Liturgy Conference Highlights Need for Theological Integrity Across Disciplines: Part II

[Note: Jon Laird was The Cardinal Newman Society’s delegate to the Sacra Liturgia conference recently held in Milan, Italy. This is Part II of an article in which Jon explains the main theological themes running throughout the conference and discusses why they are important for the fruitful study of the liturgy in a Catholic university. This is the third article in a series about the conference; the first two introductory articles can be found here and here, and Part I of this article was published here.]


The present article concerns Sacra Liturgia 2017, its central themes, and the way in which those themes bear upon the theological integrity of Catholic universities with respect to the study of sacred liturgy. In Part I I discussed two perspectives on theology of the liturgy: a Christological-ecclesiological perspective, and an existential-phenomenological perspective. In Part II below I discuss the theme of liturgical reform, with emphasis on two main principles:

  1. the axiom lex orandi, lex credendi and its proper application, and
  2. hermeneutics in the study of liturgical theology and reform.

Before beginning this examination, some explanation is in order for those who may not be fully aware of the relationship between the Second Vatican Council (Vatican II) and the liturgical reform which followed it. It is important to understand that the first official document of the Council was Sacrocanctum Concilium (1963), the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy. Sacrosanctum Concilium established some principles for liturgical renewal. Very quickly, a non-curial organization known as the Consilium was formed and tasked with carrying out the liturgical renewal. The new liturgical forms which followed Vatican II were therefore not approved by the Council itself, but were ostensibly applications of the reform principles present in Sacrosanctum Concilium, ultimately approved by Pope Paul VI. The new Roman Missal was published in 1970, having been created to succeed the latest edition (1962) of the Missal promulgated throughout the Latin Church in 1570 (itself having been an edition based on received medieval liturgical forms).

Lex orandi, lex credendi

Lex orandi, lex credendi is usually translated as “the law of praying is the law of believing.” One struggles to find a more iconic phrase in the history of liturgical studies. Several conference presenters called to mind this ancient abbreviation of the following statement of Prosper of Aquitaine (fifth century A.D.): “legem credendi lex statuat supplicandi.” The full quote, in English translation as it appears in Wikipedia, is, “Let us consider the sacraments of priestly prayers, which having been handed down by the apostles, are celebrated uniformly throughout the whole world and in every Catholic Church so that the law of praying might establish the law of believing.”

Prosper’s axiom and liturgical reform

Prosper was making an argument about grace and free will against the Pelagians, using the received liturgical prayers of the Church as an authority for correct doctrine. Let us consider the movement of Prosper’s original statement:

  1. The apostles possessed the authentic worship of the Church,
  2. which they handed on to various communities,
  3. inundating the whole Church with the one true worship of Christ.
  4. This infallible worship grounds the statements of belief which we formulate about God.

The central and most important implication is that authentic Christian worship maintains an ontological priority over abstract doctrinal tenets. It does not “just so happen” that the Church draws from the liturgy to expound her Faith; rather, it is quite intentionally part of the very essence of doctrine that it derives its authority from the way that we worship God in the liturgy. It is important to recall that authentic liturgy includes not only the received texts but the entire liturgical experience (see Cardinal Robert Sarah’s address and Part I of the present article).

Let us return to the most prominent theme of the conference: liturgical reform. Prosper’s axiom seems to resist changes in the liturgy; it implies that injudicious tampering with what is received endangers the theological integrity of the Church’s doctrine. This, indeed, was clearly the understanding of Sacra Liturgia 2017 presenters (let us not forget Cardinal Sarah’s reminder, echoing Pope Benedict XVI, that “the Church stands and falls with the liturgy”). How, then, can we introduce the liturgical renewal called for by a universal council while safeguarding the faith?

Hermeneutics of liturgical reform: two viewpoints

Lex orandi, lex credendi can guide us to an authentic hermeneutic (principle of interpretation) with which to approach the liturgical documents flowing from Vatican II. Cardinal Raymond Burke, expanding on comments Pope Benedict XVI made to the Roman Curia in 2005, articulated two basic approaches which have characterized the modern reform.

Hermeneutic of rupture

Cardinal Burke listed several characteristics of what Pope Benedict had termed a “hermeneutic of rupture”:

  1. It is based on the idea that every stage of liturgical evolution after apostolic times is a corruption.
  2. It exhibits a naïve view of the early Church, failing to take into account its struggles to protect the faith and the role liturgy played in those struggles (cf. 1 Cor 11, where St. Paul decries liturgical factionalism and reminds the Corinthians of the liturgy he received from Christ and handed on to them).
  3. It denies the Holy Spirit’s role of continuously protecting the faith throughout the ages.

