Rorate Caeli

The Four Qualities of Liturgy: Validity, Licitness, Fittingness, and Authenticity (Full Text of Dr. Kwasniewski’s Lecture)

Below is the full text of a lecture given at Queen of Peace Parish in Patton, Pennsylvania, on September 21, 2020 (video at YouTube). If we want to overcome the impoverished state of liturgical discourse, which results from focusing on only two categories (validity and licitness) and arrive at a fuller, more accurate picture, we must also consider fittingness and authenticity/legitimacy, which are two other irreducibly distinct perfections of liturgy. At the end, I offer a chart that categorizes liturgies — Eastern and Western, Catholic and Protestant, old and new, etc. — in terms of the four qualities. The text was first published at New Liturgical Movement; the chart, however, has been updated.

Los cuatro postes (Ávila)

The Four Qualities of Liturgy: Validity, Licitness, Fittingness, and Authenticity
Dr. Peter A. Kwasniewski
Queen of Peace Parish, Patton, PA
September 21, 2020

The celebration of the traditional Roman Rite Mass is becoming more and more common; it seems that its popularity has been an unintended consequence of both the chaos of the current pontificate and the disappointment of many Catholics with their pastors and parishes during the COVID pandemic. “Enough is enough!” is a frequently heard reaction. People are looking for worship that is reverent, prayerful, God-oriented, and deeply refreshing, and for priests who are truly committed to the care of souls. This, of course, is the work of the Holy Spirit, tugging at the heartstrings of baptized and confirmed Catholics, in whom there was planted the seed of Trinitarian life, which urges us to enter into the divine mystery.

However, there are certain difficulties in our situation, too. A vast amount of information, good, bad, indifferent, and inaccurate, circulates on the internet. Lay Catholics are seldom equipped to be able to understand what they’re reading about, especially when we get “into the weeds” of liturgical history and reform. How are blogs going to equip us with the ability to navigate thorny questions about the pope’s authority, the Church’s fidelity to tradition, the duty of obedience (and the limits thereof), and so on? There is a great need for careful, thoughtful, well-informed presentations on liturgical matters, so that we can deepen our understanding of the complex issues involved, without losing the simplicity of our faith, or the spontaneity of our interior life as we strive to be the saints Our Lord is calling us to be.

After many years, I have come to the realization that a lot of the time, people are talking past one another in liturgical discussions, and that is because they are talking about different aspects or properties of the liturgy, while failing to make the necessary distinctions. There are, in fact, four properties that are always supposed to belong to any liturgy: validity; licitness; fittingness; and authenticity. All of them are important, none of them is dispensable. They are meant to work together, in harmony, to bring us the fullness of divine worship intended by Christ for His Church. The problems we have experienced in recent decades have a lot to do with an exaggerated emphasis on one or another of these qualities, at the expense of the rest. I will begin by defining each one, and then talk about how they are related.


First, validity. With validity we are looking at a fairly straightforward question: does a sacrament happen or not? At the Council of Florence, the Church officially adopted the scholastic language of “matter and form” to indicate the two parts of any sacrament — the material things it uses and the words spoken in connection with them. [1] This Council taught: “All these Sacraments are accomplished by three elements, namely, by things as the matter; by words as the form; and by the person of the minister who confers the Sacrament with the intention of doing that which the Church does. If any of these is lacking, the Sacrament is not accomplished.” [2]

So, for example, in baptism the water is poured over the person’s head, while the minister speaks the words: “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” St. Augustine wrote: “Take away the words, what then is the water but water? The words are added to the element, and the Sacrament emerges.” The washing with water in the name of the Trinity then accomplishes spiritually what washing with water does physically, namely, cleanses and refreshes. That is why we say a sacrament “effects what it signifies.” And we can go through each of the seven sacraments this way, seeing what the material thing used is, and what the words are, and what effects are signified by the combination of the matter and form. This is a very rich topic but for my purposes, we are looking at validity, that is, why baptism happens, and our answer is: the correct words were said, with the correct matter, by someone capable of performing the action, who intends to do what the Catholic Church does, even if he doesn’t fully understand what that might be.

Sometimes Catholic theology strikes observers as arcane and esoteric, but in point of fact, problems with validity arise from time to time in Church history, and we need to be equipped to deal with them. The notorious recent case of Fr. Matthew Hood comes to mind. Fr. Hood, serving as a priest in the archdiocese of Detroit, discovered early last August that he had been baptized by a deacon who used the formula “We baptize you,” which was judged invalid by a decision of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith published on August 6th. As a result, Hood realized he had never been baptized, and therefore had never been confirmed or ordained to the priesthood, since each subsequent sacrament rests on the foundation of the preceding ones. He had to receive all these sacraments for the first time — and then deal with the messy fallout that resulted for other people who had depended on his ministry. For example, all the confirmations he had done, all the marriages, all the absolutions, all the last rites — all of these were absolutely null and utterly void. Do we have need for any further proof that the words we say and the actions we perform make a difference?

I mentioned a moment ago that the one who performs the sacrament has to have the right intention. Some Catholics get themselves tied up in knots about what intention is necessary, and they tend to exaggerate the explicitness and orthodoxy of the required intention. All that is required is that the priest have a virtual (not even an explicit) intention to perform a ritual of the Catholic Church by following the words and actions of the rite as given in the liturgical book. He does not need to have a good theological grasp of what he is doing, and he might even have an heretical understanding of it, as, unfortunately, a lot of clergy may have nowadays, due to their poor seminary training. He might be doing the sacrament for money, or for personal vanity, or to get promoted to a better position, etc. Still, if he thinks he is doing what the Church does — though he misunderstands it, or sins because of personal unworthiness — that intention suffices for validity.

