Catholic fact check: Did the Vatican condemn dancing?
In 2017, a Catholic parish's website published a document, “The Church’s Official Position on Dances,” which stated (among other things):
“What is the Church’s official position on dances? Believe it or not, the Church does have an official position on it. […] ]T]he unmarried morally cannot have a part in dances that have bodily contact."1
To argue that you have “the Church's official position” on anything is a grave claim, and should be relatively straightforward to defend.
The sources - an ambiguously translated Old Testament verse, selectively edited letters from Rome, and several quotations from saints - do not convince. They do not make a cogent or coherent argument for the inherent immorality of dances for unmarried people, and statements like “the phenomena of men and women dancing together in any bodily contact was virtually unheard of before the 17th Century”1 are so beyond the pale that for once, I do not feel the need to address them.
The full text of “The Church’s Official Position on Dances”
The Church’s Official Position on Dances1
The situation in France in the 19th Century was horrible. In many areas of France, the people were totally lacking in both faith and morals. People were not getting married… they missed Mass, worked on Sundays and had the habit of blaspheming. Drunkenness was common. There was even the widespread worshipping of a false ‘goddess of reason’. The inhabitants of many regions in France were pagans in practice, and there was little faith left, if any at all. In the mentality of the time, the world held the foremost place before God. It was to this village that a parish priest was sent to return these people from absolute paganism. Now, of all the things that this priest could have preached about in this pagan society, and he preached on many issues, it can seem remarkable to us that he focused in especially on one. It may surprise us how much of this priest’s energies (in this absolutely pagan society) were devoted to preaching against dances. This priest was later named the patron saint of parish priests by Pope Pius XI – the saint who we know as St John Vianney, the Cure of Ars.
What is the Church’s official position on dances? Believe it or not, the Church does have an official position on it, it even addresses America by name in a decree on the issue, and you can find it today on the Vatican’s website. (I accessed it yesterday – it’s there.) On March 31, 1916 a decree of the Vatican (the Sacred Consistorial Congregation, with the approval of Benedict XV), decreed as follows: “In the century just passed, in the states of North America, the custom began whereby Catholic families would gather at dances… The reason and justification for this was given that Catholics might get to know each other and be united more intimately in the bonds of charity and love, and at the same time they would serve as a fundraiser for some pious works.” The decree went on to say that “all priests… and other clerics (that means seminarians) are absolutely forbidden from promoting and supporting dances, even if they are held to aid pious works or for some other holy purpose. Moreover, all clerics (that is, priests and tonsured seminarians) are forbidden to attend such dances, should they be given by lay people.” A.A.S., 8 (1916), p. 147-149 (http://www.vatican.va/archive/aas/documents/AAS%2008%20%20-%20ocr.pdf, accessed May 31, 2014)
A year after this decree came out, an American bishop, pushed the issue by asking the Vatican: “Are dances given in the daytime, or at night but not protracted to a late hour, or not accompanied by a dinner, but conducted in the manner commonly called a picnic, included in the condemnation of March 31, 1916?” The reply, dated December 10, 1917, and again approved by the Pope himself, stated that yes, such dances, even if done during the daytime or at a picnic are indeed included in the Vatican’s condemnation. (Notice – the Vatican’s condemnation – this isn’t a priest imposing his own idea of what is moral and foisting it on his parish.) As a result, all priests are forbidden from promoting or supporting dances, even in the circumstances mentioned (that is, even if it is a church fundraiser), and priests and seminarians are forbidden to attend them if they are promoted by others. In other words, even if done for a church fundraiser… even if done at a picnic, and not protracted into the late hours of the night, dances cannot be supported by the Church [AAS, X (1918), 17 (http://www.vatican.va/archive/aas/documents/AAS%2010%20%20- %20ocr.pdf, accessed May 31, 2014)]. But the Pope wouldn’t forbid priests from supporting dances if there were not moral issues with them.
