to listen to their music. Fr. Joe, as Christians, is there harm if we listen to secular music that isn’t necessarily clean?

ANSWER: Your question reminds me of Jesus’s instruction, “Nothing that enters one from outside can defile that person, but the things that come out from within are what defile.” (Mark 7:15). It is natural to think of evil as coming from outside. It is easier to think of sin as caused by the negative secular influences surrounding us. In reality, sin arises from within one’s heart.

Having said that, I believe grasping the five senses’ crucial role in the moral life is essential. One’s thoughts, feelings, and desires all arise from what the senses perceive. What we hear, see, touch, smell, and taste define the knowledge our intellect processes and sends to our will. The will decides our actions, for good or for ill. In other words, what we allow in through our senses — what we listen to, what we look at, etc.—will  impact our actions, whether they are virtuous or sinful.

Traditional Catholic teaching calls one to strive for self-mastery. That is often spoken about as “possession of the eyes,” and by extension, the other senses as well. This means that a Christian is called to discipline one’s senses to take in only what is useful to following Christ. Being aware of one’s inner life and learning to discern what the senses teach allows one to accept what is good because it is of God and to reject what is wrong because it leads to evil. Discerning people quickly realize that the devil uses sensual pleasures to lure souls into sin. Nevertheless, not all that pleases the senses is sinful.

An example may help. Spiritual discernment fosters self-awareness, enabling one to distinguish between nudity exhibited in pornography and naked bodies found in the works of the artistic masters. Both examples of nudity may be pleasing to the senses. However, one can easily lead to sin and the other can advance the good.     

Increasingly, we witness coarseness in contemporary society. Our discourse and contemporary cultural expressions such as popular music can be harsh and offensive. This coarseness can dull our senses and make spiritual discernment more challenging. Current cultural mores blur the line between what is acceptable and what is beyond the pale. Ideologies at odds with the natural order and Gospel values disproportionately influence our culture.

Watching the Grammy Awards apparently awakened your senses. You came to recognize the potential harm in accepting popular music at face value. Our discernment must be two-fold when evaluating music and what to listen to or avoid. (1) What influence does the musical arrangement inspire? Is the music uplifting? Does it lead one to strive for virtue or does it evoke baser appetites? (2) What ideas do the lyrics communicate? Do the lyrics express ideas that lead to wisdom and truth or do they strike at the dignity of the human person and their spiritual dimension? 

In my opinion, a great deal of popular music is nihilistic; it rejects all religious and moral principles in the belief that life is meaningless (Oxford English Dictionary). Therefore, perhaps the greater danger of some popular music is that it can lead to despair, questioning one’s self-worth, or abandoning the search for truth and meaning. This type of despair is the fertile soil in which grave sinfulness and tragic self-harm grow.

 Authentic discernment will lead one to a difficult choice.  Just how counter-cultural am I called to be as a Christian? Christ was a sign that was contradicted. He was the cause of the rise and the fall of many in Israel. Do we want to be like Jesus, or are we more willing to go along to get along? On the other hand, Christ immersed himself in the culture of his time. He associated with those who were grave sinners, emotionally broken, and rejected by religious people as unclean. Are we prepared to meet the lost and forsaken where they are at this moment to evangelize them? The pull of these two Gospel imperatives is a challenging tension within discipleship but one that cannot be avoided.

In short, we must examine our conscience about our musical choices. Is the music I choose helpful to my discipleship? Does it have a positive influence on me and my spiritual life? Will it allow me to identify and converse with those who need to hear the good news of the Gospel? At the same time, one must be realistic about the negative influences music can have and resolve to avoid “whatever leads to sin.” 

Father Joe Waters is Judicial Vicar and Censor Librorum of the Diocese of St. Petersburg.

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