If a priest’s theological competence, subjective motivations, or personal sanctity were necessary components of a valid sacrament, we would be thrown into constant doubts about whether the sacraments are efficacious, which is clearly not what Our Lord desires, or what He instituted. He planned better than that. As the Church teaches, Christ Himself is the primary agent in every sacrament: He is the one who baptizes, who confirms, who absolves, who transubstantiates. The priest is an intelligent instrument — intelligent, yes, which is why intentionality is required; but still an instrument, like a hammer or a saw. [3]

(That, by the way, is why the Detroit deacon’s baptisms were invalid, as Matthew Hood discovered to his horror: the deacon was saying “We baptize you,” referring to the Christian community, which precisely contradicts the fundamental truth: “It is I, Jesus Christ, who am baptizing you through my visible minister, who lends his voice and hands to Me.” Interestingly, the Byzantine tradition uses a completely different formula in the passive voice: “The servant of God, N., is baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” Although so very different, this formula makes it clear that it is not the local community or any individual man by himself who incorporates a person into Christ; rather, this happens by God’s gracious action: “The servant of God is baptized,” with Christ implied as the one baptizing.)

To sum up this point, I will quote from theologian Roger Nutt:

[A] sacramental celebration is understood to be “valid” if it is executed by the proper minister in such a way that the sacrament is truly brought into being. Invalidity happens when the celebration is executed by an unauthorized minister or when the matter and form are so defective that the sign is not brought about. An invalid celebration indicates, precisely, that a sacrament was never brought into being and thus, absent the sacrament, none of the sacramental effects are conferred. [4]

Now, who gets to determine what counts for validity? Canon law states that “the sacraments of the New Testament were instituted by Christ the Lord and entrusted to the Church” [5] (indeed, this is a de fide dogma), and then in Canon 841 draws this conclusion: “Since the sacraments are the same for the whole Church and belong to the divine deposit, it is only for the supreme authority of the Church to approve or define the requirements for their validity.” Hence, we can say without any doubt that what counts as a valid sacramental rite, and the conditions for its performance, are solely the competence of the supreme authority of the Church, which means either the Pope by himself, or the Pope together with the college of bishops, as at an ecumenical council.

It is not possible, if we hold to the Catholic Faith, to call into question or to doubt the validity of a sacramental rite duly and correctly promulgated. This means, for example, that the Novus Ordo Missae, or the other postconciliar sacramental rites, having been promulgated by the supreme authority of the Church, must be accepted as valid, no matter how much their deficiencies or their discontinuities with age-old Catholic tradition deserve to be critiqued, and no matter how much better the traditional rites may be. Validity is not about better and worse, more beautiful and less beautiful, more worthy or less worthy; it is a binary switch with two settings: on or off. Either transubstantiation happens or it does not. The question of whether the liturgical rites are “as they should be” necessarily gets us into other qualities, namely, legitimacy and fittingness. But before we get into those, we need to look at the second quality, licitness.


On this quality, I would like to start again with Roger Nutt, who says right after the passage I quoted a moment ago:

A licit celebration is one that is performed according to the prescribed rite of the Church, while an illicit celebration is one that directly deviates in some way from the prescribed rite. An illicit sacramental celebration does not vitiate the validity and therefore reality of the sacrament… [6]

Fr. Bernard Leeming says, more precisely:

Valid is often used as distinct from licit, which is said of a sacrament in whose administration and reception no law is broken; for unlawful administration of a sacrament does not ipso facto render it invalid. Thus a priest who is suspended or excommunicated can validly administer all sacraments except Penance, which requires jurisdiction, but he sins by so doing, if he acts contumaciously, and the faithful sin if they receive sacraments from him without some justifying reason. [7]

The term “licit” comes from the Latin verb licére, which means to allow. Licitness or liceity has to do with what is permitted, and, by extension, what is required or forbidden to Christians. In the domain of the sacraments and the liturgy, it primarily concerns the questions: Who is allowed to perform or to receive a given sacrament, and under what circumstances? If a priest or bishop in good standing, following all the conditions set forth in canon law, celebrates a liturgical rite according to the books promulgated by the supreme authority of the Church, saying the black and doing the red (in other words, reading just the texts that are printed, and following the rubrics without deviation), then he celebrates licitly. He has done, in other words, that which he had permission to do; that which he was required to do; and nothing that he is forbidden to do.

On the other hand, it is not licit for a Latin-rite priest to celebrate a Byzantine liturgy, unless he has first received canonical permission to do so; it is not licit for a laicized or degraded priest to offer Mass; it is not licit for a priest in a state of mortal sin to offer Mass; it is not licit to celebrate Mass with rice crackers and sake instead of wheat bread and wine from grapes (and that would also make it invalid); it is not licit to ad lib the opening prayer, or to play a John Lennon song in place of the psalm, or to read from a binder a Eucharistic Prayer written by liberation theologians from Nicaragua. As a matter of fact, any intentional deviation from the liturgical books, either in their texts or in their rubrics, is illicit, and makes the liturgy illicit to a greater or lesser extent. Moreover, it is not licit to receive Communion without having fasted for at least one hour beforehand; and, above all, it is not licit for anyone to receive Holy Communion in a state of mortal sin.

Two things will be immediately obvious from the foregoing list of examples.

First, some of these things are matters of mere canon law, that is, positive law created by the Church and changeable by her, while some things are matters of divine or natural law, which the Church can articulate, but does not originate and therefore can never alter. [8] The rule that we must fast for a certain period of time before Communion is a positive ecclesiastical law that can change and has changed a lot; not very long ago, the requirement was three hours (which in many ways would be much better), and not long before that, the rule was to fast from midnight onwards. But the rule that we must — so far as we can ascertain by examining our consciences — be in a state of grace in order to receive Communion is a matter of divine law, which is clear from chapter 11 of St. Paul’s Letter to the Corinthians, where he says that someone who eats the Body of Christ unworthily eats damnation, and that a man should examine his conscience accordingly. No council or pope could ever change this rule.

