Rorate Caeli

Dr. Michael Fiedrowicz on Traditionis Custodes: “Frighteningly reminiscent of George Orwell’s 1984

We publish today an English translation of a powerful piece written by Prof. Dr. Michael Fiedrowicz (b. 1957), an expert on church history and liturgy, and author of the best scholarly book on the TLM: “The Traditional Mass: History, Form, and Theology of the Classical Roman Rite” (Angelico Press, 2020). This piece appeared first in the “IK-Nachrichten” of the association Pro Sancta Ecclesia and then on August 30 at CNA-Deutsch. Professor Fiedrowicz teaches at the Faculty of Theology in Trier at the Chair of Ancient Church History, Patrology and Christian Archaeology. He is a priest of the Archdiocese of Berlin.

“They Do Not Even Know What Has Been Taken from Them”

Prof. Dr. Michael Fiedrowicz

Lex orandi–lex credendi

On July 16, 2021, the feast day of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, the Apostolic Exhortation in the form of a Motu proprio Traditionis custodes on the use of the Roman Liturgy before the 1970 reform was promulgated. Article 1 reads, “The liturgical books promulgated by Popes St. Paul VI and St. John Paul II in conformity with the decrees of the Second Vatican Council are the sole expression (l’unica espressione) of the lex orandi of the Roman Rite.”

To appreciate the full implications of this provision, it is necessary to know that the term lex orandi—the law or rule of prayer—is part of a broader formula coined in the 5th century. The Gallic monk Prosper of Aquitaine, between 435 and 442, formulated the principle: “so that the rule of prayer may determine the rule of faith” (ut legem credendi lex statuat supplicandi). In the background was a theological controversy about grace. The question was whether the first beginning of faith (initium fidei) also proceeded from the grace of God or from the decision of man. Prosper referred to the Church’s prayer of intercession and thanksgiving, which is significant for the doctrine of grace: “But let us also take into account the mysteries of the priestly prayers, which, handed down by the apostles, are solemnly offered uniformly throughout the world and throughout the entire Catholic Church, so that the rule of prayer may determine the rule of faith” (indiculus 8). Prosper then enumerated various requests made by the Church in her official prayers and deduced from them the necessity of divine grace, since otherwise the Church’s petition and thanksgiving would be useless and meaningless. For Prosper, then, the faith of the Church manifested itself in the prayer of the Church, so that the Church’s official prayer is the standard by which the Church’s faith is to be read.

Already Prosper’s teacher Augustine had developed the idea that the prayer of the Church testifies to its faith and makes it recognizable. The principle lex orandi–lex credendi was henceforth part of the basic understanding of Catholic doctrine. The liturgy, like the Scriptures and Tradition, is a locus theologicus, a place of discovery, a source of knowledge and a witness to what the Church believes. Pope Pius XII called the liturgy “a faithful reflection of the doctrine handed down by our ancestors and believed by the Christian people” (Encyclical Letter Ad Coeli Reginam, 1954). Likewise, he emphasized, “The liturgy as a whole, therefore, contains the Catholic faith insofar as it publicly testifies to the faith of the Church” (Encyclical Mediator Dei, 1947).

The sole expression of all the elements of the Roman Rite?

Pope Francis, however, now defines, or rather reduces, the liturgy of the Roman Rite to that which is expressed in the liturgical books promulgated by Paul VI and John Paul II. These books are “the sole expression of the lex orandi of the Roman Rite.” If one assumes the original [i.e., face-value] meaning of the terminology used here, then the lex credendi—what is to be believed—would also have to be taken from those books alone. But is this true? Are these books really the only ones that suffice to be able to read the Catholic faith from them?

Certainly, the papal letter accompanying the motu proprio suggests that all the essentials of the Roman Rite before the liturgical reform can also be found in Paul VI’s missal: “Those who wish to celebrate with devotion the earlier liturgical form will not find it difficult to find in the Roman Missal, reformed according to the spirit of the Second Vatican Council, all the elements of the Roman Rite, especially the Roman Canon, which is one of the most characteristic elements.” Leaving aside the experience of liturgical practice, where the Roman Canon is almost never used in the Novus Ordo—either in parish services, in episcopal churches, or at papal liturgies—the question must be asked whether indeed “all the elements of the Roman Rite” are to be found in the new liturgical books. This question can be answered in the affirmative only by someone who considers obsolete much of what has characterized the Roman Rite for centuries and constituted its theological-spiritual richness, as is evidently the case with Pope Francis.

Liturgical reform:
damnatio memoriae

This would include everything that was eradicated by the driving forces of the liturgical reform, whether to accommodate Protestants in a misguided ecumenical effort or to meet the supposed mentality of “modern man.”

To name just a few examples: Feasts of the saints were abolished or degraded in the liturgical hierarchy. The Offertory prayers with the clear and unambiguous idea of sacrifice were replaced by a Jewish table prayer. The Dies irae, the poignant depiction of the Last Judgment, was no longer tolerated in the Requiem Mass. The Apostle Paul’s warning in the Maundy Thursday epistle that he who communicates unworthily eats and drinks condemnation (1 Cor 11:27) was omitted. The Orations: those “most beautiful jewels of the Church’s liturgical treasure” (Dom Gérard Calvet OSB), which are among the most ancient components of her spiritual heritage and are completely imbued with dogma, constitute virtually a ‘summa theologica’ in nuce, expressing the Catholic faith unabridged and concisely… The Orations of the Classical Rite alone, of which only a very small part was incorporated unchanged into the Missal of Paul VI, contain and preserve numerous ideas that have been weakened or have disappeared altogether in the later modified versions, but which belong indissolubly to the Catholic faith: detachment from earthly goods and the longing for the eternal; the struggle against heresy and schism; the conversion of unbelievers; the necessity of returning to the Catholic Church and to unadulterated truth; merits, miracles, apparitions of the saints; God’s wrath against sin and the possibility of eternal damnation. All of these aspects are deeply rooted in the biblical message and have unmistakably shaped Catholic piety for nearly two millennia.

