Wednesday, December 08, 2021

Rethinking “Organic Development”

In the first part of this essay, I explained why I believe that the term “organic development” is not at all useful to describe how the liturgy changes over time. A very dear friend with whom I have often discussed this topic came up with what I consider a better use of the term “organic development”, one which brings us back to the idea of a garden.
Many plants have specific characteristics (e.g., the size and color of many flowers) wholly or in part because of artificial breeding and hybridization, which is to say, because of processes which are genuinely organic, but forced and guided by a human will. (This is also true, of course, of many other kinds of organisms, such as domesticated animals.) And furthermore, they grow where they grow because they were planted there by a human being, which is to say, as the result of the decision of a human will.
A hybridized rose of a type known as Peace rose, which has two colors as a result cross-breeding: both organic and man-made. (Image from Wikimedia Commons by Roozitaa, CC BY-SA 3.0)
However, their growth per se is not the result of human will. The gardener can plant a flower in a particular place to see if it will flourish there; he can set the conditions (e.g., by cultivating the soil in a certain way) that will help or even guarantee flourishing. But he is the efficient, rather than the formal cause of its flourishing, which lies rather in the nature of the flower itself. Once the thing is planted, it flourishes or fails on its own, independently of the gardener’s will.
And likewise, any number of factors may intervene which will thwart a gardener’s efforts, those actions of his will which aim to produce a beautiful garden. Animals may eat his plants, a blight or severe weather may destroy them, adverse conditions may arise in the soil that prevent them from growing properly or at all. Over time, experience will teach him what works and what doesn’t; and of course, at this point in human history, he has the collective experience of thousands of years to draw from.
Let a garden serve as an analogy for the liturgy. Century after century, new prayers are composed, new rites and new customs are instituted, which is to say, they are created by acts of the human will, and planted in the great garden of the Church’s prayer-life. They flourish, which is to say, they become a valuable and cherished part of that prayer life, not because the person who created them gave the order to “Say that black, and do that red!”, but because they are beautiful like a flower, or fruitful like a tree, and are found to provide refreshment and nourishment to the soul.
The Looting of the Churches of Lyon by Calvinists, ca. 1565, artist unknown. (Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)  
For many reasons, some of what is planted does not flourish, or ceases to do so, as, for example, the Mozarabic liturgy, which took a particularly heavy blow from an axe in the later 11th century, and never recovered from it. Within this analogy, we might think of something like the Use of Sarum as a part of the garden sadly torn apart by wild animals, and Napoleon’s depredation of the Church as an especially violent hailstorm. Sometimes, the gardeners discerned that a particular plant was harmful to the garden, and uprooted it, as when St Pius V abolished the breviary of Cardinal Quinones; sometimes their discernment in doing so was correct, and sometimes it was not. Given how vast the garden is, things which are planted in one part of it do not always flourish in another, and are replaced there by other things.
To give an example which I believe will not be particularly controversial: the Latin-speaking churches of the West originally used in the liturgy one of the very ancient translations of the Psalms made from Greek, collectively known as the Old Latin versions. (Many chants in the Roman Missal still have these older forms of the text.) However, after centuries of use, these were gradually displaced from the Divine Office almost everywhere by a “novelty”, namely, St Jerome’s second revision of the older versions, known as the Gallican Psalter. This novelty is still with us to this day, since it is the standard psalter for the Breviary of the Roman Rite.
The first part of Psalm 1 in a triple Psalter produced at Christ Church in Canterbury, England, in the last quarter of the 12th century, now in the Bibliothèque nationale de France (Département des Manuscrits, Latin 8846, folio 6r). The words in the red at the bottom indicate which of St Jerome’s three translations is in the column above: at left, the translation made directly from Hebrew, which was never accepted for liturgical text; the “Roman” Psalter, an Old Latin version incorrectly attributed to him; and once-novel Gallican Psalter.     
If we cling to the idea of “organic” development, by what criterion would we determine that this change, which began in the Carolingian era, this displacement of an older text in use for centuries by a newer one, was “organic” or not? And if it is an “organic” change, by what criterion would Pius XII’s promulgation of Cardinal Bea’s awful classicized Latin psalter for liturgical use not also be “organic”? Would it not be rather more useful to use “organic” to describe the flourishing of the one, which is to say, its general and peaceable acceptance by most of the Church for liturgical use? And likewise, to describe the failure of the other to thrive (since people quickly lost interest in the Bea Psalter), until a new gardener came along, and decided to uproot it, when Sacrosanctum Concilium said-without-saying (parag. 91) that its liturgical use should be discontinued.