Now, what is the moral issue here? The moral problem is unmarried young men and women dancing together in bodily contact, though the Vatican decree did not even make this distinction. Married couples dancing with their own spouses is not a moral issue, but the unmarried morally cannot have a part in dances that have bodily contact. Most sins begin with an image in the imagination – bad thoughts – have you ever had a bad thought that was hard to push away? When there is also a physical image before the eyes, sin is even more likely. And when one can touch and handle that physical image, sin is very likely. This is what happens in dancing.
Now, there is a ban on priests promoting, attending or supporting any dances. Are there decrees against the laity partaking in dances? The First 3 Councils of Baltimore and the 10th Council protest against dances. The Second Council of Baltimore (1868) says: “We consider it to be our duty to warn our people against those amusements which may easily become to them an occasion of sin, and especially against those fashionable dances, which, as at present carried on… are fraught with the greatest dangers to morals.” Keep in mind ‘those fashionable dances’ were waltzes – dances that required bodily contact.
In a New York Times article dated June 16, 1916, which you can still read on the internet, the headline reads, “Pope’s Dancing Ban Sent to Churches”. The article opens, “Dancing has been forbidden at all Catholic entertainments.” In New York, Cardinal Farley had the priests of his diocese read the decree from every pulpit. The Cardinal’s letter promulgating the ban on dances noted the growing tendency in our day toward the material at the expense of the spiritual. “The [Vatican’s] decree… is a natural protest to the spirit of the worldliness which finds full expression in the modern dances.” He said that it is “imperative for us to offset the moral danger that threatens our young people and to positively prohibit the holding of entertainments of any kind whose principal feature is dancing.” What is the reason? He states it: “evidence that the moral dangers from this form of pleasure not only existed but [are] rapidly increasing.” However, though this was promulgated in New York, the decree was quickly ignored and forgotten – and when the Catholic Church neglects enforcing what is moral, the world reaps the lack of grace that results.
St John Vianney said this: “There is not a commandment of God which dancing does not cause men to break… Mothers may indeed say: ‘Oh, I keep an eye on my daughters.’ You keep an eye on their dress; you cannot keep guard over their heart. Go, you wicked parents, go down to hell where the wrath of God awaits you, because of your conduct when you gave free scope to your children; go! It will not be long before they join you, seeing that you have shown them the way so well… Then you will see whether your pastor was right in forbidding those hellish amusements… the dance… is the rope by which the devil drags the greatest number of souls into the abyss of hell.” The following is an excerpt from the priest who wrote the definitive work on the Life of St John Vianney, drawn from the notes used in his canonization: “On certain points M. Vianney may have been less exacting with strangers than with his own people, but as regards dancing he was ever absolutely unyielding… He never wavered. He would not allow anyone to take part in society dances, even in the role of a simple spectator. All his life M. Vianney remained steadfast in his attitude towards dancing… He said to the parents, “You must answer for their souls as you will answer for your own… what I do know is that if your children lose their souls whilst they are as yet under your care, it is to be feared that your lack of watchfulness may be the cause of your own damnation.” (pp. 150-151) St John went so far as to have an altar in honor of St John the Baptist built in his church with the inscription over the altar: ‘his head was the price of a dance.’
Is there anything in Scripture about dancing? Ecclesiasticus 9:4 “Use not much the company of her that is a dancer, and do not listen to her.”
“Oh, but Father, I can find other traditional priests who support dancing – at least swing dancing.” Here is a list of traditional priests who did not support dances: St Frances de Sales, St Augustine, St Ambrose, St Charles Borromeo, St Anthony Mary Claret, Pope Benedict XIV. These priests & doctors of the Church opposed dances that were even more modest than swing dancing, because the phenomena of men and women dancing together in any bodily contact was virtually unheard of before the 17th Century. If we do find priests who allow the unmarried to dance with each other, we should believe that they are unaware of the teaching of the Church in this area. To remedy this the District Superior of the Fraternity of St Peter sent the information about the Vatican’s forgotten decree to every priest in the North American District of the Fraternity. Do you know that the Council of Baltimore (the same Council that gave us the Baltimore Catechism which so many traditional Catholics use) condemned the holding of dances and did not make a distinction in the types of dances? It said the following: “We command therefore that priests take care to completely remove that abuse whereby feasts are planned with dances to promote pious works,” You might even find churches where they host dances for church fundraisers, and they might even claim to be traditional – but this is not traditional.
