Liturgical development, “organic” and “inorganic”

Historically, liturgical usages were not mandated above the local level. (When I say historically here, I’m especially referring to the first 10 centuries of the church.) This did not mean that liturgical change and adaptation did not take place or that it only included local elements and forces. On the contrary, from the early period regional and local churches borrowed practices from other local churches, often spread by church visits or (later) pilgrimages to the great shrines. These borrowings were not centrally authorized but were adopted because they fit with the local community’s sense of “rightness” about the liturgy.

Languages usually function like that too; there are rarely centralized authorities for determining usage, and where there are such authorities, they are not particularly effective (France, I’m looking at you). There are forces for stability: mutual intelligibility, reading texts which antedate certain language changes, education, etc. There are also forces for change, obviously. This means that changes happen, but gradually. There are pockets of older usages, and pockets of evolving usages, but there is also overall and steady pressure to adapt to one another, as long as the pockets wish to communicate with one another. Here’s a quote from Mark Liberman’s discussion of this pattern for language:

The answer to your last question, “Who decides?”, is “no one”. Or better, “everyone”. Usage generally converges on a single answer in each case.

How is this worked out? Well, no one really knows, but one simple theory is presented here (with some additional background here). The basic idea is that if the members of a community start with a random distribution of distinct beliefs, and exhibit these beliefs in their behavior, and learn from (“accommodate to”) one another by adjusting their beliefs in the direction of their experience, then the community converges to a shared state. (This is true as long as “belief” is viewed as a probability distribution over categorically-distinct alternatives.)

In any case, it’s clear that language, like most other aspects of culture, is what Friedrich Hayek called a “grown” or “endogenous” or “spontaneous” order, rather than a “made” or “exogenous” or “artificial” order.

In the period often called “the era of cross-fertilization of the liturgy,” the fourth and fifth centuries when Christianity was legalized and “global” (not quite in the modern sense, but in a relevant sense), this was approximately the pattern for the development of the liturgy. Of course there were influential bishops, and their opinion had an impact — just as there are influential language practitioners throughout history (e.g. William Shakespeare) and today (LOLcats?). But their influence is felt in practice, not in decrees issued.

This self-organized ordering, the spontaneous capacity for evolving, is approximately the difference between a living and a dead language. It is parallel to “organic development” in the liturgy.

Some scholars have called the fourth and fifth centuries “the golden age” of the liturgy. I don’t agree with that assessment; I find beauties and worries throughout the history of liturgy. But the Latin liturgy’s development in that period was certainly organic; in the modern period, the Latin liturgy’s development has in general been inorganic. This is not primarily due to centralization, it seems to me (though some would disagree); rather, it is because the forces for evolution were, for several centuries, marginalized in the church (more than, say, St. Francis or St. Ambrose were in their times). Meanwhile, the forces for long-term stability (command of the ancient languages, manuscripts, and knowledge of the ancient practices) were interrupted and, when they resumed, were resumed only by a small set of scholars. The people, in whose hands liturgical reception and organic development always rest, were content to see “the tradition” as that which their parents did, rather than that which St. Augustine, St. Chrysostom, and St. John the Evangelist did. So the forces for stability only enforced short-term stability, and the forces for change were called secularists. This impeded the natural balance that allowed liturgies to develop gradually and steadily over time. Centralized legislation seems to have been a response to this imbalance, an attempt to structure liturgical development in a new way, with varied success.

–And that’s how we started doing baptism, a long wait, reconciliation, communion, a long wait, confirmation, instead of baptism, confirmation/chrismation, communion, bang-bang-bang!

But yes, I’m also implying that organic development does not proceed by fiat, and yes, that includes Trent, Sacrosanctum Concilium, and Summorum Pontificum. This doesn’t mean that fiats can’t be valuable contributions to liturgical development, but when we talk about these documents we should leave the organic debate to the foodies.


  1. when we talk about these documents we should leave the organic debate to the foodies.

    On the contrary – we should understand them in the context of a developing tradition, and the current Holy Father’s attempts to guide the church away from that ultramontane approach to liturgical policy that has so blighted the Western Church, up to and including the Mass of Paul VI and its implementation.

  2. Could you expand on the characterization of Summorum Pontificum as liturgical development by fiat? Its inclusion seems very out of place given what you discuss and the other examples.

  3. Summorum Pontificum always struck me as probably one of the few truly “of the people”(a minority people, granted, but we’re still “The People of God” too) liturgical rulings made in the 20th Century, so I too would like some further clarification.

  4. The analogy between linguistic change and the development of the liturgy doesn’t work, I think. There’s a crucial difference between the two. When a language develops, there’s no necessary connection to be maintained with the parent language: one of the symptoms of a new language having arisen is a lack of intelligibility, either between present-day speakers and documents written in the parent language, or mutually between ‘sibling’ descendants of the parent language.

    The liturgy, on the other hand, needs to retain the most transparent connection possible with its antecedents, and with its manifestations elsewhere in the world at the same time.

    This means that ‘organic’ development in the sense of linguistic evolution isn’t the appropriate image for liturgical development. Aggiornamento, after all, is as much about looking far into the past as it is about accommodating the present.