Second, the Church today, at least in Western nations, is in grave trouble, since the vast majority of liturgies are illicit in one way or another; both ministers and recipients of sacraments have become habituated to illicitness. The crisis in the Church is, as Joseph Ratzinger said, in large part caused by the crisis in the liturgy.

The main point with the category of licitness (or liceity, as some prefer to call it) is that the sacred liturgy or divine worship, and with it, our sanctification by the mysteries of Christ, is a communal, ecclesial, hierarchical activity. Christ entrusted the work and the means of sanctification to His Church, and therefore, to her authorized heads. It is not something “between Jesus and me,” as our individualistic, atomistic age might think of it, a matter of convenience or personal choice, but rather, something between Christ and the Church, into which we are privileged to be inserted, as recipients and subordinates. Back in 2004, the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments issued an instruction called Redemptionis Sacramentum, which addressed many of the most common liturgical problems and abuses of the Novus Ordo. In words that are of universal application, the document eloquently says:

The Mystery of the Eucharist “is too great for anyone to permit himself to treat it according to his own whim, so that its sacredness and its universal ordering would be obscured.” On the contrary, anyone who acts thus by giving free reign to his own inclinations, even if he is a Priest, injures the substantial unity of the Roman Rite, which ought to be vigorously preserved, and becomes responsible for actions that are in no way consistent with the hunger and thirst for the living God that is experienced by the people today. Nor do such actions serve authentic pastoral care or proper liturgical renewal; instead, they deprive Christ’s faithful of their patrimony and their heritage. For arbitrary actions are not conducive to true renewal, but are detrimental to the right of Christ’s faithful to a liturgical celebration that is an expression of the Church’s life in accordance with her tradition and discipline. In the end, they introduce elements of distortion and disharmony into the very celebration of the Eucharist, which is oriented in its own lofty way and by its very nature to signifying and wondrously bringing about the communion of divine life and the unity of the People of God. The result is uncertainty in matters of doctrine, perplexity and scandal on the part of the People of God, and, almost as a necessary consequence, vigorous opposition, all of which greatly confuse and sadden many of Christ’s faithful...
          On the contrary, it is the right of all of Christ’s faithful that the Liturgy, and in particular the celebration of Holy Mass, should truly be as the Church wishes, according to her stipulations as prescribed in the liturgical books and in the other laws and norms. Likewise, the Catholic people have the right that the Sacrifice of the Holy Mass should be celebrated for them in an integral manner, according to the entire doctrine of the Church’s Magisterium. [9]

The same document says later on:

In an altogether particular manner, let everyone do all that is in their power to ensure that the Most Holy Sacrament of the Eucharist will be protected from any and every irreverence or distortion and that all abuses be thoroughly corrected. This is a most serious duty incumbent upon each and every one, and all are bound to carry it out without any favoritism. [10]

Sadly, Redemptionis Sacramentum seems to have gone to that special place in the sky, or over the seas, or under the earth, where all unwelcome Vatican documents go for their eternal rest, and where it has been forgotten like the unremembered dead. In the current COVID-19 situation, we have seen how readily bishops and priests, in their frenzy to avoid contamination with or transmission of the virus, are violating liturgical law in the most scandalous ways. In fact, Dr. Joseph Shaw makes a very important point here about clergy who are willing to experiment with or manipulate the liturgy:

The reason they feel free to play fast and loose with the liturgy is not because they feel strongly about sacramental validity and don’t care about anything else, but because they don’t care very much about sacramental validity either. They may be influenced by the idea that bishops and the Holy See feel strongly about validity, and they may allow us to comfort ourselves with the thought, when it is possible, that the sacrament was in this or that case valid. But if they really cared about validity, they would take the liturgy seriously, and that is something they are manifestly not doing.
          Liturgical abuses are an offense against God, as the abuse of something holy. They are also an offense against the faithful, whose spiritual engagement in the liturgy is impeded. Again, they are an offense against our Lord, who instituted the sacraments for our salvation, and [against] Holy Mother Church, who has surrounded them with ceremonies and texts intended to give God glory and to assist us in our participation. Finally, they are an offense against the priesthood itself, which should protect the liturgy from profanation, and whose function is to provide it to others for the good of souls.

The mention of “ceremonies and texts intended to give God glory and to assist us in our participation” is a perfect segue to the third quality, fittingness.


Consider the following statement: “All that matters at Mass is that Jesus is present; everything else is secondary.” Or, more succinctly, “the Mass is the Mass.” Undoubtedly it matters a great deal that Jesus is present, for otherwise we are eating no more than ordinary food. But the liturgy has a greater purpose than putting on a meal for us, and even Our Lord’s presence has a greater scope and purpose than sacramental communion. The Mass is the solemn, public, formal act of adoration, thanksgiving, and supplication offered by Christ the High Priest to the Father, and by His entire Mystical Body in union with Him. It is the foremost act of the virtue of religion, by which we offer to God a sacrifice of praise worthy of His glory. It is the chief expression of the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity. It is the kingdom of heaven breaking into our earthly time and space. It is the nuptial feast of the King of Kings. It is the recapitulation of the entire created universe in its Alpha and Omega.

