Some of you may recall my effort to get the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) to affirm the use of dance as an appropriate, desirable, and affective form for worship. This effort began in 2001 and is still on-going. Controversy about the use of dance in worship arose in Catholic churches in 2001 and it is now being suppressed in some areas of our country, including my own parish church, following the objections of some Catholics, who based their opinions on a 1975 unsigned essay which appeared in Notitiae, a Vatican canon law digest.
This essay declares that dance is appropriate for liturgical worship in other cultures, because it has always been a part of their tradition; but it then states that this has not been so in Western culture, and it is, therefore, not appropriate. Western dance is described as “…is tied with…diversion, with profaneness, with unbridling of the senses…and, in general is not ‘pure.’” This uninformed and inaccurate description must be re-addressed. This set me on the advocacy journey.
I talked with my bishop, who was supportive and advised that this would best be accomplished through the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). He put me in touch with the chair of their Committee on Divine Worship. I then researched church documents, and wrote “Position Paper on Issues of Sacred/Liturgical Dance,” justifying the use of dance in worship. In the ensuing nine years the Paper was placed on the semi-annual meeting agenda of the Bishops Conference four different times, with a few revisions each time. And each time they responded expressing a need for more information in considering this issue, as follows: 1) further exploration on the subject historically and theologically; 2) a need for additional scholarly research; 3) guidance from other cultures where dance and liturgy have been more closely examined and experienced; and 4) at my suggestion, a list of Norms (i.e. ruling guidelines) for liturgical dance. I had shared with them statistics I have collected showing that liturgical dance is being done in many places in our country, despite the lack of ecclesial official authorization—(thinking that this would, perhaps, get some positive discussion going).
Throughout the process additional information was located and forwarded to them: five scholarly research documents, including text from a book advocating liturgical dance; seven letters from bishops and clergy of other cultures around the world from whom I had requested a letter affirming the use of dance movement as an enhancement of their liturgical ritual; twenty-one letters from supporters in several states; and a Norms document which Andrea Shearer, Leaven Associate Director, and I prepared. The USCCB Committee’s final response in 2006 was that no further action on this question could be considered by them as long as the Notitiae article remained the policy of the Vatican Congregation on Divine Worship.
Our bishops had also suggested several times that I contact Cardinal Arinze, Chair of the Vatican Congregation on Worship. In 2007 I sent him the Position Paper and the Norms document. He responded with the same answer he had given me in 2004 when I spoke with him personally at a convention he was attending in this country. He stated very definitely that liturgical dance is a cultural issue and, as such, must be addressed by the U.S. bishops, not by the Vatican. Stalemate!
The advocacy effort has begun anew! Late last year I was put in contact with two prominent Catholic canon lawyers, both of whom advised me that the Notitiae article does not have any type of canonical authority, has no juridical weight and, therefore, cannot be cited as law and used as a prohibition of dance in worship. In addition I’ve found that the USCCB promulgated an official document, Environment and Art in Catholic Worship, which states “Processions and interpretations through bodily movement (dance) can become meaningful parts of the liturgical celebration if done by truly competent persons in the manner that befits the total liturgical action.”
I informed Bishop Serratelli, Chair of the USCCB Worship Committee, of this new information, but they still do not plan to take action. In view of all this I recently sent the same information to Cardinal Antonio Llovera, Chair of the Vatican Congregation for Divine Worship, along with the Position Paper, Norms document, the statistics, and a letter with two requests: 1) please ask the USCCB to address the issue of liturgical dance; 2) please have the Congregation re-address the positions stated in the Notitiae essay regarding dance in Western culture.
Keep us in your prayers, friends; and any Catholics who wish to actively support this effort may contact me by phone at 330-688-8806, or email email@example.com.