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Is the Novus Ordo the Only Law of Prayer?

The practical fall-out from Traditionis Custodes will be making itself felt for some time to come. In some places it has already been devastating; in others, it appears it will be minimal. The theological fall-out, however, threatens a profound problem on a different plane. This arises from the claim made in Article 1 of the document, and repeated in the accompanying Letter to Bishops, that “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.”

The official English translation which I have quoted is actually a poor rendering of the Italian expression, “l’unica espressione”, which means the only expression. The document is claiming that the only Missal which expresses the Roman Rite’s lex orandi, its “law of prayer,” is the reformed Missal.

The Church’s law of prayer, her lex orandi, must correspond to, and indeed determine, her law of belief (lex credendi): that was the claim of Prosper of Aquitaine when he coined the phrase in the 5th century. Prosper was making the point that if you want to know what people believe, then look at how they express themselves in prayer. If they genuflect at the reference to the Incarnation in the Creed, of if they kneel to receive Holy Communion, this tells you something: Arians will refuse to do the first, and Lutherans the second. A Missal is a “law of prayer” in the sense that it sets out a way for people to pray, and we would expect Catholic Missals to give a theologically correct law of prayer and Arian and Lutheran ones to give theologically erroneous ones. What, then, can it mean to say that the Roman Rite has only one law of prayer, and that this is the one expressed in a particular Missal, and not in another, in a document which allows both to be used in the Church?

I have not been alone in struggling to understand what this means. I recently took part in a collaborative blog-post with Fr. Anthony Ruff, the founder of the Pray Tell blog. On this issue Fr. Ruff responded:

[Pope Francis] did not say that the 1962 Missal has no lex orandi, or is opposed to the Church’s lex orandi. The 1962 Missal reflects the Roman rite’s lex orandi to the extent that it reflects the Church’s liturgy as found in the 1970 Missal. There is continuity between 1962 and 1970 in the sense that the core features of the reformed liturgy, which oftentimes derive from Catholic tradition of earliest centuries, are found in the 1962 Missal but in an occluded and obscure manner which needed to be made more apparent.

Fr. Ruff appears to be saying that the 1962 Missal has validity on loan, as it were, from the 1970 Missal: insofar as it agrees with the later Missal, it can be said to express the Roman Rite’s lex orandi. I’m not sure whether this can be squared with the wording of Traditionis Custodes or not, but it doesn’t matter because Fr. Ruff’s sympathetic interpretation does nothing to fend off the real problem with Article 1, which can be expressed as the simple question: what was the Church’s lex orandi up to 1962?

This question is addressed by Dr. Richard H. Bulzacchelli, Lecturer in Theology at Catholic Studies Academy and Senior Fellow with the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology, in a video talk. On the hypothetical supposition that Traditionis Custodes should be understood literally, Dr. Bulzacchelli explains (from about the 19 minute mark):

If the Novus Ordo is the unique expression of the lex orandi of the Roman Rite then by definition no other liturgical form can express that lex orandi. The logical implications of this assertion are staggering. If the Usus Antiquior cannot express the lex orandi of the Roman Rite, then what we call the Roman Rite today … isn’t the same thing as what we called the Roman Rite in 1962. Yet that attitude is exactly what Francis says he wants to correct. The only way that’s not a contradiction is if the decision flowing from his own defined will is what determines what the truth is in the objective order of reality. … Did the Roman Rite exist for fifteen centuries without an authentic expression of its lex orandi? This would be impossible…

What Dr. Bulzacchelli is saying is that, if it is absurd to suggest (as surely it is) that the Roman Rite had no lex orandi of any kind in 1962, then it appears that Article 1 is claiming that the Roman Rite’s lex orandi changed in 1970 from the one expressed by the older Missal to that expressed by the newer Missal.

Now, in 1970 the Church adopted a new Missal, and by doing so adopted a new law of prayer, just in the sense that we had a new way of celebrating Mass. This is clearly true. But what does it mean that there is (now) only one expression of the Roman Rite’s law of prayer? The only reason for rejecting a Missal as a lex orandi is if it is theologically problematic, as we would reject the lex orandi of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer: it does not correspond faithfully to the Church’s lex credendi.