Because it is all these things, the Church down through the ages has spared no effort and no expense to augment the beauty and elevate the solemnity of her liturgical rites. As John Paul II rightly said: “Like the woman who anointed Jesus in Bethany, the Church has feared no ‘extravagance,’ devoting the best of her resources to expressing her wonder and adoration before the unsurpassable gift of the Eucharist.” [11] So while it may be true that the only things necessary for a valid Mass in the Roman Rite are unleavened bread made from wheat and wine made from grapes, a priest, and the words of consecration, to see this as sufficient for the offering of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass would betray a reductive, minimalist, and parsimonious view of things. Glorifying God and sanctifying our souls cannot be detached from the fittingness of the worship we offer Him. What the Council of Trent declares about the Roman Canon can be applied more generally to the whole of the Church’s liturgical life:

Since it is fitting that holy things be administered in a holy manner, and of all things this sacrifice is the most holy, the Catholic Church, to the end that it might be worthily and reverently offered and received, instituted many centuries ago the holy canon, which is so free from error that it contains nothing that does not in the highest degree savor of a certain holiness and piety and raise up to God the minds of those who offer. For it consists partly of the very words of the Lord, partly of the traditions of the Apostles, and also of pious regulations of holy pontiffs.

The essence of the Church’s liturgy is simple: it is precontained in the Heart of Christ, our Eternal High Priest, where all worthy worship perpetually exists. But the “clothing” of that worship is of decisive importance to us, who interact with Our Lord through His visible Body, the Church, and her visible rites. How these rites are structured, performed, and participated in will inevitably influence our understanding of the mysteries of the Faith and our ability to live them out. The clothing draped over the body of our prayers is, if anything, of far greater importance than any clothing a human being puts on.

When someone is attracted to the traditional Latin liturgy for its beauty to the eye and to the ear, it is not because he is stuck on these things, but because these things coalesce around the reality, the Sacrifice of the Cross, and make it stand forth with a satisfying clarity. The sensible or perceptible qualities so harmonize with the nature of the mystery that the result is the splendor of the truth. For men as body-soul composites, for Christians as disciples of the Word-made-flesh, there must be both elements: the truth and the splendor. Dom Gerard Calvet offers the perfect commentary:

One enters the Church by two doors: the door of the intelligence and the door of beauty. The narrow that of intelligence; it is open to intellectuals and scholars. The wider door is that of beauty. The Church in her impenetrable mystery...has need of an earthly epiphany accessible to all: this is the majesty of her temples, the splendour of her liturgy and the sweetness of her chants.
          Take a group of Japanese tourists visiting Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. They look at the height of the stained-glass windows, the harmony of the proportions. Suppose that at that moment, sacred ministers dressed in orphried velvet copes enter in procession for solemn Vespers. The visitors watch in silence; they are entranced: beauty has opened its doors to them. Now the Summa Theologiae of St. Thomas Aquinas and Notre Dame in Paris are products of the same era. They say the same thing. But who among the visitors has read the Summa of St. Thomas? The same phenomenon is found at all levels. The tourists who visit the Acropolis in Athens are confronted with a civilisation of beauty. But who among them can understand Aristotle?
          And so it is with the beauty of the liturgy. More than anything else it deserves to be called the splendour of the truth. It opens to the small and the great alike the treasures of its magnificence: the beauty of psalmody, sacred chants and texts, candles, harmony of movement and dignity of bearing. With sovereign art the liturgy exercises a truly seductive influence on souls, whom it touches directly, even before the spirit perceives its influence. [12]

For this very reason — that the externals are meant to tell us something about the reality to which they are in service, and draw us towards it — we must take care that they harmonize, that the outward aspect does not openly or subtly contradict the inward. It would be unfitting to put a king’s robes on a pauper, or a gold ring in a pig’s snout: there is discordance between the decoration and the thing decorated. The same holds in the other direction: a king does not wear dirty rags nor his horse a cheap saddle. Putting the king’s robes on the king, and bedecking his mount in regal fashion: this is dignum et justum. The surface should correspond to the thing’s nature and lead us directly into it. This is not to be “caught up in” the externals, but to be caught up by the externals into the inner meaning. [13]

In other words: although it is not necessary for validity or licitness that a liturgy should look and sound as if we are entering the realm of the transcendent God and that He is accomplishing something divine and transformative among us, it is nevertheless highly fitting or suitable that it be done in this manner. And, as a matter of fact, the whole history of the liturgy cannot be understood unless we have grasped this essential fact: nearly all of its development can be attributed to the demands of fittingness.

Nor should we be surprised at the role it plays. Fittingness or suitability — convenientia in the language of theologians — is one of the central concepts of dogmatic theology, as we can see in the writings of St. Anselm and St. Thomas Aquinas. Convenientia is a kind of necessity, a necessity based on what is appropriate for a given situation, what is decorous, proper, harmonious, corresponding to all the factors in play, or to the being about whom one is inquiring. When St. Thomas takes up the question “Must God create a world?,” he answers: “No, not by absolute necessity, for God, as infinite good, is self-sufficient and needs nothing else; but it is fitting that He share His goodness by causing finite good things to exist.” This immediately prompts another question: “Once God creates, must he create a rational or intellectual creature?” And the answer, again, is: “God is free to create any world He wishes; but it is fitting that He crown the order of creation with creatures that are as like to Him as possible, which means, beings possessed of intellect and will.” Much later on, when St. Thomas comes to the question: “Was the Incarnation necessary for the salvation of mankind?,” he again answers in this manner: “It was not simply necessary, since God could have saved man by willing it in His omnipotence. Nevertheless, it was most fitting that the Son of God become man, for many reasons: since man had sinned, it was fitting that man should make reparation; but only a sinless man of infinite merit could repair for the sin of Adam and all subsequent sins; moreover, man withdrew from spiritual goods to bodily goods, so it was right that he be restored to spiritual life by the bodily life of Christ; because the dignity of human nature consists in the image of God in the soul, it was appropriate for the Word, the perfect image of God, to restore that reflected image in man; nothing could show forth God’s extravagant love better than for His Son to lower Himself to human estate, suffer, and die in exchange for slaves; and so forth (Aquinas gives many such arguments for the fittingness of the Incarnation and the Passion). [14]

