Monday, December 13, 2021

Organic Development as a Useful Metaphor in Liturgical Discussions

Gregory DiPippo has written two thought-provoking pieces about the limits of appeals made to “organic development” (part 1, part 2). I agree with Gregory’s critique of a ham-handed or naïve application of the language of “organic” and “inorganic” to the history of the liturgy. He is right to say that liturgy, which is a free human work or really a gigantic gathering of human works, changes because of human decisions, and that these decisions can be either good or bad, can be evaluated as improvements or corruptions in reference to their own merits or demerits. On the whole, he makes his case convincingly, and has introduced into the discussion a long-overdue caution about putting too much argumentative weight on a concept that cannot bear it. In what follows, I am not so much intending to reject his position as offering a counterpoint to it. Not to sound too Hegelian, I would hope there is some higher synthesis.

I wonder if we might be overlooking the way, or at least a way, in which “organic” is used in Catholic discourse—namely, as a metaphor for a set of qualities. This is how it is first used by St. Vincent of Lérins in his famous Commonitory:

The growth of religion in the soul must be analogous to the growth of the body, which, though in process of years it is developed and attains its full size, yet remains still the same. There is a wide difference between the flower of youth and the maturity of age; yet they who were once young are still the same now that they have become old, insomuch that though the stature and outward form of the individual are changed, yet his nature is one and the same, his person is one and the same. This, then, is undoubtedly the true and legitimate rule of progress, this the established and most beautiful order of growth, that mature age ever develops in the man those parts and forms which the wisdom of the Creator had already framed beforehand in the infant.
       In like manner, it behooves Christian doctrine to follow the same laws of progress, so as to be consolidated by years, enlarged by time, refined by age, and yet, withal, to continue uncorrupt and unadulterate, complete and perfect in all the measurement of its parts, and, so to speak, in all its proper members and senses, admitting no change, no waste of its distinctive property, no variation in its limits.[1]
Now, clearly the development of doctrine is not something that happens automatically, spontaneously, or involuntarily, as the growth of a body does. But the metaphor is useful because it is as if in the Church certain developments unfold with a kind of inevitableness that suggests the growth of an organism. In the midst of the Trinitarian and Christological disputes no one would have said “this is an organic process,” since at the time it would have seemed like a bar-room brawl, but in retrospect, when one looks at the great lines of the debates, one sees a progression from topic to topic that seems compellingly logical, almost… inevitable.

Once a given question was raised about Christ, someone was bound to raise the next one, and the next one. Are there two natures in Christ? Yes. Well then, are there two wills in Christ? Yes. Well then, are there two energies in Christ? One can see lines of thought unfolding like this in regard to many areas of Christian doctrine. It is never perfectly logical, since human free agents are involved, and surprises like wars, disasters, and famines, but looking back one sees why the developments happened as and when they did. That is why Newman could write his Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine.
Thus, when you look at it from a later vantage point, growth in doctrine or dogma seems like the growth of an organism: it has an appearance of right, proportionate, and necessary growth, in spite of the intervention of so many individual human wills; and that is why Vincent’s comparison can be understood and approved, even if, when pressed too hard, taken too literally, it would fall apart.

Perhaps the profound root of this metaphor is our conviction that the Church is the Mystical Body of Christ—a mystical organism that does have an inner principle of motion and rest, of movement toward goals and rest in them (at least partial rest; eternal rest is not for this world). It is not only bishops, popes, and councils that run this gardening operation; Providence is the ultimate gardener that tends and prunes this mystical vine, which is composed of rational beings, but is governed by the God who, without violating their freedom, can guide them along paths He has preordained, while also permitting evils to occur.

Moving over to the sphere of liturgy, it seems to me that what we mean by “organic” is not “mindless” or “necessitated” but “in accord with the inner principles of a thing” and therefore, in a way, explicable given its own nature. Moreover, it is crucial for this metaphor’s efficacy that the rate of change, or at least the rate of most changes and of perceived change, be relatively slow—measured in centuries, as was the case with the Roman Rite prior to Pius X, rather than in mere decades or years, as occurred in the twentieth century, with increasingly hasty and wider-ranging reforms. When significant changes happen by individual intellects and free choices only once in a while—a new Sequence here, a new feast there—the broad picture will be that of a gentle and gradual process, the way leaves grow on a tree, and then buds, and then fruits. Each day brings a little more growth but you don’t notice it as growth. It’s not like the magic lamp-post in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, which grows up in real time out of the ground before your very eyes.

