Re-Reading Sacrosanctum Concilium: Article 37

To what extent and how should the celebrational forms of the Liturgy adapt to the culture(s) in which it is celebrated?  Beginning with article 37, Sacrosanctum Concilium opens a door to liturgical development that has borne great fruit in the last fifty years, but has also proved quite controversial.  Pray Tell readers may wish to engage the foundational norms for this process in Roman Catholicism.

Vatican website translation:

D) Norms for adapting the Liturgy to the culture and traditions of peoples
37. Even in the liturgy, the Church has no wish to impose a rigid uniformity in matters which do not implicate the faith or the good of the whole community; rather does she respect and foster the genius and talents of the various races and peoples. Anything in these peoples’ way of life which is not indissolubly bound up with superstition and error she studies with sympathy and, if possible, preserves intact. Sometimes in fact she admits such things into the liturgy itself, so long as they harmonize with its true and authentic spirit.

Latin text:

D) Normae ad aptationem ingenio et traditionibus populorum perficiendam
37. Ecclesia, in iis quae fidem aut bonum totius communitatis non tangunt, rigidam unius tenoris formam ne in Liturgia quidem imponere cupit; quinimmo, variarum gentium populorumque animi ornamenta ac dotes colit et provehit; quidquid vero in populorum moribus indissolubili vinculo superstitionibus erroribusque non adstipulatur, benevole perpendit ac, si potest, sartum tectumque servat, immo quandoque in ipsam Liturgiam admittit, dummodo cum rationibus veri et authentici spiritus liturgici congruat.

Slavishly literal translation:

D) Norms for accomplishing adaptation to the mode of thinking and traditions of peoples

37. The Church, in those things which do not touch upon the faith or good of the entire community, in no way wishes to impose on the Liturgy a rigid form of single uninterrupted course; rather, it cherishes and promotes the adornments and endowments of spirit of various races and peoples; in fact whatever is not necessarily connected in the accepted behaviors of peoples by an indissoluble bond to superstitions and errors, it benevolently considers, and, if possible, preserves in good order, by all means when she admits it into the Liturgy itself, as long as according to reason it would positively connect with the true and authentic liturgical spirit.


Having concluded its considerations of general norms, norms drawn from the hierarchical and communal nature of the liturgy, and norms drawn from the teaching and pastoral character of the liturgy, the Council Fathers now turn their attention to what will later be called “liturgical inculturation.” Following the pattern we have seen above, article 37 sets out the rationale for adapting the Liturgy to the genius and traditions of various human groups, while articles 38-40 present the practical norms arising from this rationale.

First, the document states that the Church has no desire to impose a single rigid form of liturgical celebration on its members in those elements which do not concern the faith and good of the entire community. This is probably best shown by the continued existence of multiple liturgical rites within Roman Catholicism. All of the rites celebrate the Eucharist, but the details of their liturgical structure may vary greatly. (For example, to Westerners who claim that the consecration of Eucharistic offerings MUST take place by a priest reciting the words of Jesus over them, it may come as a shock to discover that the Church accepts the Anaphora of the Holy Apostles Addai and Mari of the Chaldean Church as genuinely consecratory, although these words are lacking: a Eucharistic Prayer is necessary, but the recitation of these words is not necessary, in terms of the faith and good of the entire community.) Pray Tell readers might want to discuss how one determines those things which so concern the “faith and good of the entire community” that they must be maintained in the Church’s liturgical worship.

Second, the document states that the Church, far from being a European or First World colonial power, seeks to promote the cultural achievements of all peoples. It thus indicates a fundamental openness to the variety of human cultures, presuming that God is at work in all of them. The history of Christian missionary activity may challenge this assertion, but it does indicate what the Council Fathers saw as the ideal for the Church’s missionary activity fifty years ago. It would be interesting to see how this assertion develops in the Council’s later teaching in documents such as the decree on the missionary activity of the Church, Ad Gentes.

Third, it recognizes that there may be some aspects of the cultures the Church encounters that need to be challenged and changed in the light of the Gospel, elements that are “indissolubly linked to superstitions and errors.” Perhaps wisely the Council Fathers do not list what such aspects are. Pray Tell readers might wish to explore what elements of their own cultures they might identify as inimical to the Gospel.

