Could or Should? The “Lex Orandi” Solution (2 of 2)

Let us offer to God acceptable worship, with fear and reverence,
for our God is a consuming fire.
(Heb 12:28-29)


“If a practice occurs in the Novus Ordo that we believe is irreverent,
upon what can we base this evaluation?”

As detailed in Part I, we can find neither cause nor cure for a “deficient” Liturgy in positions of either Liturgical Positivism (x is only wrong if current rubrics or authority expressly forbid it) or Liturgical Preference (x is only a matter of taste, wrong in the minds of some but not all), as neither position can admit of a certain liturgical form or practice being “just wrong, period” – wrong in its very nature.

Yet, as demonstrated through history, the real possibility of erroneous rites and irreverent celebration must require a certain objective content to Liturgy itself, which may thus be violated to greater or lesser degrees. There must exist some clear standard of measurement, beyond the bare exercise of Church authority, whereby right worship can be strengthened and its violations proscribed.

That such a Catholic “measuring stick” for Liturgy can only be found in reverent and loving submission to objective liturgical tradition, maintained above all by the principle of organic development, is the focus of this second installment. Limiting ourselves to a rudimentary sketch, we recommend a few resources at bottom for a more thorough treatment, concluding with our own practical considerations.

Illumination of Ex 40: Moses and Israel before the Tabernacle (c. 1360)

Objective Liturgical Tradition: Work of Divine Hands

The first and most fundamental point in any conversation about the Mass is determining what it is. We can here adopt the Catholic Encyclopedia’s concise definition for the Liturgy of Mass as “the complex of prayers and ceremonies that make up the service of the Eucharist.” We know that in the Mass, the Eternal Sacrifice of Christ is sacramentally re-presented on the altar by the action of the priest, consecrated to serve in persona Christi to confect and administer the Eucharist. In this Sacrament is not only grace, but the substantial Presence of its Author.

For this reason, it must ever be rightly worshipped in the Church, requiring a certain formal structure (a rich constellation of words, gestures, objects, chants, etc., broadly termed a “rite”). This springs from both human need and the divine economy (cf. Trent Sess. 22, Summa III.61.1); and the same Lord who guided the formation of Israel’s liturgy (which was but a shadow of true Liturgy, cf. Heb 8) has entrusted and tended over centuries the growth of a proper rite for that worship which alone is pleasing to Him. This is why the Mass as a whole is a tapestry of divine mysteries, as we explore here. Any liturgical discussion must therefore begin from a conviction that Liturgy is not fundamentally ours, but His – the work of Divine Hands.[1]

Far from being a freely disposable “extra,” external ritual form is further part and parcel of that sacred Deposit entrusted by Christ to the Apostles, springing from the fateful moment when they were made priests, commanded to “do this” and hand that sacred “this” down to their successors (cf. Mt 26, 1 Cor 11). Abiding in all essentials, the externals of this worship are enriched over time, as history demonstrates: although identical in its Canon and markedly similar in form, the Mass offered in the 16th century was still no freeze-dried “carbon copy” of the form used in the 6th. Under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, over a millennium of growth in continuity had transpired. Thus, a logical question may be posed:

If Liturgy does change over time, how may we be certain that a given form is that which God intends, suitable for the communication of His mysteries?

A Catholic answer will typically sound something like: If the Church has officially sanctioned a rite, it is therefore inherently good, pleasing to God, and befitting the communication of sacred mysteries. Indeed, this should normally be the case.

But not so fast.

novus ordo_dichotomoy2

Organic Development vs. Artificial Fabrication

Some are surprised to learn that Church history is checkered with examples of liturgical forms that were “valid” in the legal sense (i.e., legitimate Church authority composed and/or promulgated them for official use) but were later condemned by the same authority as erroneous.[2] The essential lesson is clear: the bare fact of a rite being validly issued does not necessarily guarantee it as “right and just,” befitting the Mystery and pleasing to the God who first gave the Liturgy. As history attests, valid promulgation does not even prevent a rite from being dangerous to right faith. Such rites must necessarily be displeasing to God, unsuitable for the communication of His mysteries – since, after all, these are mysteries of faith.