In short, what is organic is not so much the individual change to the liturgy as the entire trajectory of changes over long periods. Instead of saying “the feast of Christ the King was an organic development,” which would rightly fall afoul of Gregory’s point that it was very obviously Pope Pius XI who willed to insert a new feast into the calendar (voluntary rather than organic), we should apply the label “organic” to the overall sanctoral and temporal cycles of the Roman Rite, which have indeed developed much over sixteen centuries, but which preserve all along the core elements and embellish them in ways that are appropriate (or at least not inappropriate) to the original spirit and purpose of such cycles. In contrast, what Paul VI did to these cycles can in no way be reconciled with this spirit and purpose, nor with the attitude of respect that Catholics have instinctively felt it is right to give to the results of the history through which we have passed.

Moreover, one could say that the devotion to Christ as King is, as Pius XI himself notes, something present in Scripture and Tradition and seen in countless works of art from all ages, and accordingly, that his liturgical insertion, made at a specific time for specific reasons, is truly in continuity with elements already present. It accentuates those elements without burying them or distorting them.
The Consilium hard at work for the benefit of Modern Man
Let’s take a more controversial example: communion received on the tongue and kneeling. The double shift from standing to kneeling and from receiving in the hand to receiving on the tongue is certainly a change that had to be willed by various local churches here and there before it became a universal custom, but the rationale behind this change is easy to see. It was always profound reverence for Our Lord present in the Blessed Sacrament that was dictating the Church’s policy in regard to its reception, and as awareness grew and spread that there were better ways to express this reverence and to avoid dangers in the use of the sacrament, to that degree did the new practices take hold and become universal. They did so, in other words, not because of an all-powerful pope in Rome saying to every local church: “You must receive communion in thus-and-such a way”—the Church before the sixteenth century did not legislate universally about liturgy in that manner—but because a custom with evident benefits, a lex orandi with a better claim to conveying the lex credendi, had sprung up here and there, and spread from one local church to the next.

That is the kind of development that looks, in retrospect, “organic”: though the result of human wills, it popped up here and there like seeds sprouting, and spread like seeds carried by the wind, and gradually covered the Catholic world, until it seemed inevitable. We see that it is dignum et justum. There would certainly never be a reason to go backwards artificially to pick up an earlier practice that was rightly discarded.

Then there are equally obvious cases of developments that look, metaphorically, inorganic. Can anyone seriously say that the body of Latin hymn texts possessed by the Church needed to be rewritten in a classicizing manner? I mean, was there a principle within Christendom that dictated that ancient pagan Roman verse should be asserted as normative? Or was this the hobby-horse of a particular pope who abused his papal authority to promote his personal poetic preferences? The same could be said of the utterly failed “Bea psalter” of Pius XII, which he thought he would successfully impose on the Latin Church in displacement of the age-old translation by St. Jerome that had been prayed by innumerable monks, nuns, and clerics. Critics said: “adauget latinitatem, minuit pietatem.”[2] It seems to me that no one will ever look back at history and say “Urban VIII’s imposition of classicized hymns and Pius XII’s imposition of a classicized psalter were changes prompted, nay, demanded, by the inner nature of Catholic worship, and better expressed it.”

In a lecture entitled “Beyond ‘Smells and Bells’: Why We Need the Objective Content of the Usus Antiquior,” I formulated five laws of “organic liturgical development”:

(1) There is true development in regard to liturgical rites;
(2) Authentic development begins from and remains faithful to what the Lord entrusted to the apostles;
(3) The “truth” into which the Holy Spirit guides the Church includes the development of her liturgy;
(4) As the liturgy develops, it becomes fuller and more perfect;
(5) To the extent that a liturgy is perfected, its changes will be proportionately incidental or accidental.