My point here is that, as the eminent Thomist Fr. Gilbert Narcisse maintains, convenientia is the central driving principle of Thomistic theology; without it, theology would be almost barren of development. So, too, the liturgy of the Church would have been barren had it not been for an ever-increasing awareness, prompted by the Holy Spirit, of the many ways in which the sacramental mysteries can be more fully expressed in words and gestures, in vestments and vessels, in music and architecture — in everything that pertains to the senses, the imagination, the memory, and the intellect’s capacity for symbolism. Fittingness is connected intimately with beauty, including moral beauty or honestas, a Latin word that refers to the condition of being reputable, honorable, upright, worthy.

Genealogy of Christ


Finally, in addition to validity, licitness, and fittingness, we should look to the historical continuity within a rite and its organic development: this is what I call “authenticity,” although it could also be called “legitimacy,” in the sense of “good birth,” that which is of noble descent. To understand authenticity, we need to ponder four truths. [15]

First, as I just mentioned, there is true development in regard to Christian liturgical rites. They are not handed down from heaven in their perfection. As with dogma and morality, so with the liturgy, the Lord bestows on human beings the dignity of being true causes of the articulation of doctrine, the application of laws, and the enrichment of public worship.

Second, authentic development begins from and remains faithful to what the Lord entrusted to the apostles. The “deposit of faith” contains all the principles of sacred doctrine, such that nothing that develops later in the ecumenical councils or in the papal magisterium may contradict it. In like manner, the apostles as they spread out to the corners of the earth took with them the seeds or principles of the liturgical rites that subsequently flourished as the major rites of the Church, East and West. There is no liturgical rite that does not belong to a definite apostolic tradition extended continuously over time. A rite cannot be fabricated ex nihilo. Hence the dictum of Trent anathematizing anyone who would change the received and approved rites into other new ones. [16]

Third, when Our Lord promises that the Holy Spirit will teach the Church “all truth,” this includes the development of her liturgy. As the liturgy develops, it becomes fuller and more perfect, both as an expression of the mysteries of faith, and as a vehicle for inculcating appropriate virtues in the faithful and for eliciting from them the acts of faith, hope, and charity that are demanded by these mysteries. Hence, just as the creeds of the Church grow in their fullness until they reach a certain perfection, so too, the liturgical rites of the Church grow over time until they reach a perfection of text, music, ceremony, and kindred signs that are fitting both to expressing the mysteries and to impressing them upon the faithful. The Holy Spirit takes countermeasures, so to speak, against the decrease of the unsurpassable apostolic knowledge of divine truth by ensconcing certain doctrinal propositions and liturgical rites across history as concrete parameters for faith and worship. [17] Even as God revealed to Moses the exact pattern of the tabernacle he was to build, [18] so too the Son of God fulfilled all the prophetic types in offering His own sacrifice as the perfection of all worship — nothing was left to chance; every detail was deliberate and controlled [19]; and in like manner, this exactitude and fulfillment is perpetuated in a new sacramental mode that has its external reflection in the cumulative fixity and comprehensiveness of liturgical form. [20]

Fourth, the rate of liturgical change decreases over time, as the rite achieves the plenitude intended for it by Divine Providence. One should expect a rite, after a certain point, to be relatively permanent and immobile, so that it is a compliment rather than a criticism to say of it that “it has hardly changed for 400 years,” as we can say of the Roman Missal in the period from the late 16th century to the mid-20th century. The clergy offering and the faithful assisting at a particular rite will understand it to be appropriate that the rite should be permanent and immobile. It is not merely that liturgies tend towards stability and constancy; it is that this process of stabilization and permanence is seen to be desirable and fitting for the life of the Church. It is seen as a blessing from the Lord, who, having raised up generation after generation of saints to enhance and enrich the liturgy, now seals it with His sovereign blessing, imparting to it a share in His own immutability and eternity. [21] As a corollary, we can say that, to the extent that a liturgy is perfected, its changes will be proportionately incidental or accidental. Thus, in the first half of the first millennium, something as basic as the Eucharistic prayer of the Mass was still in process of growth; in the second half of the first millennium, the Gregorian chant corpus was completed; in the first half of the second millennium, the rites of Holy Week achieved their full ceremonial splendor; in the second half of the second millennium (until the liturgical reform), growth tended to concern only additions or modifications of feasts to the liturgical calendar.

From these four truths, it follows that any significant or wholesale rejection of elements that have come to be added and accepted over long periods of time in the Church’s history would be a sin against the Holy Spirit, and any attempt to recast a rite from the ground up would reflect a false theology of the Church and of the Trinity. For a liturgy to be authentic or legitimate, it must remain in manifest and substantial continuity with its well-established and perfected historical form. If someone dared to draft a liturgical rite “from scratch” or from bits and pieces of the old tradition sewed together and peppered with novelties by a committee of scholars, their result would be illegitimate or inauthentic, even if it contained the correct form and matter of the sacrament in question, even if it was promulgated by the supreme authority of the Church, and even if it is adorned with “smells and bells” to the maximum extent humanly possible. [22] It might be sacramentally valid, canonically licit, and externally beautiful while nevertheless lacking the quality of authenticity or legitimacy within the particular rite or ecclesial tradition for which it is intended. [23]

As I was praying Lauds on the feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary this past September 8th, I was struck by several of the antiphons, which underline Our Lady’s noble lineage. “Nativitas gloriosae Virginis Mariae, ex semine Abrahae, orta de tribu Juda, clara ex stirpe David… Regali ex progenie Maria exorta refulget…”: “It is the nativity of the glorious Virgin Mary, sprung from the seed of Abraham, of the tribe of Judah, of the renowned family of David … Sprung from a royal race, Mary shines forth.” The liturgy really stresses that it isn’t simply the goodness of Mary as an individual that we are celebrating on September 8th, or her future role as the Mother of God, but also her storied ancestry, her extraction from the Patriarchs, her royal bloodline, her dynastic claims, her queenly status. 

