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Lady Justice speaks to musicians — and clergy

Musicians are artists, so the traditional statue of Lady Justice with her three symbols is familiar to many musicians. The two-edged sword indicates power but also the reality that justice for one may be painful for another. The scale weighs those competing claims exactly — in such a way that justice brings balance to the world. The blindfold indicates impartiality. True justice involves power, administered in a measured way, impartially. All three aspects of justice must be considered together.

Pastoral musicians confront many issues of justice in their ministries; my experience has been mainly focused on balancing a just salary, just hiring and firing practices, and a just workload, as well as respecting the dignity of all coworkers in the vineyard. When justice issues rise to the surface, they demand action. In a thoughtful observation, John Rawls claims, "Justice is the first virtue of social institutions, as truth is of systems of thought" (A Theory of Justice, rev. ed. [Oxford University Press, 1999], 3). Truth is fundamental for clear thinking, as justice is foundational for societies. A just wage is not a luxury issue to be set aside because of the enthusiasm of the musician for serving God through music; rather, as Pope John Paul II said, "Hence, in every case, a just wage is the concrete means of verifying the justice of the whole socioeconomic system and, in any case, of checking that it is functioning justly" (Laborem Exercens, "19. Wages and Other Social Benefits," para. 2).

These bold statements stand in stark contrast to many musicians' experience when discussing salaries at the parish level. Are we to conclude that the lack of a just salary for parish musicians is an indication that the "first virtue" of the Catholic church is missing? Are we to conclude that the Catholic church as a "socioeconomic system" cannot be verified or that the "check" on whether the entire Catholic church is "functioning justly" is missing? Do these questions raise the question of just salary to another level?

On October 11, 2012 , we will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council — a good time to celebrate the accomplishments of the renewal that began on that day. I hope your parish will develop a commemorative event, reminding us all of the significant growth the Catholic church began 50 years ago. Such a celebration could serve as a measure of all of the teachings of Vatican II, The Church in the Modern World as well as the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy. Rejoice and be glad, for this is the day of the Lord! (Ps 118:24).

Perhaps Lady Justice could serve as the symbol of that day, so that we not only rejoice in the accomplishments of repertoire development and vernacular translations but also go deeper to measure whether we as a catholic church stand in the world more justly. If we take such a stance — with two-edged sword in hand, precisely balanced scales in the other, and blindfolded to ensure our impartiality — what then will we say, not just about the big picture but about our world of pastoral music and the justice issues that confront us in our everyday work?

For this article I reviewed the four documents on Catholic church music published in the United States following Vatican II: The Place of Music in Eucharistic Celebrations (1968), Music in Catholic Worship (1972), Liturgical Music Today (1982), and Sing to the Lord: Music in Divine Worship (2007). I studied them with an eye toward a specific question: What did these documents have to say, not about music but about musicians? I was surprised to discover an evolution from the first document to the last — that is to say, a progressive development in recognition of the significance of the music-maker as opposed to exclusive concentration on protecting the repertoire. The documents begin to discuss practical issues for musicians regarding salary, vocation, training, education, and more. Granted, the discussions are not in the context of justice — in fact, to be honest, they are a long way from justice — but the four documents show a growing sophistication regarding the fair treatment of musicians.

For example, the earliest document does not even mention musicians, but MCW states that the church "needs the service of many qualified musicians" and indicates that "many generous musicians … have given years of service despite receiving only meager financial compensations (77). In this breakthrough document, written in plain English, MCW admits that musicians have not been served by justice in the Catholic church. Everyone who knows about true change and transformation knows that an honest admission of failure is the first step toward correction. In this case, the step was a baby step, for MCW goes on to make two recommendations: first, that "every diocese and parish should establish policies for hiring and paying living wages to competent musicians," and second, that "full-time musicians employed by the Church ought to be on the same salary scale as teachers." I say "baby step" because in 1972, teachers in Catholic schools were underpaid for their work too! Some dioceses and many parishes today are still without policies for hiring and paying living wages to competent musicians. Nevertheless, MCW's first step was in the right direction.

Ten years later, Liturgical Music Today recognized that the problem of a just wage still had not been solved: "What motivates the pastoral musician? Why does he or she give so much time and effort to the service of the church at prayer? The only answer can be that the church musician is first a disciple and then a minister" (64). LMT had come to the beginning of an understanding that something more than justice was involved when dealing with church musicians — something that later was to be called "vocation" or "a call." In spite of low wages, gifted people were coming forward (perhaps in unprecedented numbers) to serve the church as pastoral musicians. For the first time, the U.S. bishops clearly acknowledged the importance of education and formation for church musicians, encouraging colleges and universities to offer "courses of studies in liturgical music" and diocesan centers to offer continuing education (65). Equally important, the need for compensation was expanded to include "mutual respect and cooperation" (66). By no means was the issue of a just salary resolved (nor indeed that of just hiring and firing), but parishes were becoming more aware of what a just workload for a parish musician was.

