Should anyone claim the Tridentine liturgy remains the lex orandi: Anathema sit!

Par l'abbé Claude Barthe

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The violence Pope Francis initiated against the traditional liturgy, guilty of prospering whilst visibly overly contrasting with the new liturgy, has surprised many even in progressive circles. Firstly, this violence is found in the content: Traditionis custodes cancels Summorum pontificum in a drastic way: “These two expressions of the lex orandi of the Church [the missal promulgated by Paul VI and the missal promulgated by Pius V then revised by John XXIII] infer no division of the Church’s lex credendi; they are indeed two usages of the one Roman rite”, as Benedict XVI used to say. What Francis now denies by saying: “The liturgical books promulgated by Saint Paul VI and Saint John Paul II, in conformity with the decrees of Vatican Council II, are the unique expression of the lex orandi of the Roman Rite.”

But Traditionis custodes is not a return, pure and simple, to the promulgation of the reform of Paul VI. In succeeding Summorum Pontificum, it strengthens the character of that reform.

A reminder regarding the adage Lex orandi, lex credendi

We pray what we believe, we believe what we pray. The divine worship the Church offers is a privileged vehicle for the Profession of Faith. The famous adage: lex orandi, lex credendi expresses the narrow relations between divine worship with prayers, gestures, symbols, and the profession of faith, catechism, dogma. “By the way we are to pray, let us learn what we are to believe: legem credendi statuat lex supplicandi, may the law of prayer rule the law of faith”, said a letter to the bishops of Gaul attributed to Pope Celestine 1st (he relied on these “sets of sacerdotal prayers” that are the collects of the mass, to respond to the Pelagian heresy).

Pius XII had been more precise in his encyclical Mediator Dei which the audacious experts of the Liturgical Movement for whom it was written should have taken more seriously: the liturgy is not a field of experience to be approved later by the Church, as if the Magisterium was in tail to practices, but it is firstly because it is submitted to the supreme Magisterium that the prayer of the Church “sets” the rule of faith as one of the means of expression of this same Magisterium.

This ensures, in regards to the modifications – often very slow to take place – the Roman Church approves in one area of worship or another, or that she brings by establishing an office or a mass, or proceeding to a particular revision of the calendar, ritual, breviary, that at the minimum they wouldn’t contain error and would also provide some doctrinal precisions (the institution of the mass and office of Christ the King by Pius XI).

Because of what the Magisterium is in nature – the transmission of the Deposit of Faith -, a formulation presented a posteriori never contradicts the old but render it more clear. For example, the words transubstantiated, and transubstantiation, canonized in the XIII century by Innocent III and the Fourth Council of the Lateran, make explicit the term of conversio of the bread and wine in the Body and Blood used by saint Ambrose in his De Sacramentis. To speak today of conversio remains perfectly Catholic; however, to hold onto the term of conversio refusing the one of transubstantiation would be very suspect.

We cannot make a rigorous analogy with the succession of “formulations” of divine worship, but the principle is identical: “Clearly no sincere Catholic can refuse to accept the formulation of Christian doctrine more recently elaborated and proclaimed as dogmas by the Church, under the inspiration and guidance of the Holy Spirit with abundant fruit for souls, because it pleases him to hark back to the old formulas. No more can any Catholic in his right senses repudiate existing legislation of the Church to revert to prescriptions based on the earliest sources of canon law. Just as obviously unwise and mistaken is the zeal of one who in matters liturgical would go back to the rites and usage of antiquity, discarding the new patterns introduced by disposition of divine Providence to meet the changes of circumstances and situation[1].”

In this way, assuming we could have the knowledge of what the liturgy of the mass of Rome was as celebrated during Christian Antiquity, let’s say in the IV century before it was enriched of its many prayers of gloss which flowered from the VII to the XI century, we would not dare to deny then the value of clarification these prayers brought into the mass and which underline its significance, notably the ones of the offering of the sacrifice.

A liturgy in some way regressive

We evidently did not take this example at random. One way, rather benign, to qualify the difficulty represented by Vatican II and the liturgy that followed would be its regressive nature in the doctrinal formulation and in its equivalent in terms of worship.