We should think about the traditional Roman liturgy in the same way: not only what it is now or will be in the future, but what it has been for centuries on the lips and in the hearts of countless believers before us: sprung from the seed of the Apostles Peter and Paul, of the combined stock of papal Rome and the Carolingian empire, of the renowned family of the Latin-rite Church. And just as the Office says of Our Lady “cujus vita inclyta cunctas illustrat ecclesias” — “her illustrious life enlightens all the churches” — so, too, can we say of all traditional liturgical rites, taken together: their illustrious “lives” enlighten the churches.

Comparing the Qualities

Now that I have defined all four qualities, I would like to devote the end of my talk to showing how they are related to one another in various ways.

I have noticed that liturgical discussions are often confined to points about validity and liceity — basically, whether a Mass was actually offered, and whether the Mass was offered in accord with Church law. [24] Validity and liceity, however, are too restricted a set of parameters for properly evaluating liturgical realities. The category of fittingness has a far broader scope, making reference to a host of matters of far greater influence in how we experience the Mass, how it fulfills its role as an exercise of the virtue of religion, and how it shapes the worshiper. Masses celebrated unfittingly will do more spiritual damage to clergy and faithful over time by the inculcation of bad spiritual habits than Masses that may be valid but illicit, or valid and licit, but utterly lacking in the proper liturgical spirit conveyed by traditional practices. An irreligious or irreverent attitude, or slipshod praxis, cannot fail to have an effect on the interior life of a man, whereas the simple efficacy of the sacrament and the legal status of what is being done, though important, will not be as psychologically formative. [25]

Validity is not where to draw the line in the sand, as conservatives often do (“well, you can’t say the Novus Ordo is invalid, right? So stop your complaining”). Those who care only about validity will quickly find that validity itself is under threat. [26] The guarantee of validity comes from a thick “hedge” of fittingness and authenticity that surround the kernel of the matter and form, expose the meaning of the matter and form, articulate the minister’s intention, prepare the recipients well for the reception of grace, and offer the whole ceremony to God as a gesture of love and faith that is known to be pleasing to Him. When the conservative or liberal says: “We shouldn’t argue about liturgy; after all, the Mass is the Mass, and the Eucharist is the Eucharist,” the basic problem is that they are not looking at liturgy, but at the sacrament confected and received, in isolation from the total act of divine worship. The liturgy is more than a shell or mechanism for “doing” the Eucharist, just as a priest is more than a machine for effecting transubstan­ti­a­tion, and Our Lord is more than a ransom for souls, as if He were a means and not an end — He is also the friend of our souls, and the God whom we worship in fear and trembling, neither of which is reducible to a means, like money paid for goods. The liturgy in its concrete totality, not just the sacrament in abstraction, nourishes us and forms us. That is why an exclusive focus on validity and liceity tends to promote a reductionist and utilitarian mentality. [27]

When we have said that a liturgy is valid and licit, we have not finished saying what needs to be said; we have only just begun. [28] The beginning is to ask: Does this liturgy “check off the boxes” in canon law? But the end is to ask: “Is this liturgy worthy of its divine Master (as much as we can make it so here and now), worthy of its own apostolic tradition, suitable for manifesting the truth and beauty of the Faith, and apt to bring about the sanctification of believers?” [29]

Reducing the liturgy to a mere matter of validity is like reducing cookies to calories, spousal intimacy to getting pregnant, a story or a poem to its “moral,” a job to a paycheck, school to grades, language to data transmission. In each of these pairings, the latter may well turn out to be the most characteristic or useful aspect of the former, but they are not necessarily the most important, typical, determinative, or meaningful all the time or in every way. Eating homemade cookies in the wintertime by the crackling fire is at a different level than counting calories; marriage is ordered to children but has its own reality as a holy state of life for the spouses; a story or poem is just as much about the way it’s told and the beauty of its words as what lessons we might take away from it; working a job, or going to school, is an interpersonal and life-changing experience that cannot be summed up in wages or grades; a language, my goodness, is infinitely more than a tool for delivering parcels of information.

(This, by the way, is part of the defense of Latin as a liturgical language: it has a meaning, a presence, a function, that goes far beyond worldly communication. It stands for something far greater than the dictionary entries for its vocabulary; it has become permeated with the sacred, like a vestment with the fragrance of incense; it has been solemnized and consecrated by centuries of use, so that its very sound is redolent of the cultural history and supernatural mystery of the Church. Hence, for the Latin-rite Church, abandoning Latin in worship is a symbolic way of abandoning her own history and her Lord’s mystery; it is a prime example of repudiating authenticity, scorning one’s good birth and family lineage.)

I believe it to be vitally important, especially today, to look beyond validity, carefully taking into account licitness, legitimacy, and fittingness. Licitness involves (at least) being done according to proper procedure and in accord with the canonical tradition. Fittingness involves (at least) a correct correlation between end and means, the essential and the incidental, the reality and the appearances. Legitimacy involves (at least) continuity with precedent and a humble, grateful reception of tradition. So it is never enough to ask whether a certain sacramental rite is valid, without also asking whether it is licit, fitting, and legitimate. For if it fails in regard to any of these areas, it fails to serve the common good of the Church, and is at very least a prudential fault on the part of the legislator or minister responsible for it.