This is the case even with a rite structured such that a true Consecration can occur: for the mere potential to effect a valid Eucharist cannot commend deficient liturgical form, any more than the effective conception of a child can commend in vitro fertilization – just because “it works” doesn’t make it good. The ends never justify the means, and to claim as much for the Mass is to subscribe to liturgical relativism: a position without precedent in Catholic history, as becomes clear when observing the standard by which the Church judged deficient liturgical forms in the past: rather than the promulgating authority involved (liturgical positivism), it was fidelity to preceding, objective liturgical tradition that stood as the norm.[3]

This is why the key term in any Catholic indictment of errors (in liturgy, doctrine, and morals) is “novelty,” denoting a thing newly sprung up, like an unsown tare amid the true wheat first planted by Christ. The task of the hierarchy before Liturgy thus mirrors their responsibility before doctrine: they must piously receive it and faithfully hand it on, ensuring its authentic development not by adhering to a static quantity (as if rites or doctrine must be exteriorly identical to that of the early centuries), but rather to a particular quality, a process some call organic development.

This is the Catholic “measuring stick” for which many are searching in regard to assessing truly “reverent” or “proper” liturgy: in parallel to the Commonitory of St. Vincent or Bl. Cardinal Newman’s famous essay on the development of doctrine, fidelity to a legitimate process of development is the key measure of authenticity. As respected English historian Owen Chadwick observed: “Liturgies are not made, they grow in the devotion of centuries.”[4]

How does one distinguish between authentic liturgy which grows without essential change, versus inauthentic liturgy which is “made”? As many Saints and scholars point out, clear principles are found both in the nature of liturgy itself, and the Church’s historical approach to it, especially in periods of broader reform, e.g., the Tridentine. Attempting a concise distillation:

  1. Formal Unity. In every age, liturgical form is externally consistent with its proximately preceding form of one to two centuries (cf. “immemorial custom” in canon law). In the classic analogy of an oak tree, each year of its life from sapling to centenarian will show a clear resemblance to its directly preceding year, only with growth added. Similarly, pious additions to liturgical form are less suspect, whereas subtracting or redacting already-existing elements is undertaken only for grave reason, and with reverent trepidation. The general approach is: Don’t! [5]
  2. Necessary Development. Just as the oak tree must grow in order to live, it will bear a less immediate resemblance to its sprouting year as it ages to perfection, yet ever remaining the same tree. Similarly, because Liturgy re-presents an eternal Mystery to an unchanging human nature, it achieves greater perfection and stability over time; for this reason, “going back” to some “original purity” is an error, denying the living growth process presided over by Christ.[6]
  3. Consistent Trajectory. The oak tree bears within itself the logic of its own growth, allowing us to predict how it will appear in coming years. Similarly, the very nature of Liturgy intimates how it can be reasonably expected to look with future development, as opposed to mutation. The Roman Catholic of 900 AD would thus be able to recognize and feel at home in the Mass of 1900 AD.[7]
  4. Imperceptible Growth. As with a tree, authentic liturgical (and doctrinal) development is most observable in the early period: the difference between a sprout and a 10 year-old oak appears significant, whereas the difference between a 100 and 110 year-old oak is imperceptible. After the growth stages of the first half-millennium of Christianity, change has come to liturgical form at a glacial pace and in minimal degrees. Also termed the principle of due proportion, both the speed and scope of authentic liturgical change will now be slight – there are no “evolutionary leaps” observable in the preceding tradition.[8]
  5. Doctrinal Clarity. The ancient Catholic adage lex orandi, lex credendi can be rendered: “the law of prayer establishes the law of belief,” showing the rite of Mass as dogma in motion, the “effective poetry” of Revelation. Thus at a minimum, Liturgy must not assert untruths – yet this is insufficient; since doctrine is better articulated over time, all the more so in Liturgy – not after the manner of textbook treatments, but rather woven into its content, especially the propers. Liturgical content that diminishes doctrinal clarity is therefore considered an inauthentic deviation rather than an authentic development.[9]
  6. Lawfully Promulgated. Local bishops have always overseen care of the Liturgy in their dioceses; and as the liturgical form used in Rome (the Roman Rite) represents the oldest and most widely adopted over the centuries, for Roman Catholics this means conformity to that missal authorized by the Pope. For his part, the Pope must preserve and hand on the one roman rite in its integrity[10] – chiefly by authoritatively issuing updated editions of the roman missal.[11]
  7. Universally Received. Because one of the organs of infallibility in the Church is the sensus fidei, authentic liturgical developments meet with universal reception by the Catholic faithful, whereas inauthentic deviations have always raised contention and strife until their redress.[12]