In addition to these direct modifications to the Roman Rite itself, however, we must not forget the other concomitants that reveal a profoundly changed basic understanding of the Holy Mass: precious high altars destroyed, with meal tables taking their place; valuable paraments burned or sold off; “Tinnef and Trevira” (M. Mosebach) made their entrance,[1] Gregorian chant and the Latin sacral language were banished from the liturgy. The approach of the liturgical reform is partly reminiscent of the damnatio memoriae in ancient Rome, the erasure of the memory of disliked rulers. Names on triumphal arches were erased, coins with their images melted down. Nothing should remind us of them any more. All the changes that actually took place in the course of the liturgical reforms unmistakably resemble a damnatio memoriae, a deliberate erasure of the memory of the traditional Catholic liturgy.

Parallels in the fourth century

In the history of the Church there have been similar situations again and again. In the middle of the fourth century, the divinity of Christ and that of the Holy Spirit were denied: Son and Spirit were only creatures of God. Bishoprics and churches were widely in the hands of the Arian heretics. Those who remained orthodox gathered in remote places to worship. In 372, Bishop Basil of Caesarea gave a moving description of the situation:

The teachings of the fathers are despised, the apostolic traditions are ignored, and the churches are filled with the inventions of innovators. The shepherds have been driven out, and in their place they bring in ravening wolves to tear apart the flock of Christ. The places of prayer are deserted by those who gathered there, the wastelands are filled with wailing people. The elderly lament as they compare the former time with the present; the young are even more pitiful because they do not even know what has been taken from them. (Epistula 9:2)

These words from the fourth century undoubtedly also applied to the generations born after the Council: for a long time they did not even know what had been taken from them, knowing only the present appearance of the Church.

Above: Velazquez, Las Meninas (1656); Below: Picasso, Las Meninas (1957)

Two expressions or one?

Pope Benedict XVI, with the motu proprio Summorum Pontificum of July 7, 2007, made the treasures of the Church’s undiminished deposit of faith accessible again, so that younger generations could now know again and witness from their own experience what had originally been taken from them. The then-pontiff spoke of there being “two expressions of the lex orandi of the Church,” the ordinary expression (ordinaria expressio) found in the Missal promulgated by Paul VI, and the extraordinary expression (extraordinaria expressio) found in the Roman Missal reissued by St. Pius V and John XXIII (SP, art. 1). In his most recent motu proprio, Pope Francis refers directly to this passage (espressione della ‘lex orandi’) in his choice of words and sentence structure, but places himself in diametrical opposition to it by now determining only a “single form of expression” (l’unica espressione) of the lex orandi as valid (TC, art. 1).

But what significance can the traditional form of the liturgy still claim for the Church’s consciousness of faith? If the recent motu proprio and the accompanying letter make readily apparent that the real goal in the middle or long-term is the total destruction of the traditional liturgy, and that for the time being it is still being granted a grace period with drastic restrictions that are intended rigorously to prevent any possibility of its further expansion, then—should decisive resistance fail to materialize—St. Basil the Great’s lament about the fate of the younger generation of his time will once again obtain with renewed force: “For they do not even know what has been taken from them.”

Saving the Bride of Christ from amnesia

The newly enacted regulations are frighteningly reminiscent of what the author George Orwell described as a bleak vision of the future in his 1948 novel 1984. There is the dictatorship of a Party, which rules in a totalitarian surveillance state: “Big Brother is watching you.” In this state there are different ministries. The Ministry of Peace prepares the wars. The Ministry of Abundance manages the socialist economy of scarcity. There is no mention of a Ministry of Health, but there is a Ministry of Truth, which spreads the official propaganda of lies: the party is always right. For this to be so, every memory of the past must be erased. No more comparisons must be possible; everything must appear to have no alternative. The Ministry of Truth is busy changing everything that reminds of the past and could make such a comparison possible. Orwell writes:

Already we know almost literally nothing about the Revolution and the years before the Revolution. Every record has been destroyed or falsified, every book has been rewritten, every picture has been repainted, every statue and street and building has been renamed, every date has been altered.[2]

To associate Orwell’s words with the recent Council does not seem illegitimate, since Vatican II was widely celebrated as a “revolution of the Church from above.” Thus the paradoxical situation arises: in order that the Bride of Christ, the Church, may be preserved from amnesia, from a loss of memory, Catholics faithful to tradition will now have to prove themselves as counter-revolutionaries, conservative faithful will have to assume the role of rebels, in order to be themselves ultimately found to be, before the judgment of history and above all in the eyes of God, the true and only traditionis custodes, guardians of tradition, who really deserve this name.

[1] “Tinnef” means items made out of recycled plastics. “Trevira” is a type of polyester fabric.
[2] Signet Classics edition, p. 155.