As we have seen, the full form of the liturgical question is as follows: “Is this liturgical rite or celebration valid, licit, fitting, and authentic?” These four qualities could be lined up with the “four marks” of the Church: one, holy, catholic, and apostolic. Validity corresponds to unity: this is the single baptism, or the one true sacrifice, etc., of the one true God in the one true Church of Christ. Licitness corresponds to ‘catholicity’: being in communion with the hierarchy and faithful of the same Church. Fittingness corresponds to ‘holiness’: doing what is holy in a holy manner. Authenticity or legitimacy corresponds to apostolicity, that is, the liturgy’s derivation and development out of and in continuity with its apostolic root. As Joseph Ratzinger memorably says:

The Church does not pray in some kind of mythical omnitemporality. She cannot forsake her roots. She recognizes the true utterance of God precisely in the concreteness of its history, in time and place: to these God ties us, and by these we are all tied together. The diachronic aspect, praying with the Fathers and the apostles, is part of what we mean by rite, but it also includes a local aspect, extending from Jerusalem to Antioch, Rome, Alexandria, and Constantinople. Rites are not, therefore, just the products of inculturation, however much they may have incorporated elements from different cultures. They are forms of the apostolic tradition and of its unfolding in the great places of the tradition. [30]


I will conclude with an extended comparison. From the time of the ancient Greeks through the High Middle Ages, philosophers accepted the view that there are four elements: earth, air, fire, and water. Even though our current periodic table numbers 118 elements, the ancient quartet still possesses a poetic beauty and suggestiveness that keeps it alive as a metaphor.

As I pondered the four, I began to see how they line up with the four qualities we’ve been considering. Validity is like earth: the foundation, the solid rock, the most useful, but not something you take a picture of, or write home about. Yet without earth, there would be no possibility of farming or building; and similarly, without validity, no sacramental grace would ever be communicated to Christians; no divine seeds would be planted, no interior castle built up. Licitness is like air, the element in which we live and move. When all is going well, when the air is clean, clear, and fresh, no one notices breathing it; similarly, liturgy that adheres to its legal requirements should be the assumed atmosphere in which we dwell, not something we especially take note of. Usually what prompts us to notice the atmosphere is pollution or dense fog, which, in the realm of liturgy, would be liturgical abuses, ad libbing creativity, Eucharistic irreverence, public scandal, and that sort of thing. Fittingness is like fire, which rises up impetuously to the heavens, points to God, illuminates, and warms. When the liturgy is done as it should be, we are warmed by its beauty and illuminated by its symbolic light; it points our minds to God, and lifts our hearts to heaven — to that divine Fire of Love who revealed Himself on Mount Sinai and rested on the heads of the disciples on the day of Pentecost. Authenticity or legitimacy is like water, the cleansing and life-giving element. As water flows from place to place, so tradition flows from generation to generation, bringing life wherever it spreads and seeps in; and as mountain springs are the distant origins of raging rivers in the valleys below, so too are the Apostles gathered in the Upper Room the origin of the six major families of tradition that proceed from them: the Armenian, the Chaldean, the Antiochene, the Alexandrian, the Byzantine, and the Roman. [31] When we hold fast to validity, licitness, fittingness, and authenticity, we are standing on solid ground, breathing salubrious air, warmed and illumined by fire, and refreshed by the dew of the Spirit.


[1] As Ludwig Ott explains: “The thing is either a physical substance (water, oil) or an action perceptible to the senses (penance, marriage). The word is, as a rule, the spoken word.” Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, new ed. (London: Baronius Press, 2018), 349.

[2] Cited in Ott, Fundamentals, 349.

[3] See Ott, Fundamentals, 366–68; Henry Davis, S.J., Moral and Pastoral Theology, vol. 3: The Sacraments in General, etc. (London & New York: Sheed and Ward, 1949), 16–20; Roger W. Nutt, General Principles of Sacramental Theology (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 2017), 74–87; Bernard Leeming, S.J., Principles of Sacramental Theology (Westminster, MD: Newman Press, 1962), 435–61; cf. 517.

[4] Nutt, General Principles, 72.

[5] Can. 840 (CIC 1983).

[6] Nutt, General Principles, 72.

[7] Leeming, Principles, 266.

[8] Can. 840, quoted earlier, also says: “As actions of Christ and the Church, they [the sacraments] are signs and means which express and strengthen the faith, render worship to God, and effect the sanctification of humanity and thus contribute in the greatest way to establish, strengthen, and manifest ecclesiastical communion. Accordingly, in the celebration of the sacraments, the sacred ministers and the other members of the Christian faithful must use the greatest veneration and necessary diligence.” Can. 841 then says, as if drawing a conclusion, that “it is for the same [supreme authority of the Church] to decide what pertains to their licit celebration, administration, and reception and to the order to be observed in their celebration.”

[9] Instruction Redemptionis Sacramentum, §11–§12.

[10] Ibid., §183.

[11] Encyclical Letter Ecclesia de Eucharistia, §48.

[12] A Benedictine Monk [Dom Gérard Calvet, O.S.B.], Four Benefits of the Liturgy (Southampton, UK: Saint Austin Press, 1999).

[13] Dr. Glenn Arbery’s argument on behalf of good oral rhetoric may be applied to liturgy as a mode of rhetoric: “Cunning orators have long been criticized for making false ideas of good seem more attractive than real good. In Paradise Lost, Milton writes that the devil Belial ‘could make the worse appear/The better reason, to perplex and dash/Maturest counsels.’ If someone on the wrong side can be so effective, is it enough to be on the right side? Hardly. It’s necessary that the better reason appear as better, in its true lineaments and beauty, and that what is good appear as good through the mastery of the same arts also available to the subtlest of enemies. Our future depends on it” (“O Oratory!,” President’s Bulletin, February 22, 2018).