The doctrinal example most often mentioned is n.8 of Lumen Gentium, where it is affirmed that Christ’s Church subsists in the Catholic Church, whereas Mystici Corporis, of Pius XII held that Christ’s Church is the Catholic Church and the Mystic Body of Christ[2]. If we want to avoid speaking equivocally, one would say we went from clear to unclear.

In the new liturgy of the mass, the weakening of the sacrificial expression is surely the worst thing that happened. This appears notably in the suppression of the prayers of the offertory, prayers of gloss against which railed Fr. Joseph-André Jungmann, sj, whilst the Oratorian Louis Bouyer campaigned for the restitution of a Roman rite from the Antiquity, “pure” of any addition. The offertory prayers were replaced by a “Preparation of the gifts”, made of prayers inspired by Jewish blessings of which it was thought with naivety that Jesus might had used them at the Last Supper.

Certainly, the reform was not solely made of returns. There were also new provisions, mainly putting into practice the excessive participation of the people, underlined by Francis in his letter to the bishops which accompanied Traditionis custodes: “From the vota submitted by the Bishops there emerged a great insistence on the full, conscious and active participation of the whole People of God in the liturgy.” In reality, the participation of the faithful was well known before the Council, for having been promoted by Pius X for the Sung Mass, by Pius XI and Pius XII for the low mass (cf. the instruction De Musica Sacra et Sacra Liturgia of 1958).The over valorization of participation in the liturgical reform is one of the elements, and not the least, causing the weaknesses that can be noticed in the new liturgical forms, notably the immanentization of divine worship – the mystery dulled (celebration facing the people, touching the host)-, its laitization (lay ministries of men and women), and the over importance given to the self-celebrating assembly.

In this way, by showing a will to return to ancient formulas, mixed with an adaptation for the men of today, the new liturgy delivers a message where the Real Presence, the sacramental sacrifice, the hierarchical priesthood are expressed in a more impressionist manner than previously.

The avowal of Traditionis custodes

When facing this very specific difficulty of a new teaching and a new liturgy which continuity with what preceded is not obvious, Benedict XVI had recourse to the “hermeneutic of renewal in the continuity”. Whatever the limits of this tentative – in fact, the latest elaborations of the Teaching Church are the last word of the interpretive tradition[3] -, it is by applying it to divine worship that Benedict XVI had conceived the coexistence of what he had characterized as two “forms” of one rite. To those who used either of the two forms Pope Benedict wanted to tell them, in a somewhat voluntarist way, that the old form was not contradicted by the new one: the living presence of the old liturgy in regard to the new testified, so said the pope in his accompanying letter to the bishops, that “in the history of the liturgy there is growth and progress, but no rupture”, and thus that “what earlier generations held as sacred, remains sacred and great for us too, and cannot be all of a sudden entirely forbidden or even considered harmful.”

This recognition previously unseen, by the authority in charge of the new liturgy, of the right to existence for the old liturgy wanted thus to attest, against the critic of many partisans of the old and against the affirmations of many partisans of the new, that the novus ordo was in continuity with the vetus. This could have been argued certainly, but such was Benedict’s message: the Missal of Vatican II and the Missal of Trent were compatible. In this regard, Francis flatly denies that affirmation: the Tridentine liturgy ought no longer to express the faith of the Church.

Fr. Claude Barthe

[1] Pius XII, Mediator Dei.
[2] “If we would define and describe this true Church of Jesus Christ – which is the One, Holy, Catholic, Apostolic and Roman Church – we shall find nothing more noble, more sublime, or more divine than the expression ‘the Mystical Body of Christ’.”
[3] Cf. Vatican II: the ordeal of the Church – Res Novae – Perspectives romaines “To be needing the hermeneutic to solve the problem of continuity is already a problem in itself. In claris non fit interpretatio, says a well known maxim,meaning it is because the continuity needs to be demonstrated by the interpretation, that an hermeneutic is required.”