Some of that awareness was raised by the National Association of Pastoral Musicians (NPM) (begun in 1976) when in 1991 it published its first book on the subject, NPM Workbook: Job Descriptions, Contracts, Salary. Before Vatican II, musicians were often hidden in the back choir loft and (unlike children) "heard but not seen." As a result, what church musicians did was also hidden: the time for preparing, planning, and practicing took place apart from Sunday worship. So NPM established the Director of Music Ministries Division to focus on specific terms of employment for full-time church musicians. The DMMD advocated for a living wage, retirement programs, and fair hiring and termination practices, and it promoted respect and cooperation from clergy and other pastoral ministers. Musicians were beginning to be seen as well as heard.

In 1994, DMMD developed the first salary guidelines, and they are revised periodically. Many pastors will be surprised to read the current guidelines: the top salary for an experienced, full-time director of music ministry holding a doctorate in music is $100,864 ($77,587 salary, plus $23,276 in benefits). For an entry-level director with a bachelor's degree, the starting salary is $44,042 ($36,702 salary, plus $7,340 in benefits). Various adjustments to the minimum and maximum salaries are discussed in the guidelines, which are available at

The rapid expansion of lay ministry following Vatican II created a need for clarification of the relationship between those with recognized church authority and laypersons serving in diocesan and parish leadership roles. The document Co-Workers in the Vineyard of the Lord: A Resource for Guiding the Development of Lay Ecclesial Ministry was developed by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops' Committee on the Laity and approved by the full body of bishops at its November 2005 general meeting.

In 2007, in Sing to the Lord: Music in Divine Worship, the U.S. bishops fully recognized the importance of church musicians and the issues of justice associated with employment. This document is more clear and specific than its predecessors in demanding justice for the church musician:

51. … Parishes and dioceses should provide the financial support needed to ensure competent liturgical musical leadership.

52. The service of pastoral musicians should be recognized as a valued and integral part of the overall pastoral ministry of the parish or diocese; provision should be made for just compensation. Professional directors of music ministries and part-time pastoral music ministers should each receive appropriate wages and benefits that affirm the dignity of their work.

53. Liturgical music ministers should be provided with the proper resources to carry out their administrative functions in a professional manner.

In October 2011, the USCCB's Committee on Certification and Accreditation granted approval of the national certification standards and procedures for a period of seven years. It specifically mentions the director of music ministries certification.

There remains an obvious gap between what directors of music ministries want and what most parishes are willing or able to provide. It is not too bold to say that, even today, many parishes fall short of that vision of justice taught by the Catholic church when it comes to employing parish musicians. Why?

  • Many musicians are willing to work for "less than the expected salary" because they love the church and feel a "ministerial" call to make music in church.
  • Parishes are often willing to employ musicians below the minimal level of competency because they (clergy and assembly) can tolerate less than effective musical liturgy. Assemblies do not yet demand quality music in parish worship. In addition, parishes often have insufficient money to pay a full salary. Others simply have a history of less-than-just employment practices and don't have the time, resources, or motivation to change them.

So we return to our symbol of Lady Justice. With her measuring scale applied to employment, what might she say to musicians and clergy about justice? To the pastor she might say that "you get what you pay for," and she might remind the musician to "do exactly what you agreed to do." Don't complain if your underpaid musician is inadequate, and don't complain if you feel overworked because you are doing more than you agreed to do. Her two-edged sword applied to hiring and firing, she might say to the pastor, "If your musician does well, you will be expected to give him a raise"; to the musician she might warn, "If you don't do your work, you will be fired." With her blindfold taking the emotion out of judgment, she might say to the pastor, "Clerical status is no excuse for being a bad employer," and likewise to the musician, "If you are an incompetent musician, your love for the church and the work doesn't excuse you." Justice will be served!

As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of Vatican II, all in the church should rejoice in the growth and progress of church music and its musicians. But simultaneously, this celebration can remind the whole church of the need to pursue justice in the world of musicians' employment. Perhaps the statue of Lady Justice should become the symbol for our celebration: true justice involves power, administered in a measured way, impartially. As church musicians, we have the awesome responsibility to lead the assembly in singing of the "God of justice, / who knows no favorites" (Sir 35:12). ML

Rev. Virgil C. Funk is the president emeritus of the National Association of Pastoral Musicians (NPM), a membership organization for clergy and musicians dedicated to fostering the art of liturgical music.