If there is one thing you can get both sides to agree on in the liturgy wars, it is that applause in church is a bad thing. I heard the argument made once that any time there is applause in church, it is a sign that the liturgy has been derailed. Applause is for performances; the liturgy is not a performance; ergo, applause = bad.
In general I think that’s reasonable, but it’s not 100%.
There are many reasons why people applaud, and most of them have nothing to do with praise for a performance. Applause is a sign of support, of solidarity, of affirmation, of appreciation. We applaud when kids receive their first Communion, when families celebrate a baptism, when a priest announces he is being reassigned (and not because we’re glad to see him go!). One on one, there are many other ways to express these sentiments, but as a community, applause speaks love and fellowship most simply and effectively.
But even if we focus on applause that is a response to the music, I don’t think it’s as clear-cut as it seems. Applause speaks of emotion, and music evokes an emotional response. A few weeks ago, we finished Mass with “Amazing Grace.” The congregation sang its heart out, and afterward, they applauded. If you asked why, most people probably would say something that invokes a good performance, but I don’t think that’s entirely accurate. What they’re responding to is the fact that something touched their hearts and evoked an emotional response.
The prevalence of emotional manipulation in a lot of modern religious rhetoric tends to make Catholics suspicious of emotional response to religion. We often see Catholicism as strong because it isn’t emotionally manipulative; it doesn’t rely on gimmicks and flashy trends to reach people. Instead, it rests on a fathomless tradition of study, prayer, and big-T Tradition. This is true, but none of that negates emotion. Emotion is part of who we are as human beings, and if we try to pretend that it has no place in our worship, we’re not being true to how were created.
In New Seeds of Contemplation, Thomas Merton talks a lot about transparency and its close relationship to humility. A truly humble person, like Mary, is like a pristinely clear window offering a view of God. The view you see through that window is what receives the praise, not the window itself, which is nothing more than a conduit for the view.
Most of us, including me, are not pristine windows. Our pride and vanity smudge the glass, and all that praise catches on the surface instead of passing through to its proper destination. So we’re always going to have to wrestle with this issue. But I think our preoccupation with the topic reveals more about our own sins than it does about reality.