What Even is the Lex Orandi?

Picture of an Anglican Altarpiece: 10 Commandments, Tetragrammaton, Our Father, & Apostle's Creed.

With Pope Francis’ apostolic letter Traditionis Custodes, there has been much discussion and debate over its first article:

I libri liturgici promulgati dai santi Pontefici Paolo VI e Giovanni Paolo II, in conformità ai decreti del Concilio Vaticano II, sono l’unica espressione della lex orandi del Rito Romano.

First article of Traditionis Custodes

The liturgical books promulgated by the holy Pontiffs Paul VI and John Paul II, in conformity with the decrees of Vatican Council II, are the only expression of the lex orandi of the Roman Rite.

My translation of the first article of Traditionis Custodes

The key word which causes so much confusion and difficulty is: lex orandi. What is that? It is especially confusing, because previous Church teaching said that:

Hae duae expressiones “legis orandi” Ecclesiae, minime vero inducent in divisionem “legis credendi” Ecclesiae; sunt enim duo usus unici ritus romani.

Article I of Summorum Pontificum

These two expressions of the Church’s lex orandi will in no way lead to a division in the Church’s lex credendi (rule of faith); for they are two usages of the one Roman rite.

Article 1 of Summorum Pontificum

What a quandry. In 2007, the lex orandi of the Roman Rite is expressed through both the Old Order of the Mass (“extraordinary form” or “usus antiquior”) and the New Order of the Mass (“ordinary form” or “novus ordo”). However, in 2021, the lex orandi is expressed only through the New Order of the Mass.

A Changing Lex Orandi

To explain this seeming contradiction, some have suggested that through the history of the Church, she is constantly changing her lex orandi. So it goes when St. Pius V changed the lex orandi of the Roman Rite from divers liturgies to almost exclusively his missal.

However, there are two main problems with this explanation. First, both Summorum Pontificum and Traditionis Custodes never claim to change or adjust the lex orandi of the Roman Rite. Instead, they teach regarding the expressions of the lex orandi. Second, the lex orandi is not a changeable law. The lex orandi is an unchanging theological category.

The Theology of Lex Orandi

It seems about time to actually give a definition of the lex orandi. Fr. George Tyrrell, SJ writes in Lex Orandi about the maxim “lex orandi, lex credendi”: the law of prayer is the law of belief.

The maxim has reference to the prayer and the belief of the universal Church, of the whole body of the faithful in which the life of Christ is continued, in whose members collectively the spirit of Christ, the spirit of Charity, is spread abroad. “Prayer” is to be taken widely for the life of Charity, of Divine Love, of will-union with God and His Saints; “Belief” is to be taken for those conceptions of the nature and laws of the other world which are presupposed by Charity, which determine and characterise that Divine Love and give it its special tone and colour.

Lex Orandi by George Tyrrell, pages 59-60

The lex orandi is not a particular prayer, liturgy, or missal. Instead, it is the connexion of the People of God with God. Or, better said, is the worship and prayer within the communion of saints. This necessarily informs what these same people believe. What the Church prays reveals what she presupposes and determine what she expresses in doctrinal statements.

Tyrell uses the example of the Creed and the Lord’s Prayer:

The Creed [“Belief”] with all its legitimate developments is wrapped up in the Lord’s Prayer [“Prayer”] which embodies the aims and aspirations of the human soul of Christ, and gives voice to His Love. If the “Our Father” is the criterion of all Christian prayer by which every spirit is to be tried; it is indirectly the criterion of every belief, just because prayer and belief are so inextricably intertwined.

Lex Orandi by George Tyrrell, pages 60-61.

Tyrrell notes well this relationship between the lex orandi and the lex credendi. In a true sense, the lex orandi is the lex credendi. In relation to the lex orandi, a particular liturgy is only an expression of this law, among many others. And a particular liturgy is only good inasmuch as it conforms to this law.

It may seem odd to quote an author who was a practical pre-cursor to the strain of theology called nouvelle théologie. However, Tyrrell’s commentary is both insightful and revealing for its impact on modern Roman Catholic theology, especially after Vatican Council II. Whether or not Tyrrell is correct, he shows the state of a Jesuit liturgical theology that left its impact on the Church and her seminarians, especially after the Council.

A Final Analysis

With the definition established, we can look at the two propositions. Keep in mind: they both retain the actual celebration of both the Old and New Orders of Mass. This is not the question: the question is whether those liturgies conform to the law of prayer and belief.

First, by Benedict XVI, the lex orandi is expressed by both the Old and New Orders of the Mass equally. They both conform to this lex orandi and necessarily lead to the same lex credendi.

Second, by Francis, the lex orandi is expressed only by the New Order of Mass. This does not mean that the New Order is the only one celebrated but that it is the only one, at least since Vatican Council II, that expresses the lex orandi and leads to the lex credendi of the Roman Rite: what the Church of Rome prays/how it engages in worship & communion and what the Church of Rome believes.

And what is the purpose of this teaching and the proceeding restriction of the Old Order of Mass? It is part of an initiative to end the celebration of the Old Order, which was started, as Pope Francis thinks, by Vatican Council II. As he writes to the bishops,

Le indicazioni su come procedere nelle diocesi sono principalmente dettate da due principi: provvedere da una parte al bene di quanti si sono radicati nella forma celebrativa precedente e hanno bisogno di tempo per ritornare al Rito Romano promulgato dai santi Paolo VI e Giovanni Paolo II; interrompere dall’altra l’erezione di nuove parrocchie personali, legate più al desiderio e alla volontà di singoli presbiteri che al reale bisogno del «santo Popolo fedele di Dio».

Letter of the Holy Father Francis To the Bishops of the Whole World, That Accompanies the Apostolic Letter Motu Proprio Data “Traditionis Custodes”

Indications about how to proceed in your dioceses are chiefly dictated by two principles: on the one hand, to provide for the good of those who are rooted in the previous form of celebration and need to return in due time to the Roman Rite promulgated by Saints Paul VI and John Paul II, and, on the other hand, to discontinue the erection of new personal parishes tied more to the desire and wishes of individual priests than to the real need of the “holy People of God.”

Letter of the Holy Father Francis To the Bishops of the Whole World, That Accompanies the Apostolic Letter Motu Proprio Data “Traditionis Custodes”

The plainest reading of the apostolic letter, in its teaching and discipline, with the light of what these theological categories mean, makes it clear: the lex orandi after Vatican Council II is incompatible with the Old Order of the Mass, so people who are nostalgic for it must be pastorally cared for while it is abrogated over time.

Pope Francis, in his apostolic letter, teaches and emphasises the importance of adhering to Vatican Council II. It is this adherence, in his opinion, that makes the proceeding discipline necessary.

This leaves us Roman Catholics with a dilemma: who is right? Which is the true lex orandi?


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