History shows these to be the key markers in organic development in liturgy, which in turn yields that “essential continuity” required of all truly Catholic rites.[13]


Piety: The Essential Operating Principle

It becomes clear that the key ingredient for maintaining essential continuity with that worship form which the Lord desires (cf. Jn 4:23) is the virtue of piety. Each generation must receive with trembling and offer that Liturgy given by Christ and grown organically in His Church, as Aquinas importantly states in his Summa:

“Man incurs the guilt of falsehood who, on the part of the Church gives worship to God contrary to the manner established by the Church or divine authority, and according to the ecclesiastical custom. Hence St. Ambrose says: He is unworthy who celebrates the mystery otherwise than as Christ delivered it.” (II.II.93.1)

As with all the virtues, piety requires exercise on the part of all the baptized; as much in the preservation of right worship as in maintaining right doctrine and morals. The need for such piety shines out in earlier ages, when faith and piety lapsed among the Church’s hierarchy – perhaps most clearly in the 4th century, when the vast majority of the world’s bishops and priests had become Arian heretics, and their celebrations of Mass were rejected by the Catholic faithful, as St. Basil attests:

“Sacred things are profaned; those of the laity who are sound in faith avoid the places of worship as schools of impiety, and raise their hands in solitudes, with groans and tears to the Lord in heaven.” (Letter 92)

As Arianism continued to spread, he would later write:

Matters have come to this pass: the people have left their houses of prayer, and now assemble in the deserts – a pitiable sight; women and children, old men, and men otherwise infirm, wretchedly faring in the open air, amid the most profuse rains and snow-storms and winds and frosts of winter; and again in summer under a scorching sun. To all this they submit, because they will have no part in the wicked Arian leaven.” (Letter 242)

And again:

Only one offence is now vigorously punished: an accurate observance of our fathers’ traditions. For this cause the pious are driven from their countries, and transported into deserts. The people are in lamentation, in continual tears at home and abroad. There is a cry in the city, a cry in the country, in the roads, in the deserts. Joy and spiritual cheerfulness are no more; our Feasts are turned into mourning; our houses of prayer are shut up, our altars deprived of the spiritual worship.” (Letter 243)

Such was the situation when another great bishop, St. Athanasius, arose to exhort the Church universal to hold fast to that which they had received in doctrine, discipline, and liturgy, reminding bishops especially that they had a job to do:

For our canons and our forms were not given to the churches at the present day, but were wisely and safely transmitted to us from our forefathers. Neither had our Faith its beginning at this time, but it came down to us from the Lord through His disciples. That therefore the ordinances which have been preserved in the churches from old time until now, may not be lost in our days, and the trust which has been committed to us required at our hands; rouse yourselves, brethren, as being stewards of the mysteries of God, and seeing them now seized upon by aliens.” (Epistola Encyclica)

Surely no less measure of piety and zeal is required of Catholics today.
Gloria Patri Header2.png

