Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi

Lex_orandi_lext_credendiLex orandi, lex credendi is usually associated with the fifth-century theologian Prosper of Aquitaine and it basically means “the law of worship determines the law of belief.”  It is actually the shortened form of the phrase legem credendi lex statuit supplicandi.  Many theologians have interpreted the phrase in causative terms and therefore argue that “the law of praying forms or causes the law of believing.”  So prayer before belief, worship before doctrine. 

I believe this is another angle on what I have been arguing in my previous blogs concerning Durkheim — that Durkheim is not an “idealist” and, moreover, that ideas are retrospective accounts of ritual practices.  Ritual practices (worship) before ideas and beliefs (doctrine).  I would argue further that many liturgists after Vatican II, even though they verbally proclaimed this dictum as a ritual incantation, believed more in liturgical education than the liturgy itself as formative.  Liturgists, like most intellectuals, in other words, believed “more education” is the best method for moving the faithful from point A to point B, that is, to induce social or ecclesial change.  Inducing social change may require “more education” but it is not that simple, yet I hear it preached repeatedly in various ecclesial circles as “the” solution.  The liturgical historian and theologian Keith F. Pecklers, for example, wrote:

Across the board, there remains a desperate need for further liturgical catechesis as too many of those present on Sunday morning fail to realize that as the Church of Jesus Christ, they are the very body of Christ which they gather to celebrate: thus, the chasm between worship and daily life remains very wide indeed (Keith F. Pecklers, Worship: A Primer in Christian Ritual, CollegevilleMN: Liturgical Press, 2003: 116).

I argue, perhaps unfairly and without recent data on liturgists (although see McCallion, 2000, 2007), that liturgists themselves do not believe in their own fundamental dictum of which they supposedly cherish.  Like Pecklers they are still relying on “more education” to do the trick, that is, to move people, change people, or create an intra-ecclesial social movement.  Moreover, I disagree that the people of God “fail to realize,” as Pecklers says, that they are the Body of Christ.  There is not time or space here to support that hunch of mine but I would just say that the 30% who show up for Mass weekly “get it,” much like they “get family life” or “get being in a group,” while the 70% who don’t attend weekly perhaps do not.

Now, I believe, for intellectuals such as Pecklers, that if they read and studied and had “more education” on Durkheim they just might “change” their minds about the approach of “more education” and the role of “ideas” in changing the present situation of the Church.  Durkheim offers a social scientific version of this ancient dictum, lex orandi lex credendi, that could give theologians pause about how they are not abiding by or taking to heart their own principle. Yet Durkheim does and would have praised Prosper for his dictum, especially because his dictum does not give undo weight to understanding religion in explicitly rational terms.  For many theorists of religion, including theologians, religion is, as Durkheim noted,

Above all else a system of ideas, corresponding to a determined object.  This object has been conceived in a multitude of ways: nature, the infinite, the unknowable, the ideal, etc.; but these differences matter but little.  In any case, it was the conceptions and beliefs which were considered as the essential elements of religion.  As for the rites, from this point of view, they appear to be only an external translation, contingent and material, of these internal states which alone pass as having any intrinsic value (Emile Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, 4th ed., trans. Joseph Ward Swain – London: George Allen & Unwin, 1957: 416).

And because religion is above all else a system of ideas, liturgists and many other Church leaders rely on “more education” as the primary means for moving assemblies from point A to point B.  This predominant approach that I have heard ad nausea at meetings and in classroom discussions is perhaps simply a continuing embodiment of Enlightenment rationality to which David Torevell believes is exactly the case.  Torevell’s book Losing the Sacred: Ritual, Modernity and Liturgical Reform (London: Clark, Continuum, 2000) provides a lengthy analysis of the Enlightenment’s influence on the liturgy, and he utilizes Durkheim to assess and criticize contemporary theologians and liturgists who rely to heavily on a rational model especially as it pertains to the liturgy.  As Torevell writes:

In particular, discussion will focus upon the emphasis accorded to rationality and cognitivism in liturgical theory and practice over the last thirty years, in contrast to earlier premodern emphases on collective embodiment and ritual.  My discussion, however, can be introduced through a consideration of the work of Emile Durkheim on the nature of religion, and in particular, his classification of distinct types of ritual expression.  I shall suggest that Durkheim’s work provides a theoretical lens through which to evaluate some of the crucial issues surrounding the development of modern Catholic liturgy (2000; 1).