So is that the claim? That the 1962 Missal is theologically defective? But this implies after all that there was no authentic law of prayer for the Roman Rite in 1962. Unless it became theologically defective in 1970, or later, by a legislative act: as Bulzacchelli puts it, “the decision flowing from his own defined will is what determines what the truth is in the objective order of reality.”

Now possibly someone might say this: a statement might become theologically defective with the passage of time because of the way the Church’s Magisterium has developed. Thus we find that before the Definition of the Marian Dogmas, the Divine Praises did not include the lines “Blessed be her Holy and Immaculate Conception. Blessed be her Glorious Assumption.” Looking for the text online to create a booklet for Benediction, I once found a version which excluded those lines and I realized I had stumbled on a website maintained by one of the splinter groups deriving from the “Old Catholic” schism of 1870. Their lex orandi is defective, we might say, not because of something they had changed, but something they had refused to change.

However, this is not really right. The older version of the Divine Praises is not theologically defective: it is in no way incompatible with the Catholic Faith. Certainly the Old Catholic schismatics are motivated to keep it because they reject the dogmas, but liturgical texts which are merely silent about particular theological issues are not for that reason unusable: to say so would be absurd. Were it to become an issue in the context of the reconciliation of a body of schismatics to the Holy See, historical precedent would suggest that they would be allowed to make a statement of Faith and carry on with the older texts, if it meant so much to them.

And the parallel with the 1962 Missal is hard to make out. Could someone please show me the dogmatic definitions which are reflected in the reformed Missal, and whose absence from the older Missal gives an opportunity, for those attached to it, to display their rejection of them? There are of course no such definitions. The closest anyone has come to making the case for this is in relation to the Prayer for the Jews in the Good Friday Liturgy. I have examined this argument here but briefly it doesn’t survive the observation that the 1974 Liturgy of the Hours calls for the Jews to accept Jesus as their Messiah, and does so several times.

Nevertheless something like this reasoning may be behind Article 1. In the accompanying Letter to Bishops, Pope Francis criticizes the “rejection not only of the liturgical reform, but of the Vatican Council II itself, claiming, with unfounded and unsustainable assertions, that it betrayed the Tradition and the ‘true Church.’” Instead, he stresses continuity, calling Vatican II “a recent stage of this dynamic,” the “dynamic of Tradition.”

The problem is, if the 1962 Missal does not express the Church’s lex orandi, or does so (as Fr. Ruff imagines) only in an inadequate way and by reference to a later “stage of the dynamic”—in short, if it has no validity in and of itself—then it does look as though whatever the content of the tradition up to 1962 was, it was altered in its substance—“betrayed,” a partisan of that tradition might say—by the 1970 Missal.

This is why Dr. Bulzacchelli is concerned that Traditionis Custodes appears to be making true the very criticism of the Novus Ordo which it condemns, and which had hitherto seemed, not least to me, to be extreme and unwarranted. Either we say, with Pope Benedict XVI, that the old and the new are both legitimate expressions of the Church’s lex orandi (alongside all the other rites and usages), or we say that they conflict, and that the historical transition from old to new marked the moment at which the Church did not just develop its expression of existing doctrines, in which case the older expressions would remain valid, but adopted a new law of belief. Which of course is impossible.

My own view is that Pope Benedict was correct and that this part of Traditionis Custodes, as it stands and in the context of the Letter to Bishops, fails to express anything: it is incomprehensible because it is self-contradictory. This may seem a drastic option, but it is better than to swallow the logical implications Dr. Bulzacchelli draws out. Readers may derive some comfort from the thought that until the document appears, perhaps in Latin, in the Acta Apostolicis Sedis (as we have been promised it will), the text can still be tweaked, as actually happened, for far less serious reasons, with the text of Summorum Pontificum. However, I won’t be holding my breath.

Photo credit: Grant Whitty via

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