Some Practical Conclusions

  • The Novus Ordo is either always irreverent… This is due to the fact that this rite itself represents a break with the objective liturgical tradition, as stated in 1976 by one of its architects, Fr. Joseph Gelineau: “To tell the truth, it is a different liturgy of the Mass. This needs to be said without ambiguity: the Roman rite as we knew it no longer exists. It has been destroyed” (Demain la liturgie, Paris, p. 9). Continued use of the Novus Ordo therefore represents an impiety: the refusal to reverently receive and hand on that worship which has grown organically in the devotion of centuries – the traditional Mass.
  • …Or, it is never irreverent. Those who maintain the Novus Ordo is “valid, therefore good” (liturgical positivism) are unable in principle to condemn the vast majority of liturgical abuses – for such is to claim (and rightly so) a standard of measurement beyond what is liturgically “permitted” by its current rubrics (which are open-ended by design) or reigning hierarchs. Yet as we have seen, this standard can only be the objective liturgical tradition – upon which grounds the Novus Ordo as a whole stands condemned in principle, form, and content. Either nothing in the Novus Ordo is objectively deficient, or the whole thing is.
  • The “reform of the reform” welcomes endless novelty. Beyond being massively imprudent from a psychosocial standpoint, the notion of continuously “improving” the Novus Ordo betrays itself: It admits of deficiencies, then consigns their rectification to rubrical force. What today is one of its central prayers may tomorrow be penciled over (indeed, such is happening constantly), thus replacing piety with coersion: a door to endless innovation, so long as it’s “approved.” Yet the Catholic senses that in true worship, we are subject to it, not vice versa – and pious submission to Tradition alone grants us this access.
  • The faithful should cleave to traditional Liturgy. Those looking for a “more reverent” Novus Ordo most demonstrate this need, for the innate reverence of Liturgy must never depend on us. Rather, we must submit in faith to that Liturgy given in Christ and authentically developed over centuries, lovingly handing it on; for the traditional Mass makes Catholics. It makes Saints. It is His. As St. John Chrysostom would say: “It is tradition. Seek no further.”
  • The Novus Ordo should be abrogated. A Pope or a Congregation at his direction should begin taking measured steps (like those prior to the 2011 missal) to universally phase out the Novus Ordo and return the Catholic world to the traditional rites. Scoffers at this idea would do well to review some liturgical history (e.g., the Quignonez episode), and recall that in 1950 the faithful would have laughed at the suggestion that in twenty years’ time, the Roman Rite would be “destroyed,” and a new one invented to take its place.
  • In the meantime, Catholics should avoid it. If man’s primary duty is right worship, then it must be according to that form which God desires, not what best suits our taste (liturgical preference). Since the Novus Ordo was fashioned piecemeal by a 1960s committee in an act of supreme impiety, as what Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI in 1992 termed “a fabrication, a banal on-the-spot product,” it is necessarily an irreverent treatment of the sacred. It should thus be avoided as a matter of justice to God, and the rising generation spared a lifetime of malformation in such a novel and theologically defective construct.

A Few Recommendations:

  • A Short History of the Roman Mass, booklet by Michael Davies
  • The Organic Development of Liturgy, book by Dom Alcuin Reid (Ratzinger fwd)
  • The Reform of the Roman Liturgy, book by Klaus Gamber (Ratzinger fwd)
  • The Fourth Commandment as Applied to Liturgical Abuses, article by McClinch
  • Ep. 41: Peter Kwasniewski on Liturgical Reform, podcast by OnePeterFive
  • Charting Liturgical Change, handout by Whispers of Restoration

[1]. It may thus appear as somewhat fitting that the Consilium which crafted the Novus Ordo should supplant the ancient Offertory of Mass with a new Preparation of the Gifts prayer, in which the priest is to acclaim “the work of human hands.”

[2]. Some stand-out examples include: the abusive missa siccas of the 14th century; the Quignonez breviary of the 16th century, which was commissioned and issued by papal authority – only to be proscribed by a later Pope as an erroneous innovation; the novel Parisian missal of the 17th century, and; the Gallican liturgical novelties of the 18th century, including the practice of abbreviating and simplifying the Mass prayers, offering Mass audibly, and offering Mass in the vernacular – all of which were condemned in 1794 as “rash, offensive to pious ears, insulting to the Church, favorable to the charges of heretics against it” (cf. DZ 1533).

[3]. As the 1992 Catechism maintains: “For this reason no sacramental rite may be modified or manipulated at the will of the minister or the community. Even the supreme authority in the Church may not change the liturgy arbitrarily, but only in the obedience of faith and with religious respect for the mystery of the liturgy” (n. 1125). It is at least paradoxical that this is taught in a catechism issued within a generation of what must be considered the most arbitrary exercise of papal authority in history for the effecting of a non-traditional liturgical form.

[4]. Owen Chadwick, The Reformation (1972), p. 119.

[5]. A clear historical example of this principle’s violation was the creation of a new English Mass under the direction of Archbishop Thomas Cranmer in the 16th century. For a thoroughly researched and engaging account of this period, Michael Davies’ Cranmer’s Godly Order is indispensable. It is worth noting that the revolutionary liturgical changes in Cranmer’s rite bear a marked similarity to those adopted in the Novus Ordo, as we distill in our little chart. That thousands of Catholics died rather than adopt Cranmer’s novel rite of Mass is compelling.

[6]. This error of “antiquarianism” or “archaeologism” was expressly condemned by Pope Pius XII in Mediator Dei, n. 63-64.

