According to Pope Pius X, the only truly acceptable form of music for Church use was Gregorian Plainsong; serene and dignified. It could possibly be acceptable for an organ to accompany the choir, but only in the most restrained fashion. He was particularly concerned about the use of any musical instruments:
19. The employment of the piano is forbidden in church, as is also that of noisy or frivolous instruments such as drums, cymbals, bells and the like.
Writing in 1903, Pius must have been aware of Messiah, or the liturgical works by Mozart, Bach or Haydn, many of which include these frivolous drums together with ornate vocal sections. Did Pius regard their sacred compositions as wicked and depraved?
I find myself pondering the notion of Limbo, the metastable cosmic interphase at the outer margins of Hell. For many centuries, the faithful of the Catholic Church were given a doctrine which stated that only those who had been baptised could enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Pagans, not undergoing baptism, were thus automatically condemned to Hell. But what of very young children who died before they could receive baptism? And what of those virtuous persons who lived in the years before the Crucifixion?
In The Inferno, Dante gives us a splendid array of torments for the souls of the Damned, whom he divides up into categories much like the socio-economic tribes favoured by market researchers, and his Limbo is an outer circle of Hell reserved for those who have committed no grievous sins. But the early Christians were hostile to the notion of innocence; all people fell into one of two distinct groups, the goodly and the wicked. The virtuous would spend the hereafter enjoying the unutterable bliss of knowing God, while everybody else would suffer everlasting torture at the hands of the Fiend.
I began to wonder whether Pius gave much thought to the idea of Limbo, or to astronomy, or to the nine orders of Angels. Of course, in his day there were no radio telescopes, so the senior Vatican scientists could not have known about the galaxies that stretch for millions of miles across space; and the atomic nucleus had yet to be discovered, so Pius and his advisers had no idea about the tiny beads of energy that make up what we foolishly consider to be the real world. Never mind the number of Angels who can dance on the point of a pin; how many six-winged Seraphim can perch, fluttering like frightened budgies, on a single Quark? Or would one of the Cherubim decide to use galaxy M81(diameter approx 95 thousand light-years) as a beauty-spot?
But Pius, conservative where music was concerned, seemed to take a tender, more humane approach to some serious issues of theology. In his 1905 Catechism, he instructed that the souls of infants who die without receiving baptism are allowed to dwell in Limbo. In this place they are not made to suffer, as required by traditional Catholic teaching; their only loss is the vision of God.
And now we find that the Church, under the supreme guidance of Pope Benedict, is to abandon the idea of Limbo. Neither the Almighty nor his believers can really say that any useful purpose is served by keeping the souls of children in a cosmic steam-room for eternity; and it is not a very far cry from that to suggest that eternal damnation is an excessive reward for human wickedness, no matter how extreme. Indeed, when David Hume claimed to be indifferent to the prospect of death, everyone was horrified. And he would no doubt provoke the same response today.