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A Fixed Rule of Language Reflects the Grammar of Faithful Assent

Whether in Latin, English, or Kiswahili, the language of prayer must express and foster the belief of the Church. Put more simply: the Church says what she means and means what she says. The Church calls this premium it places on words its fixed rule of language. To better understand how this is so, though, we must first examine another sort of rule first formulated in words some 1,500 years ago.

St. Prosper of Aquitaine was an early 5th-century saint from the south of modern-day France. He was closely acquainted with and a disciple of two great saints from that century: Pope Leo the Great and Augustine of Hippo. In addition to his famous friends, St. Prosper is also known for one of history’s memorable liturgical sayings: “The law of praying establishes the law of believing.”

This epigram has, in our own time, seen a timely resurrection. It is often heard in its Latin abbreviation: lex orandi, lex credendi (lex = law; orandi = praying; credendi = believing). The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains its meaning this way: “When the Church celebrates the sacraments, she confesses the faith received from the apostles…. The law of prayer is the law of faith: the Church believes as she prays” (1124).

For example, the Annunciation and Christmas are the two great solemnities of the Incarnation: that central event of history when the second Person of the Blessed Trinity condescends to take on our own human flesh. This Christian belief corresponds to our Christian prayer. On these two feasts, the faithful genuflect as they recite that part of the Creed that recalls Christ’s incarnation (“and by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary, and became man.”). In touching the ground with our knees, we imitate the action of God the Son coming to earth in human form. (During other times of the year, the faithful only bow at this part of the Creed—but even this prayerful gesture symbolizes both a reverence for and an imitation of the Incarnation of the Son.)

Directly from these twin laws of prayer and belief flows the fixed rule of language or, as St. Prosper might say, a “law of speaking.” Thus, as our praying and believing are consistent, so too is our speaking consonant with our praying and believing.

Pope Paul VI took up this idea in his 1965 encyclical on the Holy Eucharist (Mysterium Fidei). At the time of his writing, some theologians were concerned about the continued use of the word “transubstantiation.” Would it not be more appropriate, they asked, to use a different word, one more in keeping with the way that today’s faithful think and speak? The Pope responds:

Once the integrity of the faith has been safeguarded, then it is time to guard the proper way of expressing it, lest our careless use of words give rise, God forbid, to false opinions regarding faith in the most sublime things…. And so the rule of language which the Church has established through the long labor of centuries, with the help of the Holy Spirit, and which she has confirmed with the authority of the Councils, and which has more than once been the watchword and banner of orthodox faith, is to be religiously preserved, and no one may presume to change it at his own pleasure or under the pretext of new knowledge. Who would ever tolerate that the dogmatic formulas used by the ecumenical councils for the mysteries of the Holy Trinity and the Incarnation be judged as no longer appropriate for men of our times, and let others be rashly substituted for them? (23-24)

St. Augustine, also in the context of this quote, himself speaks of a “fixed rule” of language, a way of speaking that says exactly (or as exactly as possible) what the Church means when she speaks.

The Missal of Paul VI—which approaches its 50th birthday at the end of 2019—is bound by this rule of language. Thus, since our Catholic belief is that Christ became one of us at the moment of the incarnation, and not at the moment of his birth, our Catholic language must reflect such belief in its diction: “and by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary.”

Our belief as Catholics is that not only does each member profess the faith, but collectively the one Church also professes the faith; our language, as a result, reflects both realities as we pray individually and as a single whole in the first person singular: “I believe in one God” rather than “We believe in one God.”

The Church believes that the Mass is to have an effect on our lives in the world (that there is, in fact, a “law of living,” lex vivendi); therefore, the Mass says, as one of its options at the dismissal: “Go in peace, glorifying the Lord by your life.”

Language, especially the language of liturgical prayer, is full of meaning, for it expresses what we believe, the faith we love, the word that became flesh.

Christopher Carstens

Christopher Carstens

Christopher Carstens is Director of the Office for Sacred Worship in the Diocese of La Crosse, Wisconsin, a visiting faculty member at the Liturgical Institute at the University of St. Mary of the Lake in Mundelein, Illinois, editor of the Adoremus Bulletin, and one of the voices on The Liturgy Guys podcast. He is author of A Devotional Journey into the Mass (Sophia) and, along with Father Douglas Martis, the co-author of Mystical Body, Mystical Voice: Encountering Christ in the Words of the Mass (Liturgy Training Publications).