[14] See, e.g., Compendium theologiae, Part I, chs. 199–201.

[15] Some of the following material is adapted from the lecture “Beyond ‘Smells and Bells’: Why We Need the Objective Content of the Usus Antiquior.

[16] “If anyone saith, that the received and approved rites of the Catholic Church, wont to be used in the solemn administration of the sacraments, may be contemned, or without sin be omitted at pleasure by the ministers, or be changed, by any [quemcumque] pastor of the churches into other new ones: let him be anathema.” Session VII, canon 13.

[17] See Cardinal Journet on apostolic privileges in his work The Theology of the Church.

[18] See Ex 26:30: “And thou shalt rear up the tabernacle according to the pattern that was shewn thee in the mount”; 1 Chron 28:11, 19: “David gave to Solomon his son a description of the porch, and of the temple, and of the treasures, and of the upper floor, and of the inner chambers, and of the house for the mercy seat… All these things, said he, came to me written by the hand of the Lord that I might understand all the works of the pattern.”

[19] See St. Thomas, Summa theologiae, III, qq. 46–47.

[20] Roberto Spataro points out the fittingness of reciting an inflexible creed, the Niceno-Constantinopolitan, in the midst of what had grown into an inflexible Eucharistic sacrifice: “The articles of the faith are professed in the context of a liturgical act that deserves to be called traditional in the noblest sense of the term — a thing slowly forged that, beginning in the dawn of apostolic liturgy, has reached the full splendor of its perfection.” In Praise of the Tridentine Mass and of Latin, Language of the Church, trans. Zachary Thomas (Brooklyn, NY: Angelico Press, 2019), 79.

[21] Someone once asked an Armenian-rite priest: “Don’t you ever get tired of celebrating the same liturgy every day?” He replied: “Do you get tired of seeing your mother each day? Would you want a different mother?”

[22] Redemptionis Sacramentum §7 articulates a true principle: “Not infrequently, abuses are rooted in a false understanding of liberty. Yet God has not granted us in Christ an illusory liberty by which we may do what we wish, but a liberty by which we may do that which is fitting and right.” One wishes that the pope who implemented the liturgical reform had been guided by this principle.

[23] To this extent I fully endorse the observations of Geoffrey Hull, even if his use of terms is not quite the same as mine: “One of the most pernicious consequences of the Latin West’s downgrading of theologia secunda is its concern for validity, the automatic product of doctrinal orthodoxy, to the neglect of authenticity, the natural fruit of orthopraxis. Differently put, this is making text all-important and context a matter of indifference. Indeed most Catholic debate about the liturgical revolution has centred on the question of whether the new official text makes the Mass and sacraments valid or not; the cultural packaging of the same rites is meanwhile relegated to the realm of relatively unimportant ‘externals.’” The Banished Heart: Origins of Heteropraxis in the Catholic Church (London/New York: T&T Clark, 2010), 38.

[24] In discussions confined to the world of the Novus Ordo, one will sometimes here a third term, “legitimacy,” mentioned, but it is difficult to say what this adds to the two already mentioned (at least in that context). For example, a bishop once demanded that I accept the “legitimacy” of the Novus Ordo, but he never defined what the term meant. As far as I can tell, it is sometimes used as a more colloquial way of saying licitness.

[25] See Cécile Bruyère, The Spiritual Life and Prayer According to Holy Scripture and Monastic Tradition (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2002), 68–69, on the conditions required for fruitful Communion — and consider how much the liturgy contributes to fostering and actualizing those conditions.

[26] See my article “When arrogant ‘reformers’ tinker with the sacraments, disaster befalls the faithful,” LifeSiteNews, September 8, 2020.

[27] See my articles: “Is the Mass “Just” the Mass?”; “The Long Shadow of Neoscholastic Reductionism”; “Man Does Not Live by Bread Alone.”

[28] These are the conditions for what Aquinas would call esse, not bene esse — the mere existence, not the full flourishing of a thing.

[29] Given our analysis of the four qualities, it follows that a Catholic is fully permitted to hold opinions such as “the Novus Ordo is valid but not as spiritually profitable as the usus antiquior” and “the Novus Ordo, which exists from 1969 by papal fiat, has less of a claim to being considered a Catholic liturgy than the usus antiquior, which enjoys immemorial custom and was never brought into being by a pope in that manner.” See the chart for a schematic presentation.

[30] The Spirit of the Liturgy, trans. John Saward, Commemorative Edition with Romano Guardini’s Spirit of the Liturgy (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2018), pt. 4, ch. 1, p. 178, emphasis added. The Novus Ordo would have, at best, the first (validity) and second (licitness); would usually lack the third (fittingness); and would always lack the fourth (authenticity). This is why it is not a liturgical rite in the full sense of the word.

[31] The Eastern Code of Canon Law uses the following terminology: there are five key traditions of the Eastern Churches: the Armenian, the Byzantine, the Alexandrian, the Antiochene, and the Chaldean. The Chaldean, ultimately, is East Syrian, and the Antiochene West Syrian, but there is something fitting in naming the traditions from their traditional sees. Within these key traditions, there are 23 sui iuris self-governing churches in union with Rome. Each tradition may have many different liturgical rites in both East and West. Hence, the Latin tradition has the Roman, the Ambrosian, the Mozarabic, Braga, etc. Given the East’s ecclesiology, each rite is linked with its own “church,” so the Ukrainian rite is the liturgical rite of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, within the Byzantine Tradition. Some are more complicated, like the Melkites, who are principally a Church of the Byzantine tradition but with some distinctive Antiochene influences.