The fourth law has three corollaries:

(i) The rate of liturgical change decreases over time, as the rite achieves the plenitude intended for it by Divine Providence;
(ii) One should expect a rite, after a certain point, to be relatively permanent and immobile, so that it is a compliment rather than a criticism to say of it that “it has hardly changed for centuries”;
(iii) The clergy offering and the faithful assisting at a particular rite can see that it is appropriate for a rite to have the qualities of permanence and immobility. Those who are interested in reading a fuller account of these laws, with illustrations, should refer to that lecture.

To my earlier comparison with Vincent of Lérins on doctrinal development, someone might object that doctrine is one kind of thing and liturgy is another.

However, as we must continue to remind over-eager papal apologists, anything of any significance in the liturgy can never be considered merely disciplinary; the liturgy always bears doctrinal content or testimony. And therefore many (most?) changes in liturgy will have doctrinal implications, either for good or for ill, as Michael Davies memorably demonstrated in his work Cranmer’s Godly Order. The comparison to a growing body works (and doesn’t work) to the same extent for dogma and for liturgy, a point Newman recognizes in passing:
It appears then that there has been a certain general type of Christianity in every age, by which it is known at first sight, differing from itself only as what is young differs from what is mature, or as found in Europe or in America, so that it is named at once and without hesitation, as forms of nature are recognized by experts in physical science; or as some work of literature or art is assigned to its right author by the critic, difficult as may be the analysis of that specific impression by which he is enabled to do so. And it appears that this type has remained entire from first to last, in spite of that process of development which seems to be attributed by all parties, for good or bad, to the doctrines, rites, and usages in which Christianity consists; or, in other words, that the changes which have taken place in Christianity have not been such as to destroy that type,—that is, that they are not corruptions, because they are consistent with that type. Here then, in the preservation of type, we have a first Note of the fidelity of the existing developments of Christianity.[3] 
Not organic in any way, shape, or form
Given the foregoing, I think we can say (in agreement with Gregory) why Sacrosanctum Concilium 23 is, and could only ever be, totally implausible on the face of it. When a council votes to make a lot of changes all at once, and then the body entrusted with the realization of the desiderata makes a thousand more changes all at once—on a scale, quantitatively and qualitatively, never before seen in any natural process except perhaps for atomic explosions, or, in the political sphere, by something like the French Revolution (to which, indeed, Cardinal Suenens compared the Second Vatican Council)—it is perfectly obvious that such an affair could never have the appearance of organic development, that is, change over time “as if” by a natural process. By no stretch of the imagination can the work of the Consilium be called “organic,” even allowing for the most elastic metaphoricism imaginable. Rather, it looks decidedly violent, which, as Aristotle shows, is the opposite of natural. And that is why Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger could famously write in his Foreword to Dom Alcuin Reid’s book on our subject:
[G]rowth is not possible unless the Liturgy’s identity is preserved… proper development is possible only if careful attention is paid to the inner structural logic of this “organism”: just as a gardener cares for a living plant as it develops, with due attention to the power of growth and life within the plant and the rules it obeys, so the Church ought to give reverent care to the Liturgy through the ages, distinguishing actions that are helpful and healing from those that are violent and destructive… [W]ith respect to the Liturgy, he [the pope] has the task of a gardener, not that of a technician who builds new machines and throws the old ones on the junk-pile.
This quotation suggests that at least one of the reasons people use the term “organic” is to contrast the liturgy with a machine—the contrast between something alive that follows its own internal principles, and something we build solely by our own lights and are very willing to throw on the junk pile when we come up with the next model. For indeed the liturgy is a living reality, but that is not because it itself is an organism, but because it has the living God for its author and animator, and makes Him present to us and unites us with Him in praise and in sacrament.

The liturgy is also living because it bears within itself content that was caused by the living God at every stage of the Church’s history. From that point of view and in that specific sense, the “reformed” liturgy after Vatican II, which repudiates so much of that history, cannot be said to be alive or to have the living God as its author. It has God for its author in the general sense in which any being—such as the bullet of a criminal and its flight through the air to the heart of an innocent victim—has God for its author; it also has God for author in the validity of the sacramental action narrowly construed.

