Summorum Pontificum at Fourteen: Its Legacy


July 7, 2021

For the past several weeks, the report has been circulating that Pope Francis intends to curtail the freedom to celebrate the traditional Roman liturgy granted on this very day 14 years ago by Pope Benedict XVI with the issuance of the motu proprio Summorum Pontificum. Reliable sources, perhaps most notably Phil Lawler, have confirmed that such a plan has indeed been discussed within the Curia, and that drafts of documents to such effect have been created and revised.

Rumors of the specifics abound: that the traditional rite will return to the previous indult regime, by which bishops had broad authority to refuse or restrict permission for it to be used; that the societies of apostolic life which currently use only the Extraordinary Form, as it is now called, will somehow be compelled to use also the Ordinary Form; that the celebration in the old rite of sacraments other than the Mass will be forbidden. The latest rumor claims that the new restrictions will be announced today, the anniversary of Summorum Pontificum; so perhaps you have already read them in the browser tab next to this one.

Since this important part of Benedict XVI’s legacy may be to some degree undone, it is worth considering what that legacy really means, which may in turn explain why it is under attack.

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Sacrosanctum Concilium, Vatican II’s constitution on the liturgy and liturgical reform, was the first document issue by the council, a fact which has been given two interpretations. One is that liturgical reform was not regarded as particularly important, but rather, as something that could be gotten out of the way fairly easily, before the council moved on to more pressing business. The other is that the council deliberately chose to speak first about the liturgy to emphasize its importance. I believe these interpretations are in fact both true. 

The document begins with a programmatic statement about the intentions of the Council as a whole, which clearly presents the project of liturgical reform as an integral part of a general renewal of the Church’s life. “This sacred Council has several aims in view: it desires to impart an ever increasing vigor to the Christian life of the faithful; to adapt more suitably to the needs of our own times those institutions which are subject to change; to foster whatever can promote union among all who believe in Christ; to strengthen whatever can help to call the whole of mankind into the household of the Church.”

But the actions of the Holy See in liturgical matters had always been marked by tremendous (some would perhaps say excessive) caution and conservatism. The vast majority of the bishops at the council were appointed by Pius XI and Pius XII. They had no reason to fear that a Pope would throw so many centuries of caution to the wind; much less, that the eventual reform would not just ignore their most explicit requests, but in some cases, flatly contradict them. When they approved the statement that “there must be no innovations (made to the liturgy) unless the good of the Church genuinely and certainly requires them” (S.C. 23), they had every reason to believe that no innovations would be made to the liturgy unless the good of the Church genuinely and certainly required them.

In other words, what would play such an important role in the hoped-for general renewal would not be “liturgy” as an amorphous concept, but the specific liturgy then used in the Church as it had been received and long preserved. In December of 1963, when the document was promulgated, one could and should have reasonably expected a liturgical reform in the ensuing weeks, months and years similar to that which happened after Trent, a reform in visible and unmistakable continuity with the Church’s tradition.

This was not the tack taken by Pope Paul VI. The committee which he appointed to implement Sacrosanctum Concilium decided quite early on that it would not do as the Council had asked, and renew the liturgy of the Church as it had been received through the ages, but rather, that it would create a new liturgy of its own devising. It is no secret that the Pope himself could barely be moved to restrain even their worst impulses, or that he added a few of his own to their work.

The project was executed with unprecedented haste; in less than seven years, every major liturgical book had been almost completely rewritten, subjected in the process to more change than it had undergone in the previous millennium. It should be added, in a kind of fairness, that much of the historical scholarship that supposedly justified these changes was shabby and wrong. The project was in many ways like those of men trying to build an atom bomb with the chemistry and physics of the 18th century.

Likewise, it is no secret that none of what the council expressed as its hope for the Church in the first paragraph of the constitution has come to pass. The Christian life of the faithful has not become more vigorous; its institutions have not become more suitably adapted to the needs of our times; union has not been fostered among all who believe in Christ; the call of the whole of mankind into the household of the Church has not been strengthened. When this publication was founded in 1982, it was called “Crisis” for several very good reasons; for almost 40 years, it has not changed its name or ceased publication, also for several very good reasons.

Few of the men who participated in Vatican II have been as public in their recognition of the ongoing crisis of the Church as Joseph Ratzinger. I am sure that some of his more lapidary statements on the subject are well known to Crisis’ readership; I here offer only one, from the preface which he wrote for Dom Alcuin Reid’s seminal work on the history of the reform, The Organic Development of the Liturgy. Referring to the pre-Conciliar Liturgical Movement, which sought to rediscover, and encourage the faithful to rediscover, the fullness of the Church’s liturgical tradition, he wrote, “Anyone who, like me, was moved by this … can only stand, deeply sorrowing, before the ruins of the very things they were concerned for.”

The motu proprio Summorum Pontificum is often spoken of as if it were no more than a reluctant act of pastoral necessity, a gesture to bring the Society of St Pius X and similar groups back into full union with the Church, and a merciful sop to a few disgruntled and elderly people. One version of the current rumors about its revocation says that a new document will repeat the earlier indult’s language about those who “remain attached” to the Church’s historical liturgy.

But everyone knows that the great majority of those who attend it now are far too young to have “remained” attached to it. Rather, they have grown attached to it, not for nostalgia’s sake, but for love of its beauty, its reverence, for the vast sacred history which it brings with it; in other words, for the love of everything which Vatican II wanted them to receive from it and make their own. Those with eyes to see can witness the fulfillment of the hopes expressed in the first paragraph of Sacrosanctum Concilium anytime they like in the numerous young communities where the traditional rites are celebrated. This is what Pope Benedict XVI gave back to the whole Church with Summorum Pontificum.

It seems, however, that the success of this great movement of rediscovery has also become a spur to those who, for reasons best known to themselves, prefer not to acknowledge that Vatican II’s place in the Church’s history is not with the successful ecumenical councils like Nicea or Trent, but with the failures like Constance and Lateran V. And it seems that perhaps, rather than redress the failure, or admit that there is any failure to be redressed, they imagine they can simply cancel the most conspicuous ongoing success that comes from redressing it, declare the liturgical reform to be irreversible, and be done with the matter.

In the last few weeks, I have read many expressions of fear about what this may mean for the Church’s future, and for the immediate prospects of the traditional liturgy in particular churches and communities. These fears are not misplaced, but at the same time, those who love the traditional liturgy should not allow themselves to be discouraged. A withdrawal, whole or partial, of Summorum Pontificum, brings with it an implicit but absolutely undeniable recognition that the post-Conciliar reform has definitively lost its grasp on the hearts and minds of the young.

Pope Benedict accompanied the motu proprio with a letter to the bishops of the world, which includes his famous statement that, “What earlier generations held as sacred, remains sacred and great for us too, and it cannot be all of a sudden entirely forbidden or even considered harmful.” I am convinced that this is true, not only as a matter of moral suasion, but as a statement of fact; any movement to suppress the Church’s traditional liturgy once again will fail, because it is in itself a confession of a much greater failure.

[Photo Credit: Allison Girone]


  • Gregory DiPippo

    Gregory DiPippo, a native of Providence, Rhode Island, has studied Latin, Greek, and several other languages, as well as classics and patristics. He has been a regular contributor to the New Liturgical Movement website since 2009, and the editor since 2013. His writings cover a very wide variety of topics, but his first specialty was the study of the reforms of the Roman liturgy before the Second Vatican Council, on which he has written several series of articles.

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