I am in agreement with Torevell that Durkheim has something to offer liturgists, theologians, and New Evangelization enthusiasts, which is, do not disregard the importance of ritual practices in your efforts to understand and proclaim the gospel.  Again, Durkheim certainly understands the importance of “ideas” but ideas are merely retrospective accounts of what took place in ritual practice (worship).  Ideas are only part of ourselves for the one who encounters the holy is a man who is stronger, says Durkheim, not because of ideas about the holy but because he/she has encountered the holy in communal worship.

Mark Massa, in his insightful book Catholics and American Culture: Fulton Sheen, Dorothy Day, and the Notre Dame Football Team (New York: The Crossroads Publishing Co., 1999), also utilizes Durkheim, like Torevell, to provide some perspective on what happened on Advent Sunday 1964 and what followed – “the wars over the liturgy.”  To Massa’s credit, I believe he interprets Durkheim correctly in recognizing Durkheim’s “ritual practices” emphasis.  This historian’s work, therefore, should give those of us sociologists who claim Durkheim as one of our own pause when we name Durkheim an “idealist” and in doing so give Durkheim’s ritual emphasis secondary ranking.  Indeed, that is basically why I am writing these blogs, to correct the many sociologists, such as Vasquez, whom I quoted in my first blog, who claim Durkheim as an idealist.  But I digress.  To get back to Massa, he notes:

Durkheim then offers what remains one of the most brilliant social scientific rationales for understanding the role of liturgy and ritual in religious systems: as every believer well knows, he asserts, it is the cult —  the act of ritual of worship – that offers the locus for religious experience.  It is the act of worship itself which offers the believer the ‘experiential proof of his beliefs’ – the impressions of joy and ecstasy, of serenity and enthusiasm.  Indeed, the cult, he announces, is not merely, or even primarily . . . (1999: 157)

and then Massa quotes Durkheim: 

[primarily] a system of signs by which the faith is outwardly translated; it is a collection of the means by which this is created and recreated periodically…. We admit that these religious beliefs rest upon a specific experience whose demonstrative value is, in one sense, not one bit inferior to that of scientific experiments, although different from them.  Thus is explained the preponderating role of the cult in all religions, whichever they may be.  This is because society cannot make its influence felt unless it is in action, and it is not in action unless the individuals who compose it are assembled together and act in common.  It is by common action  that it takes consciousness of itself and realizes its position; it is before all else an active cooperation.  The collective ideas and sentiments are even possible only owing to these exterior movements which symbolize them. Then it is action which dominates the religious life, because of the mere fact that it is society which is its source (Durkheim, 1957/1913: 417).

Durkheim is not merely asserting a both/and relationship between ritual and beliefs – he is asserting ritual is prior to belief and that beliefs are merely retrospective accounts of ritual practice.  But for various sundry reasons, we don’t believe it – liturgists and sociologists alike.  We still want to give priority to ideas, and that brings us back to epistemological issues that I first began discussing in these blogs in relation to Durkheim.  Although these epistemological issues cannot be discussed here, I nevertheless refer the reader, once again, to Anne Warfield Rawls’ outstanding book Epistemology and Practice: Durkheim’s The Elementary Forms of Religious Life (Cambridge University Press, 2004).

Nevertheless, whether we believe it or not, I think the Catholic tradition has maintained that “doing” worship is theologia prima and articulating doctrine and other various forms of theologizing about Catholic worship is theologia secunda – that is, secondary.  Theologians, liturgists, and new evangelists might put more “trust” in Catholic worship and believe that those who attend Mass on Sunday are not somehow “deficient” because they “don’t know,” as Pecklers suggests, what they are doing or who they are.  I think the ordinary faithful do get it, my dad got it, and he was no theologian by any means but he was the best Catholic I ever knew.  As I have argued elsewhere, nevertheless, we ecclesial professionals continue to proclaim a deficit model of Catholicism because the ordinary pew-dweller does not “know” or understand their own Catholicism.  And this is particularly the case when we “beat-up” on those who attend regularly (the other 70% who don’t attend is a different story).

Finally, as somewhat of an aside but still relevant to this discussion, is the fact that the recent changes in the Mass are insignificant for most pew-dwellers because the changes merely involved changing words the faithful spoke or heard, not the faithful’s bodily actions in the liturgy.  On the first Sunday of Advent, 1964, however, the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy required changes in the peoples’ “actions” or “movements” or “ritual practices” at Mass and that is what made all the difference.  For as Massa notes in his more recent book The American Catholic Revolution: How the ‘60s Changed the Church Forever (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010: 13-14),  “…one of the most secure pillars of that experience was the revered fourth-century axiom Lex orandi lex credendi, ‘The law of praying grounds the law of believing.’  Change the experience, which the Second Vatican Council did with breathtaking historical innocence, and what the belief means changes with it.”  Indeed, it resulted in the liturgy wars.


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