[7]. This becomes especially clear upon examining early sacramentaries and the hagiography spanning those centuries. A question may here be raised: would a Roman Catholic of any prior century recognize or feel at home in the Novus Ordo? It seems this must be answered in the negative, particularly considering Fr. Gelineau’s words (quoted above in text), the 1970 statement of another Consilium member, Fr. Louis Bouyer, that “there is practically no liturgy worthy of the name today in the Catholic Church” (The Decomposition of Catholicism, p. 99), and the striking words of Benedict XVI in 1997: “I am convinced that the ecclesial crisis in which we find ourselves today depends in great part on the collapse of the liturgy,” quoted in Milestones: Memoirs 1927-1977, p. 148-49, emphasis added.

[8]. Nothing of the sort can be maintained for the Novus Ordo, drawn up and imposed in under six years, and in which less than 20% of traditional propers were retained, entirely new content was added, the Roman Canon was rendered optional, and the divine words of Consecration were altered – to say nothing of the rubrical novelties that followed, e.g., versus populum celebration, vernacular language, altar girls, extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion, Communion in the hand, etc.

[9]. It should thus be cause for concern to find that the architects of the Novus Ordo systematically deleted extensive doctrinal content from the propers, e.g., all references to miracles, hell, divine judgement, the wages of sin, the one true Church, the merit of Saints, and the souls of the departed (cf. Cekada’s The Problems With the Prayers of the Modern Mass). This is all the more striking considering the directive of Vatican II: “[B]oth texts and rites should be shaped to express more clearly the holy things which they signify… grow[ing] organically from those already existing.” Sacrosanctum Concilium, n. 21, 23, our emphasis.

[10]. As Benedict XVI attests in Reid’s Organic Development: “The pope is not an absolute monarch whose will is law; rather, he is the guardian of the authentic Tradition… His rule is not that of arbitrary power, but that of obedience in faith. That is why, with respect to the Liturgy, he has the task of a gardener, not that of a technician who builds new machines and throws the old ones on the junk-pile. The ‘rite,’ that form of celebration and prayer which has ripened in the faith and the life of the Church, is a condensed form of living Tradition” (p. 10-11). That he would later seek to explain the Novus Ordo as an alternate “usage” of this “one” Roman Rite is confusing at best (cf. Summorum Pontificum, n. 1).

[11]. This makes a given missal “valid” in the legal sense. Yet in the case of the Novus Ordo Missae, many maintain that because it represents a rupture in the objective liturgical tradition, its 1969 promulgation by Pope Paul VI was at variance with the moral duty of the pope to safeguard Tradition. Some therefore regard this missal as unlawful in the same way that unjust civil laws are no true laws, and ought remain unobserved or resisted (cf. Pope Leo XIII, Sapientiae Christianae, n. 10). This same reasoning is observable among other liturgical innovations in preceding centuries.  

[12]. The 16th century episode of Quignonez’s new breviary offers a clear example. As Reid records in Organic Development, when this novel form was introduced in Saragossa, “the people suspecting their canons had become Huguenots, there was uproar in the cathedral that went near to making an auto da fé of the canons and their new breviary… thus these good folk defended in their own fashion the just rights of liturgical Tradition” (p 37). The breviary was proscribed some thirty years later.

[13]. The fact that none of these principles were effectively observed in the creation and promulgation of the Novus Ordo (with the possible exception of #6) is clear from any examination of the Consilium’s correspondence, cursory draft work, and final product – information far more accessible now than in prior decades.


  1. I hear (or read really) Catholics saying the V2 Protestantized the mass. Maybe by Protestant you mean Episcopqlians and maybe they do such weird things, but in my church communion looks nothing like this child bride ceremony you have here in your Novus Ordo Seclorum Mass. We have one man stand behind a table and say the proper words and then hand off the bread on a plate to one man (man, not woman, not girl, not boy child, man) who passes it down the aisle and another man on the other side of the aisle attends the other side, and eventually they bring it back. Then the same with the cup. We don’t have a whole wedding part of children up there. Nor like the Tridentine do we have 10 men in dresses holding up another croasdressing man’s skirt. Its so different that I have to say both Catholic version have some implied eroticism in their form of communion that is shocking and irreligious.


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