  5. Kimberly,

    Organic development takes place under what the World Values Study calls traditional authority, typical of agrarian societies. Consensus evolves through a variety of initiative takers, e.g. in the history of the liturgy, bishops, courts, monasteries, etc. none of whom get too far out of the consensus.

    The inorganic development in recent centuries is due to what the World Values Study calls bureaucratic rational authority typical of industrial age society. Both the seminary system and the liturgy resulting from Trent are examples of this.

    The Church had been quick to adapt to changing environments as well as keeping things that work. Besides having remnants of the monarchical and feudal, it has been very industrial, very early, and to its advantage in many cases.

    Given the nature of the industrial world, I think the centralization that resulted in essentially a uniform Roman Rite in Latin was of immense value. Nationalism was a huge threat and would have been an even greater challenge if we have many variations of the Roman Rite also going into various languages.

    But the world is headed into the postindustrial era where authority is based on personal experience. Vatican II was providential in trying to move us beyond industrial age structures. However so far it has been a bunch of bureaucracies and authorities including academic ones contending in industrial era fashion, instead of finding out what works.

    Ask people how they experience liturgy!

  6. The relationship between language and cultural/national identity was not touched upon explicitly in the piece but would be a reasonable next step in the discussion. This sense of identity plays a vital role in the shaping of language–its conservatism or willingness to adopt words from other languages. Clearly, this is also one of the struggles facing liturgical change, at least over the last several decades. Today, various sides of the liturgical debate clearly see themselves as partially defined by the symbols and rituals of worship; it is personal in much the same way that language is personal.

    It should also be pointed out that much of the unsuccessful top-down linguistic influence over the centuries has been in the pursuit of linguistic purity per se—stripping away foreign words and constructions in an unrealistic attempt to remove the linguistic accretions. To the author came to mind the Académie française, but Mussolini could have come as quickly to mind. This is reminiscent of the sort of liturgical purity sought in the Vatican II instaurationes. The goal seemed to be to return as much as possible to the pure state of the liturgy: “[O]ther elements which have suffered injury through accidents of history are now to be restored to the vigor which they had in the days of the holy Fathers, as may seem useful or necessary.” Perhaps this is where the language-liturgy simile fails, but it is worth keeping in mind.

  7. I don’t know what Ian Williams was on when he wrote comment #1, but the Mass of Paul VI certainly wasn’t ultramontane. In fact the whole thrust of Vatican II was to move away from that mentality.

    Now, however, the present pontiff and his curia seem bent on getting everyone back to ultramontanism.

    1. A top-down decision by Rome to introduce and impose a new version of the Rite was a culminating expression of the ultramontane approach to liturgy that had been growing since the 19th century (and arguably since Trent). By contrast, the current Holy Father takes a more culturally sophisticated approach, and doesn’t think such change is in Rome’s remit. Hence Summorum Pontificum, which doesn’t impose but permits.

  8. The author seems to contrast organic with top-down approach. A broad assertion that I don’t agree with at all, but would be interesting to see a development of this position.

  9. I wrote this post because most of the comments on this site seem to treat “organic development” as if it’s synonymous with “immediately continuous.” It’s not. Organic development comes from the notion of liturgical “evolution” (it’s a loose metaphor, based on historical linguistics) and has to do with how a liturgical community adapts and incorporates new elements into their tradition.

    I wasn’t criticizing any of these rites by saying they aren’t organic, either. I was attracted to the Catholic Church by my experience of the Vatican II liturgy and love it deeply. I also have no problem with the continuation of the Latin mass. It seems to me that Trent, Vatican II, and Summorum Pontificum, in different ways, were all intended to serve the people of God.

    I agree with Jack that centralization was the church’s adjustment to a new situation. It was implemented at least in part because organic development was no longer taking place, and it seems to be much more fitted to the current cultural world: global, rather transient, and sometimes governed entirely by memes transmitted via Twitter.

    All I was proposing was a terminological correction. “Organic” doesn’t mean good, it doesn’t mean continuous, it doesn’t mean in service to the people of God; it means seamlessly incorporating new elements by informal consensus. We don’t (usually) do that anymore.

  10. The “organic” language model is useful in that it reflects the important part that language plays in the liturgy.

    The model may be particularly useful in emphasizing the stability and slow evolution of both liturgy and the NT scriptures during early centuries when oral transmission dominated over written transmission. (It may also be useful in understanding oral reception and changes in a written text today).

    However once manuscripts become involved there is a heightened chance both of stability (a manuscript stays in existence perhaps for centuries) and abrupt change (a bishop/abbot brings home a manuscript from elsewhere that is significantly different). The overall circulation of manuscripts still has an organic character, but the experience of any one particular place may not be so organic. Also the role of places (influential cities, abbeys, courts) and even influential people make the whole flow less like language.

    Finally once printing came, one has the possibility of substantial relatively unchanged texts across places and centuries, and similarly the possibility for a very large abrupt change at a particular time across many different places –very not like language.

    So irreversible technological changes such as manuscripts and printings alter things. It not simply changing societal and church structures, though they too play a role.

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