A person might ask, just as the people of Ars, France, might have asked, “Father, there are so many issues out there, why are you picking this one when we are trying not to lose our children by being too severe?” Let’s remember that the people in St John Vianney’s parish were just as pagan as our society today, yet he still took up this campaign against dancing - anything that broke down the physical barriers between the unmarried he opposed. If the parents in St John Vianney’s parish couldn’t understand why he took up this issue, they should have kept in mind that the only person’s confession they had ever heard was their own. St John Vianney heard the things in confession that the children would never tell their parents, and he knew what made them sin. Let’s keep in mind that a mortal sin against purity can be committed right in one’s mind. If one cuts off only the visible part of the weed, but then waters the root that is left, can we be surprised if the weed grows back? Likewise, if he only targeted the sins against purity that were externally noticeable, do we realize how many internal mortal sins would have gone unaddressed? Finally, if we have to worry that by suggesting that Catholic morality be followed by our children we’ll lose some of them – then we’ve already lost those children.
Once, a mother who favored dances tried to explain to me why I shouldn’t oppose dances. This was her reason why she thought dancing among the youth was a good thing – she said, “Dancing breaks down the physical barriers between young men and women without involving the marital act.” She is right about this – dancing does break down the physical barriers between young men and women. Let me ask you: do you think that is a good thing? If we break down the physical barriers between men and women, what act do you think will be next? With society trying with all its might to make sure there are no physical barriers left between young men and women, is it a good idea to help that process along in any way?
You fathers out there: just imagine that you saw a young man walk up to your teenage daughter and just start holding your daughter in the same way he might in a waltz. What makes it okay when there’s music and he’s actually moving around with her?
Once Ven. Mari Carmen Gonzalez was going to a party as a little girl and she didn’t want to wear the sleeveless dress her mother gave her because it wasn’t modest enough. When the mother started insisting, Ven. Mari Carmen’s grandmother stopped the mother saying, “You don’t have a right to destroy the God-given sense of modesty that your girl has.” How many parents have helped their children destroy this sense, such that now both children and mother see no problem with the unmarried dancing in contact together?
Let’s close with one last story. In a prairie parish in the Midwest in the 1800’s… “I have had to put an end to dancing in the parish due to the sins of impurity that they were causing.” Ars, France once had a problem with impurity and paganism. By targeting vice & esp. dances, after putting an end to the dances in his parish St John Vianney was able to boast once, proud of his parishioners as he showed a visitor to Ars the Catholic cemetery – “here is my collection of relics!” This sanctity is what I wish for you also. (emphasis added)
Examining the sources: Ecclesiasticus 9:4
Most of the sources cited are quotations from saints or secondhand anecdotes. Although saints should always be taken seriously, neither of these categories constitutes Church teaching, to say nothing of how common it is for saints to be misquoted. We are concerned here only with sources that would remotely qualify as universally binding Church teaching.
The two sources worth exploring are Scripture, and the Acta Apostolicae Sedis.
First, Ecclesiasticus or Sirach 9:4:
Use not much the company of her that is a dancer, and do not listen to her
This exact translation appears to be the King James Version, an unusual choice for a traditional Catholic argument. Let's look at earlier translations:
- Latin: cum psaltrice ne adsiduus sis nec audias illam ne forte pereas in efficacia illius2 (harpist, lutist, musician)
- Greek: μετὰ ψαλλούσης μὴ ἐνδελέχιζε, μή ποτε ἁλῷς ἐν τοῖς ἐπιχειρήμασιν αὐτῆς3 (musician)
- Hebrew: browse here6 - the translator also uses the word “musician”
The Haydock Biblical Commentary also has a note about this particular verse:
Dancer. Greek, “musician, lest,” &c. (Haydock) — The same person is often given to both music and dancing, (Menochius) and these arts are very dangerous. ([Ovid?] Met. xiv. 6.) — The dances in the East were more licentious than ours.5
Clearly, the noun in question has not ever exclusively been translated as “dancer.” Given that we know singing is not inherently morally sinful, it is reasonable to think dancing is not either.