This view of things might then help us to see (for those who are willing to see) a way out of our current liturgical impasse on several levels. In assessing liturgical changes, there is no need to determine whether this one or that (the novelties of the Gallican or Pius XII Psalter, Urban VIII’s hymns, Pius XII’s Holy Week, the post-Conciliar Missal) “grew organically” out of what it replaced. Much less is there any need to say that this one ought to be kept because it is purportedly organic, and that rejected because it is not. Each reform can simply be assessed wholly and solely on its own intrinsic merits, and the decision to keep or replace it can be made wholly and solely on those merits. If it is determined to be good, it should be kept, and if not, undone, in both cases, regardless of who originally made the change or when.
This would also enable us to move beyond an objection commonly presented to those who are devoted to the traditional Roman liturgy. Over the last several years, a great deal has been done to assess the liturgical reforms that predate Vatican II, much of it highly critical, and that, I think, for very good reasons. I have often seen an objection raised to this, which may be summed up as follows: “Why can’t we just stay in 1962, and how far back do you people want to go? 1954? 1920? 1520? Where does it end?” My answer is that it doesn’t end, and it shouldn’t end. Just as a gardener continually assesses whether parts of his garden are flourishing or not, the Church should engage in a continual, critical assessment of whether its prayer life is flourishing or not. If the Gallican Psalter is a good thing, it is a good thing for its own intrinsic merits, and should be kept, regardless of the fact that it was once a novelty. If the Pius XII Holy Week is a bad thing, it is a bad thing for its own intrinsic demerits, and should be rejected, not because it is a novelty, but because of those demerits.
The solemn prayers of Good Friday in the Gellone Sacramentary, ca. 780 AD. Still the lex orandi of the Roman Rite. (BNF, Département des Manuscrits, Latin 12048)
In the end, a commitment to defending only “organic” developments is self-defeating, not only because it is not a useful descriptor of how liturgical change takes place, but also because all historical liturgies are what they are at least in part because of ruptures with the past. (This is true, regardless of the fact that there were never so many ruptures and such sudden ones as happened to the Roman Rite after Vatican II.) For example, the Missal of St Pius V has only ten prefaces, plus the common preface, as the result of a late 8th-century rupture with the prior tradition, which had far more. This is an undeniable historical fact. Those who love the traditional rite should not be afraid to acknowledge this, recognize it as an impoverishment, and argue for a prudent and authentic restoration, on the lines of what was already happening with prefaces well before Vatican II. (Alternatively, if they so deem, they might choose to defend it as an improvement, and argue for leaving things alone.)
The Mass of the Finding of the Cross in the Gellone Sacramentary, with its proper preface. Also still the lex orandi of the Roman Rite.
After a much-needed respite, the Church has of late officially re-committed itself at the highest levels to treating the post-Conciliar reform as if it stood in real continuity with the Roman liturgical tradition, and as if it has anything to do with the reforms called for by Sacrosanctum Concilium. Neither of these things is true; the post-Conciliar reform represents a “savage rupture” with the Roman liturgical tradition, and a flat-out rejection and repudiation of Sacrosanctum Concilium.
However, it is for all that no less “organic” a development than any other in the garden’s history. Gardeners have plowed down sections of the garden before and replanted; in 1969, a new chief gardener came along, plowed down far more of the garden, and far more rapidly, than any other gardener had ever done before, and replanted. Attempts to say that plowing down and replanting, say, 10% of the garden is organic, but plowing down and replanting, say, 87% of the garden, is not organic, simply do not work. Most of the plants set in the garden by Paul VI are novelties; the plants of St Gregory the Great were once also novelties.
The essential difference lies not in the fact that Paul VI’s plants are novelties, but rather, in the fact that after more than 50 years, they simply are not flourishing, and indeed, have badly corrupted the soil. Sacrosanctum Concilium begins with a statement of what the Council hoped to achieve. “This sacred Council … desires to impart an ever-increasing vigor to the Christian life of the faithful; to adapt more suitably to the needs of our own times those institutions which are subject to change; to foster whatever can promote union among all who believe in Christ; to strengthen whatever can help to call the whole of mankind into the household of the Church.” None of this has happened. The Christian life of the faithful has not become more vigorous; its institutions have not become more suitably adapted to the needs of our times; union has not been fostered among all who believe in Christ; the call of the whole of mankind into the household of the Church has not been strengthened.
As I said above, the gardeners are not always correct in discerning which plants are flourishing and which are not. We can only continue to pretend for so long that the recent ones have made a good job of it, or that the garden in its current condition is anywhere near as beautiful or fruitful as it used to be. For the time being, the current chief gardener is busy with a sad and doomed attempt to make the new plants flourish by yelling at the remaining old plants. The day will come, however, later than we hope, but sooner than we realize, when another chief gardener will have the honesty to say, “I don’t care who put these here or why. They are not growing properly at all. I hear there used to be some other plants that grew quite well in this soil…”

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