The fruit of this hermeneutic, according to Cardinal Burke, is a betrayal of the liturgical reform called for by the Council. When one decries the received liturgy as suspect, one must find or create another principle upon which to base the reform. We will see below that those largely responsible for the liturgical changes gave themselves, in the words of Cardinal Burke, an “invisible mandate” not present in the intent of the Council. (Readers will be familiar with the “spirit of Vatican II” which seemed to justify practically any liturgical invention or experimentation in the post-Council decades.)

Hermeneutic of reform

A true hermeneutic of reform, to Cardinal Burke, is based on the organic nature of the liturgy. The hermeneutic of rupture denies this idea, seeking after a pristine “original” which was apparently lost after the time of the first disciples. The hermeneutic of reform, however, has as its purpose the transmission of the liturgy in a pure and full way without attenuations or misrepresentations, presenting the adherents of the Church with the ancient and authentic doctrine.

Cardinal Burke referred to a statement from Pope Benedict XVI to the effect that the mission of the Church (in introducing changes to the liturgy) is delicate. New words in the liturgy may only legitimately develop if they arise from an understanding of a faith already expressed. Thus the lex credendi after reform must be the same lex credendi articulated by the liturgy before the reform.

Principles of authentic reform

Is reform permitted?

The hermeneutic of reform described by Cardinal Burke answers the question we posed above. The question can be stated another way: how can we alter the lex orandi without endangering the lex credendi? The answer, universally across every Sacra Liturgia presentation that touched upon reform, is simple: we don’t. The lex orandi is not subject to change.

To clarify this statement, I will complete an anecdote from Part I of this article. Abbot Zielinski recalled “a monk visiting his church celebrating Mass. This monk was imbued with sacredness and Zielinski was struck with the holiness and beauty of the Mass; he felt as if heaven was opened to him and he suddenly had a profound understanding of the presence of God.” What I did not say in Part I was that Zielinski’s typical experience of the liturgy was very different. He was accustomed to a priest who flew through the Mass in a casual and perfunctory manner which, though technically “correct,” both denied due glory to God and inhibited Zielinski’s true participation in the liturgy.

Transmitting the essence of the liturgy

This twofold essence of liturgy is what must be carried through in any liturgical reform: due glory given to God (the virtue of religion) and facilitation of the individual’s encounter with Christ, not only by elucidating right doctrine but by creating an experience which envelops every aspect of the human person. Authentic liturgical reform, according to Cardinal Burke, must have a connection with the unchangeable doctrine of Christ and not “repurpose” the liturgy. He observes, for instance, that liturgy is used to express individual personalities or cultures, or to promote some other agenda.

Thus, liturgical reform involves adjustments to external liturgical expressions, not to change its purpose but to better bring about that purpose.

Critique of the modern reform process

Given this understanding of liturgical reform, what do Sacra Liturgia 2017 presenters say about how well the modern reform has carried it out? Let us begin this section by describing a sober attitude Dom Reid proposes we take toward the process which brought about the Mass of Pope Paul VI—a process which involved backbiting, political jockeying, and competition for the Pope’s attention (and more importantly, his signature). The reform, he says, should be considered to involve prudential decisions made by contingent persons at a particular period of the Church, subject to review and revision.

Rupture: the ‘invisible mandate’

Several presenters discussed how, in the absence of an appropriate hermeneutic, the Consilium (and individuals following its lead) supplied a new mandate not present in the Vatican II documents. According to Dom Reid, the leaders of the Consilium saw their task as crafting a liturgy based on the supposed new theology of Vatican II—exactly the reverse of the lex orandi, lex credendi principle. Proponents of this idea (referred to as the Bologna School) considered the new liturgy to be necessary to guard the supposed new theology.

However, the Council Fathers, in authoring Sacrosanctum Concilium, did not set out to create a “liturgy of Vatican II” from a set of abstract theological principles. These days many of us are so accustomed to the post-Vatican II liturgy appearing vastly different than the pre-Vatican II liturgy that we are likely to forget the fact that Sacrosanctum Concilium had as its starting point the Tridentine Mass. Cardinal Burke reminds us that what in the liturgy was once considered holy, still is; it cannot suddenly be forbidden or considered harmful (an idea promoted by many opponents of traditional liturgy).

Both Cardinal Sarah and Cardinal Burke identified ways in which the practical application of the post-Vatican II liturgical reforms implied a different lex credendi than what the Council called for:

  1. Losing the sense of Christ as protagonist of the liturgy.
  2. Losing the ecclesial dimension by overemphasis of individual personalities and cultural expressions.
  3. Greater emphasis on external actions than on the interior encounter with Christ.

The inauthentic liturgy which resulted then formed the unfortunate baseline for new applications of the lex orandi, lex credendi principle: the law of believing now being examined by students of theology was based on their experience of a concocted liturgical celebration.