Examining the sources: Acta Apostolicae Sedis, March 31, 1916
The AAS is the official gazette of the Vatican, and has been in circulation since 1908. It is in Latin, and freely available online. “The Church's Official Position on Dancing” quotes a letter from 1969. The full Latin (pardon any OCR issues) and English (pardon the Google Translate) is below:
CIRCA QUASDAM CHOREAS IN STATIBUS FOEDERATIS AMERICAE SEPTENTRIONALIS ET IN REGIONE CANADENSI6
Elapso saeculo, in foederatis Americae septentrionalis Statibus usus incoeperat catholicas familias convocandi ad choreas quae per multas noctis horas cum conviviis aliisque solatiis protrahi consueverant. Cuius rei ea dabatur ratio et causa, quo scilicet catholici se mutuo cognoscerent et amoris caritatisque vinculis intimius unirentur, simulque ut subsidia pro hoc illove pio opere necessaria compararentur. Qui autem conventus indicere eisque praesidere solebant, praesides plerumque erant alicuius pii operis, et non raro ipsi ecclesiarum rectores vel parochi.
Verum Ordinarii locorum, quamvis de recto fine eorum qui has choreas promovebant non dubitarent, nihilominus damna et pericula inolitae praxis perspicientes, sui officii esse censuerunt eas proscribere : et ideo in can. 290 plenarii Concilii III Baltimorensis haec statuerunt: « Mandamus quoque ut sacerdotes illum abusum, quo convivía parantur « cum choreis (balls) ad opera pia promovenda, omnino tollendum « curent ».
Ast, ut in humanis saepe accidit, quae iustissime sapienterque ab initio iussa fuerant, paullatim in oblivionem venire coeperunt, et chorearum usus denuo invalescere, imo et in proximam Canadensis dominii regionem diffundi.
Quae cognoscentes Emi S. C. Consistorialis Patres, auditis pluribus locorum Ordinariis, et re multo cum studio examini subiecta, censuerunt, standum omnino esse sanctionibus a Concilio Baitimorensi III statutis: et, probante SSmo D.N. Benedicto PP. XV, decreverunt, sacerdotes quoslibet sive saeculares sive regulares aliosque clericos prorsus prohiberi, quominus memoratas choreas promoveant et foveant, etiamsi in piorum operum levamen et subsidium, vel ad alium quemlibet pium finem; et insuper clericos omnes vetari, quominus hisce choréis intersint, si forte a laicis viris promoveantur.
ABOUT SOME DANCES IN THE UNITED STATES OF NORTH AMERICA AND IN THE REGION OF CANADA.
By the end of the century, the United States of North America had begun using Catholic families to convene dances that had been used during many of the night's nighttime banquets and other consolations. The reason and reason for this was given, by which Catholics would know one another and were more intimately united by the bonds of love and charity, and at the same time that they might be procured under the support necessary for this or that pious work. But those who were wont to summon the wind and preside over them, were generally presidents of some pious work, and not uncommonly the rectors or pastors of churches themselves.
But the local ordinary, although they had no hesitation about the correct end of those who promoted these dances, nevertheless, perceiving the losses and dangers of a chronic practice, thought that it was their duty to proscribe them; and therefore in can. 290 The Third Plenary Council of Baltimore stated: “We also mandate that priests take steps to completely remove the abuse by which banquets are prepared “with dances (balls) to promote pious works.”
But, as is often the case in human affairs, those things which had been most justly and wisely ordered from the beginning began to come little by little into oblivion.
Knowing that the Fathers of S. C. Consistory, having heard many of the local Ordinaries, and subjected to the examination with much enthusiasm, it was decided that they must abide by the sanctions of the Third Council of Baitimore, and stand protected by the approval of the SSmo D.N. Pope Benedict 15, they decreed that any priests, whether secular or regular, and other clergy, should be altogether prohibited from promoting and fostering the aforementioned dances, even though they be the relief and support of pious works, or for any other pious purpose; and furthermore, that all clerics are forbidden from taking part in these choirs, if they may be promoted by laymen.
