A conversation with a Protestant friend of mine brought to the forefront something I have been mulling over for some time. He claimed in a rather blunt way that Pius XII had rejected the axiom lex orandi lex credendi. He pointed to a passage from Mediator Dei, one which I will quote at length, as a proof of his position:
46. On this subject We judge it Our duty to rectify an attitude with which you are doubtless familiar, Venerable Brethren. We refer to the error and fallacious reasoning of those who have claimed that the sacred liturgy is a kind of proving ground for the truths to be held of faith, meaning by this that the Church is obliged to declare such a doctrine sound when it is found to have produced fruits of piety and sanctity through the sacred rites of the liturgy, and to reject it otherwise. Hence the epigram, “Lex orandi, lex credendi” – the law for prayer is the law for faith.
47. But this is not what the Church teaches and enjoins. The worship she offers to God, all good and great, is a continuous profession of Catholic faith and a continuous exercise of hope and charity, as Augustine puts it tersely. “God is to be worshipped,” he says, “by faith, hope and charity.” In the sacred liturgy we profess the Catholic faith explicitly and openly, not only by the celebration of the mysteries, and by offering the holy sacrifice and administering the sacraments, but also by saying or singing the credo or Symbol of the faith – it is indeed the sign and badge, as it were, of the Christian – along with other texts, and likewise by the reading of holy scripture, written under the inspiration of the Holy Ghost. The entire liturgy, therefore, has the Catholic faith for its content, inasmuch as it bears public witness to the faith of the Church.
48. For this reason, whenever there was question of defining a truth revealed by God, the Sovereign Pontiff and the Councils in their recourse to the “theological sources,” as they are called, have not seldom drawn many an argument from this sacred science of the liturgy. For an example in point, Our predecessor of immortal memory, Pius IX, so argued when he proclaimed the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary. Similarly during the discussion of a doubtful or controversial truth, the Church and the Holy Fathers have not failed to look to the age-old and age-honored sacred rites for enlightenment. Hence the well-known and venerable maxim, “Legem credendi lex statuat supplicandi” – let the rule for prayer determine the rule of belief. The sacred liturgy, consequently, does not decide or determine independently and of itself what is of Catholic faith. More properly, since the liturgy is also a profession of eternal truths, and subject, as such, to the supreme teaching authority of the Church, it can supply proofs and testimony, quite clearly, of no little value, towards the determination of a particular point of Christian doctrine. But if one desires to differentiate and describe the relationship between faith and the sacred liturgy in absolute and general terms, it is perfectly correct to say, “Lex credendi legem statuat supplicandi” – let the rule of belief determine the rule of prayer. The same holds true for the other theological virtues also, “In . . . fide, spe, caritate continuato desiderio semper oramus” – we pray always, with constant yearning in faith, hope and charity.1
As I gave my response to his claim, citing both the context and content of what Pope Pius XII wrote, I found that I was explicating what I had perhaps known for a while, but had never explicitly formulated: that the theology of the Church is truly prior to her liturgy.
There has been a tendency in Eastern Orthodox as well as certain Anglican and Lutheran movements to see the liturgy as the source of our theology. The essence of the argument is that during the great Christological controversies of the 4th and 5th centuries, it was an appeal to the worship and prayer of the Church, not some sort of defined apostolic authority or theology that was the central argument against the heresies of the day: Arianism, Monophysitism, Nestorianism, Eutychianism, and the like. This is expounded to a great degree by Anglicans seeking to ground their tradition in the Book of Common Prayer as opposed to the teachings of the Fathers or some Reformation era creedal statement. It gives room for the diverse interpretations of Anglicans and helps found the argument against both the Roman position and the Catholic Mass.
This idea finds its way into Catholicism, especially among those who greatly esteem the Mass. The idea that all good (and all ill) flow from the Mass, that it is the supreme arbiter of belief, and that it is the only meaningful test of Catholic identity has found a hold in certain parts of Catholic thought. To be sure, the liturgy is of great importance, but it is ultimately formed by the Church, not the other way around. The theology of the Church forms the Mass, which in turn passes belief on to us in a particular, concrete way. The Mass certainly communicates theological truths to us, but it is not itself the source of those theological truths.
We can look to the organic development of the liturgy to see exactly how this process works, in particular in the case of the Eucharistic controversy surrounding Berengar of Tours. His denial of transubstantiation caused no little uproar. Though he eventually recanted and died reconciled with the Church, Lateran IV still dogmatized transubstantiation to ensure there was no question as to the place transubstantiation holds in the faith. What is interesting is the liturgical response to this controversy, namely the inclusion of the major elevation after the consecration. Before the 11th century, there was no major elevation after the consecration; there was only the minor elevation at the doxology which concluded the Canon. The major elevation began as a way to combat the heresy Berengar had spread.
There are a few things to conclude from this episode. First, that the liturgy adapted and conformed itself to good theology in order to combat heresy. While the major elevation was never rubrically proscribed, it was still a good, pious act which helped communicate one of the central truths of the faith. It was not the liturgy itself which was the source of the refutation of Berengar, but rather, it was the practical demonstration of the teaching of the Church against him. Second, that the liturgy was important in shaping the belief of the faithful, many of whom did not have the training or capacity to understand the finer points of controversy. While a typical Catholic would not have understood the careful distinction between a substantial change as opposed to a formal or spiritual change, they can clearly see and comprehend the ramifications of the pious action of the Priest, presenting the Lord to them. The Mass truly passed on the theology of the Church to those who otherwise would have been unable to engage it. Third, in combating the heresy of Berengar, we see an appeal to the theology of the Church and not her liturgy as such. In the works of LaFranc of Canterbury and Guitmund of Aversa, two men who combated the Berengar heresy fiercely, we see an appeal to the fathers and magisterium of the Church. In the instances where either LeFranc or Guitmund do make an appeal to the Mass as proof of their position, they always found their interpretation on the testimony of the Church, as a way of showing their source. It is, on the other hand, Berengar who appeals to the prayers of the Mass without any source or foundation in the Church’s theology as a support of his heresy.
This small example, one of many, serves as a way of understanding the proper role that the liturgy plays in catechesis, that is, it serves to instruct the faithful, both those who are great theologians and those who are humble layfolk. But it is not the source of our theology. Pope Pius XII rightly makes this distinction, when he shows that the liturgy does inform the theology of those who experience it, but it is not the beginning or spring of that theology. That comes to us from the Church, from the Vicar of Christ, from the Magisterium, from the Fathers, from Sacred Scripture, and from the Sacred Tradition. Theology doesn’t begin and end with the liturgy, rather it is made present to us in a visible way in the Mass.
Pope Pius XII condemns an improper interpretation of lex orandi, lex credendi, one that sought to make prayer and liturgy the dogmatic foundation of the Church, but he never denies that as we pray, so we believe. He simply makes sure to ground that prayer in the teaching authority of the Church.
Mediator Dei, Pope Pius XII ↩