The hermeneutic applied to music

Prof. Jennifer Donelson of the Archdiocese of New York reviewed the progress of liturgical music in the decades since Vatican II, offering a critique of an attitude which uses Church documents as the basis for liturgical reform (a particularly dangerous attitude given non-authoritative USCCB documents such as Music in Catholic Worship which are not grounded in the same principles as the Council). The music of the Church’s liturgy is “ontologically prior to” the documents about sacred music. Therefore, our first place to look for guidance on liturgical music ought to be the Church’s practice of sacred music, which provides the context for magisterial statements about music.

Sacred music is an excellent example of applying the proper hermeneutic. The actual practice of liturgical music prior to the Council widely fell far short of the ideal articulated by Pope St. Pius X in his seminal document Tra le sollecitudini (1903). Although the liturgy itself contained an ideal, the received experience in many places followed a different standard. Widespread reform was needed in sacred music, not because the liturgical form itself was problematic but because much of what was essential to that form had been lost, and harmful practices had been introduced.

Healing the rupture: reforming the reform

Papal guidance

It may seem that I have been describing a situation in which the application of the Vatican II reforms has been universally flawed, even (through certain acts of the Consilium) fundamentally sabotaged. Pope St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI have offered the Church their own assessments at various points spanning the decades since Vatican II. Both have lauded many instances of the reforms being received humbly and applied faithfully, without damage to the integrity of the sacred rites. At the same time they have lamented the abuses and incomplete application of the liturgical reform and provided guidance for correcting the deficiency (cf. Vicesimus Quintus Annus, Spiritus et Sponsa, and Sacramentum Caritatis, among others).

Sacra Liturgica presenters offered their guidance as part of the Church’s effort to revisit the process of reform and recover what was lost in the hermeneutic of rupture. This came to the fore primarily in Cardinal Burke’s review of the status of the extraordinary form Mass ten years after Summorum Pontificum and in Prof. Donelson’s assessment of sacred music in light of Musicam sacram.

Summorum Pontificum

Cardinal Burke discussed Summorum Pontificum (2007), the motu proprio of Pope Benedict XVI which widened the use of the 1962 Roman Missal (the Tridentine Mass or traditional Mass, which was the ordinary liturgical expression of the Roman Rite until the changes following Vatican II). Pope Benedict recalled that arbitrary changes to the practice of the liturgy had caused deep pain to many who were faithful to the Church. Summorum Pontificum was a form of pastoral charity to heal this wound. He hoped, furthermore, that one of its fruits would be to correct excesses of liturgical rupture by “mutual enrichment” between the two forms of the Roman Rite. Over time, wider use of the extraordinary form alongside the ordinary form with such mutual enrichment would be an expression of continuity. Cardinal Burke expressed the desire that both forms be celebrated side-by-side in every parish and that education regarding the extraordinary form be integrated into religious formation programs at every level. This, he said, would be a greater fulfilment of the goals of Summorum Pontificum.

Revisiting Musicam sacram 

Prof. Donelson’s discussion centered around the document Musicam sacram (1967), which is the last magisterial document dealing primarily with sacred music. However, it is rarely used by contemporary Church musicians, who are more familiar with the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM)—that is, if they are familiar with any Church documents at all. Therefore, Prof. Donelson recommended that we should use Musicam sacram to inform our reading of the GIRM, because the former is much clearer in offering principles for renewal of sacred music, while the latter is often more vague and seemingly permissive. In particular, Prof. Donelson emphasized the importance in particular of the priest’s role in singing his own parts.


Our discussion of liturgical reform has revolved around the principles of lex orandi, lex credendi, and hermeneutic principles with respect to liturgical reform. The relevance of the conclusions with respect to Catholic education is clear: the hermeneutical approach to modern liturgical documents must safeguard the lex orandi, lex credendi principle; no liturgical document can be interpreted in a vacuum. Just as Prof. Donelson reminded us that “sacred music is ontologically prior to the documents [about sacred music],” so the sacred liturgy more generally is ontologically prior to any documents about it. We can look back to Part I to remind us what essential aspects of the liturgy we are in danger of losing: namely, its Christological-ecclesiological dimension and its existential-phenomenological dimension.

I maintain the cross-disciplinary application of this principle. It applies not only to liturgical theology but to all other theological disciplines, philosophical and psychological approaches to the liturgy, Church history, and the arts. All of these are addressed to some degree in the Vatican II documents themselves or in various types of post-conciliar documents. Let those who teach and study any aspect of the liturgy interpret its development and its contemporary forms according to an authentic hermeneutic, shunning individualism and rupture and embracing unity, catholicity, and apostolicity.

My next and final article in this series on Sacra Liturgia 2017 will examine the implications of the conference on both the catechetical ministry and liturgical praxis in a Catholic school or college.

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