This letter is quite clear - and clearly referring only to priests, and to the problems of a particular era and dance.
Examining the sources: assorted
“The Church's Official Position on Dances” also alludes to or quotes from the New York Times (June 16, 1916), Saint John Vianney, Saint Frances de Sales, Saint Augustine, Saint Ambrose, Saint Charles Borromeo, Saint Anthony Mary Claret, Pope Benedict XIV, and Venerable Mari Carmen Gonzalez. The words of saints should always be taken seriously and given due consideration, but not every saintly quotation is Church teaching. Several of those saints were famously scrupulous, overcorrecting because of a hedonistic past.
It is without question that the Church and some of her saints have issues warnings against certain kinds of dances. The question is, “Is the official Church teaching that dancing between unmarried persons is inherently immoral?” The sources point to “No.”
The scriptural quotation is difficult to justify in the argument against dancing. The word “dancer” has also been translated as musician, harpist, lutist, and other nouns. We know that singing and playing musical instruments are not inherently sinful, and that the Old Testament is not necessarily current Church teaching. We can also point to positive references to dance throughout the Bible.
The AAS quotation concerns priests, not the laity, and acknowledges the good and pious intentions of those running the dances. The issue is partly moral, but mostly prudential: “although they had no hesitation about the correct end of those who promoted these dances, nevertheless, perceiving the losses and dangers…"5
To reduce all of this to the claim that “official Church teaching forbids dancing for the unmarried” is an unfair treatment of the sources in question, and unfair to the readers; it deprives them of an opportunity for exercising the gifts of prudence and logic.
We also miss an opportunity to discuss the complex and frequently uneasy relationship religion has always with dancing. Occasions of sin must always be taken seriously, but we are not Manicheans. A great example of the turbulent relationship between Catholicism and dance is Reformation Era England. Dancing was frequently considered a papist frivolity to be condemned in all forms; King James’ Book of Sports, allowing dance on Sundays, was deeply unpopular with Puritans, and overturned once King James had left the scene. (See footnotes 7-11 for more reading.)
Saint Joan of Arc, A Traditional Latin Mass Parish in the Diocese of Boise served by the FSSP.2017. https://www.stjoanarc.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/The-Official-Position-of-the-Church-on-Dances.pdf↩
katapi New Study Bible - OLD TESTAMENT in Greek || English (Brenton-Revised Standard Version). http://www.katapi.org.uk/katapiNSBunix/Lxx/LxxByBC.php?B=105&C=9&version=&version2=↩
The Book of Ben Sira. https://www.bensira.org/navigator.php?Manuscript=A&PageNum=6↩
Acta Apostolicae Sedis, vol. 8 (1916), pp. 147-149.https://www.vatican.va/archive/aas/documents/AAS-08-1916-ocr.pdf↩
Emily F. Winerock. “Reformation and Revelry: the Practices and Politics of Dancing in Early Modern England, c.1550-c.1640.” PhD diss., University of Toronto, 2012. https://tspace.library.utoronto.ca/bitstream/1807/34965/3/Winerock_Emily_F_201211_PhD_thesis.pdf↩
Kathryn Dickason. 2021. Ringleaders of redemption: how medieval dance became sacred. New York (N.Y.): Oxford University Press.↩
Constant J. Mews. “Liturgists and Dance in the Twelfth Century: The Witness of John Beleth and Sicard of Cremona.” Church History 78, no. 3 (2009): 512–48. doi:10.1017/S0009640709990412.↩
Ann Louise Wagner. 1997. Adversaries of dance: from the Puritans to the present. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.↩
Kathryn Dickason. “Ancient and Medieval Dance, It’s Death during the Christian Reformation, and It’s Revival.” Brewminate (blog). April 11, 2021. https://brewminate.com/ancient-and-medieval-dance-its-death-during-the-christian-reformation-and-its-revival/↩
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