Friday, December 03, 2021

Against “Organic Development”

This essay is the result of something I have been reflecting on for a very long time, after many discussions in various fora about the liturgy, and liturgical reform. Given this year’s events in the field of Catholic liturgy, and the manifest speciousness of the historical justifications offered for them, it seems to me that the Church stands very much in need of a new paradigm for thinking about how changes are made to the liturgy, and so I make bold to put this forward for consideration and debate.
Within the Roman Catholic Church, all discussion of liturgy nowadays is discussion of liturgical change. A French Dominican, Fr Thierry-Dominique Humbrecht, wrote about Pope Benedict’s division of the Roman Rite into two Forms, “The liturgical pluralism of the two states of the Roman Rite is perhaps harmful, but it is the consequence of a savage rupture in the liturgy, which is even more harmful, and on which officially only a timid light has been shown.” [1] The final product of this rupture, which is to say, a change which radically rejects continuity with the past, is a rite which is itself subject to constant change, since it can be made and remade in endless ways, and was designed as such in the name of “inculturation.” The Roman Rite as we have it in the liturgical books of 1962 does preserve many of the elements of stability and continuity known to our ancestors going back centuries, but also contains very recent innovations such as the 1955 Holy Week, which was in general use for less than 15 years, and the ruined corpus of Matins readings, which was in general use for only 10.

In discussing these reforms, and those that came before them (those of St Pius V, Urban VIII, St Pius X, or even going back to the shift from the Gelasian to the Gregorian Sacramentary), it has been my experience that eventually someone will claim that such-and-such a specific change is “organic.” But over the years, I have noticed that is only said in defense of changes; no one has ever said “this change is organic, and therefore bad.” To label a change “organic” is to defend it as something good. And therefore, inevitably, the discussion degenerates into the contention that all the changes of which one is in favor are “organic”, and all the changes to which one is opposed are “inorganic.” One man’s organic development is another man’s unjustifiable novelty.

This use is very similar to something which Romano Amerio noted many years ago in his book Iota Unum. In the mad years after Vatican II, many people tried to put a positive spin on the growing crisis of the Church by describing it as “ferment”, as if ferment were an inherently positive thing. But as Amerio rightly noted, much of what happens in the decay of a corpse is also fermentation; life may indeed come from it, but life of an inferior sort, as a worm is inferior to a man. [2] And likewise, if one had a magnificent garden full of the rarest and most beautiful flowers, which were all then killed by a blight and reduced to rotting stems and petals, that change would be fully organic.

Organic development.
(image from Wikimedia Commons by Spedona, CC BY-SA 3.0)
Also organic development.
(image from Wikimedia Commons by Paethon, CC BY-SA 2.5)
The deeper problem with this, therefore, is simply that “organic” is not at all useful as a way to describe changes to the liturgy. Never once in its history has any liturgy ever changed in a manner than can meaningfully be described as organic.

Organic processes of growth and change do not proceed from any act of the will, or, aliter dictum, from decisions, because with one exception, material organisms have no will with which to make decisions. A seed has no will; when it is planted in the ground, it does not decide to sprout and grow, and eventually become a stalk, a trunk, then to branch out and put forth leaves and fruit. If the soil has the right conditions for it to sprout, it will sprout, because it cannot do otherwise; if the soil does not have the right conditions, it will not sprout, because it cannot do otherwise. Sprouting or not does not depend in any way on a decision made by the seed itself to do something, or a refusal to do it.

Even the one material creature that does have a will, man, does not really make decisions about its own growth. None of us decided when we were in our mothers’ wombs to grow a heart, lungs, brain and limbs. We can, of course, make decisions that favor healthy growth and decisions that do not, but even there, the domain of what can be affected within our organism by our will and our decisions is fairly limited. Our parents can decide to give us milk when we are young to favor the proper growth of our bones, but they cannot decide how tall we will become as a result.

This, then, is why “organic” cannot be applied to the history of the liturgy and its changes: every single change that has ever taken place within the liturgy has taken place because someone made a decision to change something, and decision is not an organic process.

The phrase “organic development” was introduced into our liturgical discourse by Sacrosanctum Concilium, parag. 23: “Finally, there must be no innovations unless the good of the Church genuinely and certainly requires them; and care must be taken that any new forms adopted should in some way grow organically from forms already existing.” [3] But since what is now put forth as “the unique expression of the lex orandi of the Roman Rite” is the result of any number of innovations which the good of the Church genuinely and certainly did not require, and the first part of that sentence is a completely dead letter, we should not worry about treating the second part of it, the Council’s call for “organic” development in the liturgy, as a similarly dead letter, well-meaning, but not at all useful.

There is no reason to be scandalized by this statement. As I have noted before, other ecumenical councils have said things that were well-meaning but not useful; and in so saying, I am in very good company. “Not every valid council in the history of the Church has been a fruitful one; in the last analysis, many of them have been a waste of time.” (Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Principles of Catholic Theology, p. 378)

Development in Cardinal Ratzinger’s native land of Bavaria: a Rococo pilgrimage church in Steingaden, known as the Wieskirche (image from Wikimedia Commons by Danielloh79, CC BY-SA 3.0 DE) ...
and the church of the Nativity of Mary in Aschaffenburg. Organic development?
This essay will be followed by a second one, which will propose a different way of talking about “organic” change to the liturgy. 

NOTES: [1] “Le pluralisme liturgique des deux états du rite romain est peut-être dommageable, mais il est la conséquence d’un éclatement liturgique sauvage, plus dommageable encore, sur lequel la lumière officielle est encore trop timidement faite.”
[2] cap. 1.8: “Quanto ai fermenti, divenuti nella letteratura postconciliare un luogo comune di chi vuole abbellire il brutto, si può sì adoperare l’analogia biologica, ma bisogna distinguere fermenti produttivi di vita e fermenti produttivi di morte. ... Non ogni sostanza che fermenta germina un plus o un meglio. Anche la putrefazione cadaverica è un pullulare potente di vita, ma implica il disfacimento di una sostanza superiore. – As far as ferments are concerned, which in post-Conciliar writings have become a commonplace for those who wish to beautify the ugly, yes, one can use a biological analogy, but a distinction must be made between ferments that produce life and those that produce death. ... Not every substance that ferments germinates something more or better. Even the rotting of a cadaver overflows powerfully with life, but brings with it the decay of a greater substance.”

[3] “Innovationes, demum, ne fiant nisi vera et certa utilitas Ecclesiae id exigat, et adhibita cautela ut novae formae ex formis iam exstantibus organice quodammodo crescant.”

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