Finally, it states that some elements of native cultures may be incorporated into the Liturgy, as long as they correlate to its “true and authentic spirit.” I would offer as a possible example the burning of sweetgrass or sage in some Native American Catholic services as a replacement for the burning of incense. Pray Tell readers may wish to discuss how to discern when a proposed addition to the Liturgy does or does not correspond to its true and authentic spirit.


  1. Inculturation is usually discussed at the level of cultures in the developing world, i.e. Africa, Asia, South America. A fascinating study. One can also speak of inculturation on a more localized scale. In most metropolitan areas, one can experience Mass in several languages, with a black congregation with a tradition of gospel music, organs and classical choirs, guitars and folk groups, Life-Teen praise bands, highly ritualized worship, informal worship and more. Are these various expressions of Catholic liturgy legitimate forms of inculturation, serving different “cultures” within one city? What about large active parishes where one might hear chant, polyphony and hymns in the morning and a praise band at the evening Mass? All of this hinges on how one defines “culture” and the legitimate role of inculturation.

  2. This is from Pray Tell’s “Papabile” report on Cardinal Scherer of Brazil.

    “The Mass as entertainment, with its catchy and easily accessible music, is now omnipresent in the media and has become a model for the parish Mass, so much so that people compare one Mass with another, a “lively Mass” with a “dead Mass.” What draws attention are Masses that attract crowds and Masses with dancing. Organ or choral music has been virtually eliminated. Only frenzied rhythms will do, and in some cases the frenzy goes from the entrance song to the final song without any distinction between the Ordinary and the Proper of the Mass, between Penitential Rite and Gloria. The people have to sing everything—no soloists, no choir, no melodic instruments (violin, flute, oboe). The instruments that dominate are the electric guitar, the guitar, drums, the conga, the tambourine, and the afoxé (rattle). The main musical style is that of the popular song. This is true not only among young people. Often the “old folks” Mass has become a high-energy “Club Mass.” What especially attracts the majority of worshippers is music in the Gospel style, with sentimental texts that are all about “me.””

    The report then goes on to note that, in reaction to this, a “traditionalist” movement in Brazil is finding adherents.

    How far is too far? And what is the role of the church authorities in regulating such things?

  3. “the Church, far from being a European or First World colonial power, seeks to promote the cultural achievements of all peoples” –

    This is true, but perhaps a bit generously expressed. I understand that an absolute colonial power has no desire to promote the cultural achievements of all peoples whatsoever, but – in my view – a definite Western/Eurocentrism still shows up later (art. 39) and in the chapter on music (119), especially in reference to “mission lands” and “these peoples” and so on. I do know the Council fathers were working from their own ecclesial worldview, and we do need to give them credit for some visionary perspective, within their limitations.

    1. @Alan Hommerding – comment #3:
      Alan – thought this link was interesting given what you said:

      Key section:

      “The debate on the use of Latin in the liturgy of the “Western” Church provided, in large measure, a good opportunity to discuss a far more profound question. The prelates deeper concern was to determine the function and responsibility of bishops as successors of the apostles and associates of the Holy Father in the governance of the whole Church as well as of their individual dioceses.
      “While the Fathers were discussing the adaptation of the sacred liturgy to the needs of 20th-century mans divergent cultural circumstances, it became clear that a gathering of bishops from a particular nation or region could accomplish the work most effectively. e.g. CELAM”

      And in response to fears about enculturation:

      “In the early days of the Council, however, some members of the Curia felt that regional or national meetings of bishops would give rise to nationalistic blocs or overemphasize the tendency toward independence from the Holy See, a tendency that had plagued the Church in previous centuries-for example, at the time of Gallicanism in France and Josephinism in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. As events showed, such fears were baseless.”

  4. God is a Spiritual Being who seeks worshipers in spirit and in truth. I don’t believe God cares a wit about the externals of our rites. He is a searcher of hearts and knows very well who is present with a humble and contrite heart. This blog is a testimony to how we humans can become so attached to ritual actions which strike us as the most traditional, or contemporary, or relevant, or reverent, or whatever. Among the Life Teen youth at their spirited Mass and the chant and silence aficionados at the TLM are worshipers in spirit and truth. I saw a video once of the Zairian rite. The participants seemed totally immersed in their worship of God. As in all Masses there was a liturgy of the word and a liturgy of the Eucharist. There were reverent gestures and even times of silence. Lots of singing and dancing. Vive la difference!

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