The parallel here with doctrine is evident: we can speak of “the living Magisterium” in the sense of the teaching authority that is one and the same, consistent with itself across all ages because it emanates from the ever-living Christ. But we cannot speak of a “living Magisterium” in the sense of a “Magisterium of the moment,” ever changing to reflect the current incumbent’s whims.

The elephant in the room here is, without a doubt, the centralization of authority in the hands of the pope and of the Vatican. Sure, popes have always made contributions to the liturgy, but the history of the subject shows that, until the Tridentine period, Rome was perhaps as often reacting to changes elsewhere as it was inducing change itself (e.g., we know that Rome received back its own rite enriched by its sojourn among the Carolingians, and that Rome added a Creed rather late, after everyone else had done so)—and most of all, the popes were just not changing things on a regular basis, and certainly not “for the good of everyone,” with that arrogant populist attitude that dictates what the people need best, whether they know it or not.

As Fr. Hunwicke has mentioned many times, the simple fact that, for most of the Church’s history, liturgical books were difficult to copy by hand for most of the Church’and therefore rare and valuable, together with the slowness of communication, meant that local custom would be tenacious. The combined invention of the printing press and the massive reassertion of sovereign papal authority during the Protestant Revolt opened the way to a tinkeritis that only grew worse with the passing of centuries.

The second elephant in the room (there are a lot of elephants these days, and one wonders when the room will run out of space for them) is a point that I feel is neglected in the pair of essays to which I am responding, namely, the pope’s boundedness to tradition, meaning, the moral obligation he has, in virtue of his office, to receive and preserve the inherited rites. I have spoken about this at length elsewhere so I will not dilate upon it here.[4]

Liturgical history is not primarily people cooking up new ideas, trying them out, and responding to whether they succeed or fail. Liturgical history, especially as time goes on, is much more about retaining and handing down what is already there, accumulating over time. It would be wrong and arguably illicit for a pope to, e.g., abolish the subdiaconate or create female “ministries.” New things are added somewhat in the manner of ornaments to a great big Christmas tree—a tree that abides. What happened in Paul VI’s reform was more like planting a new tree that looks a bit like the old tree and then building a wall to keep people away from the old tree.
Indeed, it’s worth pointing out that the image that comes most readily to mind for organic growth in the liturgy is that of a tree. Unlike animals that grow quickly and die after a few years, trees can live for hundreds and even thousands of years. They grow more slowly than animals, and although they put out more and more branches and leaves and fruits, they remain rooted in one place.

Every analogy limps, and the comparison of the liturgy to a tree limps, too; but it has some striking parallels. The liturgy is rooted in divine revelation and apostolic tradition. It remains itself while it gets larger and bigger. Like the mustard seed, its beginning is modest, but its final, fully perfected form is massive and grand, with the lush foliage of the riches of culture as we see them in the great cathedrals, the baldachins and choir stalls, the gold and silver vessels, the ornate vestments, the chant and polyphony, and so on and so forth. The same as ever, and yet more itself than ever. We can see, once again, why the modern liturgical reform could never be called organic: it moves in the opposite direction. As Hugh Ross Williamson memorably put it:
The return to the “primitive” is based on the curious theory of history, sometimes referred to as “Hunt the Acorn.” That is to say, when you see a mighty oak you do not joy in its strength and luxuriant development. You start to search for an acorn compatible with that from which it grew and say: “This is what it ought to be like.”[5]
For all these reasons, I am convinced that the language of organic and inorganic still has some value as long as we recognize it to be metaphorical and not metaphysical — descriptive of patterns (as are sociological or economic laws) and not deterministic (as are scientific laws).


[1] Commonitorium 23, 29.

[2] It increases Latinity but diminishes piety.

[3] Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, chapter 7.

[4] See “The Pope’s Boundenness to Tradition as a Legislative Limit: Replying to Ultramontanist

[5] Cited in Joseph Pearce, Literary Converts: Spiritual Inspiration in an Age of Unbelief (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2000), 353.

Photographs by Fr. Lawrence Lew, O.P. (Flickr).

More recent articles:

For more articles, see the NLM archives: